Motes of dust rose slowly into the air, glimmering in the sunlight, and swirled upwards in the light breeze that swept through the little patch of open ground where a group was slowly gathering. In the center of the loose collection stood a sloth bear, casting baleful glances at the audience for whom this was going to be the highlight of the day. Occasionally, the bear glanced up and let his eyes gaze on the snows covering the distant peaks surrounding the little town of Bharmour in Chamba district of Himachal Pradesh. Perhaps he dreamed of the freedom that might be his if he could only escape from the tyranny of the rope that was threaded through a hole on his snout and one of his nostrils. Perhaps if he prayed hard enough, one of the gods in the innumerable heritage-status temples that dotted the town would release him from the slavery of being a dancing bear?
A sharp prod on his neck followed by a resounding whack to his left abdomen brought him back to the monotonous chant of his owner who was now haranguing the assembled crowd in an effort to increase the audience size. Suddenly, the man spotted Sanal, a little boy of ten who obviously did not belong here.
“You, boy! Where are you from?” he spoke directly to the lad.
“Mumbai,” Sanal mumbled, getting over the shock of having been picked out of the crowd. He huddled closer to his two cousins, Adele and Tim, and his friend Gavin.
They had arrived from Dalhousie earlier in the afternoon and had gone for a stroll through the streets of Bharmour and had just witnessed a butcher decapitating a goat behind the mutton shop and this had already taken its toll on their fragile sensibilities.
“Mumbai,” the man repeated thoughtfully. Then, after a brief pause, “Where in Mumbai?”
“Andheri East or Andheri West?”
“Where in Andheri East?”
The man was zeroing in like the zoom button on Google Maps.
“Where in Marol?”
This last answer finally seemed to satisfy the man. He nodded.
“I have been to Bhavani Nagar with my bhaloo!” he declared.
This was incredible! I tried to picture in my mind the trials and tribulations of this unlikely pair making their way down to the west coast of India from the Himalaya by public transport, jostling for space in overcrowded trains and buses, the bear foraging for food en route and his master trying to justify the extra space that his large companion needed for his travels.
It was 1990 and decades had gone by since the days when humans and animals had had such intimate relationships, living and travelling together. It took my mind back to the late sixties when I was growing up in the railway town of Liluah, a suburb of Calcutta (now Kolkata), just 5 km from Howrah. As a little boy I would watch long freight trains parked in the marshalling yards, the covered wagons housing cows and buffaloes with their owners. They had travelled long distances from what later was referred to fashionably in journalism as the “cow belt” of India; meaning the rural districts spanning the vast plains of the Ganges in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The owners would cook their meals on portable ovens made out of aluminium buckets with a ring of baked earth supporting the utensils on the rims, the heat coming from glowing coals contained inside. Their cattle would chew the cud contentedly on beds of straw, spittle dangling nonchalantly from their enormous jaws. Some of them would live a long life, supplying milk to the markets in Calcutta, some would be slaughtered in short order to feed humans.
In 1972, barely out of high school, I undertook a memorable journey to look up a teacher who had taught me and now had relocated. I boarded the Saryu Express at Allahabad Junction, bound for Faizabad. The train was an “express” in name only – the motley collection of aging carriages was pulled by an ancient steam engine and the train would stop at every station on the way. It would also stop in between stations as we passed small hamlets and the travellers pulled the Emergency Stop chains. Their reasons were justified – about ten percent of the “payload” comprised of an assortment of cows, goats, sheep, chickens and other farm animals who could not really be expected to detrain at the closest station and walk for miles to their homes when in reality the train would pass a stone’s throw from their stables! It was winter and the cool breeze wafting in from the open windows helped to dislodge the potent brew of smells in the carriages, composed of animal urine and faeces, the rustic earthy aroma emanating from the homespun clothes and weatherbeaten skin of the humble folk who were my companions. As the wind veered or the train went round a long curve, thick black smoke from the engine would blow in like a passing shower and deposit soot and tiny flecks of coal in my hair (yes, 45 years ago I did have some hair on my head!). Finally, when the train steamed into Faizabad, I staggered out of the door and bid farewell to my friends, both animal and human.
Times have changed now. Snake charmers, animal trainers, lion tamers, people with performing monkeys – these are becoming increasingly rare. Even shepherding as a way of life is on the decline throughout the world. As homo sapiens, our increasingly urbanized and industrialized world gives us no opportunities to co-exist with the other creatures on the planet. We confine the wild creatures to reserves cordoned off from human civilization, we breed cows and goats and sheep on mechanized farms for optimum productivity, we harvest our fish from farms in the ocean.
Indigenous communities, on the other hand – people we now refer to as First Nations, Adivasis, aboriginals – considered animals and birds as equal co-inhabitants of this beautiful blue planet and took from them only as much as they needed for their own needs. The concept of killing for “sport” was alien to their thinking and gormandizing to satisfy culinary cravings or to fill in episodes of the Food Channel did not exist!
I guess with a population approaching 8 billion we have no choice. But as we become the dominant species on this planet, we have said goodbye to relationships that sustained us for thousands of years since we evolved into bipeds. Our souls suffer in silence. The loss to our collective mental and emotional health is much greater than we are prepared to admit.