Thursday, March 26, 2009


The marble mart runs along a busy, dusty, no-man’s land between Delhi and Gurgaon, where ochre winds blow and the sun shines low… Yesterday, I went there looking for a shade for the floor, and as I walked past row upon row of marble slabs of varied hues, I saw something move… I stopped, stepped back and looked again… it was one of the oddest things I’d ever seen… On the floor, sat a man; bespectacled, in his 20s, reading from a piece of paper… that isn’t very odd you’d say… but what if I told you that the man was buck naked… And he wasn’t alone. Next to him sat three other men, all of them without a stitch on them… Hoping they wouldn’t notice, I inched forward, past a corridor of neatly stacked slabs and even without meaning to, stared… Next to those nudes in repose sat a throng of women, some in white saris and the rest in everyday clothes… One of the naked men was much older than the one I had first seen… he must’ve been in his 70s; he waved towards me and signaled for me to come forward… I wondered if I’d upset him but his serene expression told me that he had endured such nosy parkers before… I sat down in front of him…

“Maharaj Bahubaliji is a living god. He’s a Digamber (sky clad) Jain saint”, whispered a devotee in my ear. Sitting next to me, hunched over his knee, he smiled at me and then prostrated himself in front of the naked old man. “He has renounced all worldly possessions and therefore has nothing, not even a piece of cloth to cover him. He and his disciples don’t wear clothes (the women cover themselves with a single piece of coarse cloth), eat strictly vegetarian food, and only once a day, don’t ever use medicines, are strict celibates, never use any form of transport other than their own two feet, don’t use any form of modern communication, never accept any monetary or any other offering other than their food for the day, pull their hair out strand by strand each time it grows and don’t have any form of permanent residence… the world indeed is their home.” Bahubali Maharaj smiled and nodded. “But we don’t eat at all if at the time we’re about to eat, we hear the sound of another creature in distress. How can I eat when another soul is suffering? The whole objective of living the way we do is to ensure that we live our life without ever hurting any creature, through words, actions or even thoughts”, he said.

Now, I don’t know if I’m echoing your own thoughts dear readers, but while I can find inspiration in every aspect of such an ascetic’s life, I find it impossible to understand the vow of celibacy. Why choose not to love? “Kyunki isse moh badtha hai…,” said Sugyani Mata, a female disciple. “It increases attachment, and non-attachment is the only way to conquer sorrow…” Then what of the attachment between a guru and disciple, between fellow disciples… “That is shudha, pure, because it does not add to the sansara, and because it isn’t exclusionary and such love, therefore, does not have the potential to add to one’s sorrows”. So, if the nature of love does not add numbers to the world’s population and is inclusive, is it ok? I wondered… for that ushered in a whole host of questions, which I didn’t have the courage to ask. There was such a strong aura of calm benevolence around the saint that I knew he would happily answer any question I asked of him, but I wasn’t too sure about the devotees around him, and that brought me to my next question… What did he think about the extreme religious intolerance of our times? “My faith is mine alone”, he said “and even if you kill me, you can’t take my faith away from me. But what good is a non-violent faith if I choose to use violence for the right to practice my faith of non-violence. My relationship with my God is mine alone and since it is an internal bond, no one can stop me from practicing it. What is the point of losing the essence of a faith, by fighting over its symbols.” I felt humbled in his presence…

“Those aren’t mere words”, said one of his disciples, incidentally the same naked figure that had first drawn my attention. “Guruji was leading a band of 30 disciples through a forest near Gaya in Bihar some years back. It was dusk and we still had about three kilometres to go when a band of dacoits ambushed us. They beat up some of the disciples and then aimed their handguns at them. Guruji walked up and stood between the guns and his disciples and asked why we’d been stopped. The dacoits wanted our belongings and a ransom of five lakh rupees. Guruji smiled and said that they had nothing and no one... The dacoits wanted to detain us. So Guruji told us to take a vow of silence and sit down. After hours of waiting, the dacoits got tired of us and told us to turn back but Guruji said that there was no question of us turning back… we would only move forward, to which the dacoits said that they would shoot and kill us if we refused to turn back. Guruji said that they could kill us if they wanted to but we would only move forward. Stunned and humbled by his calm strength, the dacoits grew penitent and apologised for their sins. Then they themselves escorted us for the remaining three kilometres and asked for forgiveness again and again before they left.” I looked up at Guruji who just smiled and said “Tyaag mein shakti hai… there is great strength in surrender and sacrifice.”

It was almost dusk and Guruji requested that he be excused. He takes a vow of silence after sun-set. But I still had many unanswered questions and so I approached two of his disciples. One, about 65-years-old, was prostrating himself in front of another who seemed to be in his 20s. The younger man apparently had become a monk when he was merely 14-years-old. I wanted to know why… He’s called Sidha Sain today but his name was Ashok Tarunappa once, he said. And he was your regular teenaged lad who loved playing kabaddi and cricket and driving the tractor in his village near Hubli in Karnataka. Then one day, Bahubali Maharaj arrived at his village and stayed there for four months under a tree… the little boy was fascinated by the simplicity and serenity of the saint and did not realise when he was transformed from a happy-go-lucky kid into a passionate believer in the path of sanyaas. The day Bahubali Maharaj left the village, young Ashok ran after him and begged him to accept him as his disciple. Guruji refused saying the path is very difficult but the boy persisted. His parents, hurt and saddened, couldn’t stop crying, but they did not want to stand in the way of their child’s divine destiny… so when Guruji accepted him, little Ashok became Sidha Sain. “But you’re so young… don’t you feel tempted by the world,” I asked. “Sometimes… (he hesitated) sometimes I get dreams… but then I do penance and practice austerities… the idea is to conquer the mind”. “And death…,” I asked. “Death doesn’t need conquering… it is liberation… whether mine or that of someone one loves, remember ‘tis only a gateway…” I learnt that the older man had only been a monk for six months and therefore was the lowest ranked disciple. Though he’d tried joining Guruji earlier, his moh for his parents, wife or his children pulled him back… but this time he had made up his mind. “Doesn’t your wife feel you are running away from your responsibilities,” I asked. “I’m almost 70”, he said in fluent English… “and I’ve spent my whole life living for others. Now I want to spend all that remains of it communing with the Almighty. I have a business which’ll take care of their material needs and most of my children are married and well settled… so this time, I’m not going back.”

I had been talking to them for a while and I started getting frantic calls from my wife, inquiring if I too was “planning to run away with them?”. So I paid my respects and left, called my wife and told her to relax, because this path wasn’t for me, but my mind kept going back to the one thing that Guru Bahubali Maharaj had said and something I’d always believed and hoped was true… that “human beings were born to be God-like, to have power over our destinies, with a clear understanding of joy and sorrow, of birth and death, and the nature of it too” and while he might feel that the renunciate’s path is the way to godliness, I for now don’t know for sure… Guess we’ll all find the path as long as we believe in the possibility… all the best to you in your quest for godliness…


Thursday, March 19, 2009


Ok folks… I’m a little pressed for time this week, so you must forgive me for this abrupt start. You see I’m ‘in training’ and on the line are thousands of lives and one man’s soul. If I win, I save them all, and if I lose, I forfeit my honour along with the rest.

Here’s the prologue…

Some of you might recall a piece I’d written sometime back about the ethics of vegetarianism and, god bless ‘em, some readers actually wrote back claiming they’d turned vegetarian after reading the article. Among them was a dear friend from school… let’s call him RC (‘a lot more full-bodied than the bottled version’, was how one of his lady-friends had described him on graduation day). Now, RC’s a man with a heart of gold. He’s kind and generous, upright and honest and has the integrity of a slab of granite… a man you can lean on if you ever need support. Now, if the description so far suggests that he’s a bit of a good-natured simpleton, the truth is he’s far from it… For starters, he’s built like a Baywatch life-guard who’s too tired to swim… you know, handsome, chiseled features, a broad muscular chest and shoulders, but with a little inflated tube around the middle… nevertheless, you just know that there’s a rock-hard six pack hiding in there somewhere… And with wit and charm to boot, he’s quite a personable chap to hang out with… So, when he told me he’d given up eating meat, I was really happy, for him, because he would be free from the karmic debt of taking lives to pleasure his palate, and for the countless lives that might live a day longer because there is one man less demanding his pound of flesh for the next 70 odd years… the pen, I thought, might indeed prove mightier than the sword.

But what good is a happy ending without a twist in the tale; and so I met him at a food court for one of our lets-meet-up sessions, just in time to catch him devouring chicken wings… a common female friend of ours had once described him as “ohh! He’s such an animal”, and I’d wondered why… but looking at the ketchup splattered plate, mouth and fingers, I concluded she must’ve seen him eat… “What gives, RC? ...back to meat?”, I asked. “uh?”, I seemed to have startled him. “…Oh, it’s you!”, he looked sheepish, almost apologetic… “I tried so hard you know… I swear, didn’t eat it for weeks, but then every time I’d go to the gym, I’d feel so weak… without all that animal protein, I could feel all that hard-earned muscle wasting away… I couldn’t let that happen, you understand, na…”. Of course, I didn’t understand. “It’s just a psychological overreaction, RC. You don’t need meat to stay strong and healthy. Remember that show we saw on TV (“The Wheel of Life”, Star World) about those Shaolin monks. They’re vegans but didn’t you see them break rocks, balance their body on one finger and perform those amazing feats of strength? You don’t need meat, trust me…” RC was adamant. “No yaar, I’m not convinced. Every strong, well-built guy I know swears by chicken breasts. Show me a vegetarian who fits that bill, and I’ll go back to being a vegan.” I thought about the challenge for a while and then found inspiration in the extraordinary life of a 78-year-old man from New Jersey, called Herb Kelleher. Now Herb is the former chairman of Southwest Airlines who I had read about while in B-school and the bit I remembered most about him was an event called ‘Malice in Dallas’. The story goes thus - Herb’s Southwest had unknowingly begun using a slogan that was very similar to that of another aviation company’s – Stevens Aviation. When Stevens brought it to Southwest’s notice, the companies decided that instead of paying heaps of money to their lawyers to resolve the dispute, the two Chairmen would settle the dispute over a best of three series of arm wrestling matches. In the end, irrespective of who won, both companies enjoyed unprecedented publicity and every one was happy. Thus inspired, I threw down the gauntlet and told RC, “so you think that generally speaking, vegans aren’t nearly as strong as meat eaters, right? Ok… then let’s settle this over a best of three arm wrestling match, same place, a month from now. What say…?” By this time our spouses and friends had arrived and they all got very excited about the idea… Admittedly, it seemed like a no-contest. RC and I had trained together and his arm strength is phenomenal. I’ve seen him do biceps curls with his struggling-kicking wife while she held on to her shopping bags… not a mean feat I can assure you. RC looked at me with an expression that one might reserve for the most irritatingly infuriating child at a party who unfortunately happens to be the boss’ son. To humour me, he said: “fine, if you win I give up meat and if I win, you’ll start eating meat. Settled?” I balked, but under pressure from a raucous audience, agreed. RC sneered and almost inadvertently flexed those gnarly boulder-like things that sit atop his arm…

Driving back, I realised I might have bitten off more than I could chew. My schedule had thrown my yoga work-outs out of gear and I hadn’t seen the inside of a gym in ages. I needed to get stronger and in double quick time. So, I got back home and pored over books but found nothing that would make me fit and strong in time… Then I remembered the words of a vegan superman I once happened to meet… Sifu Zi, a Shaolin Master, he’d looked like a man who could run through a brick wall without batting an eye-lid and emerge unscathed. His whole being exuded power and vigour, but his face, true to the cliché, was aglow with the serenity of a sun-set by the sea… I had gone to interview him and if possible, learn a few moves.

Sifu Zi began by telling me, in excellent English, other than the odd missing ‘r’, that Shaolin Kung Fu owed its’ “owigins to India. Many years ago (in 527 AD, actually, as I discovered later), an Indian pwince called Da Mo (aka Sardilli) from the south of India awived at the Shaolin Temple to pweach Mahayana Budhism. At the temple he saw the pwiests were all weak and had twisted postures because all they’d do is sit and meditate... so Da Mo witweated to a cave for answers and nine yuhs later, weeturned with the secret teachings of the Yi Jin Jing (or, Muscle/ Tendon Changing Cassic). And that became the foundation of Shaolin martialarts as we know them today… yes from India… Today, the best Kung Fu mastaas use the Yi Jin Jing to become strong, healthy and invincible. Twaining with the Yi Jin Jing can make you vewy vewy powuhful vewy vewy fast. Old and young, boys and guhls, everybody can benefit from it… become healthy and stwong”. That day, I’d been very impressed, and proud of being an Indian, but then had forgotten all about it. But today I remembered those words… “very powerful, very fast”… just the thing I need, I thought.

I checked my notes from that day and tried to recollect some of the Yi Jin Jing moves he’d shown… I went to websites and book stores and finally found a book authored by a martial arts master Dr Yang, Jwing-Ming, which had a detailed account of the YJJ exercises. Book bought, I started my training, and with three weeks gone, I honestly feel stronger and fitter than I have in a long time. But RC isn’t sitting around on his well-muscled fundaments either. He’s been pushing some serious weight in the gym and the dance floor too. Not that he’s worried about losing, but he knows he carries on his shoulders the weight and expectations of all you meat-eaters and would rather not leave things to chance…

As for me, I’m in the battle for the sake of a good man’s soul, for by defeating him, I save him and thus, countless others. I’ve gotta go now… gotta prepare for battle, but if I win, here’s what’s in it for you… after I began training with YJJ, I’ve been able to lift heavier weights, sprint faster and have had marginal improvements in aerobic activities too… will it be good enough to win the battle for RC’s soul? I don’t know, but it really doesn’t matter for I have discovered a workout that was created by a vegan Indian, which in less than 30 minutes every day, offers strength and health, and as Dr Yang promises, great longevity and enlightenment(!!) too… it’s definitely worth experimenting with, folks… As for RC, he’s the first one I’m going to share this with… I know his heart’s too loving and kind to want to keep killing and eating other creatures, so in his heart of hearts, he wants me to win… and the rest of you, join a qigong class nearby that offers YJJ or if you can’t, then, like me find a good book and a good video and start your journey into strength health and enlightenment… Will keep you posted about the results…


Thursday, March 12, 2009


Jai and Jaya weren’t quite awake yet. They’d left Surajgarh’s painted havelis at dawn in their rented Innova and were trying to catch up on some much needed sleep. They were there to usher in their first wedding anniversary; now returning to the humdrum of domesticity and their old lives that lay about 300 kms away in Delhi. As the Innova sped along the narrow highway, past brown fields, the driver noticed two swirling dust clouds, the first and bigger of the two about 200 meters away to the left, and the second one, much smaller, another 70 metres behind the first one. The dust clouds were heading towards the highway… the driver, Mohan, in his 40s, had been on this route before but didn’t know what to make of the dust clouds rushing towards the road… and them. He braked hard… and ‘wham!!’ the swirling cloud had rammed into the Innova’s left flank. Jai woke up with a start as did Jaya… “Who… who’s at the door? The milkman?”… “No, honey… we aren’t home yet”, said a rather tense Jai, squinting through his glasses and the dust. “We’ve hit something, or rather something’s hit us”. “Gaai hai sahab”, said Mohan as the Innova rolled forward… “A cow… but she seems to be fine”. Jaya turned over her left shoulder to see the visibly stunned cow pick herself and continue trotting across the road and onto the other side, picking up momentum as she went along. “Yes, she seems to be fine” thought Jaya, and then saw the other dust cloud hurtling onto the highway and then stop in the middle of the road. As the dust settled, she could see it was a man… he had a stick in one hand and a rope in the other… for a brief moment he seemed to be waving the stick but the next moment he was gone… she turned to her right and there they were again, two clouds of dust streaking across the horizon. The highway was empty again, a long black ribbon running across a copper landscape. And that was that, they thought…

Fifteen minutes later, they’d returned to their dreams when ‘thwack! thwack!!’… a series of loud thumps and Jaya wakes up again... “a cow again, Jai?”. But Jai seems even more tense now. His handsome nose is glistening with beads of sweat. Something’s wrong, thought Jaya. “No, not a cow this time honey; it’s the milkman instead”, said Jai. Their Innova had stalled in the middle of the road, near a village, and all around them, Jaya could see faces pressed against the glass windows. Children, teenagers and grown men, all staring into the van, scrutinising its occupants, especially Jaya. Mohan had to stop because the milkman they had seen running behind the car, having presumably secured his cow, had jumped onto a motorcycle and given chase. Along the way, he enlisted the services of a few more villagers on a couple of tractors and a jeep. The milkman named Khari, overtook the van, swerved in front of it, forcing Mohan to brake hard while the tractors came up alongside and blocked its flanks. The jeep then boxed it in from the rear. Khari pulled his bike onto its stand, walked up to Mohan, opened the door and snatched the keys. The couple was shocked. Khari was tall, gaunt and his hard veined arms, the long twirled moustache and the brass earrings, all seemed to suggest a man of proud and powerful bearing. Mohan was cowering in front of him, his hands folded in submission, apologising for having accidentally hit “gau mata”. Jaya protested, telling bystanders their side of the story… “why does he have to apologise Jai,… bhai sahab, the cow ran into us and not the other way round. I feel sorry for her but it was this man’s (points at Khari) fault. He shouldn’t have been chasing the poor animal …”. Jai tugged at her shoulder, trying his best to ‘silence’ her. “Shh… it’s not about right and wrong here. We need to play along and not upset these people… Mohan knows how to handle them.” Then Jai took the newspaper he was reading, rolled down the middle windows and stuck a sheet on each side to keep the scores of staring eyes from burning holes into them. Then he pulled out a shawl and handed it to Jaya … who frowned… “you’re wearing a sleeveless dress honey… no reason to give them more than one reason to hold us back, is there..?” Jaya reluctantly wrapped the shawl around her.

Meanwhile, Mohan was pleading with Khari to let them go but to no avail. Another passerby who was hauling cattle feed on his tractor trailer stopped when he heard about the accident, saw the dented flank and concluded that Mohan hadn’t been at fault. He rebuked Khari, demanding that he let them go… the air was thick with the fumes and the fusillade. Khari felt the tide turning, and so insisted that the couple return with him to his village so that the panchayat could take a decision. In spite of the man on the tractor trailer defending them, the three, not being in a position to negotiate, reluctantly acquiesced and were escorted back to the village by the retinue.

Jaya had heard horror stories of criminal elements in these parts waylaying travellers and leaving them with little else but their lives… sometimes not even that. Jaya was apprehensive about all that a woman could be apprehensive about. True she had her husband with her but what could one man do against this band of tough yokels. Fear was creeping in on them and most of all on Mohan. He knew that the driver was always the first and most dispensable casualty in such a situation. But Jai was doing a good job of holding his nerve… “People here are usually courteous to women… just be respectful and things should be fine” he told Jaya. She wasn’t really encouraged by what she’d heard but for once, unlike the days when they played scrabble, fervently hoped that he was right about this one.

The Innova rumbled into a field next to a collection of rubble and thatch settlements that struggled to look like a village. A gaggle of children and tall turbaned adults gathered around the van and Khari dashed Jaya’s last vestige of hope - Yeh laydiss ne dekha… mainey haath dikhaya par ruki nahin… andhi hai kya.” The ring of villagers drew closer while the driver kept apologising, expressing concern for gau mata. “Kharab laga hamein bhi… gau mata ko chot lagi…” Not once did either of the two men, Mohan or Jai breathe a word of defiance. Apologetic and respectful, the men had so far managed to keep Khari and his cronies from raining blows on them. But Jaya, who’d hitherto been rather feisty in her protest had withdrawn into her shell … The crowd inched closer around them. While the driver stood outside the car trying to placate the villagers, a terrified Jaya erupted, “They are crooks! What was our fault? Of all the cars in the world, why did the cow have to run into ours? I hate this place and these people out there… they want money (she’d heard murmurs that the cow was worth Rs 25 thousand)…these louts… look at the way they’re staring at me…” and she choked back her tears and wrapped the shawl tightly around her. Jai too was feeling edgy. Emboldened by the people around him, Khari’s voice had grown louder and his gestures wilder. The villagers hadn’t taken sides yet but Jai knew that it’d only be a matter of time. He’d heard stories of how these people often act like mediators and then fleece luckless travellers off all they have. But he was prepared to give money to get out with his dignity and his wife. Just when they were sure that Mohan would get thrashed and they’ll have to beg for mercy, and pay their way out, Khari disappeared into the crowd. Seeing him disappear, Jaya muttered, “He’s gone to cook up some new mischief, perhaps discussing how much they could get from us…” There was a knock on the window. It was Khari. Jaya wasn’t sure if she should, but Jai motioned for her to open the window. Khari seemed a different man. Sheepishly, he handed them glasses of water and then opened the door and motioned for them to sit on a string cot. The crowd followed them to the cot where Khari brought them cups of tea and a crumb of milk cake… lavish fare given their austere circumstances. They were bemused and Jaya was suspicious – “Maybe they’ve mixed something in the water”. So, Khari went past the crowd and returned with a rope in his hand, at the other end of which was a beautiful dun Tharparkar cow. “Bhanja gaai ko dikha laya, memsaab. Doctor ne kaha, gaai theek hai. Main gareeb hoon… bas ek gaai hai… isiliye….” The couple, especially Jaya, was embarrassed. They tried to offer him some money, but, he refused. “Arre nahin… par unpadh aadmi hoon… gussey mein bahut keh diya… maaf kar do… takleef dee aapko… sorry… time ho toh aap khana kha ke jao… Gaai theek, sab theek!”

Half an hour later, the Innova was back on the long black ribbon to the horizon, their stomachs full and their hearts both light and heavy…


Thursday, March 5, 2009


It was a grim afternoon at the Sharma residence. Little Sahil was inconsolable. He refused to eat and was just sitting there on the floor, cradling Asghar’s tired little head on his tiny lap. Sneha and Rahil, Sahil’s parents and good friends of mine, were cursing the doctor’s tactless remarks when I entered… Asghar, their 8 monthold Saint Bernard puppy, their son’s best friend, was seriously ill and the vet had rather insensitively decreed the inevitable in little Sahil’s presence... “before we could prepare him”, as they put it. The adorable little animal had been a bundle of joy during my previous visits. Asghar’s naughty hazel eyes could melt any heart, and one just had to give him a cuddle when his little wet nose nuzzled up to you. He was the darling of the neighbourhood, something of a mascot for the kids in the area, as he tumbled and trotted behind them. That chubby little brown and white fur-ball was quite simply the star of the evening in the neighbourhood park, for while it joined the children in their games, Asghar also gladdened the hearts of evening walkers and senior citizens with his antics… indeed this was sad news for many…

“Sahil! Sahil!!” Rahil called out… “... idhar aao beta… and get Asghar. It doesn’t matter what this doctor says, we’ll go to a better doctor… Asghar’ll be fine in … right, Asghar?”, and gave a pat each to the pair. Sahil, all of seven years, tried to wipe his tears away and Asghar wagged the tip of his tail and put his head on Rahil’s knee, as if to say, ‘I know you’ll do your best… I understand’. It wasn’t easy to keep a dry eye at that moment… Sneha went over, put her arms around Sahil and led him and Asghar to the verandah… Rahil turned to me, and he spoke with a tremor, “Thanks for coming over. I need your help. You’ve seen how Sahil is about Asghar… he’s heartbroken. And it’s not just him… Asghar’s such a darling… even I can’t bear the thought of losing him. But the doctor seems to have given up… he says Asghar’s immune system is very weak and now he might have this liver disease that could prove fatal… Asghar might go anytime…” Meanwhile, I was trying very hard not to get into the ‘I-told-you-so’ mode when Rahil interrupted, “I know… I know… you told me I shouldn’t pick up a puppy from that pet store but he looked so cute, so adorable… and the place seemed clean, the proprietor was friendly… how’d I know that things could be this bad behind that pleasing façade…?”

Just before they got Asghar, Rahil had mentioned that they’re thinking of picking up a puppy from a pet store to add to their sweet little family and I’d suggested that maybe picking up a puppy from a breeder might be a better idea. Rahil obviously didn’t think much of it and picked up Asghar from a pet-store a week later. Evidently, it wasn’t a good idea.

Yet, most people looking for a pet would head for the nearest pet-store and pick up a cute little puppy of their choice from there. The friendly store manager, the bright and colourful décor, the cute little puppies and the manager’s repeated assurances with respect to the pup’s quality and lineage make for a heady cocktail - irresistible bait for most. Not many return empty handed. Most, like Rahil and Sahil, go back with a puppy in one arm and packets of feed and bedding in the other - unwitting patrons of one of the cruelest industries on the planet – it’s called the puppy mill industry.

Most pet dogs in most households are unhappy products of this industry. Let me take you back to how the puppy comes to be in the store… Far away from the bright and shiny pet-shop, probably in a derelict shed or backroom of a cramped apartment, these unscrupulous backyard breeders ply their trade, where they keep pairs (or at times only the female) of popular breeds like Labrador and Golden retrievers, german Shepherds, Pugs, Beagles and the like… The dogs are kept in cramped squalid quarters, given barely enough food to survive and are usually caged for life. Their world, from birth to death are the four sides of a wire-cage or the walls of a room and they hardly ever experience a kind word or touch and usually don’t live for longer than half their normal lifespan; especially the brood bitches (usually coming into heat twice a year after their sixth or eighth month. Though they shouldn’t be bred from before their second year or fourth heat and then too only every other year, puppy mill breeders (PMBs) start breeding from them from the first heat onwards and in every heat, wringing the poor animal dry even before she reaches its prime). These unhygienic conditions lead to disease and neurosis in the animals. What is worse is that these puppy mill operators, in their bid to make a quick buck, breed mothers to sons, fathers to daughters and brothers to sisters. This rampant inbreeding and over breeding ruins not just the immediate litter but also leads to congenital weaknesses that become embedded in the line and make the progeny unsound, both of mind and body.

How does buying puppies born to such mothers affect you, the buyer? Well, to begin with, these inbred pups have genetic defects. Secondly, the pups should’ve stayed with their mothers for at least eight weeks because mother’s milk builds immunity and littermates teach them essential social skills. Instead PMBs usually force-wean the puppies and send them off to pet stores in the fourth or fifth week, thus saving on feeding costs. Also the puppies survive on nothing but a trickle of milk from a weak and starving mother. And since the puppy mill business runs on volumes, PMBs compromise on cartage, cramming as many puppies as possible while transporting them. Some always die in transit, but it doesn’t really matter because what they save on transportation costs more than makes up for the loss. In essence, for PMBs, the puppies you so lovingly buy are just commercial goods, just like chickens and goats meant for slaughter, and everytime you buy from such breeders, like Rahil did, you end up supporting these heartless criminals and their cycle of greed. And that isn’t all. If you’re lucky, then like Asghar, these cute roly-poly puppies you buy from PMBs are likely to fall ill with debilitating diseases within the first few years and become far more expensive (vet bills, medicines, time spent in care-giving) propositions than what you might have budgeted for. But if you’re unlucky, these pups with weakened bodies and temperaments could become unpredictable and dangerous and might need to be put down. Either way, it’s almost always a sad, painful and short life.

So what can one do about this? Perhaps unknown to you, worldwide, animal rights groups have been clamouring for a legislation that puts a stop to this cruel trade but not much has come of it. The only way to stop puppy mills is to stop buying from them. Like I told Rahil, “If you really care about animals and their welfare, neither you, nor anyone you know should ever buy a pet from a pet store., ” But then Sneh’d said “God forbid but if Asghar goes, we’ll need to get another pup to help Sahil get over his pain. We’re hoping you’ll help us find a better pet store…” she almost begged…

“Sneha, there are no ‘better’ pet stores. Pet stores are commercial units where a bag of dry feed worth eight thousand will find better treatment than a pup with a going price of five thousand. If you really want a pedigreed dog, you should go to a breed specific breeder who unlike the PMBs has dedicated himself to a paricular breed or two of his choice. Such breeders breed dogs with the specific aim of improving the breed and don’t sell puppies to people they deem incapable or unsuitable as pet owners. Be prepared to be interviewed thoroughly before being ‘allowed’ to buy a puppy from such a breeder. For instance, a well known Tibetan mastiff (a large mountain dog for the uninitiated) breeder refused to sell me a pup because I don’t live in a farmhouse (because the breed in question needs the space). And breeders who care will never sell their pups to a pet store. So choose the right breed and be prepared to pay at least three times more than what you’d pay at a pet store. But at least you’ll know that the puppy you’re buying is happy and healthy (many breeders provide insurances and guarantees) and its parents, instead of being unhappy, tortured, inbred curs, are, in all likelihood, pampered show winners.” And if all of this seems too much of a hassle, I suggest you go to an animal shelter and pick up a mongrel pup. You would’ve given the orphaned animal a home and it’ll cost you nothing to buy and very little to maintain (most strays are very hardy creatures).

PS Just in case you were curious, Asghar has pulled through his illness and for now is happy and healthy, bringing joy and light to the Sharmas and their neighbours… but beware, not every family is as lucky.