Thursday, June 9, 2011


This story is not really about him, and yet, call me indulgent but I can’t help but tell you a little bit about Socrates before we start. Socrates is my pet schizophrenic pig. On most days he is happy being a dull boar, rooting for truffles and other trifles, chasing sows and bullying dogs. But every now and then, when something momentous happens, like when an Osama gets shot or a Tiger gets caught or, Heaven forbid, if he ever catches me lingering a little longer than I should around the ham and bacon footlongs on the menu at our favourite ‘Subway’ before ordering our usual paneer tikka sandwiches, something snaps deep inside Socrates and he withdraws into a melancholic reflective shell.

Now when Socrates gets like that you’ve got to be careful because that’s when he starts talking. Yes that’s right... He’s a talking pig. Maybe it’s my fault that in an inspired moment I thought of naming him aft er the ‘grandfather of thought’ but Socrates takes the living up to the name bit a little too seriously.

In fact there are times that he talks about all that’s wrong with the world so much and for so long that I think we might both be happier if he was bacon. Now pray don’t let him read that and let me tell you about what happened this Sunday. It was World Environment Day and I was reading out the news to him (He doesn’t read on Sundays... I read for him. That’s how we do our quality time bit), and when I got to the point about an article celebrating the Forest Rights Act (FRA) and how it had empowered disenfranchised forest folk, giving a new lease of life and opportunity to the forest as well its denizens, both human and animal, I heard Socrates snort. His eyes had that distant flinty look... Ho hum, he was going into another of his ‘let’s sulk till we talk this out’ modes.

There’s only one thing to be done when Socrates gets like that, so I dropped the newspaper and off we went for a walk in the woods.

Once there, we made our way up to Socrates’ favourite spot... A high cliff that overlooked the tree tops. Nature’s penthouse if you will, and once there, Socrates looked away at the horizon deep in thought. I waited for him to talk and then I got tired of waiting. I poked him where I imagined his ribs might be and asked him if he wanted to talk...

Socrates kept staring into the horizon and then he startled me when he spoke... (It doesn’t matter how long you’ve known him... It doesn’t matter if you expect it... he will always make you skip a beat when he starts talking). But this time it wasn’t the fact that he spoke but the thought that shocked me. He said ‘we should have rights too. We need a voice... We need to vote too!’ I don’t know which was wider. My eyes or my mouth, and then I must’ve sniggered but the expression didn’t go down too well with Socrates. He turned away with a look that rested somewhere between derision and pity… The look you might reserve for a dirty little kid with a runny nose begging at a traffic intersection.

A few minutes of awkward silence followed and then he turned and asked ‘what’s so funny? Is this such an improbable idea?’ Well it was time for some cold hard truths. “Socrates, you are a pig! The only recognition you could ever hope for is a satisfied burp aft er you’ve been eaten. You don’t matter beyond the plate. You don’t have rights. Neither state nor faith allows you any. What you and I have is weird and strange... This is not normal. You are not normal... pigs get eaten, not voting rights. You’ve been reading too much of George Orwell, Socrates... I don’t know why you refuse to believe me when I tell you that the emperor of France wasn’t Napoleon the pig.”

Socrates seemed to consider it for a while and then said, “You might have a point there. So let’s not talk about us creatures of the kitchen. But what about those that have rights? The tigers and elephants in the forests... The eagles and the sea gulls, the birds and the bees... The state offers them protection, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t they have rights? Shouldn’t they have a voice?”

But we have laws protecting their rights. We can’t kill them. We can’t eat them. Heck, we can’t even cut a branch from a tree in a protected forest. Those are better odds for survival than you might get in any city, wouldn’t you say?

Socrates (I oft en think of calling him Socky, Ratty or just plain.. er.. Cocky, but he refuses to respond. He doesn’t like nicknames) wasn’t impressed. “You and I, we both know that what you said is far from the truth. If laws were enough to protect the forests and those that stay in them, why would a Sariska have lost its tigers and then even while the whole country is up in arms about it, Panna’s tigers also get poached and eaten. Where were your laws then? Surguja’ s virgin forests were supposed to be safe and inviolate – a designated elephant sanctuary. But you know what happens if the government is the only one vested with the power and the responsibility of protecting the tigers and their forests? The day the government feels that the coal lying in the womb of this forest is more important, read worth more money or more votes, these forests would lose their protected status and would be ripped open. Roads would run through the once pristine jungle like open scars. The remaining woodland would be classified as a ‘degraded forest’ and sold off in blocks to the timber Mafia. And the animals, some driven by starvation would enter villages in search of sustenance and would kill before they are killed. Others would get poached by desperate forest dwellers who themselves have been thrown out of a home that was once theirs and that’s all that’ll be left of it – a barren wasteland, the bones of the dead and a bunch of poor fugitives trying to escape the law and their destiny. The only beneficiaries would be a handful of government and forest officials and private contractors. This is all that would remain of these forests for the government is a trustee unencumbered by stakeholders or a sense of responsibility or accountability.”

The swine had made a fine point. So what do we do? I asked. “The environment would always come second best in any tussle as long as it remains a world without stakeholders or a voice. As long as the animals and the trees are left without a voice or a vote, the government would pay mere lip service while we watch and exploit and plunder when our backs are turned.

It is time that like the FRA, we had a Rights of Wildlife Act that allowed the animals to choose their representative too. You’ve got to let them vote. The NGOs could scream themselves hoarse but they can’t do a thing to stop the government or the poachers. They couldn’t stop the killings in Sariska or Panna. For all of Greenpeace’s posturing, whales are still being killed in all the seas. Drift nets are still decimating dolphins and there isn’t a thing anybody can do about it... The future can’t depend on handouts from the present. It needs to have a voice today, in the present. And without rights, without votes, our wild heritage can only survive so long on charity.”

While Socrates waxed eloquent, my thoughts turned to the tales of heretics who had been burnt at the stake. I was worried that his listeners might be tempted to burn him at the stake even if they agreed with him. His views might taste better aft er that, they might argue. I looked around to see if anybody had heard us.

Voting rights for animals? Who had ever heard of such a thing? As far as heresies go, this was right up there with the sun being at the centre of the solar system and the earth being round.

Ashamed to think that I might be taking my pig a little too seriously, I whispered to Socrates, “Even if what you say might have theoretical logic, how would a wild elephant vote? And how would it know who to vote for? You are going crazy. I should have you put down the day you went beyond a grunt you know...”

Socrates smiled. I swear he did... a cute piggy smile too. And then he said... “Of course, wild animals can’t vote but they know what’s good for them. And so do the rest of us, for whatever’s good for this planet is good for them too. And each forest, grassland and mountain, and almost every species has had its champions who are fighting tooth and nail to protect what they have dedicated themselves to... it’s their cause, our cause, your cause. Some like Diane Fossey have even laid their lives on the line and lost it for the cause. Give people like them the right to vote for us and choose for us. They’ll never let me or even you down. A hundred votes or a thousand or even ten thousand, the numbers for each could vary and we could debate about that. But it is irrefutable that you need to empower your wild heritage with more than just laws and the kindness of a few to battle greed of some and indifference of the rest.

As for us kitchen creatures, there would be a revolution one day like the one in Animal Farm and that day justice will be done. You don’t worry though, for I’ll tell the soldiers of the revolution that you are a good man. Almost as good as any pig. I know your wife and your parents would agree. We’ll be good to you.

Go ahead, don’t believe me. You might laugh now just like a white slave owner, less than 150 years ago, might have laughed if a black slave had told him that one of his children would one day become the President of his owner’s children. He might have even suffered a few lashes for being so impudent, but when the wheels of time turn, justice is always done, isn’t it? Think about it...snort!”

Socrates, having made his point, was done talking.

Socrates and I went back to staring at that line in the distance where a flaming row of gulmohars kissed the clouds as they slipped away beyond the horizon. Socrates seemed to be at peace but I kept thinking if this hog’s hopes were as good as his grunt. Wonder what you might make of it…


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