Thursday, October 27, 2011


As autumn slowly meanders into winter, India’ homeless would gather around a handful of winter shelters and hope to survive the cold hungry nights. Invariably, there would be too many homeless and only a handful of shelters. Yet again, the winter will exact its pound of flesh... But just in case you come across one such and are unsure about what to do, here’s an old yarn from the vault…Hope it helps...

It wasn’t long into the afternoon when we first saw him… We were a little lost and needed to stop and ask for directions, but that hot summer afternoon, on that usually busy bridge across the Yamuna that connects what Delhiites fondly call ITO, to the sprawling industrial pastures of Western UP, there wasn’t a soul to be seen… as we trundled along slowly, we saw him bundled in rags by the pavement… We stopped to ask, he got up… a ghastly sight with his long matted hair gathered in greasy clumps, his sunken cheeks stretched over high cheek bones and at his chin grew a scraggly beard… his filthy and tattered clothes seemed to have grown brittle with dirt and age and his skin was dry and scaly… There are many such homeless tramps on our streets so I didn’t think twice about rolling down the window and popping the question when the stench hit us and we saw flies buzzing around what must have once been his left shin. His left leg below the knee had swollen like the stomach of a dead cow and near the shin was a gaping hole. “Gosh, he’s got maggots in there!” My friend Eravee exclaimed… “And isn’t that a bone sticking out from that wound?” I looked and realised that it was so. The man seemed to feel no pain though. He casually started peeling dead skin from his foot and then looked at me as if to ask why I had disrupted his slumber… So I stopped staring and asked him the way to our destination. He mumbled and pointed to his left … we drove off ….

“This is the capital. How could a man with a shattered rotting leg be lying around on a busy flyover without anyone stopping and doing anything about it?! It’s shocking!!” I exclaimed. “What’ll anyone do,” asked Eravee … “What did we do? Aren’t we walking away too, just like everybody else? We aren’t doctors; we can’t take him home and the condition he is in, can’t even take him to a hospital… We don’t even know if we’ll be able to pick him up without worsening his condition. And then who cares for him, pays for the treatment etc? He obviously has no one to do this for him… really, who cares? Would you… could you, or I take on this responsibility?”

“But isn’t there anything one could do? How could we allow something like this to happen in front of our very eyes and not react? I mean, this is not someone being robbed or raped on gunpoint wherein concerns for our own safety stop us from stepping in and trying to help, right? I’m sure there is something we could do to reduce this man’s suffering… isn’t there?” I asked…. “I don’t know…. I’m sure there are some NGOs we could ask around for,” Eravee wondered aloud. Hmm, NGOs… these days, isn’t there one for everything one could think of (and thank God and their funding organisations for that)? So, we called a friend of ours who we knew would’ve been busy spilling coffee over her keyboard at that hour and asked her if she could find out about an agency that was committed to providing medical aid to the homeless. And that resourceful little Samaritan called us back with a handful of options. Eravee called on two of those numbers and sure enough, we got a response from a certain Mansoor who promised to reach the said spot and attend to the tramp… We were relieved. We felt that even as we drove off, we hadn’t ‘walked away’ from our responsibilities … aah, the moral high ground offers a great view… of oneself.

However, when I called that evening to check with Mansoor about our patient’s health, I found out that apparently they hadn’t been able to locate the man and had left without him. I was upset and grew skeptical of this Mansoor. I asked him why they couldn’t spend more time looking. He said he tried his best… Disappointed, I arranged for a meeting the next day with Mansoor at the venue so that he wouldn’t have an excuse this time… he agreed… and sounded rather somber…

Next day, I was late and reached the spot more than an hour behind schedule… I was afraid that Mansoor might leave, citing the delay as an excuse, so I called him to assure him and he assured me in turn, saying I’d find him there. We were supposed to meet at the mouth of the aforementioned bridge and that is where I found Mansoor and his friend Mr Tingle. We drove up a few metres and we found the man just as we’d left him… There was a dirty rag tied around the wound. I couldn’t go near him because of the pungent odour and grime around the man. But Mansoor gently put his arm around the man and started talking to him… he had my respect… I strained to hear the man but couldn’t understand a thing. Mansoor tried to explain…“His name’s Babu Rao. He’s from Andhra Pradesh. He came here looking for a job and can’t quite remember how he injured his leg. He seems to have lost his mind a bit,” he surmised. “Now what?” I asked. “Well, it’s a terrible wound… he’ll need a surgeon. So we’ll have sent to a charitable hospital. But we’ll inform the cops first… the ambulance wouldn’t take him unless the cops are present. Don’t worry, it won’t take long, but we’ll have to be here till they arrive.” I nodded… Mr Tingle dialed 100 and informed the cops while Mansoor called CATS* on 1021099 (a friend of mine suggested we could also try dialing 1092). Within 15 minutes, both the ambulance and the cop car had arrived, but Babu Rao wouldn’t budge. Mansoor put an arm around him, “Kya hua baba… kyun nahin jaoge…” Babu Rao mumbled… “He fears that he’ll be jailed… the homeless are terrified of the police”. With a compassionate patience, Mansoor explained that they were only here to help. Rao seemed to trust Mansoor and after a lot of cajoling, he agreed and was carried into the ambulance. “Don’t worry… he’ll live,” the ambulance driver called out as they drove off.

“We couldn’t sleep last night”, Mr Tingle said as he saw the ambulance off … “We felt really bad about not being able to rescue him yesterday. There’s so much that needs to be done for the homeless but we just can’t seem to do enough. Two years ago, in Fatehpuri, the government had set up some temporary night shelters to protect the homeless from the biting cold of Delhi’s winter nights. Mansoor and I had gone to help and inspect the arrangements. Outside one of these tents, at about 9:00 p.m., we saw an old man haggling with the caretaker. “The caretaker’s not letting me in… please ask him to let me… it’s so cold outside”, the old man complained in desperation. We rebuked the caretaker and asked him to let the old man in. The caretaker apologised and showed us in. Inside, the shelter was bursting at the seams. Equipped to house 60 inmates, it was packed in with more than 250 people. It couldn’t have taken in ant without squashing it. It was so difficult telling the old man that there just wasn’t any space left . Our words took the fight out of the old man. He nodded… he understood… The caretaker emerged with a couple of blankets and we wrapped them around the old man as he sat down outside the tent. We promised to look around and let him know if we found a place for him and left . After hours of searching and calling, we finally found a shelter which had some room. We rushed to Fatehpuri. In the December mist, we could see the old man where we’d left him, wrapped in blankets, sitting outside the tent, his right hand holding on to one of the tent’s ropes. As we got closer, we called out to him but he didn’t budge… So Mansoor patted him on the shoulder and then on his bare arm. Mansoor froze… the old man’s hand was cold and stiff … he was dead! We felt so hollow, so helpless that day. And this feeling hounds us all the time…. because of our countless limitations, we can’t always provide help on time, and are haunted by the thought that would it be too little… too late. When Mansoor called last night to say that they hadn’t been able to look long enough to find this man, that old helplessness returned. We were feeling sick in the stomach as we waited, unsure if we’d be reaching this man in time… I’m so glad we did…” The enormity of their task was obvious… I asked him if there was anything we could do to help. Mr Tingle smiled, “Just let people know that they don’t need us to help people like Babu Rao. Just call the cops and the ambulance (take note, folks, the numbers are up there for Delhi and each city will have its own) and insist that you’ll wait for them to show up. They’ll do the rest. Just remember the numbers, and please don’t hesitate to help. The homeless aren’t always junkies and losers but oft en people from decent families who’ve been pushed out of their homes in distant villages by catastrophes and feuds. They come to our cities seeking shelter and a livelihood. We might not have the means to offer them that but don’t they deserve at least our compassion? Remember, circumstances, whether ours, theirs or of those who we love, could change, have changed, in an instant… I always believe that if we keep doing our bit for those in need, providence too tries its best to let us keep ‘doing’, never ‘needing’…”


Thursday, October 20, 2011


While the world watches the Les bleus collide with the all-blacks this Sunday to decide which set of massive sweaty arms get to drape themselves around the Rugby Union World Cup Trophy at the Eden Park in Auckland, a few kilometres away, in a quiet room in a hospital lay a man who wished he was there...

As New Zealand’s all-blacks line up, eyes rolls, hands meeting thighs like claps of thunder, and heavy feet beating the turf as one, the french team would look on, bemused, and hoping that there was a glint of steel in their cold unblinking eyes. But the Haka, the Maori war dance, melts even nerves of steel and that man lying in his lonely hospital bed would know that... He would know that more than most for he had seen that fear in those that stood and in those that fell before him. It all seemed to be from a time oh so long ago... He just didn’t feel like the same man anymore. He would see the muscled backs and burly bottoms swathed in the blacks he once wore with pride huddle into a scrum and he would wish he was there; he would see them running along the flanks, drawing blood on the field and gasps from the crowd and his heart would ache for him to be there... And then he would remember that it is not just his heart that’s aching. He is in pain... Some would say he is dying.

The teams would be locked in battle, the crowd would be cheering and screaming and then some would go silent while others would be beating their chests and roaring... Whistles will blow and trumpets would blare and yet, through all the frenzy and the feasting, through the tears and the celebrations, the colossal shadow of a giant would still linger... not a soul would leave the ground that day without having spared a thought or a prayer for that man in that extra-large hospital bed not too far away.

Jonah Lomu is a giant among men when he irons out the kinks in his 6’5’’ frame and stands tall but even lying down, his sprawling frame commands respect and reverence. Strangers speak in hushed tones in his presence and even when speaking of him, I wouldn’t be surprised if rugby fans went down on one knee and took a bow every time someone spoke or heard his name.

Here in India, he isn’t really a household name but then nor is Sachin Tendulkar in Brazil, Russia, China or Chad... That doesn’t diminish the greatness of Tendulkar and so you get my drift ... This 36-year-old man once strode on the rugby field like a Goliath and there never was a David ever in sight. Jonah Lomu is closest thing to God that has ever graced a rugby but this man wasn’t always this formidable force of nature that would mow down opponents like a bowling ball exploding through the pins. There was a time when little Jonah would cower behind a bed and shiver with fear while his father swore to thrash the living daylights out of him if he could lay his hands on him. It didn’t matter what little Jonah might or might not have done for that hissing spitting electric cord that became the emissary of his father’s wrath seemed to find him anyway, stinging his eyes with teenaged tears and marking his body with the pain and humiliation of abuse and shame.

In the little boy’s heart, confusion and despair gave way to anger and hate. The strength in his sinews grew, keeping pace with his hate and his anger, until one day, when his drunken father stumbled in to slake his thirst for violence on the back of his own son’s back; it was the last straw... Jonah lashed out in self-defence and sent his father sprawling to the floor.

From there, the young Jonah got into carjackings and gang wars and found rugby in the nick of time.

Not only did he have great size and strength but also a great burst of speed available on tap. And this made Jonah into a rare genetic freak who was both strong and fast. They started calling him the freight train for his ability to just charge through an opposition line-up. Jonah was invincible on the ground and a rockstar off it. Records and opponents tumbled and Jonah seemed to do no wrong. But while the world celebrated his triumphs, inside him, his body was imploding. Nephrotic syndrome, a debilitating kidney disorder had been gnawing away at his insides even as the world was raising a toast to the magnificent physicality of Jonah’s exploits on the outside.

The man who could do everything but fly was reduced to acknowledging that he now found it difficult to walk. Without a kidney transplant, Jonah was staring at continuing with dialysis thrice a week and looking at slowly rotting away alive to a horrible sad slow death. Someone donated a kidney and all was well for a while. In fact he even considered a comeback but as soon as his dreams started taking shape, his kidneys failed him again. Sometime around the time the current World Cup began, Jonah, still barely 36-years-old, was rushed to the hospital yet again... Secrecy shrouds his current condition, but whatever it be, it wouldn’t be good. So while we wait to crown the new champions this Sunday, let’s also spare a thought for that man lying in that hospital bed not too far away from the action and send out a little prayer his way too...

For all the runs along the flanks and the thrills in our hearts and spills at your feet; for making watching rugby not just a sporting spectacle but a transcendental experience and for blowing our minds with the power of your passion, we wish you, Jonah Lomu – an all-black, all-heart braveheart, a speedy recovery. And for those of you who are still wondering what’s the big deal about this big guy, check him out in his matchvideos, finish shaking your heads in disbelief, come right back here and join us in our prayers for his well being... Until then, hang in there Jonah, and don’t worry, the world’s hanging with you... Get well for good, soon!


Thursday, October 13, 2011


Death, I’m told is inevitable… But what if it is imminent?

If I knew I was going to die, what should the colour of my death be?

Should it be the pale white of a clinical death, away from the eyes of onlookers, on a tiled floor smelling vaguely of disinfectants mixed with a sudden terrified burst of faeces and an impending sense of doom, and the sudden cold touch of death as the lights go out? Or should I choose a deathstreaked with vermillion… the colour of blood and sand and the setting sun… the colour of a life, short though it be, but one spent in the pursuit of passion… Taunting fate, venting hate and even in death, becoming great... There is pain in this death, but there’s pride too… And even though my corpse is dragged through the sand leaving a trail of blood and gore in my wake, there is a strange dignity in dying as more than just a mere hunk of meat…

Dead though I am, in which death do I find more of me? Which should I choose to be my destiny?

Pacifists, humanists and animal rights activists all over the world are celebrating the death of the bullfight in Catalonia, but I wonder if the bulls are joining in the celebrations. The question is – does the Catalan ban on bullfighting make life any easier for the bull? Those well-meaning activists who are celebrating the end of what is an indefensibly barbaric spectacle need to ask themselves that question, and the answer cocking a snook at them is ‘no!’, for the bulls, if anything, are now doomed to an even bleaker future.

To understand why that might be the case we need to account for two things, the first being the bull’s perspective, and the second its alternate fate. For the first, let me borrow from Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemmingway’s seminal classic on the corrida. Hemmingway described the fighting bull as a wild animal unlike any you might hope to meet on a farm. He, the bull that is, descends from the same ancient stock of wild cattle that once roamed the plains and hills of the Iberian Peninsula. It is a creature whose magnificence was shaped by natural selection of his desire to roam, to fight, to mate and to protect his herd. It does not stoop to the toils of farm work, nor bend and bow to the huts and tuts of a cartman or his yoke. It just lives to be free and to fight for it, if it’s not. The Spaniards find both, nobility and beauty in its form and in its fierce spirit. Perhaps, that is why they pay to see a fellow man dominate this force of nature. Incidentally, the best matadors or bull-fighters, like Jose Tomas, used to be right up there with Real Madrid and Barca’s soccer stars in terms of popularity, endorsement deals and salaries not too long ago. And even now, they might still rank ahead of cyclists, golfers and tennis stars in their home country. The fighting bull, Hemmingway would insist from his grave if he could, would happily choose to go down fighting in the ring than meet his end in a meat factory. You might say Hemmingway was an aficionado and he loved and found inspiration in the life-and-death drama of a bull fight. But allow me to insist that I’m not an aficionado, and for the record, a vegetarian by choice (except for the odd portion of fish which my mother and my wife made me promise I would taste if they cooked it or when I’m out at or by the sea where procuring a vegetarian meal might increase my carbon footprint far more than if I was to consume what’s locally and immediately available…Makes sense? Do say so if you think it doesn’t for I’d happily give this up and just do the ‘right thing’) and yet I too must agree that given the limited choices, most living beings, including you and me, would choose a death in the afternoon over death for an afternoon’s meal.

And this brings us to the question of ‘what next for the fighting bulls of Catalonia? What does the future hold for them?’ Do they now get to live out their lives munching daisies in the sun while making love to all the cows in their harem? The sad truth is that they will perhaps get to live even shorter lives, sold to the butcher for veal and steaks. At least the bullfight gave the bulls something to die for… a chance to go down with honour, with dignity, expressing the full might of his genetic potential, as a near equal to the man in the ring and with a chance to take his killer down with him. In the old days, bulls that killed the matador were allowed to live and fight again, but they became too good for the man in the fight for they learnt from every fight. So, we changed the rules. Now, even if the bull wins the bout, he is put to the knife in the corrals. So much for our sense of honour.

But that really isn’t the point here. The question is, how does it matter if bulls are killed in a fight or in a factory as long as they are killed anyway? If anything, the tradition of the corrida allows a bull to be true to its nature, or even some perverted version of it, even if for a few moments, that life on an industrial farm as a tenderloin steak on legs would never allow it. If a battle is to be fought, it must be fought for the bulls and to better their future and not merely to protect or titillate our sensibilities. This ban serves only our motives and not the bull’s.

So what do I suggest, you might ask... And so I dare to say that before we talk of ending blood sports like the bullfight and even horse racing, we need to first create a world that refuses to confine and consume animals for mere sensory pleasures. Otherwise, these animals would only get condemned to an even bleaker and shorter life. I don’t want to drag you into a debate on vegetarianism in this issue but would want to reiterate that if we are celebrating our victory of rescuing the bulls from the ring only for them to end up in the pot a lot sooner, then that’s no victory at all.

Of course it would be ideal if every animal in man’s service could be set free to roam in an eden that could give them food, freedom and shelter, but that is a utopian dream that would take long to come true.

Instead, until such a day when bulls are free to roam without worrying about ending up as ribs and chops, instead of destroying cruel traditions that engage man and beast, we should perhaps look to modify the terms of engagement and make life richer and better for both. To understand what I mean, let me introduce you to Bushwacker, one of the happiest bulls in the world. Bushwacker is one of the top-ranked bulls in the Professional Bull Riding circuit. Unlike Spain’s bullfights, bull riding is a sport that evolved from the cowboy culture of the Americas. The goal for a bull rider is to try and last as long as possible on the back of a one tonne bull that is bucking and jumping for all it’s worth – a test of skill and control over raw power and gravity-defying agility. Man and beast meet as equals and part ways after battle, with respect in one heart and relief in the other. Blood might be spilt, bones might be broken, but neither by design. The riders are sporting celebrities and the bulls are as prized and feted as racing thoroughbreds. And until such a time as we can find space in our hearts and heartlands to allow fellow creatures to just be, that’s the way bullfighting should have gone. The sport should be modified to retain the art and the spirit of machismo without necessarily ending in death for either man or bull. And that’s a bullfight worth fighting for...