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Literary Special 2023: Radical Empathy by Jai Arjun Singh

Is it possible to relate to other life forms that we normally think of as aliens or pests? How far can empathy stretch?

Can humans ever fully deal with the idea of sentience in animals? Illustration by Kokila B.
Can humans ever fully deal with the idea of sentience in animals? Illustration by Kokila B.

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“I know the psychology of rats.”

Here is the writer-director Kundan Shah—a solemn-looking man with an unexpected sense of humour—rummaging about a storeroom, large broom in hand, trying to ferret out an unwelcome rodent. It’s a scene, and a deadpan one-liner, that might have worked its way into Shah’s most celebrated film, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. The words he apparently uttered during this Tom and Jerry escapade—I know the psychology of rats—are also the title of a new book by his long-time friend, the director Saeed Mirza: a tribute to their 45-year relationship as it played out in the personal, artistic and political arenas, through decades of studying cinema and life, arguing about ideologies, feeling deeply for underdogs.

Human underdogs, that is.


“She was just playing with the fish.”

A scene from the beautiful 2020 documentary My Octopus Teacher. The narrator-protagonist Craig Foster, having developed an unusual kinship with an octopus during his diving expeditions, observes his new friend jumping out at a school of fish as they swim past and soon realises that the octopus isn’t doing this for utilitarian reasons such as hunting: It is purely recreation, its own version of fun— something you might expect in more social animals (or the ones that we humans have labelled “social”). You wouldn’t expect it from a creature that exists mechanically, without emotions or an inner life.


Back to rodent psychology, though, and the possibility of rats as sensitive beings. Shah wasn’t expressing empathy with them when he made the above claim. But having come to know Shah well over a series of meetings in 2009, having stayed in touch with him until his untimely passing, and trusted in the ever-expanding capacity of his mind, I have little doubt that this man—who felt for the powerless and expressed it through humour—could have stepped outside the limits of an anthropocentric world view if the opportunity arose. Besides, he showed a knack for making crazy connections between unrelated things. So I think he might be okay with the fact that when I heard the rat-in-storeroom story, I recalled a guilt-inducing incident from last year: a reminder of how casually we humans use our ingenuity, our opposable thumbs and our dominance over resources to inflict cruelty on others.

It involved something called a glue trap, which I’m now glad to learn has been banned in various places (including, recently, Tamil Nadu). I’m not sure what I was thinking when I bought it as an alternative to the regular rat traps we had been using—I had probably been lulled by the cutesy promotional image which showed nothing more unpleasant than a mouse perched on the pad, one paw trailing a few threads of Fevicol, waiting for a kind human to painlessly free it and send it on its way with a pat on its little head and a return gift of cheese, all this of course set to a jaunty Disney score from the 1930s.

Real life was grislier; the next morning I found two small mice—adolescents, perhaps—stuck fast on the pad, one almost dead already with its desperate exertions to free itself probably damaging its underbelly and inner organs. Without getting into all the details, here’s what most struck me about the aftermath in our garbage lot. When I had (messily) freed the second mouse with vegetable oil, instead of limping away to safety it hung about to examine the plight of its just-deceased companion: sniffing, circling, making squeaking noises that to my ears at least sounded like distress calls, almost getting trapped again as it tried to get closer—and bolting only when I banged the pad down hard to scare it off.

Can rats feel concern, or grief? Can an octopus chill in its off-hours, wave its limbs at a passer-by for enjoyment? The answers to these and countless other related questions, scientific research has been indicating, are yes. The last few decades have seen the overturning of much earlier “wisdom” that held entire swathes of other species to be unfeeling, robotic creatures that scuttled, swam, trotted, ate, reproduced without ever showing emotion in a way comparable to us.

But the bigger question may be: Can humans ever fully deal with the idea of sentience in animals whom we mainly encounter as pests or aliens (or food)? Is that a realistic possibility, given the many exigencies of our everyday lives—and if it is, would it lead to meaningful outcomes? Or would we go insane if we had to look long and hard into the unimaginable amounts of suffering we cause?

In one of my favourite scenes from Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about the Holocaust, Maus (a story where mice and cats are used as metaphors for human victims and their human oppressors), Art interviews his dad Vladek, a concentration-camp survivor. Having just described the worst atrocities of the gas chambers—the fat from the burning bodies being scooped up “so that everyone could burn better”—Vladek sprays a flying bug that is pestering him, treating it as dispensable. Much like he and his friends once were.

If that analogy offends you, trivialising humans by comparing them to mosquitoes, here is something you may find more disturbing: Maus, which could have made the easy choice to depict saintly victimhood, instead makes it clear that despite everything he went through, Vladek himself is far from tolerant when it comes to other groups of people; he shows contempt for a black hitchhiker and engages in “othering” in ways that are at least comparable to how the Nazis thought of the Jews.

When such discord exists between human groups, and given the divisive and self-centred aspects of our nature, what hope for entering the mind-space of an insect, a rat, or an octopus? Or even creatures with whom we have had a much longer social relationship and whom it has been easier to bond with, like dogs? As recently as a few hundred years ago, the philosopher Rene Descartes regarded their cries of pain while being tortured as nothing more than the rattling sounds of a machine malfunctioning: It didn’t mean anything, they couldn’t suffer like we can. And Descartes’ spiritual descendants still live among us.


“Can I have a little more human welfare, please?”

At a residents welfare association meeting in my south Delhi colony, efforts are made to bridge the gap between those who dislike or fear street dogs and those who have been feeding, sterilising and vaccinating them. The meeting’s amicus curiae spells out the salient issues facing congested neighbourhoods like ours; useful, constructive things are being said. But at the first mention of the sinister term “animal welfare”, a Respected Elderly Man, a former association president, clears his throat loudly, looks around to make sure all eyes are on him, and says, in the grand manner of one who thinks he is delivering a never-before-voiced insight: “We are hearing this term ‘animal welfare’ a lot.” (Solemn pause) “May I ask, is there also such a thing as… human welfare?”

In my head, I am replying: This planet that your great-grandchildren will inherit, you pompous old fool, is almost dead because of thousands of years of determined “human welfare”.

I don’t say this out loud, partly because I know any such retort will be drowned out by the shrill sounds from the other side; but partly also because each time I switch into animal-activist mode, I feel the heavy weight of my own hypocrisy. Despite years of trying, I haven’t yet been able to shift away from non-vegetarianism; I have eaten chicken despite seeing frail-looking hens packed together in a small box atop a cycle cart, a torture chamber of our devising, on their way to death; enjoyed pork despite having read about the hideousness of slaughterhouses and of the many ways in which pigs are social, expressive, even intelligent animals. I might respond with high-handed indignation during such meetings, or when another member of our association, a schoolteacher no less, says unironically, “Humans are the most important, we need to put ourselves first.” But can I believe in my own convictions?


Yet one can, in theory at least, keep trying to expand the many circles of awareness, consciousness and empathy. And for anyone who’s inclined to do this, books like Peter Wohlleben’s The Inner Life Of Animals and Ed Yong’s recently published An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal The Hidden Realms Around Us are great starting points.

Wohlleben, who has spent much of his life in forests, observing the natural world in ways that most of us never do, discusses a breathtaking array of emotions that have been documented in animals: a highly developed sense of fairness (and a version of embarrassment) in horses; a form of altruism in vampire bats who regurgitate part of their meal of blood—at a physical cost to themselves—for cave mates who weren’t lucky during a night’s hunt; forward planning and logical thinking in a crow that has to choose which of two available food options to store for the future. And in his thoughtful closing arguments, while raising pointed questions about why there is so much resistance—in the corporate world, for instance—to the idea that other creatures can experience joy and suffering, he also acknowledges that nothing close to a utopian solution exists; that the choices we make have to be personal… and, hopefully, well-informed.

Meanwhile, Yong’s book centres on the concept of the Umwelt, a term used to describe the sensory world of a particular organism, which might be entirely different from how we humans experience our environment—and a proper study of which can show us the many possibilities that lie outside our incredibly limited perspectives. Chock-full of fascinating, poignant passages, the book chronicles the ways in which we mess up the Umwelt of other species even when we don’t set out to exploit them. (“We harm animals by filling the world with stimuli that overwhelm or befuddle their senses (…) coastal lights that lure newly hatched turtles away from the oceans, underwater noises that drown out the calls of whales, glass panes that seem like bodies of water to bat sonar...”)


Discovering our collective ‘Umwelt’

For the stirrings of similar awareness—perhaps as preparation for such books—one can even watch an accessible popular film like the recent Bhediya. Here is a narrative that employs goofy comedy and opens with a jump-scare scene that has a wolf-as-monster leaping at the camera—and yet it is remarkable how compassionate Bhediya turns out to be in its view of the natural world, taking time to point out that even a possibly venomous jungle snake should be respected; we are the trespassers in its home. The film’s protagonist goes from saying “Mujhe kutta pasand nahi” (I don’t like dogs) to finding his own inner wolf (which is something I wish would happen to at least a few residents in our gated urban colonies!).

One scene, in the early stages of this transformation, shows him flinching at the distant sound of an electric saw felling trees. The symbolism of this moment is clear enough but equally notable is the depiction of an animal with a heightened sense of hearing being tormented by the human-created sounds that now echo around the world. It made me think again of the torment caused to our street animals by loud Diwali crackers, and how some people—intelligent and sensitive in most contexts—proudly endorse such celebrations. Such responses can take the form of that familiar alarmist majoritarianism about Hindu festivals being undermined but it can also be something more personal, a parent being convinced that deafening noises are the only things that will bring happiness to his beloved child on the day, and how dare anyone serve as an impediment to this happiness?

Can we, like the protagonist of Bhediya, push back against this self-centredness, get back in touch with our beastly selves, feel part of the natural world—just one cog in it, not the most important? It is very difficult, even for those who think of themselves as animal-friendly, but if there is to be any future worth the wait, one must explore the possibility. As Saeed Mirza reports it, another thing Kundan said during the rat chase was: “If he thinks he’s smart, I’m smarter.”

Are we big-brained mammals smart enough to save ourselves?

Jai Arjun Singh is a writer and critic.

Also read: Literary Special 2023: A Writer Outsources Her Work by Meena Kandasamy

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