Perhaps it was because it came in the thick of so much ominous news and from yet another arena in which human beings play out their hostilities at the cost of all other life forms. The ‘not-without-my-pet’ stand by first one and then another, and then more Indian students in Ukraine touched a chord. Across the world.
Tensions were rising, war was imminent, and the Indian Government had issued a clear directive that they must leave, and that they would be evacuated. To respond to that with a ‘nope’ or ‘no way’ ‘won’t leave my buddy behind’ — takes some courage and conviction.
I personally had two reactions: One, an unabashedly sentimental soaring of my spirit, when the first picture popped up of student Rishabh Kaushik with his dog Malibu. Many people like me put themselves in his shoes at that moment: what a Sophie’s Choice to have to face.
This news, that he as well as other students Arya, Gautam, Zahid, could not (it is not a question of will not as much as simply cannot, for many pet-owners) leave without their pets, ever so slightly greened up the aridity of what was playing out in the region. If I were an artist, I would have drawn two fresh green blades of grass emerging from a little crack in a vast and uncompromising rock face. Or recreated that famous image of a rose placed in the barrel of a gun. Or sketched Yudhishtira turning away from the Gates of Heaven, famously saying: not without my dog.
But my second reaction, close on the heels of this lifting of the spirit, this urge to shout out ‘Bravo!’ was a sad certainty that this was not going to end well. One way or the other. These youngsters would end up doing something that most people would consider foolhardy, or would have to be ‘practical and sensible’: look for someone to take their animal, and simply come away. Humans first, as always.
Happy to declare: I was wrong.
The relevant ministries and departments of the Indian government quickly stepped up to the situation. They put in place a one-time relaxation of the rules. And here they are, these youngsters, in many of today’s newspapers, getting off Indian aircraft in New Delhi, with their pets held close.
No doubt, this is not a story that lends itself to an all’s-well-that-ends-well glibness. No doubt, many hapless humans, animals, birds, trees, water bodies, the very air itself, will fall to the violence in that region. And yet, many of us stood looking down at the newspaper (or newsfeed) this morning moist-eyed or at the very least, smiling sloppily!
In the last two years of the pandemic, lockdowns and the aftershocks, the city that I live in, saw an unprecedented abandoning of pets, with people leaving for their home towns. Or then there were some who took on pets because they were lonely in the lockdown, and abandoned them when they got busy and social again.
Pune, where I now live, I have once termed the pet-and-plant abandoning capital of this country, even before the pandemic. Many people hotly contested my claim about Pune, saying their cities and towns were far worse. What a dubious distinction to fight over.
With a shifting population of students, young new-jobbers, families looking to accessorize their home with foliage and a trending pet (Labs, Pugs, Shih tzus, Huskies, Persians, Siamese, watch-out), arrivals and departures are many. And many have thought nothing of simply leaving their plants to gasp, rot, shrivel, burn and die, without bothering to even give them away. Dogs and cats are simply set loose, or dropped off to some remote place. And while people jet off to their new jobs, colleges and schools, their pet desperately tries to make its way home, hungry, thirsty and disoriented. Once the pandemic hit us all, there was even less thought (in fact more justification) given to abandoning pets. Animal welfare organizations and citizens are simply overwhelmed trying to rescue and rehouse.
And yet, untold stories abound, on the kind of opportunities that people have quietly let go of, only ever entering into work arrangements or relationships or home options that accommodate the existence of their pet. It involves a quiet internal decision: ‘not-without-my-pet’.
No wonder, then, that we are so warmed by the Ukraine air-lift, pets-and-all.
While external upheavals in people’s lives render their pets vulnerable, there are many internal implosions and dislocations – sickness, mental illness, old age, family break-ups – in which it becomes simply untenable to hold on to your pet. Only the fortunate can.
It was interesting to read, over the last some days, sanctimonious declarations by people on social media sitting safely in their homes: “I would NEVER abandon my pet.” Good for you. But spare a salaam moment to young students caught completely off-guard by a war, doggedly refusing to part with their pets. Many of us want to give these kids and the officials and pilots that made this happen, a jaadu ki jhappi (a healing hug). Maybe we will, someday, somewhere.
Gouri Dange is a counsellor, novelist, people and animal watcher.