01 December 2019

Life as an animal (India)

These posts will be thrown together quickly — I don't want to spend my time in India agonising over them. However, I hope they'll give you some idea of what it's like here and will reassure you that I'm still alive and well 🙂

Sunday 17 November 2019

At the Madan Café I sipped strong milk coffee and unashamedly ate a honey pancake. The clientele were mostly as delightfully dissipated as I remembered, although this time they were mostly Indian with the better part of a week’s grey-and-white stubble. The one exception was a thin and ragged man in baggy shorts and an old T-shirt; he had a pale, white, smoker’s complexion and hair like Gollum and he intrigued me instantly. But, before I could think of something to open a conversation, an old woman came quietly up and held out her hand. I suspended my cynicism and caution and placed thirty rupees in her grime-blackened hand, thinking it wasn’t for me to decide whether she was a worthy recipient of charity. You just do it and do your best not to feel righteous.
After she’d shuffled off, the toothless bidi-smoker sitting opposite me at the table and watching the traffic turned to me and said something uninterpretable even if I’d known Hindi. He waved his hands in a similarly uninterpretable gesture, and I couldn’t work out if he liked what I’d done or was cautioning me against doing it again. He was clearly not the full quid but seemed to fulfill some kind of assistant staffing role. He kept turning to me and muttering something and gesturing, and I wondered whether he wanted something to eat. I offered him the remaining third of my pancake — I’d enjoyed it but didn’t need the whole thing — but he didn’t want it.

The man with the Gollum hair had heard me talking cricket with the young shopkeeper from next door and struck up a conversation, first about cricket, then about sport in general. Clive was from England but had spent the last eleven years living in Asia, mostly in India and Nepal. He’d broken his hip, and because Nepal’s public health system didn’t have the facilities to fix it and he didn’t have travel insurance, he’d had to spend eight weeks lying on his back in bed while the broken bone healed itself. His thigh wasted away and the tendons and ligaments around his knee shortened and tightened, and when he walked off down the street later, I saw he could hardly move that leg. To call his gait a limp was a gross understatement. He appeared to enjoy our conversation, or at least to have someone to listen to his theories about sport. I tried to steer him onto other subjects related to travelling and life, but he wanted to talk cricket and rugby and tennis.
   ‘You’re the joint holders of the cricket world cup,’ he insisted. Even an Englishman could see New Zealand had been dealt an injustice.
I liked him and wanted to photograph him but couldn’t bring myself to ask. Perhaps if I’d explained that I found his stories interesting he might have agreed, but I didn’t want him to think I was photographing him because he looked outrageously derelict, the way some people photograph homeless people. If I’d been a journalist tasked with investigating and documenting the lives and stories of people like Clive, I might have had a justification, but I wasn’t and I didn’t.


Along the back alley this morning, two dogs lay half asleep on a bench in front of a doorway. Below them in the filth and rubbish lay the emaciated dead body of a ginger kitten, its head arched back. I couldn’t tell if the dogs had killed it or carried it there, or whether it had died of starvation or disease or both, but the sight broke my heart. Whatever finally ended its life might have been merciful, but part of my distress was seeing it lying there, ignored, its suffering not afforded the least respect. When I walked back along the alley in the evening after dark, the small, dried body still lay there.


As I walked back from Connaught Place to Pahar Ganj, I saw a young man walking a large animal on a leash. The animal padded along slowly, and although I assumed it must have been a dog, from behind it looked peculiar, almost lion-like. As I drew closer, the animal turned its massive head, and I saw it was a bloodhound — but a bloodhound in terrible condition. The skin had shrunken over the animal’s hips; the body was hollowed out as if it hadn’t eaten in months; the brown fur was dull and gave little more impression of life than the fur on the dead kitten I’d seen that morning. As I walked past, I saw a long string of saliva drooling from the great flaps covering the mouth. The only thing suggesting the dog wasn’t one of the walking dead was its golf-ball-sized balls, which still looked capable of doing their job. Yet, despite its appalling condition, it still looked terrifying.

Monday 18 November 2019

On the rooftop at 7.30, waiting for breakfast, I looked at the sky and thought it less clear than the previous two days. There was no wind. Maybe the air would be worse, too, and I began to question my decision to turn down Sally’s hugely generous offer to treat me to a flight from Delhi to Kullu, not far from Manali. But I hadn’t been able to face the prospect of last-minute, late-night packing then getting up before dawn to get to the airport to fly out at 6.45, and I was trying to keep flying to a minimum. The decision had been made, and I hoped I’d be able to endure the fourteen hours in the bus. At least the seats in the massive Volvo would be more comfortable than the criminally cramped Airbus seats on the flight from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur.

I’d decided to buy tea for Sally, so I walked to Tooti Chowk, the frenetic hub of Main Bazaar. The shop I’d seen the previous day was closed, though, and so was Mr Bal Singh’s Uttam Tea Centre. I’d forgotten, or I hadn’t realised, that many shops were closed on Mondays. Would either tea shop open in the afternoon? I didn’t know, but I’d check. I wandered through the food market, which  was overwhelmingly dominated by vegetables and fruit, and tried not to hear the distressed cheeping of filthy chickens crammed too many to a wire cage. A man in a grubby black T-shirt and pants strode past, his feet in flip-flops covered in filth and blood and scraps of feather. I hadn’t eaten meat since getting off the plane (and some of what I’d been fed on the flights might have been meat in name only — meat as euphemism), and I hadn’t missed it. I’d had no ill effects whatsoever from eating the local food, and I hoped that would continue.

I checked out of my room and went up to the rooftop to write, but thinking about food had made me hungry. I packed away the pens and cahier and walked to the Capital Hotel dhaba. The dead kitten had disappeared at last, and beneath the bench I saw a tabby sniffing at the wall. She, at least, looked healthy, although her coat lacked any gloss. Excusable, I suppose: keeping your fur clean in the back alleys of Pahar Ganj must be a nightmare.

The Capital was busy, and I took a seat at the back. Everyone was eating Deluxe thalis: ninety rupees only. But I knew I couldn’t eat an entire Deluxe thali, nor even do it justice, so I ordered an aloo paratha. It came well-greased with melted butter and with a small dollop of typically astringent and salty pickle. As usual, it was far too hot for foreign fingers, but I managed to tear small strips off the edges until it cooled enough for me to rip it into less embarrassingly tiny pieces. Meanwhile, a toddler used his family at a nearby table as a base for exploring the dhaba, but he seemed unaware that I was an oddity even when his father pointed me out. Clearly, I was less interesting than his feeder bottle, and that was fine by me.

Tuesday 19 November 2019

At dawn I put my contact lenses in and watched the landscape slide past for the last several hours of the 14-hour journey from Delhi. I recognised the section along the dam; surprisingly, though, I didn’t remember the tunnel, which seemed to go on forever. I thought about the geology of the Himalaya and wished I hadn’t, but the more I tried not to think about earthquakes the more I imagined being trapped underground by rockfall, beyond all hope of rescue. The bus did finally emerge into daylight, of course, and given the behaviour of the traffic I was probably less safe on that section of road than in the tunnel, but that’s not how phobias work. I noticed, too, how I’d been less able to ignore how close the bus had driven to the edge of the road and the nightmare plunge into the lake, and I wondered whether I was beginning to lose my nerve, to lose my fatalism, to lose my ability to disconnect from reality when that was a sensible thing to do. Reading a recent article about outcome bias probably hadn’t helped. In short, outcome bias is the tendency to believe that because something hasn’t happened, it won’t happen. For example, people travel in dangerous places and return without incident; they then argue that those places are safer than they’re made out to be. The dangers are exaggerated, they say. If you live to tell the tale, the logic goes, the risks were overstated. The faulty logic of that should be obvious, but obviously it’s not.

Following Sally’s advice, I hired a taxi from the bus station to the Nehrukund bridge, where she met me and insisted on carrying my bags back to her place, a short distance away. In the afternoon we walked up the hill for an introductory tour of the village and to meet Prem, Sally’s friend, who had rescued a kitten for her.
  ‘I have a sick kitten for you,’ he’d said. ‘You need to look after it.’
He lit a fire by the stream and Sally made strong billy tea; we ate her apple cake with it and talked until the evening grew too cold. Prem, naturally, was impervious to the chill. He was from a farming and shepherding family. Sally had told me how bears would come down from the mountains to eat the apples in the autumn so the locals had to keep watch over their orchards. Jungle cats could also be found in the area, she said, and I asked Prem what sort of animals, other than birds, lived in the area.
  ‘Are there leopards here?’ I said.
  ‘Snow leopard,’ he said, indicating the mountains at the head of the valley. In the flat, dim light of evening, with a thin, partial covering of snow over black rock, they looked bitterly cold and hostile.
  ‘Have you seen a snow leopard?’ I asked.
  Prem nodded. ‘Yes, one time. Here, near camp.’
I didn’t doubt he knew what he’d seen — he knew the difference between snow leopards and common leopards — but to have seen a snow leopard so low down, in what was essentially a forested area well below the snowline, was unusual to the point of being remarkable. Perhaps it had been injured or otherwise unable to capture enough usual prey.

We walked the last part of the route home in the dark with occasional torchlight to let approaching vehicles know we were there. The kitten travelled the entire journey wrapped in Sally’s shawl, purring almost continuously. It was emaciated and desperately hungry, but, in the way of all cats, quickly found the wood stove, where it interfered with the stoking by sitting so close to the firebox that it singed the tips of its eyebrow whiskers so they curled like a hipster’s moustache. The cat clearly had panache.

Notes: 1.
1. Five-striped palm squirrel (Funambulus pennantii) on the rooftop of the Smyle Inn, Pahar Ganj, New Delhi.
2. Large-billed crow (Corvus macrorhynchos) near the route to Rohtang Pass, Himachal Pradesh.
3. Russet sparrow (Passer cinnamomeus) near Manali, Himachal Pradesh.
4. Prem at the campfire.
5. The kitten. It looks a bit like a demon cat in this photo but is actually a gorgeous little animal with a purr out of all proportion to its size. Bend down to stoke the fire and you're likely to be met with an enthusiastic hongi.

Photos and original text © 2019 Pete McGregor


Zhoen said...

Your Clive reminds me of a man I saw around Detroit in the 80s. Street guy, crutches because one leg was contracted up, bent knee and hip. Always with another man (can't recall what he looked like), the friends wandered together.

Cats only abide by one bible verse. "Let the dead bury the dead." The beetles and microbes bury us all, not being christian of any sort.

As Pratchett says, just because it's been inside an animal does not make it meat.

gz said...

To be read quietly and considered.

sarah toa said...

Marvellous Pete, thanks.

pohanginapete said...

Zhoen — great thoughts. Thank you. I love the one about the cats. It's so true.

GZ — that's the way I'd like the posts to be read. Thank you.

Sarah — thank you 🙏🏻

Beth said...

These posts are such a pleasure to read, consider, and return to. Thank you.

Avus said...

Read as gz remarked Pete - over my early morning breakfast. Delightful.

Regarding your imaginations in the tunnel and "outcome bias", have you ever watched an Australian film "Look Both Ways"? I think it is a really good one about life being what you can make of it. Life enhancing!

Keep on enjoying India and telling us about your travels.

pohanginapete said...

Thank you, Beth.

Avus, thank you, and no, I haven't seen that film. I'll look for it when I'm back in New Zealand.