Over the nearly 71 years I have been alive on this planet, I have spent, like many others, quite long periods of time in other countries. And you know what, India is the only country, with the possible exception of Pakistan and Bangladesh which I have not visited, where humans and animals share space so amicably. Monkeys. Rats. Cows. Pigs. Dogs. Cats. Birds. Camels. Cockroaches. Elephants. Snakes. Mongooses. You name them. We coexist in a visible way, everywhere. On the streets. In our homes. In the jungles. In the gardens. Just everywhere. We are surrounded by animals. They are ubiquitous. They are ever-present. As the phrase in Sanskrit goes, yatra, tatra, sarvatra. Here, there, everywhere. It is truly extraordinary.
I remember an incident from 1985. An English friend had requested me to help a British TV crew which was in India to shoot something, I forget what now. They turned up in my office, which in those days was the Indian Express. As we sat drinking tea, I heard a familiar sound, the tinkle of the bell on an elephant’s neck. So I asked the Brits casually if they wanted to see an elephant. Not today, one of them replied. We can go to the zoo tomorrow. So I asked them to follow me to the window and in a few seconds the elephant walked by, bell tolling. I can never forget the look on the Brits’ faces. They were totally flabbergasted.
India is the only country, where humans and animals share space so amicably. We are surrounded by animals. They are ubiquitous. They are ever-present.
Another time I was travelling on the Bombay-Delhi Rajdhani. On the berth opposite me a foreigner, an East Asian, was working on his laptop. Suddenly a huge rat dropped on his keyboard from the ceiling. It was a priceless moment. In fact we suddenly had a whole lot of rats running around and there was nothing to be done about it. I don’t think anyone slept that night.
Then there was the time when a friend came back to the office, after having left for the day yelling and cursing. It was around 7pm on a winter’s evening and dark outside. We calmed her down and asked her what had happened. “A cat. I found a bloody cat on the driver’s seat.” She had sat down on it. It seems she had left the window half open as usual to keep the car ventilated. The cat had got in for the warmth.
I too have had two similar encounters. Once a cow chased me just as I started off on my mobike. It had been eyeing me angrily as I kicked the bike and as it started, it suddenly lunged at me. I took off but in my panic forgot to turn on the fuel tap. The bike started to sputter and it was just in the nick of time that I managed to turn the tap on and the vehicle shot forward. I still shudder to think what might have happened that day. The unkindest cut was some women and children laughing their guts out at me. I don’t know which one was more humiliating — the unamused cow or the entertained humans.
The second encounter was equally frightening. I was speeding down an empty but wet road one afternoon at 100kmph when I felt a hot burning on my throat. The pain was so intense that I thought I had been shot. I somehow managed to pull up on the side and just collapsed on the road. It took a minute or so for the pain to subside and several more for me to regain my composure. Finally I got back on the bike and drove slowly home and went to the mirror. There was nothing to be seen except a red blotch — with a tiny white thing at the centre. And guess what it turned out to be. I had been stung by a wasp!