Saturday, December 26, 2015

A dog is a dog is a dog

In Kiran Rao’s household, every pet has a story to tell.

With six happy-go-lucky dogs at home, nearly twenty more across her offices and factories and dozens of cats, ten of which live in her home, Kiran Rao pulls off a fascinating juggling act. The elegant, soft-spoken proprietor of Amethyst and Executive Director of KCP Sugars started adopting dogs after she returned to India from Europe ten years ago. “One of our dogs has a unique song, there’s another that has a hilarious howl, some go mad with joy when they greet me and some prefer to say hello with a slow wag of their tails” says Kiran who recalls the fierce loyalty of her childhood dogs Jack and Jill.

The dogs vie for her attention and express affection and jealousy in varying degrees. Though each of them has quirks and a personality, what they all have in common is that they’re mixed-breed dogs, most of whom are rescues. Stating that she’s always felt sorry to see dogs struggle on the streets, Kiran feels that the collective misery of animals can be reduced if the garbage problem is taken care of and if there’s a concerted effort to control the population by sterilising them. She regularly contributes to registered animal welfare charities and observes that it’s a tough job for some organisations that are forced to take on more than they can handle. “It would be nice if we could all extend ourselves a little more; if people adopted a couple of dogs each. They’re great for security and if you can handle one, it’s easy to handle two. They’re more balanced and happy if they have company.”

Explaining why she’d rather adopt cross-breeds than purchase pedigree dogs, she says “(Country dogs) are hardy and better adapted to our climate. Inbred pedigrees have a whole lot of birth defects that people tend to gloss over. And what are mongrels if not just a mixture of different breeds? I’m not concerned about the specific looks that some breeds have because every dog is beautiful in its own way.” In this context, she mentions Moti who was rescued from the airport as a scared puppy thirteen years ago. “He climbs on my lap and lays his head on my shoulder. A dog is a dog is a dog”, she signs off. Wise words from someone who’s loved them long enough to know.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Vandana Gopikumar

When Vandana Gopikumar is around, happiness seems to multiply.

In the song ‘Praying for Time’, George Michael complained that charity is a coat we wear twice a year. For this extraordinary woman though, it’s her life’s mission to ease suffering as and when she’s confronted by it.

Vandana Gopikumar founded The Banyan, an NGO for the welfare of homeless women with mental health issues. Through her team’s relentless efforts over the past fifteen years, she has shattered misconceptions about mental illness and reshaped the lives of countless women. A lesser-known side to her personality is her passion for animal welfare. She’s undertaken many courageous adoptions, including crippled animals and some that were completely blind. If not for The Banyan’s staff, these dogs would’ve died miserable, unnoticed deaths.

She recounts her rescues matter-of-factly even though the details are harrowing. “Once in Valarasarawakkam, we heard a faint whine. We backtracked and found a dog tied in barbed wire. We took her with us and it’s been four years now. Waffles is the most alert, intelligent dog we’ve ever seen. You can’t enter our Mogappair centre without her clearance”.

Her work, be it with people or animals, is inter-related. “Waffles is a survivor- an inspiration to the women of The Banyan”, she says proudly, referring to the doe-eyed handicapped dog that showers her with boisterous affection. She mentions an elderly woman, Bindu - a former patient of The Banyan who has recently begun working there as well. “Four months ago, a vehicle in Thiruvanmyur knocked over this dog that began yelping in extreme pain. Though our vet said it was a very difficult case, Bindu healed the dog until she was back on all fours”. Vandana reveals that the dog’s affection for her healer was life-altering. “Bindu’s existence had gained meaning”, she says. While several happy endings come about when she lends a hand, she’s deeply distressed by the apathy of hit-and-run drivers. “How can someone hit a living thing and just keep going?”

Vandana is poetic when she speaks of her bond with animals. “There are no prerequisites for a relationship with an animal, no negotiations, no barriers, no artificiality. It’s an unconditional interaction that happens on an evolved plane. You could be throwing a ball with a dog and experience serenity: a sense of just being”. On being asked what led to her choosing the path of service to others, she responds- “There’s no ‘giving’ whatsoever. I do all this for my own happiness.”

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Changing Lives for a Living

Anuradha Sawhney loves her job. A former employee of a top leather buying house, Sawhney is now a formidable campaigner against leather products. “Like many people, I never gave a second thought to the fact that my shoes used to moo,” she says, denouncing the leather-manufacturing process as “abhorrent”.

In her role as PETA India’s chief functionary, she’s seen the international non-profit group through many milestones including PETA’s entry into the Limca Book of Records as the country’s largest animal rights organization.

She reveals that a career in an NGO is far from being a hobby as popularly perceived and that though they officially have five-day weeks, employees are always on call for emergencies routed to them in the absence of other help. “I even make stops on the highways and check my email through wi-fi,” says Sawhney, adding that she doesn’t think of it as a job. “You lose track of time, because it’s not work”.

Her colleagues include accountants, lawyers, MBAs and computer professionals whom she describes as “articulate and rational, and the extra thing everyone has is compassion”. Speaking about the difference between a regular job and one in the social sector, she says: “I know that no one in my office is hurting an animal. We don’t have chairs made of leather. Only vegan food is consumed here. And we all have one common goal.”

Our interview is interrupted by a cheerful bark. She puts me on hold to ask someone - “Why’s Rex jumping about like that? Is he ok?” Rex, who was rescued by PETA (from people who kept him habitually chained), is a regular at her office, alongside other companion animals who can come to work provided they get along with him.

Like her colleagues, Sawhney is always looking towards the next goal, the next cruelty issue to address. “I might get into politics to speak out for animals. And I’m planning a book on animal welfare in India,” she says, quoting from Robert Frost’s poem - “What’s that line again? Miles to go before I sleep”.

She walks the talk, and mentions that she hasn’t switched off her phone in nine years. Has it all been worthwhile? Her answer comes without hesitation. “I can’t believe I ever did anything else with my life”.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Across the Universe

He was born in Vietnam, raised in the United States and has lived in Romania until he relocated to India last August with his partner of seventeen years. “Anandaroopa is my spiritual name,” says the witty dog-owner who’s a storehouse of anecdotes from around the world.

“In Romania, there were a lot of street dogs, many of whom are culled cruelly. One day, my partner’s colleague showed up with this adorable, flea-infested little fuzz-ball who was found abandoned underneath a car. The dog has been with us for five years now.” Stating that the move to India with a dog was fairly simple, he says: “It was like paperwork for anything else — getting your driver’s licence or passport.”

They decided to name the dog Devi. “We hope people can see the divinity in a dog.”

“She still acts like a puppy,” he laughs, adding that Devi knows when she’s being spoken of. “My partner and I are lucky. We have household staff and they love dogs. Friends stay over when we aren’t around, to take care of Devi.” Displaying a deep understanding of her feelings, he says “She’s a glutton for attention, as she’s the only dog in the family. I’m an only child, so I understand!”

Visitors often ask Anandaroopa and his partner what breed she is. “She’s a mutt. A royal Romanian mutt,” he says proudly. The sensitive dog knows when someone is sick and hovers around the bed with a look of grave concern on her face. “Tibetans believe that dogs are monks who haven’t meditated enough in their past life. We must help them move on from this life. Dogs have feelings, needs and a soul. When my partner comes home after a long day at work, he talks to the dog first. Unconditional love — a dog is the only one who gives you that when you walk through that door,” he says.
Anandaroopa reveals that this month, their high-spirited canine has an important role to play. “June is Gay Pride Month and Devi will be a part of the Pride March. She supports civil rights because she wants civil rights for herself too — the right to just exist, as a dog.”

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Blue Cross Well Dog Show- You are invited

Are you the proud owner of an all-Indian dog? If yes, get ready to show off your best friend of the four-legged kind at the Blue Cross Well Dog Show – celebrated every year as the dog show with a difference. The dogs have unique personalities, are a mixture of various breeds and have heartwarming rescue and adoption stories to tell. And the event is also a tribute to their companions- people who’ve chosen to take in an animal in need, regardless of their non-pedigree parentage. In fact, Indian breeds (also known as mongrels) are known for their robust immune systems that make them less susceptible to illnesses. Their fur coats are also perfectly suited to Indian climatic conditions and these country dogs live long and healthy lives.

The show highlights the lovable qualities of a dog that are observable even when they’re just being themselves. This means no ‘tricks’, performances, obstacle courses, jumping through hoops or unnatural hand-shakes. The coveted titles at this annual show include “Best Rescue” (for a dog with a fascinating rescue story), “Survivor Award” (for a pet who has triumphed over a serious accident or illness) and random fun titles like “The Dog with the Waggiest Tail”.

As Dr. S. Chinny Krishna, Chairman of Blue Cross puts it- “Our objective is to demonstrate our pride in our All-Indian dogs”. Certificates, gift hampers, freebies and medals will be doled out to the dogs and their companions. While there are special categories of prizes for dogs with the rarest spots or best-maintained fur coat, anyone who has participated in the Blue Cross Well Dog Show knows that their dog is already a winner.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Hero in real life

Leading lady Sadaa juggles film shooting, award shows, interviews and travel with the thing that she finds most fulfilling- playing a saviour in real life.

Recently, the actress heard the sorrowful mews of an orphaned kitten in the neighbourhood and decided to investigate when the mewing continued late into the night. “My mum knew that something was wrong and I went to check. It was hiding under the car and ran from one hiding place to another but my dad managed to get it out.

We kept it for a week until PETA helped us by adopting her”, she says of her latest rescue, as it’s not the first time she’s taken notice of an animal in distress. “Pigeons, wild birds, ducks…” she says, trying to recall the various species that her family has lent a helping hand to, while on their morning walks.

Last year, she found an injured kitten whose spinal problems rendered her hind legs unusable. “We admitted her to SPCA where she passed away. The animal may or may not survive, but we have to try”. She’s motivated by empathy– “My mother has always said ‘put yourself in that position when you think of tying a string around an insect and dragging it’. Parents should guide their children not to be cruel.

 If someone hurts us, we can cry out in pain but animals can’t even speak. They have to go through it all by themselves”. Speaking about what happens after she nurses a fallen bird back to health, she says –“Freedom is important to a bird. I let them go”. The star is convinced that success and adulation come second to the rush that comes from saving a life. “I don’t think any feeling can match that”, she signs off cheerfully