By Maneka Gandhi
My mother, who is remembered by friends and family alike as the world’s most buoyant and caring person, spent the last few months of her life ill in bed with cancer. But no matter how sick she was, the first thing she did every morning was to spread bajra on her balcony for the birds. She said the happiest part of her day was to lie back in bed and watch the daily drama. First, would come the fat feisty pigeons, who would jostle each other off the ledge and spend more time fighting than feeding. Then the rose-ringed parakeets (some of whom from a batch that had been rescued and released nearby), who ate quickly and quietly. And then came the timid little sparrows pecking at the seeds furtively and vanishing as magically as they appeared.
My own mornings begin with a shower. My bathroom adjoins the garden and invariably there will be ants that have made their way in to seek refuge from the sun or rain, so bathing is always preceded by scouring the walls and floor, rescuing and relocating ants before I turn on the shower. Similarly, my 5-year old granddaughter, Anasuyaa, always carefully picks up and moves slugs, snails and earthworms to the grassy kerb, when they make the occasional foray into the driveway, so that they don’t get stepped on or run over.
Then I make Prasad for my Guru – suji ka halva – and this is distributed to people and animals. The utensil that it is cooked in is washed with water, and the water put on a secluded pavement so that the ants can pick up the crumbs.
When I made a house in Maharani Bagh, I put a tap outside attached to the wall. Anyone passing by could drink clean water and there was always a bowlful for animals. Some years ago, I was going out for dinner when I saw a man with all his possessions draped on his wheelchair. I stopped to offer him some money. He took it and then said – I don’t really need much money but is it possible for you to give me water every day? He comes every morning to pick up the water and I am grateful to him for allowing me to do this small thing.
During this lockdown, thousands of people have risked COVID, risked going hungry themselves, risked going out at night and being herded by the police, to feed street animals who are bewildered because their sources of food – the dhabas, the marriage halls, the garbage, the hotels, the people on the street have all vanished. Many of these feeders have lost their jobs. Many of them were abused and mistreated by their society organisations who, bored with nothing to do, took out their frustrations on these brave carers. I salute them a million times. They are the backbone of India – an India known for its compassion. Do you think this would have happened in any other country? Never! We should celebrate this quality in ourselves.
What is compassion? Compassion is that extraordinary competency that can sense and experience another’s pain– as miraculous as the ability to see light. But it’s more than just noticing and feeling sad for someone else’s pain. That’s empathy. Compassion means taking that sadness and turning it into an action that eases the hurt. The reason that animals have it so hard is because we don’t even notice them or their plight–like puppies that are routinely separated from their mums, thirsty birds that fall from the scorching summer sky, or the millions and billions of insects, birds, monkeys, and squirrels, and god knows what other native animals that lose their homes when we decide on yet another “scenic” resort.
Why animals get overlooked is that it’s hardest to have compassion for those you may not love or those who are most dissimilar to you. So, you may not love ants so you would hardly notice stepping on them. It explains why our hearts break when we hear of dogs tied up and sold in meat markets, yet we pass by scores of stalls with gutted fish without shedding a tear.
Just as we learn maths, history or French, compassion is something that has to be taught and developed. Buddhist monk and author Matthieu Ricard says our minds are like gardens. Left uncultivated, they are influenced by the weather and whatever seeds are in the wind. Some things will grow, and others will perish—and in the end we may not like the results. We have to deliberately cultivate compassion by learning compassionate attention, compassionate thinking, compassionate feeling, and compassionate behaviour. We need to learn to be open to suffering in others—and then we can act to alleviate that suffering. In this way, we become the people we want to be—in other words, to have the garden-mind we want.
Compassion is often confused with weakness. It is the most extreme form of courage. It is only courage that allows us to move into areas of deep suffering and pain. It is so easy to turn away from “graphic” or “disturbing” images and situations. For example, people don’t like to volunteer at old age homes, hospitals, animal shelters or orphanages because it’s upsetting to see distress at close quarters.
Compassion is just about seeing things. The way to develop compassion is to train to notice, notice, notice. Here are some simple everyday ways to practice compassion:
– If you feel hot and thirsty during the summer, notice that others might not have access to water as easily as you do. Put out clean cool water in your balcony, garden or terrace for the birds and a bowl of water near your gate for dogs and cats.
– Biscuits are an easy pick-me-up. Keep them in your car for the hungry and homeless, and anyone in need of a treat.
– Clothes and bedding you no longer need, or use could mean warmth in the winter for the homeless, both humans and animals.
– Avoid buying anything that causes cruelty- shampoos that test on animals, leather which kills cows, brushes made from animal hair, pillows stuffed with bird feathers, and of course the obvious no-nos like meat, dairy and fur.
– You enjoy fruit, but monkeys and birds need it to survive. Plant fruit trees in your garden especially for them.
– Pest control is a tidy term but simply means poisoning millions of tiny creatures. It’s much easier to keep your kitchen clean than to use cockroach killers.
– Instead of emptying leftovers into the trash, put out that food for hungry street animals.
– Celebrating occasions is such fun. Extend the party to an animal shelter or old age home that seldom experiences such joy.
– Bring home a pet from the street or an animal shelter. Buying dogs and cats perpetuates awful cruelty.
– If you hate heavy loads, think about horses, donkeys, bullocks, camels and elephants. Don’t ride them yourself and should you see an overloaded animal, be sure to get him unloaded, fed and watered.
– Don’t be afraid to check or confront cruelty. Stand up to bullies who pick on the weak and vulnerable like women, children and animals. Compassion doesn’t mean being meek. No one in India will say that I am gentle in my approach to cruelty. It angers me and the energy I get from anger brings justice.
Compassion has a radiating effect that has the potential to heal a tired and troubled world. One of my favourite lines sums it up nicely: Be kind, everybody has such desperate lives.
(To join the animal welfare movement contact firstname.lastname@example.org, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)