More recently, I had short fiction published in the excellent City journal, edited by Ajmal Kamal and Sophia Naz, both originally from Pakistan. Putting it below. My story 'The Trial' should be hopefully out in an anthology by Queer Ink publishers (Mumbai) in a couple of months.
Paheli sighed. The look on her face was one of acute anguish. “But how can she, Mekhela”, she asked “how can she say something like that? Doesn’t she have a heart? Doesn’t she feel anything?” Turning her gaze towards the window, she continued. “What about all those birds she goes in search of”, she cried, “doesn’t that make her feel!?” Mekhela shifted a little uncomfortably in her chair. “I get your point”, she said. “I know what you mean.”
Paheli was talking about Bistirna, with whom she had been in love for quite some time. But Bistirna’s boyfriend was Armaan, and Bistirna did not care much for all the attention Paheli bestowed on her. The specific incident they were talking of was something Paheli had seen Bistirna write on facebook where she had said, while commenting on the photo of a cut goat’s head, that the goat seemed to be smiling. Paheli did not have any contact with Bistirna as such, and could not ask her. So she had decided to tell Mekhela who was a common friend. Paheli, in the secret (well, not so secret really) love that she nurtured for Bistirna respected and admired her to such an enormous extent that she pretty much idolised her. Or should it be idealised? Perhaps it didn’t really matter which it was. Bistirna, for Paheli, was like this goddess who could do no wrong, the epitome of beauty and goodness, in a fallen world, which for an idealist such as Paheli, often became unlivable. This was one of the reasons why Paheli was so anguished at what Bistirna had said. Bistirna loved birds. Well, she seemed to go to the ends of the earth to find them, watch them, and photograph them, so one presumed that she loved birds, to be so passionate about them. But then, how could she say something like that? Paheli was lost in this conundrum and obsessed by it too. Paheli, who belonged to a vegetarian family from Gaya, in Bihar, was quite vocal about issues of animal rights and cruelty. At the same time, her enormous respect for Bistirna was such that she could not dismiss her statement, or her regard for her either. So here she was, after hours of anxious thinking and restless pacing up and down, talking about it to Mekhela. Bistirna and Mekhela, both being from Assam, were quite used to eating, not only chicken and mutton, but also duck, pork, and such meats that formed quite a regular part of Assamese cuisine. It was hard to come across an Assamese person who was a vegetarian. The boy whom Bistirna was dating, Armaan, however, was vegetarian. The difference did not seem to trouble either of them too much. Paheli remembered Armaan saying, a long time ago, that it did not make any difference, whether one was a vegetarian or a non-vegetarian. She had wondered how such a person, who came across as being so gentle and sensitive, could say such a thing. Because Armaan was a gentleman in the truest sense of the word. His emotions, which seemed to pass across his face without any attempt to hide them, were so completely open and bare, and, so there. He often seemed gentler than many women, so Paheli thought. This regard she had for Armaan was the reason why she did not regard Armaan as her rival in love, and why she had had no bitterness or jealousy on that count. But this didn’t seem to solve the problem either. How could he say that, and how could she say that. It only seemed to add to the problem. The whole thing was so terribly complex. And it could have been solved so easily if only she could have talked to them about it! The thing just seemed to become more and more complex, or so it seemed to Paheli.
The context of the particular comment Bistirna had made on the photo was that people were saying that non-vegetarian food was “anti-Indian”. “Anti-national” seemed to have become the currency of the times. It was in order to refute this that Bistirna had said what she had said. Well, the head of the cut goat did seem quite peaceful, Paheli had to admit that. It did not seem as if the goat had died horror-stricken in a moment of shock. But then, who are we humans to interpret the expressions on the face of a goat? And… and to compare a dead, cut head with a smile… it seemed heartless to Paheli. How could one invert words like that and think that any living creature enjoyed the act of dying?
Bistirna also wrote poetry. When Bistirna wrote about birds, she saw death as something swift and natural, as a huge bird swooping down and picking up a smaller bird, or a fish, or whatever it was that the bird wanted to eat. Why, Bistirna even wrote poems about beetles, those little creatures none of us think much about. How could she write such poems about birds and beetles, and still not feel, was the question Paheli sought to answer. Was it possible to write such poems without emotion or feeling?
Mekhela had been sitting silent for a while, lost in thought. Now, however, she decided to take up the argument. “I do see what you mean”, she said, “but perhaps it’s difficult for us in this regard to completely understand the other. Perhaps eating is something so inherently natural, and food habits so ingrained into us from such an early age, that this basic conditioning is very hard to let go of. We do, after all, biologically have taste buds, you know”, she said, “and molar teeth at the back of our mouths. Nature meant animals to eat animals, however tragic it may seem.” “But do we need to act like other animals”, insisted Paheli, “we, who have the ability to think rationally and act?” “But you see, Paheli”, replied Bistirna, “if we don’t eat the goat, a lion or a tiger would, and it wouldn’t really matter to the goat who kills it, because death is its sure and certain fate, anyhow. And if we didn’t breed goats, for example, they would be all in the jungle, and would get killed, of course.” “It’s so unfair”, said Paheli, “that some are destined to be killed and to suffer and die just because they are lower down in the food chain, and for some to be at the top and enjoy all the luxury.” Her idealism wanted to impose an order of “justice” on the world, which the natural order, in all its random arbitrariness, seemed to completely refute. “It seems like such a capitalist order”, she continued, “this whole business of survival of the fittest”. “It is the natural order, Paheli”, interrupted Mekhela, “you can try to have a socialist system for humans, but you can’t attempt to impose laws on the world that go against, well, nature.” Paheli mused, for a while, trying to take in the inherent inequality and violence implicit in the world. It was haunting her, day and night. Just before she went to bed at night, she saw the red, squirting blood of chicks. Gruesome visions haunted her day and night. She remembered the time she had run out of the room, screaming, because someone was eating fish for breakfast. She had had her breakfast in her bedroom that day.
It was beginning to grow dark. They were in Guwahati, as Paheli was visiting Mekhela at her house for a few days. As they made their way back from their evening walk as their shadows lengthened, they fell quiet for a bit and their conversation lapsed. Back home, they saw Mekhela’s mother removing the scales of the fish. Paheli, quaking, and remembering a fish poem that Bistirna had written asked “But… don’t you feel anything, aunty?” The woman smiled at the question in an amused fashion. It was evident that she thought it the most natural thing to do. “No”, she said. “But, aunty”, continued Paheli, “isn’t the fish sometimes alive when you cut it?” “Yes”, replied Mekhela’s mother. “You do feel a bit weird when the fish is alive”, she added. That day, the family went out to a restaurant where all of them ordered vegetarian Assamese thalis, as Mekhela’s mother understood that Paheli would like this. The next day however, they were invited for dinner by their neighbours. Their neighbours were tribals who freely ate and served mutton, fish, chicken, pork, duck, anything you name it. “How would the butchers be feeling while killing it”, Paheli asked Mekhela later. “They become used to it, Paheli”, explained Mekhela patiently. “People in the army become used to killing human beings. And we are talking of animals. Butchers are normal people like any of us. I know it seems like a gruesome job, but then, they provide food for people to eat. And I have seen films where butchers are shown to live and love and be as vulnerable as any of us. It will cause pain, of course, but killing and dying is a messy business, and the pain can’t be avoided. Now see, Esther aunty is tribal, and it is very normal for them to eat all kinds of things. And Bistirna is from a scheduled caste family”, she went on, “so it would not appear that strange to her. Killing and dying is a messy business, but it is a necessity of life, and thankfully doesn’t take tooo long. Different people have their different food habits and uniformity would mean a lot of impositions which again become casteist, racist, and oppressive in nature. You ultimately cannot escape some form of violence, you know”, she continued. ‘We will have to accept that our very existence causes violence, to plants, animals, to other human beings and to the earth itself. If not to animals, our violence manifests itself towards human beings. Look at how we treat other castes, classes, and races, and the kinds of work we expect them to do. Or think of plants. They do also feel, you know. Seen a mimosa plant close its leaves? I also read somewhere that leaves emit a bitter, poisonous sort of substance if an insect or an animal tries to eat them.” “But how do we know whether they feel pain?”, asked Paheli. “Well… how do we know that they don’t?”, replied Mekhela, “they couldn’t possibly tell us, you know. And they keep having new findings and discoveries about such things. It’s a complicated question.” “Well… I don’t pluck flowers because I feel it would hurt the plant”, admitted Paheli. “Do trees realise if we hug them?” she went on, “or when birds sit on them?”
That night, Paheli began looking for things on the internet. She saw many, many different articles. One talked of trees having such things as pheromones by which they communicated with each other, one talked about plants having glutamate receptors the same as us, which responded when electricity was passed through them. Getting more and more obsessed over it, she happened to read another poem Bistirna had written about how poor fisherwomen didn’t even have the time to think of such things. For them, it was livelihood or starvation. She mused about how far away all urban people were from the primary processes of life which involved killing, eating, shitting, and cleaning the shit. Rearing animals, getting food. They lived such sanitised, genteel lives in their sophisticated, urban worlds, where it seemed that life was so polite, with their little niceties and their talks of sensitivity and non-violence. Searching for more articles, she saw Vandana Shiva and others talking about organic farming. On facebook, she saw a woman talking of her chicken soup cravings because she was pregnant, and another talking of how the doctor had recommended chicken soup for her to recuperate from the operation that she had just had.
Slowly, Paheli’s responses began to shift. Perhaps, she thought, perhaps these were some of Bistirna’s reasons. Although her emotional responses were too firmly entrenched within her, her logical responses seemed to shift a little. She began to see different kinds of logics operating out here, other than what her familial conditioning and upbringing had always led her to believe. Another article she found somewhere told her about all the loss of animal life that went into a vegetarian meal as well, as animals were killed during processes of sowing, digging, harvesting, and through the use of pesticides. It was just less apparent, but it was still there. In fact, some articles said that a vegetarian meal cost much more animal life than a meat meal did. Well, that fact did sort of make one reconsider things. As she slept that night, she felt comfortably assured that Bistirna was right after all, as she always believed her to be. The whole conflict, after all, was to believe something other than what Bistirna did. She began to understand Armaan’s point too, that there really was not so much difference, as the animals seemed to die either ways anyhow. That night, she had a peaceful sleep.
Her peace, however, was short lived. Pretty soon again, she was to be found pacing up and down the park, agitatedly. She had to settle the question for once and for all. Onlookers stared strangely at this girl who seemed obviously perturbed, pacing up and down, up and down, restlessly. She had happened to see something else on the internet which seemed to have once again thrown her into turmoil. And this thing was something they called as industrial farming, or factory farming, which had begun since the 1970s, in first world countries. She read how the beaks of chicks were cut by this huge machine, a blade and a hot flame, and that this process was called debeaking. This was done so that the birds may not peck. And why may they not peck? They may not peck because humans couldn’t give them an extra inch of space to peck. She read that tails of sheep and pigs and other animals were cut for the same reason, as they needed space for swishing and waving their tails. She read of the foie gras method where hens, ducks and geese were force fed with tubes till they bloated to about nine times their usual size and couldn’t even move. Just then, a couple of emails popped into her inbox. One was from the Humane Society International about rabbits being skinned alive in China for angora fur. The other one was from PETA about the Yulin dog-meat festival, again in China. A few other mails seemed to pop into her inbox in quick succession; one was about Canadian seals being killed for their fur, another about whales being hunted in the Antarctic, a third about the illegal sale of ivory in Africa. The fourth showed animals being made to stand on netted wire meshes, which effectively meant that they could not move even half an inch, without falling into the wires. Her brain was throbbing by now, all the blood rushing to her temples. She read about how it was the big MNCs like Mc Donald’s, Dominoes, Pizza Hut and KFC who were doing this. She wondered why production was something that was kept so hidden from the consumers. Would she want to eat a cake if she knew the enormous and needless violence of debeaking simply to get eggs? She realised that dairy farms which functioned in mechanised ways were no better. The cows were simply treated as milking machines and tortured their entire lifetime. There was no point, she thought, in vegetarians and non-vegetarians constantly attacking each other and quarrelling, the real thing was to address these urgent and pressing issues united together. She realised that this huge gap between production and consumption manifested itself in so many other areas as well: for example, she did not associate eating chocolate with violence, but if she knew the way those poor African cocoa farmers were treated, she would probably feel bad about eating chocolate as well. And yet, why should she feel so bad in eating chocolate? She began to realise how she, as a consumer, was being drawn into this whole huge needless circle of violence, misery, and oppression. Even the rasgullas that she ate, being a vegetarian, drew her and made her complicit in a huge chain of gross violence which she did not want to be a part of.
She spent the whole night imagining herself to be a chick whose beak was being cut by a blade and a hot, searing flame. She tried to imagine what it would be like never to be able to eat properly or to peck again. How could Bistirna possibly justify this? A chick too was, after all, a bird… where did Bistirna’s bird love lead her to… Paheli’s stomach was churning by now. She tried to convince herself that Bistirna couldn’t possibly justify something like this… or Armaan or Mekhela either… there had to be some kind of limits to the amount of cruelty you kept continuing to inflict, to the amount of exploitation of the earth you could possibly do. In the end, this cycle harmed the animals, harmed the poor too as it fed grains to hens and geese who were actually supposed to eat grass, thus robbing the poor of food, and gave bad, unhealthy meat to the rich with too much fat. This cycle seemed to help nobody but the rich industrialists.
Paheli, after four months in her warped, obsessive, agitated state, finally decided to go to mental health professionals; a psychiatrist and a psychotherapist. Her fears were confirmed. She was diagnosed as having a moderate case of clinical depression. She would need to be on therapy and daily medication for as long as necessary.