Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Turning Point

Have to relate something that happened a while back, which quite influenced and changed my general outlook in life. Before my memory erases the specifics; I should have recorded it at the time. The reason why I didn't do it so far, probably was how the incident extended over a long period of time, and the shame and considerable introspective soul-searching that accompanied and followed it, seemed too vast to pen down. But here goes anyway. So warning, very long post.

Background: The architecture of Pearl hostel is a linear long structure, with a single row of rooms with windows on one side (facing the front), and a common open veranda connecting all the doors on the other (facing the back). This open veranda gives a great view of the open ground behind the hostel, and it's the view you cannot escape when you open the door.

The Red circle is the site of the incident

It was in September, around a week before the first Cycle Test (a Wednesday?), when I got back from class to hostel in the evening. It was then that I was first made aware of the protagonist. A cow.

The dry shrubbery grounds of the college campus are quite the habitat for all sorts of wildlife, primarily cattle and pariah dogs. But what was odd, and slightly disconcerting at the time was that the cow wasn't in a natural position, but lying spread eagled on the ground on its side, in plain view (from the veranda) behind the hostel.

It was alive, kicking from time to time but mostly motionless. It was quite obvious that something was wrong, but something somehow allowed everybody, including myself, to ignore it away from existence, with the usual mindless revelry that accompanies hostel life. A passing comment, from time to time, with declarations and disconnected predictions that it was dead, or just going to be, only to be proved wrong a while later by some kicking. I can't speak for others, but it did disconcert me, but probably not enough to register in my mind. I sort of hoped that it would just get better, or die. It's easy to shut things out from your mind, by engrossing it with increased vigor in other activities.

This callous indifference continued. We continued to sit on the veranda on the Second floor overlooking the scene, passing our expert judgments about the situation, yet making no effort to do anything about it, as though we were spectators of a movie. I honestly cannot understand what was going through my mind at the time. Some sort of severe cognitive dissonance.

And then it began to rain. The worst downpour in weeks. It was freezing cold. There were gales of wind that slammed doors and windows shut, and caused fastened clothes to fly from clothes-lines. The downpour continued for hours. The grounds behind were severely flooded. All able cattle retreated to the shelter of the trees to escape the onslaught. The one cow, however, was still lying there on the ground, as it were.

I was hoping it would die. I couldn't help but imagine myself out there, drenched and cold. But I tried to shut those thoughts aside. I was unsure about how to react to the situation. Internally my conscience was ripping me to pieces, but I just couldn't act. I didn't know whether to act on my impulse or not, or even how. I just sat there, on the veranda, staring at it foolishly.

It ceased to move after a while, and I assumed it was dead. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't put the thought of the suffering it must have endured, out of my head. I couldn't stop imagining the situation with the roles reversed, and deplored my inability to act or try to help in some way. This continued throughout the night, along with the relentless rains.

By the next morning, my mind could not take the internal war. I had decided to check up on the animal, the first thing in the morning. I went around the hostel to the back and discovered it was still alive. It struggled helplessly on the ground as I approached it, leaving marks on the ground fruitlessly. However, I noticed a trail of such marks as though the its body was dragged around. What struck me was that it had moved from its original position by a small distance. It had tried to escape the rains, but couldn't. Again I berated myself for my cowardice and disconnection.

I went to the Mess and returned with some bread. At the time it seemed the only thing I could do. It gladly ate loaves; I fed it by hand as its head lay on the ground. I didn't know what to do further. My cowardice continued. I cannot tell now what I expected the bread to do then. I don't know what I was thinking. The fact that I was doing something radically different, actually feeding the cow rather than ignoring it, and not conforming to everyone else, seemed to overawe me, and I was fighting this deviance as much as I could. Living in denial and not taking any responsibility were striving to correct the empathy I felt and the conformity I desired.

And so the day passed. I did occasionally try to raise it to a sitting position by grabbing its horns and a passer's-by help, but it kept falling back to the recumbent position in a short while, each time. I kept feeding it and giving it water at the regular times. I scraped away the feces with a brick.

I didn't ask anyone else to help (I didn't even know how to help), or what to do. No one seemed to know, or care. I was desperate for someone else to take the responsibility or for the situation to get magically better.

The cow, on the other hand, was pitiful. It was lying out in the open, at the mercy of the elements. Crows had begun to exploit its disability and took liberty to peck at its exposed rear, and the uncovered eye. The cow would periodically struggle on the ground, and the crows would momentarily vacate in surprise, only to return shortly and continue ruthlessly. I still cannot come to terms with the torture that it endured, that I witnessed.

The next day, I continued my half-hearted exercise to assuage my conscience berating me for being a mute witness to its suffering. A few people who happened to pass by, or were at the ground floor of the hostel overlooking the scene, strolled over to inquire about what the problem was and what had to be done. I didn't know any of these answers. They came and went (probably thinking it was none of their business), and I foolishly remained at its side, doing nothing useful in my confusion and supposed help to alleviate its suffering.

Around this time my constant presence by the site attracted the attention of some locals (or Mess workers). I explained the situation to them, asking them what to do, and also some fellow students joined. One thing lead to another, and finally someone from the adjoining town of Thiruverumbur showed up, who we assumed was a doctor (turns out he was a compounder, who takes care of cattle feed or something, I'm not sure). He pulled its legs serially (one leg did not recoil, the leg on which it was resting), and then instructed the small crowd gathered to lift up the cow by the horns, head and tail (we did so) and help it to stand. It couldn't, and the entire weight was on the horns and the tail, leaving it literally hanging. He administered a few injections (no one knew what they were) and left, saying a nerve in a leg was damaged. The way forward was not clear.

What complicated the whole issue was that the Hostel authorities were authorized to remove only dead cows, and so they would do nothing about the issue unless it was dead, and they told us so. Hence it was not possible to keep it out of sight, and subsequently out of mind, since it was in full view of every room in the hostel. It was inescapable.

I continued the same regimen the next day as well, with my usual method of feeding, cleaning and trying to make it sit up. A friend had joined me, someone compelled by a similar problem of conscience, the suffering of the cow, and my solitary attempts to revive it. The day passed without any other notable incident.

I was appalled by the reaction of the rest of the hostel. Were they not feeling it suffering? Is it really possible to ignore something that you see before your eyes every hour? Is it really possible to laugh and play all day and revel in mindless enjoyment despite a constant reminder of suffering? They knew the position of the Hostel authorities. They knew it wasn't going anywhere. I cannot believe that they were not moved by its pain. The helplessness of a creature suffering silently, waiting for death, or help. Turns out, something doesn't even have to be out of sight to be out of mind.

But that's just to show how powerful the mind is. How it is possible to live in denial and insulate yourself from suffering happening right in front of you. Probably they resolved the dissonance by crushing the compassion, and they constantly reminded me that my efforts were pointless and that it was going to die anyway, along with some pathetic beef humour. This only strengthened my resolve.

I came to see what cowards people are. How truly hedonistic we are, ready to take the easy way out, live in denial rather than confront our conscience, if we have one. Lazy and unwilling to give up our sense of security and responsibility-free life of leisure and mindless pursuits, and afraid to deviate from the accepted norm. Some sort of Bystander Effect on a grand scale.

Probably they rectified their mental dissonance by reassuring themselves I was taking care of the situation. Or maybe there wasn't any dissonance to rectify. The obvious suffering probably didn't make a dent in the lives accustomed to meat-eating. I don't know.

Anyway this continued. Apart from some lip-service from hostellers who couldn't say no to my face when I asked them for help, and some passers-by, no one bothered to help or share the responsibility. Some gracious morons took the time out from their pointless (but apparently busy) lives to advise me to kill it, to end its suffering, since they couldn't see it suffer in front of their eyes. What a lovely world that would be, killing all those who suffer.

I couldn't help thinking how these attitudes would change if it was a fellow human being, instead of a cow. Would they advocate euthanasia so effortlessly? What if it were a loved one?

After we realized that the quack who came earlier had no noticeable effect on the cow's health, we began to formalize our approach and think clearly. We decided to call a Vet. We had already tried, of course, but with no enthusiastic response. There were no Animal Rescue outfits in Trichy. Finally we persuaded a Vet, an acquaintance of a friend, to see the animal.

The Vet arrived on the Fifth day (a Sunday). A genuine doctor, but since her expertise was with household pets, just administered some drips and injections, and referred us to another doctor. She was unable to identify the problem.

Meanwhile, I had been doing some online reading, and the symptoms seemed suspiciously like Milk Fever.

A few days later, the referral doctor (a Dr. Ganesan) turned up and hypothesized my diagnosis. He also administered drips - glucose, et al. and some injections. He then left, telling he would return.

He never did. He ignored our calls, and made one excuse after another. This evasive and unfavourable response was a severe blow to our expectations of the prospects of the cow's recovery.

It was at this time that my mind began to comprehend that the cow might not recover. It might have seemed obvious before, but I had never consciously accepted it as a possible outcome. But it was then that I realized it was a turning point. I decided to detach myself from the outcome of my efforts. I decided to commit myself to helping the cow recover by all possible means, and that seemed to satisfy my conscience. The fact that I would try my best, and not give up just because of my lack of mental strength to continue, despite whatever odds.

It was obvious that the cow was suffering on an unimaginable level. Any time it was left alone, crows would swoop down and peck away, eating it alive. As a consequence of lying on one side for so long, one eye had practically sunken in the socket, and the other was bleeding out. Blood oozed from the vagina and anus, and it was infested with flies. A truly pitiable condition.

And so days passed. We continued our efforts at feeding, cleaning and attempting to make it sit. We flipped it over from time to time to allow a uniform circulation of blood. Two other passers-by dining at the neighbouring mess, also volunteered. We continued to try to contact the Vet.

Dr. Ganesan then referred us to another Vet, whom we set about persuading to tend to the cow. He came.

From the outset he informed us the condition was critical and censured us for not acting earlier. This was something that heavily hit home. The cow had developed pneumonia, from the rain and our faulty method of feeding it water, which seeped into the nose and lungs. He administered medicines. Maggots had infested the bleeding rear pecked by the crows. He cleaned these, gave instructions and promised to return. He also told us that if we were serious about the cow's survival, it had to be suspended from a height to allow circulation on all four legs.

And so we did. What seemed an impossible task and to some, a pointless one, considering the trouble involved. We used an adjoining tree, 4 bicycle tyres and rope and a lot of people. Two tyres went around the front, and the others around the rear. The cow hung there, unable to put any weight on its legs and literally hanging on the rope. The tyres cut in the flesh, although we added some padding around the side.

It would struggle to escape the harness and so after a while we would unshackle it and rest it again on the ground, periodically shifting sides. I don't remember the number of times we carried the animal (around 6 of us each time) to and fro.

This continued. The doctor would instruct us to buy medicines beforehand, and he would come and administer them. We asked us to get a mattress or hay bedding for the cow, since it had developed huge bed sores on its side and legs after struggling on the ground on one side for so long. First we tried to make a mud-bed, but somehow finally we got a spare mattress.

The Cycle Tests began. Attending to the cow was a full-time job, and so that didn't leave much time for studying (although due to stroke of luck, a cluster of holidays were interspersed with the exams).

Throughout the week, we continued tending to the cow, moving it, feeding it, cleaning it. Food was not just bread now, it was green vegetables, oil cakes mixed with water and jaggery, glucose, and occasional bananas. Cows really have a liking for jaggery. Preparation of the feed itself took planning, and the execution took time and effort.

Each time the doctor visited, we would ask if the cow would get better, in the most earnest fashion. He would pause, reflect for a while, and say that it could.

I remember wondering if the doctor never gave up hope on his patients, since he refused to accept payment for his visits. But if the doctor was prepared to come all the way for a sick cow in pretty bad shape at his expense, I was not ready to give up hope. As long as the doctor didn't explicitly state it was over, I was ready to do my best.

The bouts of pneumonia worsened, but he never discouraged us. Probably he couldn't find it in him to shatter our eager hopes of its prospects. We administered oral tablets ourselves on his instruction, when he couldn't make it, to relieve the symptoms.

It had now become able to sit up (after we had helped it up), at least for a while. During these periods, it would attempt to stand up several times (before giving up), and that gave us hope. Hope that our efforts would pay off, and this aggrieved soul would finally stand up and walk away, surviving and hopefully forgetting the ordeal.

However, toward the end, it began to lose appetite. The rains were back again, and even though we moved the mattress under shelter, rainwater seeped through, aggravating the pneumonia. We continued to feed, clean and administer medicine, along with suspending it for circulation.

Finally, on Sunday morning, the pneumonia symptoms were back again. Its heart rate was astronomical, and it was visibly breathing heavily. We tended to it all morning and administered medicine. We called the doctor but he was busy elsewhere, and so we frantically followed his instructions.

At noon, not having eaten anything all day, we decided to pause for lunch and get back.

After the fifteen minutes we were gone, we returned to see its lifeless body, finally liberated from suffering.

It was the 18th day.

The death was something so sad, and yet so beautiful. The graceful passing of life.
Its eyes were wide open, staring blankly, and its body was rapidly hardening.

Death is a strange thing, it's very hard to comprehend when it actually comes. The cow, a being which I had come to know as another being, with a character, with likes, and dislikes and a temper, and moods, was gone. There was somehow peace, and some sense of closure. I cannot recollect or relive what I thought then. It is a blank in my memory, as though I was in shock.

We called up the Hostel authorities, and loaded the body onto a tractor. That was the last I saw of it, but the scene remains etched in my memory.

Some things can't be expressed in words. I hope this does some justice to the events that transpired, but I know it cannot express the emotional upheavals that accompanied them. I cannot express the myriad of my  thoughts throughout the 18 day journey of the cow, but it doesn't matter. I cannot express the sense of equality of its life and ours, that evolved by our reaction to suffering. I cannot express its unique character, that I had come to understand, know and empathize with. I cannot express the varied responses of all the people and my reactions to them, one fool who thought cows were sacred, and wanted to move it to a temple, and another (a meat-eater) who came to help purely because he saw me struggling.

If I had acted earlier, ignoring the artificial constructs and barriers that our society in its collective stupidity laid down on my mind, I might have succeeded and the cow might have survived. I don't know. The events of those 18 days shook the foundations of my mindless fantasy-like life, and forced me to come to terms with its brutal reality. It was very difficult to put it in writing in this blog post, because again my mind is afraid to come to terms with and recollect the events that transpired. Trying to escape from the reality.

I don't know why I reacted the way I did to the incident. Or why the cow chose the location behind Pearl as its resting place, in the 800 acre campus of the college.

The exchange between Gandalf and Frodo in the Lord of the Rings seemed oddly prophetic.
Frodo: I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.
Anyway, some things I learnt from this incident, and from the varied reactions of people. Death, pain and suffering put things in a different perspective. People are afraid of thinking. People are afraid of listening to their own voice of conscience. Religion, and god and what not, really have not made man human at all, in fact they have stifled humanity. It is nothing, but a self-placating excuse to assuage the guilt of not acting when your conscience is asking you to. Religion and god allow us to act like indifferent beasts and still feel good about ourselves. They are hedonistic tools purely designed for correcting cognitive dissonances that we have in our mind, by taking the easy way out.

Religion, and god are weaknesses. They do not describe reality, they deny it.



Aravindh Cee said...

Excellent post. I'm glad there are people who beg to differ.

Jessie Kissner said...

What an amazing, eye opening experience, Ram. Glad I finally heard the entire story. You have revealed some uncomfortable realities in life that many people have decided to ignore.
Your last paragraph is interesting, about "God and religion and whatnot".
Do you think someone can be a christian, vegetarian, and veterinarian? In this case, does believing in God really have anything to do with denying reality?

ecthelion said...

@ Aravindh, thanks. Hope there are more.

@ Jessie,
"Do you think someone can be a christian, vegetarian, and veterinarian?"
Of course it's possible. In itself, belief in god is independent of the ethical framework of an individual and does not provide any information about it; Hitler was arguably 2 out of the 3.

However, in any case, belief in god is a denial of reality, although the level of denial varies depending on what your definition of god is (old man in the sky/supernatural force/blah blah). Belief in the existence of god, with no real world evidence, creates a skewed perception of the world not unlike a kid with an imaginary friend. Somehow I read your post as, "can I be a vegetarian, veterinarian, and smoke pot all the time?" I don't know.

The more religious a person, the more disconnected from reality he/she is.
It is possible for a very religious person to be a genuinely conscientious ("good") person, although it's just that I find it unlikely.

Deepak Valagam said...

*guilty and staring at the post*
Wow. Though I wanna appreciate how well this has been written, I just feel myself drenched in shame. Sorry for not helping, man.