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Animal stories

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WAR AND DONKEYS AND HORSES

I was a cold winter morning, and still not light. Steam came from Ashok’s mouth, and he rubbed his hands together. He wore a knitted beanie and he jigged up and down, as he gave instructions to Shiv, the compounder, and the Driver, to load the vehicle. Ashok was the vet in charge of the HIs/Brooke collaborative project to help the equines of Jaipur. His team left our shelter at 6.30 four days a week with the mobile clinic to visit set locations all over the city where working horses, ponies and donkeys were congregated.

When all the medicines, books or records and saddlery was neatly stacked in the racks and drawers at the back of the van, we were ready to leave. We drove through the mist. Ashok was shivering. He was used to the extreme heat of this desert climate, and when the winter temperature dropped, he found it most uncomfortable. For me, it was a welcome a respite from the endless and relentless oven-like hotness which seemed to cook and curdle your guts.

Our first destination was Purani Busty, which could roughly be translated as ‘old living area’. It was a suburb of small, cement and stone flat-roofed dwellings, built wall to wall, with narrow unpaved roads between. Driverji parked the vehicle near to a small park. Here there were still some standing trees, a small miracle in such a poor and over-populated area. At the edge of this park a large water tank had been built, bearing the words BHA/HIS It was full to the brim of sweet clean water, and groups of donkeys were congregated around it, drinking.

‘There are over 150 donkeys working in this area,’ Ashok said to me, as Shiv and Driverji began to set up table and chairs, record books, and boxes of medicines. Already a small group of patients was gathering.

Not far away was a large rubbish heap which seemed to consist mainly of plastic bags and rotten food. On this rubbish heaps not only dogs, donkeys, pigs and cattle were grazing, but also a man rummaged through the contents. Above this ancient scene like a theatre backdrop, as if to remind us of the timelessness of India, towered the cliffs of the great Rajput fort which had been built so many centuries ago to protect the inhabitants of the city. The donkeys milling beneath, the quarreling dogs, and the shivering children staring with large eyes, the great black bull strolling stiffly along the road, the pheriwala selling balloons, already blown up and fixed, bulbous and pink, on the end of a long stick, perhaps because it was New Years’ Eve, all this seemed like a scene in an endless chain of flickering images which had presided, and which would preside despite whatever wars or famines or plagues might come or go.

Among the milling flocks of donkeys were various men, thin, dark, dressed in jumpers with holes, and beanies with patches, and old trousers, and shoes with cracks. These men were the owners of the teams of animals, which they used to earn their daily income. Each donkey was furnished with a pitiful array of tattered cloth, fixed to its back by straps under the girth and under the tail. Tightly woven plastic sacks, once used for marketing cement, were now serving a different purpose. Balanced on both sides of the donkeys’ backs, the sacks contained piles of building materials such as stone, brick or rubble. These teams of animals and their owners worked as they had done for hundreds of years. Tractors and earth-moving equipment was of no use in these narrow streets. It was fortunate that tradition still prevailed, for as long as the donkeys were healthy, this poor community could continue to earn a modest income.

I watched a man stroking the neck of his donkey. It had been decorated with a design of henna, so that there were red swirls over its coat.

‘He loves it,’ I said to Ashok, ‘And all the donkeys here look so fat and healthy too.’

‘When we first came, the donkeys were so poor, you could not believe. There was so much bone, and so much sores from their bad harness. They used plastic string under the tail and under the girth. They were so thin and hungry. Now look. They are very healthy.’

‘It’s two and a half years since you first started here?’ I asked him.

‘Yes,’ he said. He was one of those thin active people who was aways moving, always positive, always joking, even when events seemed overpowering difficult. He rubbed his hands together. ‘See how they have learnt.’

He began to examine his first patient. The owner complained that the donkey was lame. Ashok addressed him in Rajasthani, calling him respectfully, uncle, and using the polite form of ‘you’, when asking him how long the donkey had been lame.

Without even being asked, Shiv produced a folded cotton bag, in which were neatly arranged in pouches a number of hoof tools. From this he produced a sharp picking knife with a wooden handle, and he began to cut away the dead hoof and tissue underneath the foot. The donkey tried to rear and kick, but its owner held it firmly. It was only the size of a calf, with fluffy grey hair and long black ears. Its smallness and its herbivorous nervousness, its black eyes, its tiny muzzle, made it extremely appealing. In this area all the donkeys were small, although their colour varied from a light grey, to dark brown and even black.

After the necrotic tissue had been cut from the tiny hoof, Ashok asked Driverji to pass him the hoof squeezers. They were like a large pair of tongs, and as he gently pressed, a jet of yellow puss burst from the hoof and squirted into the air. The donkey remained still, and indeed, began to agitate much more when he was given the command to stand with his hoof in a bucket of betadine solution for ten minutes.

‘You see, we have got rid of the harness sores. We have distrubuted many harnesses,’ Ashok said, ‘But we cannot prevent the occupational hazards. This donkey eats the rubbish and so the wire and the glass can cut his feet. When the cut becomes infected, it turns into an abscess.’

‘Will this man rest the donkey?’

‘He will rest,’ Ashok replied, turning his head sideways as acknowledgement.

The next donkey to be presented had a string of green, semi-hardened mucous swinging from its nostrils. I was drinking a small cup of sweetened, milky spicey tea, brought to us by the chai-walla in a wire framed carrier in which the slightly dirty glasses were suspended, but when I saw the stream of slime hanging from the donkey’s nose I was unable to finish the tea.

‘Strangles,’ Ashok said. Without any repulsion, he began to clean the nostrils with wads of cotton wool. Then he felt under the neck of the donkey. ‘The glands can become so swollen that the donkey will choke.’

‘Will he be alright?’ I asked, looking at the anxious owner.

‘He will be alright,’ Ashok affirmed. He was full of confidence as he moved from animal to animal, feeling here, pressing there. I stood, feeling as though I was an apparition from a mistaken century, that I was in a dislodged time.

Further up the road, two donkeys were fighting. One was chasing the other, and they reared, biting and kicking. On the rubbish heap, a male donkey was trying to mate with a female who repeatedly and vigorously kicked him with squeals of fury.

‘The donkeys are being very naughty today,’ Ashok said, ‘Because yesterday was a holiday, and if they rest for even one day, they become very frisky.’ We laughed.

There was a small boy who came leading a tiny donkey with hoofs like a toy. Among the many donkeys, it was the only one which was bridled with a bit. The boy stood watching us for a while. He had thin legs and bare feet. His shorts came to his knees and were tattered and stained on the backside with black tar. He wore a rag-like jumper of holes.

I had a loaf of sliced bread in the car, and gave a piece to the donkey. The boy smiled, and hung on the neck of his little friend proudly. And then I felt a certain sense of shame, that I had given the bread to the donkey and not to the boy, so I handed him the packet. He smiled, and held it proudly. And yet we were giving them bread by helping their beasts in this way. For without the health of their donkeys, they would not be abe to earn any income. And I was proud that we could come among them, and be with them, and be the same as them, and be working for the same goal, which was the health of the animals who gave us life and who gave us civilisation.

And after Ashok and Shiv and Driverji had treated twenty donkeys, and after Ashok had distributed certain minerals and tablets to some of them, and after they had gruffly accepted the treatment, but had not at all said thank-you, because it was not their way, the vehicle was re-packed with the medicines and other equipment, and we left that place, and we left the donkeys, which were leaving in teams, mustered by their human owners, and which were going to work through the long day, without rest.

‘’We’re going to Chommu now,’ Ashok said, ‘It’s about thirty kilometres from here, and there’s a fort, and a number of tonga horses.’

We drove West, along the Bikaner Road, which led to the border between Pakistan and India. Convoys of huge kharki army lorries were moving along the road in the same direction as us. They were carrying massive tanks and war machinery.

There were army camps of tents and soldiers alone the sides of the roads, and there were men everywhere repairing and resurfacing the road, for, like most Indian roads it was potholed and bumpy.

And India was on the brink of war, not a war of Turbaned Rajputs with elephants and desert horses, and swords, nor a war between forts with spiked wooden ramps, but a war of nuclear missiles and tanks and armed soldiers. Only a couple of weeks previously Parliament House in Delhi had been attacked by a group of terrorists and seven people had been killed. India had blamed Pakistan for harbouring the terrorists and called for their immediate arrest. Pakistan accused India of inventing a story that it was Pakistani terrorists, and demanded to see the proof. India began to amass her troups along the borders. International diplomacy went into full swing.

Every day had been filled with an underlying sense of tension, of submerged awareness, a sense of suspressed dread. Arjun said that all his family had been moved from his village near the border by army trucks. The government was paying for them to be relocated to Jodhpur.

‘Larai hoga,’ he said. ‘War will be.’

We could only continue to do our work and to hope that the dreadful possibility would not eventuate, that some accidental border skirmish would not result in a chain of events which exploded into full-scale war. When the USA had been assaulted by terrorists, the Bush administration had bombed Afghanistan into the ground, and Israel had done likewise with the Palestinians. Did India have a similar strategy? We could not know. We read the papers, watched the television, heard the Prime Minister warning that India should be prepared for anything.

But now we were here on this dusty road, with its rubble and mess of poorly constructed cement ugliness, its shops and houses, a total absence of trees, birds or water, and we travelled West, and we saw the trucks, as the moved alng the roads, great, and ominous and going forwards to the border.

And when we came to Chomu there was an ancient fort which was now a fading hotel, with weather-beaten parapets and walls, with stone-carved windows and balconies, and painted verandahs, and a great stone-flagged courtyard, and dusty grounds which had once been full of garden and green, but now were just sandy earth.

And outside the fort there were the working horses. They were tall and thin, and they stood so that one leg was resting, fixed to their tongas, while their owners awaited customers.

Again the Brooke team produced from the depths of the vehicle all the necessary implements and medicines required for treatment. Again Ashok rubbed his hands with enthusiasm as his first customer appeared.

It was a tall and extremely thin horse, with a haunted eye. The owner said that in the past week the horse had lost her appetite. Ashok took her temperature by inserting a thermometer into the rectum. The horse stood quietly without protest. Then he felt her body, and asked more questions of the owner. Producing a plastic tube, he shook some white powder into it, and said, ‘I’m going to take a blood sample. I think this horse has babesiosis, but I will check to be sure.’

Babesiosis is a tick-borne parasite. Before the Brooke team had begun work in Jaipur and environs, its presence in the equines had not been identified. The streets were full of pathetically thin and weak horses that were being constantly whipped and beaten to force them to pull the carts. Babeisosis causes destruction of the red and white blood cells. Oxygen cannot be carried properly round the body and distributed to the various organs and the immune system of the animal fails to function, the appetite is lost and the health of the horse rapidly declines.

The Brooke team discovered that, with the use of injectable Imazol the parasite could be killed and the horse would slowly regain its health.

‘I will give imazol now,’ Ashok said, ‘Because I am fairly sure this is babesiosis and it’s important to catch it early.’ Then he explained to the owner that he would return next week with the result of the blood test, and, if the horse did indeed have babesiosis, he would give a second shot of imazol. He deftly injected the horse by first rubbing its rump with spirit, and then swiftly sticking the needle into the site. After this, he attached the syringe to the needle, and injected vitamin B complex and also an antibiotic to deal with secondary infections. The horse stood obediently without so much as a nicker of objection. The owner held her fondly, one hand on her neck as if to assure her.

Then we looked and we saw a horse come hobbling towards us. It seemed to be unable to put its back legs properly onto the ground. Its stomach was tucked up under it in an arch. It was pitifully thin, and its withered genitals swung from the tight, starved, muscular body.

‘Oh golly, what’s the problem with this horse?’

Ashok began to shout at the man, with a summonsed authority.

He was speaking in Rajasthani, not Hindi, and I could not understand him at all.

‘What has happened?’ I asked. ‘Is the horse lame?’

‘He is not lame. He is burnt. This man has burnt his horse. He threw oil on his flanks and then burnt him. See.’

I looked at the hips of the horses. On both sides right to the tail, there were massive, fluid, white puffy marks, blistering and swollen and weeping under the hair.

‘All this skin will slough off,’ Ashok said.

‘The horse is in agony,’ I said, watching it shift from one leg to another. It was actually standing on the tips of its back hooves, as though on tip-toe, and now I knew why it was carrying itself in such a strange, hunched position.

‘How could they do this?’ I said, but even as I spoke I knew that it was a traditional method, used to supposedly heal all manner of illnesses, from broken bones, to twisted limbs, to rheumatic joints.

‘This man bought this horse from a fair for Rs.3000, which was a very cheap price and he thought if he burnt it he might be able to heal its injured hip,’ Ashok said. ‘I have shouted at him and he has promised me never to do this thing again. In the meantime I will give this horse anti-inflamatories, pain-killers, and antibiotics.’

The horse was in so much pain that it hardly flinched as Ashok administered the injections into its shoulder. He gave the owner various medicines which were to be administered over the next five days until he returned to inspect it again the following week.

After nine horses had been treated it was time for us to leave. The equipment was rapidly returned to its assigned place in the rear or the vehicle. We drove slowly down the lane towards the main road. As we did so, a man waved us down. He was a tall and graceful Rajasthani villager, with white dhoti and shirt, a red turban, and a face with high cheekbones and dark brown eyes.

Ashok asked the driver to stop the vehicle, and said to me, ‘This man has ridden 20 kilometres to ask me about his horse.’

We climbed from the vehicle and I was confronted by the most magnificent and royal creature that I had ever witnessed. There were many grand and imposing animals over al the earth, elephants, and huge bulls, and dogs which knew everything, and camels which towered above you, but of all the beasts I had ever seen, this horse was more and greater.

At first I thought she was a stallion, because her neck was so thick and so arched, and her nostrils were so flared, and her eyes were so deep. Her body was as enormous as a draught horse, yet the bones and limbs were finer. She was gigantic in form and in stature and in presence, and yet the gentleness of her being was overwhelmingly preponderant.

‘What an incredible horse,’ I said to Ashok. I was so excited I could hardly speak. I felt that I was in the presence of a God. I felt that contained within that absolute power of form was an absolute power of psyche. Total force, total energy, total ability had been refined to such a degree that the bearer of this inner light was as humble and modest as a small child.

‘She does many tricks,’ the man said. Giving a command in Rajasthani, he threw his whip to the ground. The horse reluctantly nibbled at it, and after continued urgings, picked it up in her mouth and handed it to me. I was over-awed as this great, huge, enormous head of equine lordliness, bent itself before me.

But even more was to come. The owner shouted another command and the horse went down on its front legs, kneeling before me, its head bowed. It was almost too much to bear, that this Lord of the Animals should bow before me. I asked the man to please allow his horse to rise. And then he patted the horse on her vast neck, and I was able to touch her forehead, and her nostrils and nose, and to murmur a prayer of thanksgiving, that such a thing could grace the earth, and that such a being could have appeared in flesh before me, and that I should have been there at that moment, to see and to witness and to touch.

And, as I stood back, the horse swung her face towards me, her head lowered, her neck arched, and her eyes intently staring straight at my eyes, so that we were staring at each other. And I thought she would be like other animals, and that she would look away, but she continued to stare, and her ears were so long, and they grew from her forehead like two curled leaves, and they scanned the air, as though they were reading imprints and ultrasonic messages, and her eyes continued to receive data and to stare at me fixedly, and there was a streaming between us, and I was utterly and totally transformed by the endless, bottomless gaze, and I knew it was not a horse, but a summary of everything that contained glory. And there was no word in me which could ever explain the majesty of this animal.

And then the owner patted her, and she stopped looking at me, and Ashok spoke to him, and then he led his horse away, and I saw her go, and I watched, and I wanted to go with her, and to be her disciple, and to sleep in her stable and to never leave her side. And as we drove back I could think of nothing else, and I said to Ashok, where did she come from?

And he said this man had bought her very cheaply at the horse fair for 6000 rupees because he was a very poor man, but he had loved her face. And then he had brought the horse to Ashok, and Ashok had diagnosed babesiosis. And then slowly, her thin, wracked figure had turned into the tractor of power, and she had become this great tank of muscle, and the man was eternally grateful. And because of the horse, he had become a wealthy man, for he hired her for weddings, when the bridegroom rides a steed to the marriage, and now the horse was worth 70,000 rupees but he would not sell the horse, because he loved her too much, and the horse loved him. And because of this story, and because of seeing this horse, I thought that there would not be a war, because the horse contained all power and all rulership, and kingship, and magic, and was all steeds in one body, and the condensation of equine perfection, and I was humming and singing inside myself, because of the horse.

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