The Creatures of Delhi

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One of Delhi’s many surprises for us over the first few days of our explorations has been the density and diversity of its animal life. Creatures of all shapes, sizes, and species line the city streets. It is amazing that so many animals manage to survive in this area: Delhi is crowded, busy, and utterly ruthless toward any vulnerable or helpless creature. And yet here they are—a still lower caste of Delhi’s impoverished underside.

As in many international cities, there are plenty of gangs of stray dogs and a few stray cats along the road. The dogs of Delhi are particularly dirty and downtrodden. I highly doubt there is anything like a humane society in India. After all, the first task of anyone attempting to be humane is serving the masses of urban poor, whose lot is hardly better than these dogs.

I knew that there were plenty of cows to be seen in India, but I didn’t expect them to hang out in the city. I was rather shocked to see my first Indian cow from a car window. She stood in the median, not three feet away. I probably could have unrolled my window and punched her in the nose.

She looked at me, and I looked at her.

Then a beggar pedaling magazines in stopped traffic noticed that I was looking out the window. He immediately descended, trying to desperately convince me through half an inch of glass that certainly the latest issue of Vogue or People was more interesting than a cow standing in the median.

We’ve seen some other typically rural animal life in the city, all confused and out-of-place: a flock of goats outside of a tent city, a young pig sitting by a washbucket on the side of the road, an autorickshaw carrying crates full of scruffy and annoyed-looking chickens.

The cows definitely have it best of the lot. They are all clean, well-fed, and protected by militia law. I’m told that if you hit a cow that is crossing the road, you need to immediately leave the area and seek shelter in the nearest police station. If you stay at the scene, you are likely to be lynched. (Why did the cow cross the road, you may ask? Probably because it is the only creature that can venture into Delhi traffic without fear of being flattened.)

Monkeys are a new experience for us. We are titillated every time we see one. They, on the other hand, look quite unconvinced about this whole “city” business, and are especially unwilling to put on a show for a couple of gawking tourists.

We saw our first on Parliament Street, perched nonchalantly on the narrow third floor landing of the building across the street. He looked more than a little perturbed at the absence of jungle. We stood staring for as long as we could. Sarah almost even got a picture off. But you can only stand still for so long in Delhi before you are crushed by a mob of beggars, touts, and strangers offering “friendly advice” that will almost certainly leave the wallet a few ounces lighter.

Later we saw a whole gang of monkeys sitting at a bus stop through a car window. They looked rather bored. One of them had found a bag of Cheetos and was munching away. I wonder if they get reduced fare.

The avian life is fabulous, which isn’t a surprise. Living in Delhi is probably a lot more manageable if you can fly. On my jetlagged sleep schedule, I’ve been waking up well before dawn every morning, so I have had the rare pleasure of hearing the city wake up. Despite the density of human life, the first noises of day are the calls of birds. It starts with the murderous cawing of crows at about five-thirty, then an energetic chirping follows at about six, and then at around six thirty a bird whose song is much like our beloved little cockatiel back in the States.

Unfortunately, by about seven, (and certainly by the time we venture forth from our room) the birds have all hidden away, and their songs are lost in amongst the horn calls of cars along the packed motorways.

We’ve seen a couple of little birds: a fluffy snow bird that looks (and moves) like a cross between a pigeon and a rabbit; some green, parrot like birds, and, of course, hordes of pigeons. They all seem to congregate along the roundabouts, where the ground is literally covered with birdseed. I wonder if this is a grassroots pigeon feeding movement, or if the city is trying to control where they poop by determining where they eat.

The other day, we visited the Delhi Brotherhood Society, a Church of North India monastery with roots in the Anglican tradition. Monasteries, of course, are famous for their care for the poor and the helpless. In addition to their fantastic social service missions, they’ve also taken in a few pets. They had the first well-fed, happy looking dogs we’ve seen since we’ve arrived in India.

Fr. Daniel was kind enough to give us his sociological interpretation of animals in Indian communities. “You can always tell what the predominant community is by the sorts of animals that are wandering around,” he told us. “If it is a Hindu community, you see many cows. If it is Muslim, there are goats, and sheep. If it is Dalit [untouchable] there are pigs. And the Christians have dogs.

“Of course, it is for different reasons that you see these animals. Hindus have many cows because they are holy. Muslims: they keep goats and sheep so that they can slaughter and eat them. (Eid is coming, and many of these poor animals will be no more.) Dalits also eat the pigs. And Christians: Christians have dogs, because the Britishers liked dogs, and they were evangelized by the Britishers. So we like dogs too.”

Fr. Daniel is quite an entertainer. We were all splitting with laughter as he described these community animals.

He went on. “You know, I have looked in the Bible to see why Christians like dogs so much. And you know what? Every single reference is negative. The Lord says ‘Do not throw your pearls to the dogs.’ Paul says, ‘Beware of dogs.’ And in Revelation, the list of people entering the lake of fire includes the prostitutes, the dogs, and thieves. It is a good thing we do not take our Bible too literally.”

Certainly it is. For if there is one place that Christian mercy is needed far more urgently than squabbles over Biblical interpretation, it is Delhi.

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