The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Yann Martel in his delightfully readable book, Life of Pi, expresses the opinion that animals in well-maintained zoos are much better-off, healthier and live longer lives than animals in the wild. His arguments make good sense. In the wild, carnivores live off herbivores. All animals are very vulnerable when newly born and unable to run away to safety with their parents or herds. Predators who live by hunting often go without food for many days and some die of hunger or thirst. This does not happen in zoos. Animals are provided with food of their liking at fixed hours in their enclosures, as guests in a hotel get room service. Neither they nor their young ones are at the mercy of predators. Whereas rates of infant mortality are very high in the wild, infant mortality is zero or insignificant in zoos. In the wild, male animals battle with each other to acquire females and frequently suffer serious injuries which maim them for life. In zoos, females are provided to males, and vice versa, so they can procreate without rivals intruding on their private lives. In the wild, animals with serious injuries have no recourse to medical aid and usually end up being eaten by others. Well-kept zoos have vets who keep animals in good health till they die peaceful deaths. It can be established that given the choice of living in freedom in the wild or living in security provided by zoos, all animals opt for the latter. This is proved by the fact that when some animal or bird escapes from a zoo, it runs around for a while and then of its own, comes back to its enclosure where it is assured security from the dangers of living in freedom.

What about humans' All said and done, we are also animals. We differ from other species of life in that we can think better because we have bigger brains and convert our thinking into speech. And we talk a lot of the virtues of freedom to live as we like and say what comes to our minds. Not many of us have experienced the security provided by well-kept jails. You don’t have to worry about where your next meal will come from: it is provided free of charge by your jailors. You don’t have to worry about your property or business. In jail you don’t have to worry about murders or robberies. You are provided with suitable clothing, given time to exercise, and after finishing the chores assigned to you, are free to socialize with other inmates, play games or read books. When you fall sick, there is a doctor at your beck and call, and the prison hospital to nurse you back to good health. Medical services and medicines are also free. The only thing missing in all jails are outlets for healthy sex. I am sure that in the very near future, wives or girlfriends will be allowed to visit their husbands, boyfriends in jail and cater to their needs. Make your own balance sheet. On the credit side of time in jail is total security and provision for the essentials of life. On the debit side is the inability to go where you like, being denied the company of your relations and cronies. But thrown with them is the struggle for existence, enemies and the general hurly burly of so-called civilized existence. Which world do you choose' And why'

Solitude is bliss

My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle. But unlike the days of the long-suffering Job of the Old Testament who was perfect and upright, feared God and eschewed evil, mine are not spent without hope. I have long sleep and get up much later than I do when I am in Delhi. I am woken by the sun streaming through my eastern window, the cawing of hill crows or a monkey scampering over my tin roof. I take a deep breath and fill my nostrils with the fragrance of honeysuckle which grows about the walls of my little villa. O you dwellers of cities who rise to the phut phut of three-wheelers or the raucus blasts of bus horns, come to the mountains! Here you will meet no enemies but balmy weather you will not fill your lungs with vapours of petrol or diesel but life-giving ozone distilled from the skies, pines, cedars and hemlock. My days begin with hope; I will be able to scribble a few lines which people may find readable; yours begin with despair to get through your daily chores. You have to interact with noisy people; I enjoy the bliss of solitude.

One great advantage of being all alone over a long period of time is you don’t get stressed out by too many visitors. In Delhi they come in incessant stream and outstay their welcome. There are times my nerves get frayed and I want to scream, “Get out all of you. I want to be left alone.” When you are actually left alone for a long time you look forward to someone dropping in to exchange a little gossip. It is best to create a reputation that you can’t stand people for too long. Locals know it. They ring up before they come. My neighbours, the Chooramanis, are a stand-by whenever I’ve had my fill of solitude. Guptaji, the storewallah, Kuldip Munshi and his father visit me only once during my stay, S.C. Prasher, retired commissioner of income tax, has no small talk and is forever weighed down by the problems of existence: where do we come from' Why' Where do we go' He visits me twice during my stay. So do the Siddhus, Poonam and Karan, both in the IAS. She comes loaded with exotic food which lasts me a week. I don’t have a proper cook, so their visits are doubly welcome. This time Poonam brought her parents, a retired Colonel and an attractive housewife with views of her own. What they left behind would take care of me for the rest of my stay. A few are strangers, nervous of reception they will get. Ruchi Gupta of Parwanoo and a student of Ayurveda said bluntly, “I am told you don’t like people; I just wanted to say namastey.” She refused to sit down. A young man from a neighbouring village wanted my advice. “I want to be a journalist. I write poems and letters to the editor, but they never get published. What should I do'”

“Don’t write poetry or send letters to the editor. There is no future in journalism,” I told him. Two other visitors I welcomed were Manmohan Kohli, who owns Aroma Hotel, Chandigarh, and his wife Ritu, who is a professor of psychology at the Government College. He talks well. she looks better — fair, strappingly good-looking sardarni. They saved me from living on packet soups and tinned food for three days.

In don’t get much work done because nature provides too many distractions. There is much activity round my two bird-baths. I have put them up for birds to slake their thirst; they treat them like bathing pools, splash water and preen themselves right under my nose. Stray dogs, rhesus monkeys and langoors come in groups and drink up whatever remains. Every evening I have to refill the bird-baths so that I can see them enjoy themselves. Before I know, the sun dips down over the western horizon and shades of the evening take me in their embrace, swarms of mosquitoes force me to turn in.

The day is over. I have done little to show for it. However, I am not stricken with a guilty conscience. “All work is vanity,” says the Holy Book. “So why bother'” So my evening prayer: “I will lay me down in peace, and take my rest.” Drugged by the fresh mountain air and having made terms with my conscience, I sleep the sleep of the just. You can only get it if you learn to live in solitude.

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