The Urban Milieu
by Vidya Vasudevan

“Street dog turns savior. Dog which saved child from being run over by car dies despite best treatment,”

ran the headline in the local tabloid.

Just returning from a visit to the local zoo, which offered animals the assurance of meeting their basic needs, medical attention plus security, my thoughts flew to the situation of animals in a different setting, a perilous urban setting with its rapidly paced life and relentless struggle for survival amidst rampant exploitation.

The school was located amidst a not-so-dense forest, one of the last remaining patches of green, within the city limits. The children waited in a long line for the morning assembly to commence. Just above their head, a troop of monkeys atop the banyan tree swung from branch to branch, chattering by the dozen. Were they discussing the day’s news read by one of the pupils?

Another monkey sat on the window ledge abutting the classroom. Was he listening? The children giggled. Chemistry was boring but the monkey seemed interested. Simultaneously, he was learning mechanics, trying to figure out how to unscrew the cap of a bottle he had found.

The little girl in pigtails on the corridor munching a cookie at break time looked back. A soft eyed, spotted fawn followed her with a mournful look. He tugged at her skirt. Turing around to pat his lil’ head, she shared her snack, amused by his persistence.

At the shopping centre located in the forested area, the clock struck 2 pm and the troop arrived on the dot. There stood the fruit and vegetable truck waiting to be unloaded. They waited eagerly, their hungry eyes and long legs, ready for action. The minute the driver left the truck, the simians climbed in ready to grab a tasty bite, only to be chased away by men with sticks. A sly one scrambled off clutching a huge bottle gourd. Shoppers returning with purchases looked around warily anticipating trouble. Some had their bags snatched away and watched helplessly as the culprit drank mango juice from a carton, while another ran up the tree with a roll of cream cookies.

A huge, tame looking stag, showing off his aesthetically designed antlers, wandered in and out of the shopping centre. His target was the big sack containing vegetable and fruit waste placed in a corner waiting to be carted off by the garbage truck.

Moving out onto the road, I spotted a stray dog wagging his tail at the customers at a roadside eatery. He jumped up eager to grab the tidbits offered. Witnessing this was a scrawny tabby on the wall. Her gaze fell on the notice board displayed outside. Was there fish on the menu? A Golden Retriever walking beside his master, held by a leash, looked down upon the street dog as if to say, ‘you are beneath me’.

Ahead on the road loomed a traffic jam. What was the cause? There, standing tall and proud, in the middle of the road, was a gaily decorated horse ready to carry the bridegroom as part of the wedding festivities. He was an old hand, adept at negotiating the long line of traffic. A group of kids, craning their necks through the bus window for a glimpse of the galloping hero, squealed in delight. The disgruntled cop, his hands up in despair, glared at the four legged creature for enjoying the attention. A far cry indeed from those gentle ponies offering soothing rides to kids on the beach.

Another sweaty creature, caught in this melee was the bullock, almost tempted to run away with his cart. He looked around but there was not an inch of space to move.

Finally, with the traffic clearing, we moved ahead only to be stopped by a herd of buffaloes indulging in a catwalk of sorts, down the road, with the desperate owner trying to shoo them away to the side. A trio of bleating goats lifted their legs to brace themselves against the wall, trying to reach the ‘greens’ hanging from a basket on the vendor’s shelf.

Alighting from the vehicle, we had to work our way through a few stray cows relaxing on the pavement swishing their tails, chewing the cud. Siesta time was nearing.

Other occasional sightings include the lone elephant carrying the mahout (handler), stopping whenever a crowd gathered, and lifting his trunk to offer blessings in return for coconuts and bananas. The sight of the washerwoman’s donkey bedeviled by the huge bundles on his back and trucks carrying cattle tightly packed together like sardines meant for the abattoir also form an inevitable part of the city scene.

Good tidings to you! This would be the loud call of a gaudily dressed fortune teller, shaking his Damru (a two headed drum) at our doorstep offering to foretell the family’s future for a fee. He would be accompanied by his decorated bull, emitting a jangling sound every time it shook its head, thanks to small bells tied to its horns. From the smallest to the eldest, every member of the family, would crowd around him, never mind, whether or not his predictions came true. His tame bull was the focus of attraction.

It seems to me that all these creatures have adjusted well to the madcap urban life. And so they carry on, along with Homo sapiens, in today’s urban jungles, some cosseted, others less fortunate, striving to make the best of their current habitat, be it chaotic or luxurious.