January 17, 2020
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Animal Passions

The original kutta-billi activist was Crystal Rogers, the indefatigable founder of CUPA

Animal Passions
Mad Dogs And An Englishwoman
By Crystal Rogers
Penguin Books Rs 250, Pages: 186
The autobiography of Crystal Rogers tells the story of an amazing woman who lived and cared for animals and their suffering. Deftly edited and dramatised by individuals chosen by the Bangalore-based Compassion Unlimited Plus Action (CUPA) from Ms Rogers' scattered papers and writings, its pages bring us many vignettes. There is Constance, the abandoned bitch, Danny the donkey, Kaka the crow, Alfred the flying fox-and of course Crystal Rogers' struggles against the Indian bureaucracy, entrenched interests and strange, semi-mystical powers. The bottomline is quite clear: Indians found the 'pagal memsahib' and her crusade a trifle quirky.

However, unwilling to concede that Indians are inherently cruel to animals Ms Rogers believed that the material circumstances of their lives led them to certain actions, or inaction as the case may be. "I tried to unravel why there was so much indifference towards animal and human suffering in this country of pacifism and compassion," she mused, concluding that people became immune to the everydayness of misery. She vowed then to "shake people out of their slumber and insensitivity".

The early pages of Crystal's life speak about her relationship with a Royal Air Force officer whom she met in 1942 when she was an ambulance driver at an Air Force base in England. She delicately traced the pattern of her love for Jim in genteel innuendoes and when he was killed in action, a heart-broken Crystal made her way to spiritualists and clairvoyants. She sustained her interest in mediums and seances throughout her life, returning to this rather eerie form of comfort often while in India. It was not as though any well-thought out plan brought her to this country in 1958-as she commented, she did not know whether it was the overladen tonga horse or maimed pie dog which changed her life irrevocably. In no time, what was to be a stopover en route to New Zealand (to which she was emigrating) became the locale for a lifetime's commitment.

Born in 1906, Crystal lived briefly in India as a child, the only daughter of a Colonel in the Gurkhas. She died in 1996 in Bangalore after over 40 years in India during which she set up The Animals' Friend (TAF) in Delhi, Help in Suffering (his) in Jaipur and finally CUPA in Bangalore. The Animals' Friend was established in 1959 and soon Crystal was working from her Nizamuddin barsati, employing an autorickshaw with a wire basket to carry wounded and deserted animals to the first shelter in Mehrauli. However, it was not long before the shelter had to move-its proximity to a Mughal tomb attracted the ire of the local Muslim population. Objects began mysteriously flying, a helper fell into a trance, and a visiting Dutch clairvoyant urged her to leave. Moving across the city, The Animals' Friend found a home in an orchard near Azadpur.

Twenty years after she had established it, Crystal decided to contest for the post of president in order to quell growing factionalism. She lost to the sitting incumbent and left; she realised that she would be marginalised in an organisation where a clique was in favour of the paying proposition of setting up kennels for pedigreed dogs rather than concentrating on its basic work of providing shelter for homeless and injured animals and birds.

Soon after, the doughty 70-year-old arrived in Jaipur and established Help in Suffering. As the usual internecine squabbles broke out, Crystal packed her bags for Bangalore where she set up CUPA. Reflecting that "change, displacement and uprooting becomes a way of life", Crystal had no regrets: while "people floated in and out of my life like wraiths", her capacity to leave distanced her from unhappy memories and bitter past.

This is an immensely readable book that takes us through the praxis of compassion and of doing a job competently while not compromising on fundamental ethical principles.

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