February 22, 2020
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Zebras In A Horse And Pony Act

How, one day, the horses brought the media to Annawadi

Zebras In A Horse And Pony Act

Annawadi’s one-time slum boss, Robert Pires, stables nine horses in the slum, on two of which he paints stripes, using Garnier Nutrisse hair dye, to rent them out as zebras at middle-class children’s birthday parties. Boo’s book describes how, one day, the horses bring the media to Annawadi:

Suddenly, Annawadi was in the news.

The proximate cause was a cheerful, if illegal, June tradition—a Sunday afternoon horse-and-carriage race on the gleaming Western Express Highway. Small bets were placed, and people lined the highway to watch.

The deposed slumlord, Robert the Zebra Man, was running two of his horses harnessed to an undermaintained carriage, freshly painted red and blue. Late in the race, as the pretty cart reached the crest of an overpass, one of its wheels rolled away. The carriage veered, harnesses broke, and the unnerved horses plunged off the bridge. A newspaper photographer was on hand to capture their grisly landing on the road below. And so began a campaign to find and penalise the horses’ negligent owner—Robert having fled the scene, leaving only a false address behind.

Public outrage built and newspaper headlines multiplied. “On the Dead Horse Trail: An Exclusive Investigation”. “Minutes After Horses’ Death, Cops Knew About It; No Case Even Now!” “Exclusive! Where the Two Horses Lived Before Their Painful Death.”

One day, Sunil, Mirchi and other children watched as activists from a group called the Plant & Animals Welfare Society, or paws, brought in the media and representatives of the city’s Animal Welfare League for a “raid” on Robert’s horse shed. Several horses were determined to be malnourished. Cuts and sores were found on painted zebras. The Animal Welfare League spirited the neediest of the beasts to a therapeutic horse farm. “Horses Rescued!” was the headline of the following day.

The persistent activists then turned their attention to Robert’s prosecution. The officers at the Sahar station, having enjoyed a long, mutually profitable relationship with the former slumlord, declined to register a charge of cruelty to animals (“Culprit Goes Scot-Free!”). So the animal-rights group delivered its photographic evidence to the commissioner of the Mumbai Police. Finally, the former slumlord and his wife were charged under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act for failing to provide adequate food, water, and shelter to their four-legged charges.

The forces of justice had finally come to Annawadi. That the beneficiaries were horses was a source of bemusement to Sunil and the road boys. They weren’t thinking about the uninvestigated deaths of Kalu and Sanjay. Annawadi boys broadly accepted the basic truths: that in a modernising, increasingly prosperous city, their lives were embarrassments best confined to small spaces, and their deaths would not matter at all. The boys were simply puzzled by the fuss, since they considered Robert’s horses the luckiest and most lovingly tended creatures in the slum.

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