Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Parsis, vultures, cows and dogs

Sooni Taraporevala's Little Zizou is a charming tale of two intricately connected Parsi families, the Khodaijis and the Pressvalas. The youngest Khodaiji, Xerxes, sees in Roxanne Pressvala a substitute for his own dead mother, to the annoyance of Liana, the Pressvalas' younger daughter. Liana's older sister Zenobia, meanwhile, is an unreachable object of desire for Xerxes's brother, Artaxerxes. Boman Presswala, father of Zenobia and Liana, is the liberal editor of a tabloid caught up in a battle against the born-again orthodoxy of Cyrus Khodaiji, faith healer, charlatan, and father to Xerxes and Atraxerxes.
The ideological dispute between the two fathers primarily revolves around giving mudbloods and half-bloods the same status as purebloods. Unfortunately, Khodaiji is a caricature who, as played by Sohrab Ardeshir, lacks the charisma required to be a convincing congregational head. Pressvala, on the other hand, is a nuanced character essayed with relish by the excellent Boman Irani. The imbalance between the two seriously weakens the central premise of the film.
Taraporevala obviously wanted to avoid steering too close to a figure like Khojeste Mistree, leader of the revivalist faction in the battle being played out in the community today. Among the many disputes between conservatives and liberals is the manner of disposing the dead. For centuries now, Parsis have built dakhmas or towers of silence, where corpses are placed to be consumed by vultures. Unfortunately, there aren't enough vultures left to do the eating, and corpses lie rotting for days on end, a prospect that horrifies many Parsis when they think of their own end or that of their kin. Solutions such as special mirrors to focus the sun's rays have been suggested, but conservatives resist the idea, proposing instead a breeding programme to augment the vulture population.
As a child, I liked spending holiday afternoons up on the terrace of my building gazing at vultures soaring in the sky. The woman who stayed on the top floor and kept the key to the terrace thought the habit weird, and looking back I sort of agree with her. Even after my vulture fascination dissipated, I was interested enough to look for the familiar circling flock of birds as I walked around the park or to the bus-stop . So I was probably one of the first to notice that the vulture population of Bombay was diminishing. Since other species, sparrows for example, were also disappearing from the metropolis in those years, I did not take the drop in vulture numbers to be a sign of a general decline, but that is precisely what it was.
In the late 1990s, I heard about massive falls in south Asian vulture numbers, and could see why it was so puzzling for experts seeking its cause. Vultures, after all, are hardy carrion eaters. They consume flesh that's been lying in the sun for hours. To digest that stuff, they need the strongest immune systems in the animal kingdom. Since there was no shortage of food in the subcontinent, and little likelihood of a deadly infection, why were they dying out?
By the time American and Pakistani scientists found the answer, south Asia's vulture population had fallen 95%. India contributed to the process of investigation only negatively. Not only did our scientists fail to come up with anything close to an answer, our government blocked foreign researchers from taking tissue samples back to their labs citing a law banning export of genetic material.
I was gobsmacked to hear the cause of the vulture decline. The culprit was diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug I, like millions of people across the world, took regularly to treat muscle pain. In the 1990s, diclofenac, known to damage kidneys, was introduced on a mass scale in south Asia as a cheap veterinary treatment. Farmers across the subcontinent jabbed their lame cattle with the drug to get a little more work on the land out of them. Milch cows, their knees affected by standing in one place for long periods of time, were similarly treated. When these bovines died, the diclofenac in their bodies was ingested by vultures whose kidneys were specially sensitive to the drug. Researchers estimated that only one dead cow or buffalo in 250 needed to have been treated with diclofenac in the week before its death to cause the observed 30% annual decline in vulture numbers.
Diclofenac is now prohibited for veterinary use and vulture numbers will hopefully pick up. The primary beneficiaries of the vulture decline, meanwhile, have been stray dogs. They are the main competition for the raptors in tearing out bits of dead cattle flesh. Parsis, incidentally, prize dogs as much as they do vultures. Before the practise of dakhmas was instituted, Zoroastrian corpses would be exposed to the elements on specially designated plots of land. Dogs and vultures would share in the feast. Even now (correct me if I'm wrong), a dog is brought to look at a corpse as part of Parsi funeral rituals.
Parsis can get very upset when the issue of dogs comes up, as the Brits in Bombay found out back in 1832. The administrators organised a cull of stray canines, only to have a riot on their hands. Of course, Britons, Europeans and Americans have their own peculiarities in this respect. Used to owning the animals as pets, they are repelled by the East and south-east Asian practice of putting dogs on menus. Aside from questions about the conditions in which the animals are reared, which apply to all species, there is no objective reason for considering the eating of cows and pigs civilised, but condemning as barbaric the consumption of dog flesh. But westerners have a habit of advancing their cultural prejudices as universal moral concerns.
Sorry if I digress, but this entire post is a series of digressions.
The data bear out the fact that stray dog numbers in India have risen as the vulture population declined. How much of the increase is a result of less competition for food is impossible to quantify. Unlike vultures, though, dogs frequently bite living human beings, and are the main carriers of an incurable disease with a mortality rate greater than that of any other affliction known to humankind. Over 80% of the world's rabies cases occur in the Indian subcontinent. About 40,000 cases per year, and therefore about 40,000 deaths. That, you will agree, is an astonishing figure.
When I was a child, alongside my fascination with vultures, I liked dogs very much. The closest I came to having one as a pet was to adopt an abandoned puppy along with galli friends. One day, the puppy-turned-dog went crazy and bit three of us. The injections were not pleasant. I'd have to stand in a long line at KEM hospital each day for a dose of the vaccine. That more or less killed my enthusiasm for dogs.
In Little Zizou, the young Liana Pressvala is a dog lover. Near the end of the movie, she is promised a pet puppy. There is no mention of vultures in the film.

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