Monday 13 July 2020

C is for Camel

Unowned, gaunt and pale, cows are ubiquitous in India.  But for the westerner, it is still something of a shock to find them in bus queues, lying beside busy roundabouts, or moseying serenely through bazaars. Encountering a camel is even worse.

It is perhaps because camels are so strongly associated with the Middle East, that their presence in classically Indian areas like Rajasthan is so disconcerting.  Or it could just be that the reality of a camel is deeply disturbing wherever you meet them,  The gibe about a camel being a horse designed by a committee credits the latter with too much imagination.  No sane group of people could have come up with those huge fragile knees, the humps apparently just stuck on as an afterthought, eyelashes that look like some grotesque parody of a 60s fashion excess, and floppy cloven feet with all the grace and practicality of frayed carpet slippers.  Encountering them in their ragged flesh, it is hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

A similar ambivalence must affect Indians.  Although camels are quite common in cities like Jaipur, the wagons they pull are perpetually empty. Their chief function seems to be to impede traffic.  The fact that not even the usually reckless bus drivers will take them on suggests that camels are held in an even deeper esteem than cows.

Generally speaking, animals occupy a curious position in Indian society.  When for so many life is a daily struggle for simple survival, there is clearly no room for the mawkish sentimentality found in countries like Britain, where societies protecting animals are Royal, whereas those protecting children art just National.  Yet animals are much more tightly integrated into the fabric of society than in the West.

Practically every religion has a defined position on animals.  For Hindus, cows are sacred; for Muslims, pigs are defiling; for Jains, all animal life is worthy of respect.  In more mundane ways too, animals are central to the Indian way of life.  For example, in most areas, horses, bullocks and camels are crucial to the transportation system.  Pigs and wild dogs are often the only form of refuse collection.  And for the poorest city-dwellers, the best source of cooking and heating fuel is the free cow-dung found in the road.

For the tourist too, animals play a large part in defining the Indian experience.  Like the widespread cows, the urban monkey is a frequent sight, particularly around monuments.  Part of the charm of Kashmir, and an element in its otherness, is the presence of great eagles in Srinagar, together with shimmering flights of steel-blue kingfishers, which patrol the surface of Dal lake like tiny jet fighters,

And outside the towns, the blank immensity of land and sky, the sense of heat and dust, the age-old presence and pressure of history - all these are instantly and most memorably evoked by the sight of birds of prey poised high up in the baked sky, wheeling slowly and endlessly over the plain below.  Like so much in India, one small element can contain and be contained by a sense of the larger whole.

A Partial India: A to Z

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