The Elephant in the Room

By Anjum Altaf

The real elephant is gone but the one in the room is still there and as invisible as ever.

It doesn’t strike anyone as odd that the courts declared Kavaan to be living in an inhuman habitat, “no less than a concentration camp,” there was a years-long global campaign to make his life less miserable, Cher herself came to cheer him up, the President and his spouse serenaded him, special equipment was devised to provide him decent transport, and a chartered plane to took him from elephant-hell to elephant-heaven.

What about the millions of human beings living in much more inhuman habitats than Kavaan? There are no similar court decrees to make their lives less miserable, no global campaigns to argue for their rights, no one there to cheer or serenade them, no decent transport, and no escape to a more livable locale.

If the park where Kavaan was living was considered a place unfit for an animal, aren’t the places where millions of Pakistanis are living ten times more unfit? Kavaan was at least given his daily quota of calories which his human counterparts are continuously denied because the market allocates everyone’s just deserts.

When Kavaan showed his displeasure, he was merely chained. His human counterparts are made to disappear and, if lucky, returned chastened after a trip to the Northern Areas. This is well-known to all except our leaders who specialize in not knowing anything about inconvenient truths. I suppose Kavaan escaped the fate because the travel agents deputed for such trips couldn’t figure out a way to bundle him into a car. 

The lives of human beings reduced to an animal existence are no occasion for photo-ops where visiting saviours are wined and dined and entertained in the company of beaming officials congratulating each other for such an act of human kindness.

What kind of a world are we living in in which animals take precedence over human beings, where innocent children are condemned to lives of destitution without anyone batting an eyelid? I am not begrudging the good fortune of Kavaan, or of Suzie and Bubloo who are destined for Jordan. They certainly deserved better. Who were the thoughtless persons who sent new-born animals to a country that cannot take care of human beings? And who were the callous persons who accepted them knowing full well the chance animals have of a decent life in a country in which human beings are not given any respect. Our track record of treating minorities has never been a secret.

This contradiction between the rights of animals and the rights of human beings is worth thinking about and ought to be made the subject of a mass awareness campaign. I suggest, while schools are closed because of Covid, the government organize a nation-wide essay competition for school and college students with the topic “Why are animals treated better than humans in Pakistan?” The essays should be sent for marking to all ministers, special assistants, advisers, members of national and provincial legislatures, and to the travel agents designated to keep the traffic flowing and the country in running order.

At the same time, this should be the subject of debates in all schools with the winning teams progressing from the union council, district, division, and provincial stages to the national level. The final debate should be presided over by the maha-mahout who should reward the winning team with a handsome white elephant and a glamorous photo-op followed by a guided tour of various human and inhuman zoos hosted by all the dignitaries trampling on the same page. 

I would be curious to follow the debate and the public discourse that would ensue and the shapes they would assume on our TV channels. Maybe, just maybe, we might begin to see the contours of the elephants lurking in the various national and provincial rooms.

Meanwhile, to distract myself from an absurd world with equally absurd connections, I am recalling Roshan Ara Begum singing the bandish ‘kavan des gaye’ in raga Multani although Kavaan has mercifully not gone to Multan — I am told lions morph into crickets and bats there — but to Kampuchea because all these years we kept him chained and didn’t ask enough where he really wanted to be which is kam pucheya in our mixed-up Lahori Punjabi.

The writer has applied for asylum in Kampuchea.

This opinion was published in The News on Sunday on December 20, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the authors permission.

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