During our three year stay at Delhi, we had a hectic time. Not a single week went without a guest visiting us. In fact, we had more guests staying for extended periods than just visiting. Friends and brother officers also came to admit their children in colleges, especially in hostels, and would stay with us till the entire procedure got over. Officers, both single and with families, used to stay with us for a day or two during their official visits to the Army Headquarters. Relatives of course used to come in good numbers to visit Delhi and nearby religious places with Delhi as their base camp. With the result we used to be busy either picking up or leaving our guests at railway stations, bus stops, hostels and airports, or taking them out for sightseeing and shopping. Nevertheless, we enjoyed all this.
Once, my husband’s nephew, his wife and their two school going sons came to stay with us for fifteen days. They used to go out on their own to various places. In between they had a gap of two days when they couldn’t plan to go anywhere. So, my husband decided to take them to a nearby equine breeding stud run by the army where my husband had worked earlier. The idea was to show them a place where horses were bred, trained and reared for the army in natural surroundings, with greenery all around, a place which is otherwise inaccessible to civilians. The guests, especially my nephew’s sons, were very excited at the prospect of visiting the place as my husband had narrated to them many interesting stories about horses.
Early next morning, we set out in our car to our destination which was two hours away. We drove straight to the officers’ mess and had breakfast. Our guests from Chennai were totally impressed by the magnitude of the green, open areas, the huge iron gates at the entrance, the security and hospitality at the mess. After breakfast, we were taken around the place in a huge horse driven carriage, a four in hand, driven by four hefty Chestnut horses, with two coachmen in front and two footmen behind. This carriage is a specialty of that place and it was a privilege to be shown around in it. After that we picked up our car and went to see stallions first and then to the foaling line. Here, the foals, the new born baby horses and their mothers, the mares, were kept and looked after with utmost care. Every single mare with its foal was kept in a separate enclosure with a fan on. That day, there were at least ten foals with their mothers. Sepoys, sayces (the persons who grooms horses) and other workers were going in out, supervising the feeding of the horses and hygiene of the place. For our guests, it was a thrilling experience. My husband and the officer in charge were walking ahead while my guests and I were walking a few feet behind. We stopped to look at a foal and were engrossed in watching how the little one was wobbling and struggling to get up. Suddenly, I felt somebody tugging at my saree from behind. As I turned to look back, I came face to face with a creature about three feet high and one foot wide with a jet black, shining coat of fur. I screamed and ran to my husband’s side. My nephew’s wife followed me. My husband glared at me for this unladylike behavior. One elderly sepoy came to my rescue and said to me comfortingly, “Memsaab, darna nahi. Yeh to baccha hai. Kuch nahi karega.” Though I calmed down a little by my husband’s glare and the sepoys consoling words, I couldn’t believe him. I asked him, “Ye aur baccha? Ye hai kya cheez?!“ . He then made me follow him back to the black creature which was still standing where it had shocked me. The sepoy asked me to touch the creature which I did, gingerly. It came close to me, snuggling like an affectionate child. A little surprised at this unexpected demonstration of affection from an animal, I asked the sepoy how come this creature was allowed to enter this otherwise protected area. It was neither a mare nor a foal nor a full grown horse. The sepoy then narrated a story which moved me to tears.
The black creature was a four month old baby donkey. Since that place is an equine breeding stud, horses, mules as well as donkeys are bred, reared, trained and sent to various army units for different purposes. Donkeys and mules are mostly used for carrying loads like ration, ammunition and fodder and for pulling carts. This particular baby donkey’s mother was brought to the foaling line four months back for confinement. The foaling line is a place where baby horses, mules and donkeys are kept with their mothers for the firsts two weeks. Then, they are shifted to paddocks where they remain for six months. After that they are shifted to the young stock wing. The shift is marked by a solemn ceremony called the ‘Weaning Parade’ when the foals are separated from their mothers and are given tender green grass to eat instead of mother’s milk.
As soon as this baby donkey was born, its mother died and the poor baby was orphaned. In humans, if the mother dies soon after the baby is born, either the child’s relatives or the father himself looks after the child. But who would look after the poor baby donkey? So, the responsibility fell on the sepoys and the officers in charge to look after the baby. At first they tried to bottle feed the donkey foal which worked for a couple of days. Thereafter, it refused bottled milk.
Then, they hit upon a novel idea. Since, throughout the year, there would be at least one mare foaling, the sepoys would leave the baby donkey with a mare that had a foal. This idea worked as the mare, the new mother, would allow the baby donkey also suckle along with its own foal. This brought temporary relief but after the second when the mare had to be shifted to the paddock, the problem would crop up again. They would have to wait for another mare to be brought to the foaling line and the baby donkey would have to depend on the new mare for milk. This practice would have to continue till the donkey foal turned six months or till he learned to eat green grass. Horses are known to be intelligent animals. They must have sensed the difference between their own foals and that of a different animal. I marveled at the magnanimity of these mares in letting the donkey foal suckle along with their own foals. Whether they had sensed the difference or not, the fact remained that the mares had accepted this arrangement. I don’t think we humans would accept such an arrangement easily.
This system was followed till the baby donkey was about a month old. Thereafter, his intake of milk increased. Next he was allowed to go to the paddock. He used to go to different mares to get its share of milk. The sad part was all the mares allowed the baby donkey to suckle them but not a single mare took him totally under her care. He was tolerated by the mares but no love, affection or nurturing was given to him. He became a sort of a dear pet of all the humans in and around the paddock and foaling line. He was pampered and allowed to roam around freely near the paddock. Since he depended on so many mares for milk, he became overweight. That particular day, the baby donkey strayed into the foaling line and tugged at my pallu. Sine nobody ever stopped or punished him for this trespassing, the baby donkey was puzzled at my strong reaction. Even I had never seen such a peculiar creature in my life. After this hearing this pitiable story, I couldn’t help hugging the baby donkey. He responded like a human child and cuddled up to me.
Horses are considered superior to donkeys in many ways. Yet, these mute animals accepted the baby donkey as their own. Hats off to their noble gesture! We humans who discriminate on the basis of caste, creed, religion and race have a lot to learn from these animals.