There I was, in deep discussion with a member of the Animal Welfare Network Nepal, getting the low-down on the impending sacrifice of half a million animals at the Gadhimai Mela in the southern district of Bara. "It sounds like madness," I nodded as I listened to her deride what seemed a veritable orgy of alcohol-fuelled slaughter condoned by mass superstition to the ends of organised crime syndicates.
Then a friend who'd been listening in blurted out: "Didn't you just take part in one of those things?"
It was true. Only months back, I'd visited my ancestral village northwest of Dhankuta under the pretext of attending a kuldevata puja, wherein 400 goats had been sacrificed to our clan gods (#470, 'The land of my fathers'). Or was it the other way around? No doubt discovering the land of my fathers was a profound experience, but would it have been the same without the excitement of that day of bloody colours?
"I'm sorry, I'm a totally compromised animal lover," I offered lamely, but my cover was blown.
Not that caring for animals precludes the killing and eating of them. But ideally, it should at its core consist of a conviction that if we use animals for labour, food, entertainment or companionship, our treatment of them should be humane, in as much as killing can be humane.
Many campaigners for animal rights, too, understand that foisting vegetarianism upon the essentially omnivorous human species is unlikely to work. They are therefore willing to accept that most people (for the foreseeable future) will continue to eat meat, as long as the process by which they obtain their meat is kosher, so to speak. Life is full of half-measures after all, else we would be either gods or demons, not humans.
What this means in practice is not always so clear. While I've always found it a little disturbing to see roadside goats tethered next to the remains of their erstwhile companions, I am not convinced slaughterhouses are better in any sense other than that of scaled-up efficiency and hygiene. These are good enough reasons to keep animal slaughter out of the public space, surely, but in a country where animal sacrifice is so deeply embedded in religious culture, one can't just decree it out of existence.
How then does one who accepts animal sacrifice as virtually indistinguishable from the process of obtaining meat for food face up to slaughter on the almost unimaginable scale of the Gadhimai Mela? The Animal Welfare Network Nepal and the 1000-strong membership of the various Mela committees are diametrically opposed on the issue of animal sacrifice, and may inevitably end up demonising one another. Those in between may root for those half-measures?- quarantine checks and vaccinations for livestock, adequate arrangements for the anticipated 10 million pilgrims, transparency in Mela finances, among other things - but what of the actual fact of the mass slaughter?
It is the fact of the slaughter, more than anything else, that attracts or repulses. The imagery employed by those speaking out against the mass sacrifice - drunken men hacking away at 20,000 hapless young buffalos, a marshland of blood and gore - betrays a horror of industrial scale barbarism that is anathema to (western) notions of sanitised, civilised progress. The focus is on this barbarism. Never mind that 40 million turkeys are sacrificed in the name of the nation's history every thanksgiving in America. At root, the global protests against Gadhimai can be applied to all individual sacrifices in the name of religion that are conducted within the premises of the household, the temple, or the street. They constitute an appeal against the faltering machismo of the young Chettri boys compelled to wield khukuris on the fatted goat come Dasain, an initiation not only in manhood, but also, some would have you believe, barbarity.
So until we resolve the conundrum of animal sacrifice at the heart of Nepali Hinduism, we can work on making God's work a little less barbaric. If the Meat Act and the Animal Transportation Act are implemented, and if a much-needed Animal Welfare Act ever sees the light of day, then we will not only be performing a service to public health and safety, but will also do much to ease the suffering of those animals whose deaths we consider necessary to our lives.