Vipin Sehgal: Animal Farm’s New Masters

If, like me you have wondered at George Orwell’s choice of pigs as the replacement masters in Animal Farm, wonder no more. It was not a random choice, and nor was he the first to think along these lines, he had been preceded by ancient Italians.  Apparently, while working for the BBC in 1941, Orwell came across a book of Italian Folk tales in the Mother Corporation’s Library. The book included a story very similar to the plot charted in Animal Farm, which also starred pigs taking over as masters. In light of my occasional encounters with pigs, I can vouch for the astuteness of the old Italians, as well as of Orwell in having chosen pigs as the lead characters.

My first conscious experience with a pig was in Lucknow, when I was around 10 years old. While out playing in a park near home, us children were drawn to a high pitched, piteous squealing coming from the ruins of an Awadh era mansion, located in the middle of the park.  The ruins consisted of tumbling down outer walls, which surrounded a courtyard full of debris, centered by stumps of walls, that marked the remains of long disappeared rooms. The most prominent feature in the ruins was the still standing dilapidated central staircase, pocked with yawning holes in its risers and landings.  Sheltering in the opening under the staircase was a sow with a newly delivered litter. On the staircase stood a neighbourhood ne’er do well, armed with a heavy bamboo staff.

The tableau vivant was composed of the man coming down the steps to poke and push the litter around with his staff, this would animate the mother sow to charge towards charge towards attacker, who would turn the staff on her, while scampering back up the stairs. The pathetic scenario kept being repeated, the helpless Sow desperately alternating between protecting her litter, and trying to eliminate the threat. I can still sense the palpable frustration, and helplessness of the pitiable sow. The inevitable happened not soon enough. Bleeding from the nose and mouth the sow was forced to reluctantly slink away, turning to look back at the litter every step of the way. Witnessing the pathos of the scene, before I knew I had burst into tears, much to the derisive amusement of my playfellows. The staff wielding guy came down triumphantly, gathered up the litter in a gunny sack, and took off, perhaps to sell the litter to a butcher. He didn’t look starved, so he must have used the money for movie tickets, or a bottle.

My next close encounter with pigs took place a few years ago while on a holiday in Benaulim, a coastal village in South Goa, as opposed to North Goa, which is unofficially reserved for the young. Benaulim is a charming little sleepy village, sitting around the crossroads of two rural streets, whose intersection was occupied by two general stores, selling regular general products such as milk, pop, tea, basic medication, etc. as well as recharge of cell phone minutes. A travel agent, renting out mopeds, took up the third corner, with a small Chai shop taking up the final corner. The beach was a 5 minute walk west from the crossroads, passing a few modest rundown mansions, as well as two 3 storey buildings housing 6 tourist apartments each, and that was about it.

Our resort itself sat a 5-minute walk on the road running South from the crossroads. The eastern side of the road was lined with Dhabas – makeshift restaurants – outside the resort gates. The other side was littered with bright colorful little temporary stalls, either on the ground or on bicycle wheels, depending on the vendor’s prosperity. The stalls were stacked with all kinds of cheap, trinkets, glass bangles, obscene do dads, wooden and plastic toys, scarves, and other, similar, touristy junk. At first sight, in sunlight, the stalls presented a riot of incomprehensible, colours.  under the sun. After sundown the stalls were lit by Petromax and Hurricane lanterns, giving the little market the feel of a village fair. During our stay we actually noticed a couple of new stalls come up in the last of the empty spaces, proving once again that nature abhors a vacuum.

On the second last day of our stay, as usual we started out for the beach after breakfast. Walking towards the crossroads, passing the closed stalls, we were assailed with a godawful caterwauling of men shouting, dogs barking, and a high-pitched squealing, coming from somewhere behind the stalls. The noise was so unusual that I couldn’t stop myself from entering a gap in the stalls, and rush west to investigate.

A few yards beyond the stalls stood a line of trees, which turned out to be sheltering an open-air soccer pitch. The pitch was ringed by a 2 feet high brick fence meant, I supposed, to double as spectator seating. If not for the cacophony it would have been quite a bucolic sight. Instead, the scene was comprised of a ‘pre-teen’ piglet, trapped in the netting of the near goalposts, squealing away helplessly. Four dogs had surrounded the goalposts and were running around barking their heads off with stupid abandon. A local, dressed in a lungi, was yelling at the dogs to be quiet and, at the same time, trying to free the piglet by attacking the netting with an ineffective knife. It wouldn’t be incorrect to say neither the knife, nor its wielder were the sharpest tools in the drawer. On the other side of the goalpost was Mama Pig waddling off towards the brick fence, followed by the remaining brood of 5 piglets.

Just as Mama Pig reached the gap in the brick fence she hesitated, looked back, then turned around and started locomoting towards the goalposts and the trapped piglet. The litter stopped, turned around in a circle, maintaining their order, and took off after Mama. Noticing the new movement, the dogs turned their attention towards the coming pig family and made as if to attack them. In face of the danger to the litter Mama lost her nerve, and started to retreat towards the fence, followed obediently by the litter. Just as they reached the fence, one of the piglets broke rank, turned around, and came charging in his waddle towards the goalposts, holding his trapped sibling.

Whether it was sibling love, or plain cussedness, I swear there was determination in the little fellow’s expression. You could clearly see the fire in his eyes. It was obvious he was not going to give up, or back down. He simply kept coming, ignoring the squealing pleas from his mother. It was a sight to behold. All the dogs stopped in mid bark, to stare at him and then, without looking at each other they slunk off. Given the respite I joined the hungover local and managed to free the little fellow without damaging the net, and the piglet happily joined his saviour sibling. Without so much as looking at each other, the two waddled off to the gap in the fence and disappeared. Perhaps, because I am an only child, I was deeply touched by this story book ending of a sibling having the others’ back against all odds and winning.

The determination of the little piglet also reminded me of an incident in Toronto, during the early 80s, when I was working at Bay and Bloor. At lunch time I would generally walk down South on Yonge Street, a full of life stretch of road. During my strolls I had noticed a young, about 15 or 16 years old, Punjabi boy, operating a hot dog cart in the parking Lot at the South East corner of Carleton and Yonge. A few feet away was another cart, run by a man of seemingly Eastern European extraction. A few days later I noticed a policeman yelling and gesticulating at the Punjabi boy, seemingly asking him to leave, while the other vendor stood by smirking. To make his point, the policeman took down the boy’s cart umbrella, and threw it down. The boy first looked exasperated, not sad, then his expression changed to white hot fury. Next thing I saw, he lost it. He withdrew the iron rod used for supporting the umbrella. With the rod in his upraised hand, he went running towards the other vendor, right in front of the cop. Both men immediately recognized the unrelenting pitiless look in his eyes. The other vendor ran for his life, while the policeman grabbed the boy in a bear hug, managing to prevent serious damage all round.

I prefer to think that George Orwell would have approved of the Punjabi boy’s actions to avenge himself. After all Eric Blair, albeit reluctantly, did shoot the Elephant in Burma out of a sense of duty. Similarly, as a matter of principle, Eric Blair didn’t hesitate in taking up arms in Catalonia, at great personal sacrifice and danger, in order to make a concrete contribution to the fight against fascism.