I write this today with a deep sense of sadness, anger and helplessness. Animals in India have lost a warrior, who, by his actions, has cheated them of a chance for survival. Yes, I say cheated Sanjay, because I'm very very pissed off.
In 2011 I was living in Delhi, training to be fund raiser for an animal shelter. Part of my job entailed having a good idea of existing infrastructure, so I requested that I be allowed to visit their permanent shelter in the outskirts of Gurgaon. Permission was granted and I found myself bouncing along a dusty road to a tiny village far far away from suave, slick Delhi.
Large iron gates welcomed me, and I say welcomed, because they sure were friendlier than the rest of the staff there! I was shown around the enclosures for the domestic animals rather grudgingly and finally, unsatisfactory tour over, I was asked in a rather 'please-say-no' tone, "Would you want to see the wildlife section?" Intrigued, I agreed, and trudged through woodpiles and cauldrons of cooking finally clambering over a wall to find I would have to jump a good 10 feet to the ground... Beside me, the cage for the birds...and no ordinary birds mind you, eagles and owls no less... Feeling rather like a mouse mesmerized by the yellow eyes of an eagle, I heard a friendly voice asking if I needed a hand... I turned, to see a young man, looking up at me intently, obviously doubting my ability to climb down...
copyright: Sanjay Acharya
I wasn't going to let my first meeting with the enigmatic Sanjay Acharya start with me looking like a wuss, so I declined, and jumped. And twisted my ankle. And gained a friend for life...
I returned to the farm several times. I met Bego, his beloved Doberman, whom he'd rescued and nursed back to health. I spent long, lazy starry nights curled up around Bego for warmth, chatting with all the boys from the wildlife rescue division, talking about all the unbelievable rescues they'd done. These boys were all heroic beyond my imagination. They jumped across buildings, through trees, into pits, wrestled large bulls, caught poisonous snakes, lured cuddly faced sharp tipped porcupines, lost cobras in their bedrooms (yes, that happened!), accidentally let loose the resident white rat family, (which was then hunted down by Sanjay's 3 rescued dogs, who would lovingly place them on the stairs, just at the right spot & time such that we'd squelch them underfoot). I remember holding my stomach and rolling with laughter at the droll straight faced ridiculous banter between Sanjay and Arshad... they'd tell me stories of how Sanjay's 700 odd pet snakes he'd sneaked in his room got loose once. There was one argument about how Bego was technically a Dober-woman! These same loonies would solemnly escort me to the nearest metro station, a cavalcade of bikes bouncing through rural Haryana.
Bego the Doberwoman (approx 2 months post rescue)
Sanjay was my hero. He was the guy who had the guts to do ANYTHING for an animal. He had that rare passion and gentleness for hurt animals, which they sensed, and loved him for. He had few human friends, being rather short-tempered and volatile. But his animals were his one true love. I remember the time he cried telling me about when he couldn't save a leopard from being lynched by some villagers. Or the time he went in disguise, going underground to catch some poachers. He carried a knife at all times, given his penchant for getting in trouble with people. He's always be beating up someone or the other for hitting or kicking animals. He once tore down a temple he found in a forest, because the people who thronged it would frighten the animals away. I remember his giggly, nervous laugh, confessing this 'crime', saying he was gonna stay far away from that spot for a while now...
He always wore big boots, always prepared to fight, always ready to rescue. Cruelty to animals drove him crazy, and I’ve seen him charging into situations even I would be afraid to be in. He taught me that we should respect and fear nature. That we would be welcome if the respect was there. But to remember to be afraid. Very afraid. Because if you hurt or messed with Mother Nature, Sanjay would be the one to hurt you down!
copyright: Sanjay Acharya
He was the only guy I ever knew who squawked "so cuuuuuuteeee" when he saw a snake. I saw my first ever live porcupine up front and personal when the boys let me go on a release with them. It was a hilarious sight...a cuddly koala faced, treacherous spined porcupine in the back seat, with me and Sanjay keeping it company...and the other rescue boys squashed up in front... (I was the 'lady 'with them...I had the dubious honor of sharing the seat with the porcupine!) We reached the National Park, and the boys let the porcupine scuttle off first. Then, as the forest ranger kept a (very) safe distance, the boys held up a few snakes from a cloth bag, and let me photograph them for the website. Photographs done, they solemnly assured the now-quaking forest official that this kinda snake isn't poisonous, and released them all into the scrub. I still remember the look on their faces, like mama birds watching their babies take first flight.
It was the same loony Sanjay who had the almost childlike instinct to give a new-born orphaned baby monkey a stuffed monkey 'so she has a friend'. He cradled her, and her tiny wizened face was scrunched shut in sleep, and her tiny, shockingly human fingers were tightly clenched around the stuffed monkey's arm. Months later, I saw her again at the city shelter, still clutching the stuffed monkey.
Rescue was Sanjay's life & passion. Perhaps if I had met him & his friends under different circumstances I might not have ever been friends with them. But the boys were, like Sanjay, warm & welcoming to anyone who wanted to know more about their world. Anybody who loved & respected animals & nature & the environment was more than welcome in their close knit circle, and guaranteed to be a treated like a guest. They were always courteous & kind, and answered every fascinated question I would ask them with great care & pleasure. Sanjay loved photography, and was one of the best I knew, carefully watermarking each copy, explaining when & where he had taken the photo. I think that's how we first became friends. He began showing me photos he'd recently taken of a cobra. I remember commenting on how it's scales glittered like jewels in the sun. Snake-doofus that I am, I was enchanted by his charisma on day one!
Sanjay introduced me to Shankar in Bhubaneshwar in 2012.
Sanjay always had the penchant for the shocking. He taught me a lot, loved me, protected me and looked after me in his own weird ways. He always called for the silliest of reasons "the door exploded today!" And failed to call when he perhaps needed a friend the most. His death is a massive blow to the wildlife world. He was one of those rare people who knew more than most about animals and had a natural instinct with them. They too, knew and trusted this man.
Sanjay with my Delhi doggies Limpy & Floopy, 2011
I know he is somewhere, striding amongst the stars with Sirius, trotting along with him, watching over the wildlife world. Sanjay, I can no longer call you middle of the night, wailing that I found yet another injured animal and what should I doooooo?! But since you believed in Karma as much as I did, I hope all those damned poachers out there are quaking in their boots, knowing retribution no longer has a human form to fear...
As for us who remain: all I can say is stay strong. The passing of yet another icon can only mean double the hard work for us, because we need to be able to achieve all that he would have in his lifetime and more.
note: Sanjay Acharya was a beloved friend & colleague who passed away early morning on the 3rd of December 2013. I have written about him earlier. He avidly followed my work, always supporting, guiding & advising me. We shared a blazing love for dogs. He will be sorely missed by millions of animals.