“Mr. Vinay! How are you doing? I hope thatha is taking good care of you. You know, he is professionally trained. Yeah, professionally trained! And PETA certified! Yes Mr. Vinay, certified by the rigorous requirements put forth by you in the ‘Animal Safety Standards Committee’. Surely, there’s no glimpse of a problem at hand?”

Waking up from from his slumber, Vinay glares at the man outside. He’s rotund, round-headed with a bushy black moustache and is dressed in a crisp white shirt and black trousers. The only thing odd about his appearance is a small straw basket he is carrying in his hands.

By the self-important grin on his face, Vinay tries to guess who he could be. Is he one of the workers? No, why in the world would a worker have cared to look dapper? Okay then, a bureaucrat, maybe? Yeah, he could be a bureaucrat. But then again, Vinay thinks to himself, how would he know? He hasn’t seen a single human apart from that thatha who slips raw meat into his cell every day. Mind you, it’s not the same animal’s meat every day - the texture, the colour and the smell changes. Vinay has no doubt that there is a daily menu that is being followed. He has asked thatha countless times to tell him which animal the meat belonged to. But thatha has never ever spoken to him. Well, apart from this one time where he had cryptically exclaimed, with a huge smile on his lips, “Therein lies the being I hated the most!” Vinay didn’t eat the meat that day.

Mr. Probably-bureaucrat steps closer to the grilles. As the incandescent bulb illuminates his face fully, Vinay starts to feel a vague familiarity with the man. He is sure that he’s seen him somewhere. Getting up, and adjusting his spectacles, he asks the man, “Who are you, Sir? Have we met before?”

“Oh Mr. Vinay,” the man replies, “how could you have forgotten me? I thought it is tough to forget people who have given you special gifts. Especially if that gift is all you ever wanted! I’m Freddie. Freddie Kalamkar, Indian Forest Service. Now do you remember me?”

Of course Vinay remembered him. Whatever he forgot in life, he could never forget the day that letter, with the ominous looking ‘confidential’ seal on it, arrived. ‘To Mr. Vinay K, From the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India’, it read. Vinay had thought it would be the usual reprimand from the Government - he was not new to this. PETA activists had the knack of getting into trouble with the State - though he could not deny the fact that some buggers got into trouble of their own making. But he knew he was not one of them. Tearing the envelope at the top and peering into it, he finds a lone letter inside. It reads -

Dear Mr. Vinay K,

It is my absolute honour to inform you that the Ministry of Environment and Forests has decided to bestow upon you the inaugural ‘Animal Leaders Prize’ as a testament to your continuous efforts in upholding the rights of animals. This decision has been reached after months of careful deliberation and assessment of hundreds of exceptional candidates.

I would like to invite you to the Rashtrapati Bhawan on 30th January, 2008 to receive the award from the hands of the Hon. President of India. We haven’t divulged the exact nature of the prize as yet, but I am sure you would be delighted to know what it entails.

Congratulations, once again. I look forward to seeing you at Rashtrapati Bhawan on the 30th.

On behalf of the Minister of Environment and Forests Freddie Kalamkar, Additional Secy., MoEF.

That was ten years ago. At the ceremony, after the President had handed over the certificate of appreciation, Kalamkar was the one who had escorted him to this cell. “Please enjoy your stay here,” he had told him. Everything had seemed so surreal that day, almost as if he was in a dream.

“Of course, Mr. Kalamkar! I do remember you. You brought me into this place! The perpetrator of my exile. Wasn’t it you who had also unveiled the nature of the prize to the whole world after I received the certificate? Yes, of course it was you. God, that look on the audience’s faces. They seemed to be so happy for me. I remember wishing well on your family that day. How are you doing? And what brings you here? Thatha surely tells you how I am doing.”

“Mr. Vinay, stop joking please. I can’t understand why you would harbour spite against me. Isn’t this what you wanted? I always used to admire you for your speeches, where you were quite vocal about animal rights. ‘They are mute creatures, they can’t let us know in a legible language what they are feeling. But they definitely do have feelings. They have rights, but can’t fight for them. We need to fight for their rights!’ I must say you have a very natural flair for speeches. And when the President asked me what could possibly be the best gift to you, I had no hesitation coming up with this,” he says pointing to the cell. “Living like the creatures you most love. Like the wild. What can be better for a man like you!”

Vinay cringes. Ten years he had been caged here. Was all this even real? He is sure now that it is. He’d always thought thatha was somewhat of a delusional person, one who didn’t understand that he was suffering. Probably thatha had some, you know, mental issues. But no, that’s not the case. The world is mad, including this Mr. Kalamkar, who seems really proud of what he did.

While Vinay tries to summon all expletives he knows to blurt out at Kalamkar, the basket in Kalamkar’s hand shakes a little. This startles Kalamkar at first, but then he bursts out laughing, as if ridiculing his own stupidity. “Arrey, Mr. Vinay, I completely forgot about this. I remember you telling me on the day of the ceremony that your favourite animal was the cat. Now I know, you have been deprived of all primal pleasures for ten years, but then I only recently realized that the ‘animal’ experience cannot be complete without sexual intercourse. I cursed myself when this thought struck me. I mean, how could it have escaped me? That day, I promised to redeem myself, and here I am! With a nice beautiful white female cat! She’s called Kitty. Yeah, cliched name and all, but I’m sure you’ll enjoy her.”

Kalamkar opens the basket and lets out Kitty into the cell. She scurries across the grills and into the cell with a slight mew. It seems like Kitty is delighted to be rid of Kalamkar.

“Oh and,” Kalamkar says, removing a baloon-shaped object with a sharp thorns at its tip, “I suggest you wear this while you penetrate her. This is specially designed condom for you - I got it done on an urgent basis from my contacts at Manforce. It will protect you against STDs, and will also cause her to ovulate and maximize pleasure. You see, the male cat has penile spines. Surely, you know of that? Actually, if not for that lone veterinary doctor at Manforce, I would not have known of it too.” Kalamkar throws the condom inside, and sniggers, “I hope you have fun! All the best, and as they say, ‘Put it on, before you put it in’”. He winks at Vinay and walks away.

Anyone who observed Vinay at that moment would have known what shock really looks like. Kalamkar, that bastard, thought it would be awesome if he had sex with a cat? Wow, the world really doesn’t get it. Vinay picks up the condom, and observes it carefully, proceeding to touch the thorns. He flinches as soon as he touches them - they are too sharp. He turns around to look at Kitty, whose expression mirrors the one on his own face. She is shocked too, but probably for having been left with a stranger. He walks toward her, takes her into his arms. He can’t remember the last time he held a cat in his hands. Digging his face into Kitty’s soft, white fur, he starts crying. Louder, and louder, and louder, he cries, until he is almost shouting. He hasn’t cried in ten years; he always thought this was an honest mistake, and someone would come and get him out of this. The world couldn’t have truly gone mad.

He looks at Kitty again. She is clearly uncomfortable now, and visibly wants to escape his arms. “Oh baby, don’t you like tears on you? Are they spoiling your snow-white fur?” he says, and he proceeds to put her down. Kitty quickly runs off, and crouches in the farthest corner of the cell.

Now Vinay looks at himself. What has he become, after all these years? He never had a lot of friends, and was too busy with his activism to have a love life. His whole life was, in a way, sacrificed for the welfare of his only true friends - animals. So much so, that the State thought it would be better if he was made to live as an animal. Wow. But Vinay had faith. He had never contemplated killing himself because of his faith. Isn’t that what faith is supposed to do? Give you a reason to live?

Vinay looks at the thorns. He can’t help it anymore. He takes the thorns and digs it into his flesh. He starts with his wrist, and proceeds to cover all of his body. With each passing moment, the intensity of the stabbing increases, and he keeps doing it vigourously until all of his body is a mess of blood. Until his eyes pop out with pain. Until his hands become numb and lose all motile ability. Until his screams go silent. Until his heart stops beating and his breath comes to a halt.