Chippi the lizard: A tale of human compassion

If the pandemic has revealed the ugliness of death to us, it has also revealed the human capacity for love and empathy.

Bertrand Russell, whom I consider to be the most tranquil and prophetic philosopher of our times, once said, “Love is wise, hatred is foolish.” Love, he elaborated, is the principal means of escape from loneliness, which afflicts most men and women throughout the greater parts of their lives. Russell’s words referred to romantic love between humans. But we know that romantic love is only one end of the overarching spectrum of love. Who doesn’t know about the love between Edgar Allan Poe and his cat Catterina, or between Charles Dickens and his pet raven Grip? One of the greatest Urdu poets, Mir Taqi Mir, has described his affection for his pet cat Mohini in a poem by the same name.

To talk of love in these times of inestimable despair sounds cruel. But the current pandemic has also revealed to us the enduring, loving nature of humans. When the regime, the system and those responsible for our well-being failed, love, compassion and human understanding took over. It is thus not inappropriate to speak of love in these tough times.

I have a friend who lives alone in an apartment building. His wife died of cancer eight years ago and he vowed never to fall in love again. Being a busy man with a corporate job, he would leave his flat early and return late in the evening. In this going and coming, he befriended a common lizard he spotted right next to the elevator doors. Initially, the tiny creature looked at him with suspicion but soon he found her waiting as he stepped out of the elevator on his floor. He was sure that she knew when he would return from work. More out of curiosity, he started carrying breadcrumbs for her and it wasn’t long before she followed him inside the apartment. He christened her Chippi.

Chippi started living in the apartment and considered it her rightful home. Soon, she started exercising her rights on my friend. Just before he left for office every morning, she would throw a kind of tantrum — by falling from the wall or ceiling. When this persisted for a few days, he consulted a vet online in the US (most Indian vets refused to have any knowledge of treating lizards). The American vet listened carefully and reassured him that she had a behavioural issue, which would improve. As days passed, she grew inseparable from him. He could now whistle and call her. She started eating from his hands. Chippi was, perhaps, the only living creature who relished the lockdown last year. It was amazing to see how happy she was as my friend worked from home. In peak summer, he, too, avoided putting on the AC because of her. We teased him that his vow to never fall in love had crumbled. Our common friends thought that my friend had probably gone nuts, an allegation he smiled at but never argued against.

As they say, a story ceases to be a love story if it doesn’t end in a tragedy. The three-and-a-half-year-old relationship came to an end a couple of weekends back. He called and informed me that Chippi had stopped eating for two days. Before anything could be done, she passed away. Through his gentle sobs, he revealed that she died, cradled in his palm. I didn’t know what to say.

Our friends thought this was a unique example of animal love. For me, it was also human compassion at its best. Unfortunately, we have lost our abilities to love and show compassion. The human ability to empathise with a fellow human or an animal has been blunted by greed, agenda and identity. The ability of our conscious brains to love another has shrunk.

If this pandemic has revealed the ugliness of death to us, it has also revealed human compassion. That’s the only ray of hope in these dark times. The air around us is pregnant with innumerable stories of care, compassion and love. Human kindness has manifested in the most awkward of places and from the most unexpected quarters. Love has breached unnatural boundaries. Like Chippi, we have shown signs of life and love. It won’t be wrong if I conclude that humans are, after all, gentle, caring, loving animals. I wish we retain this animal spirit like my friend did.

This column first appeared in the print edition on June 1, 2021, under the title ‘My friend is a lizard’. The writer is professor of orthopaedics, AIIMS, New Delhi. Views are personal

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