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Facts to fiction

ANJANA RAJAN speaks to animal rights activist Ambika Shukla, who is turning to fiction.

All for animals... Ambika Shukla in New Delhi. Photo: S. Subramanium.

AMBIKA SHUKLA is better known for her work with the organisation People for Animals than for her fiction, but that is not surprising, considering her short stories have yet to be published. In fact, says voluble the animal rights activist, she is yet to choose a publisher. Till now, she says, her writing has been limited to the brochures she pens for PFA. The stories, of which four are ready and two are on the anvil, are the result of a friend's encouragement. But with a Bachelors degree in Commercial Art and a Masters in Communications - specialising in advertising copywriting - she has a varied enough background for a fiction writer.

Ambika maintains that, though they are not overtly on the theme of animal welfare, the stories are a product of her passionate beliefs on the subject. "These stories are not about animals but they have the same ethic - live and help live, PFA's ethic. It is easy to live and let live, but live and help live is what Menaka Gandhi has always espoused."

And if her characters were to eat, Ambika says, they would eat vegetarian food. Vegetarianism is one of the practices she promotes as part of her work for PFA too. Lecturing in schools, from the Kindergarten level to class XII, she attempts to couch the idea of caring for animals and vegetarianism in fashionable terms. "We tell them it is not about religion or tradition. It's a civilised, modern choice. We make it an interesting, progressive choice," she says, naming teen idols like Madonna, Bryan Adams, Sting and others who have kicked the meat-eating habit.

She also feels that since children are often protected from the reality of butchering, it is important to "make the connection between killing animals and eating meat".

"Eating meat is the leading cause of deforestation. A goat you grow to eat, eats 10 times the plants you would eat yourself. We tell the children quite directly, but not in a complicated sense. Because the truths are simple," she points out, citing the example of concepts like animals having feelings, experiencing pain just like humans, etc.

Ambika's short stories too, which are about relationships, are about pain and sometimes healing. But - perhaps due to the same approach that seeks to make caring a "fashion" - they fall in the category of racy rather than serious literature. Yet, to be fair, they also contain what could be called the quintessential element of the art of the short story: The quality of "The Expanded Moment" - to quote the extremely apt title of an anthology. If in "The Favour", a spur-of-the-moment action of a stranger gives the protagonist a new lease of life, in "Diamonds and Hearts", it is a flashback that not only reveals to the background to the reader but also acts as a brief - if impossible - flame of hope for the resolution of the charcaters' problems.

This first-time fiction writer's works may yet mature, but her power over the spoken word is beyond debate. "The animal rights movement is the only truly altruistic movement. You know, the first case against child exploitation was fought by an animal rights activist in England?" And her scalding opinion of those who accuse PFA of preferring animals' rights to human welfare: "Only those who don't do anything for anybody say `you're only working for animals'."

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