Donkeys love Parle-G biscuits. This is one of the first things I learn while spending a day with a retired couple from the UK whose mission it is to ‘save our asses’.
Bob is 68. Jean, his wife of 50 years, is two years older. Together, they have the stamina of marathon-runners. How else would a retired couple leave children and grandchildren back home in the UK, lease out their cottage in Essex, and rent a place in India to spend all their time and energy, despite limited funds, to rescue, heal, and nurture injured donkeys (also dogs, mules, and the odd buffalo) in Gurgaon, Haryana?
Bob and Jean run The Asswin Project (theasswinproject.org.uk). Every day, in their white Maruti van converted into an ambulance, they go from one jhuggi to another, equipped with a first aid box that holds Lifebuoy soap, bandage gauze, cotton wool, surgical scissors, antibiotics, a jar of Betadine and other antiseptic ointments to heal wounds on the thousands of donkeys in and around Gurgaon.
A vet, Dr Birinder, volunteers with them. But they are themselves trained enough to clean an infected hoof, a bruised eye, a cut ear or a maggot-infested hole. Jean was a trainee nurse in England and the couple has been involved with animal welfare in India since 1994, when Bob was posted in Delhi as investigative immigration officer with the British high commission.
Gods of the animals
The slum-dwellers who own the donkeys know them well, and yet, reactions to them are not all sugar and honey. The odd malcontent, a woman in a bright pink ghaghra-choli, will say to Bob “you bastard” for not tending first to her donkey who’s got a steel pole rammed up his hind leg. But others fold their hands, say namaste to them, touch Jean’s feet and say to me, “Yeh hamare janwaron ke bhagwan hain (they are the gods of our animals)”.
But where are the guys who are paid to do this? The animal hospital people in Gurgaon? You hear it first-hand from the slum-dwellers: “Woh log nahi aate (They don’t come)”.
Around lunch time, Bob and Jean drive to a granary to pick up donkey food: jowar and bajra, sugarcane leaves and straw-like fodder.Often, people just stand around watching Bob lift these heavy life-sized sacks into the van on his own, and you wonder whatever happened to lending a helping hand, especially to an old man. They also have arrangements with vegetable vendors to spare the previous day’s damaged fruits and vegetables: bruised bananas, yesterday’s cabbage heads, carrots, and for dessert —overripe mangoes. Bob says you have to be careful with the mango serving size: “Don’t want them getting diarrhoea.”
From the granary, they drive to the village Khekri Majra, in the interiors of Gurgaon, where Bob and Jean have been leased a shelter for ten years by the municipal corporation. Here they greet the 43 animals currently in their care, including strays, and start preparing the meal. They have three men employed at Rs7,000 a month to help them. They could do with more help and provisions but donations are scarce. Save for a nominal amount form UK charities and some generous locals, scoring aid for donkeys is a fight.
A special kind of joy
You can tell how attached they are by the way they talk about their animals: “Aah, this one’s Jack,” Bob tells me while giving me a tour. “He’s our oldest resident. We found him blind one November two-three years ago in what is now called Nirvana County — poor fellow has all those bumps on his nose from banging into doors.”
Some have non-anglicised names too, but nothing more difficult than Raju or Anju. Bob used to have Hindi lessons back in the 90s when the high commission insisted. He has fond memories of Hari Lal, the tutor from Dehradun, who would arrive first thing in the morning and Bob and he would have tea and toast and try to understand each other. “He did quite a good job of teaching Bob,” says Jean, chuckling at the memory.
Jean relies more on gestures and a perfect rendition of the rustic “Oye! Oye! Oye!” to a donkey trying to pick a fight with an ass.
Was this the plan for retirement? Well, they just wanted the donkeys to lead better lives. Jean says that their children, proud as they are of Bob and Jean, complain that “it’s like not having parents”. And as much as the couple misses England, their children and grandchildren, their home, pubs and chip shops and “nice meals for vegetarians”, what Bob and Jean worry about is the future. What will happen to the donkeys when they’re gone? They need to find a successor, or two, someone with the same strength, dedication, and love for animals, someone who knows where Bob is coming from when he says, “I get satisfaction from cleaning hooves and knowing you’ve made a donkey comfortable.”
(To donate or learn more about Bob and Jean’s work, log on to theasswinproject.blogspot.com)