A dog almost named Christmas
Apublisher friend put out a desperate message on Facebook. She and her family wanted to go away to Goa over the Christmas holidays; apart from their other dogs, they had a small puppy at home they didn’t want to leave behind,” writes author Ananya Vajpeyi in her essay, Till Death Do Us Part, in The Book Of Dog. This precious book, edited by Hemali Sodhi and published by HarperCollins, contains 45 original pieces by some of India’s leading writers about the special bond between them and the remarkable dogs in their lives.
Vajpeyi writes that she had barely finished reading the message when her mother—who had become a parent to dogs even before the author came along—got into her car, reached the friend’s home, and returned with a golden Cocker Spaniel. “Mama proposed he be called ‘Christmas’, since he had arrived during the holidays. Puniya, my parents’ trusted housekeeper—a Christian herself—said ‘Kishmish?’,” writes Vajpeyi.
And that’s how the sweet little raisin-like puppy came to rule the roost in her mother’s household. He was later joined by a rescued dog, who was “strange, wondrous and quite unique”, hence named Anokhi. In the essay, Vajpeyi chronicles her evolving relationship with Kishmish and Anokhi, who came into her life as her mother’s dogs but became her own after her mother died of lung cancer nearly five years ago.
The bond between Vajpeyi and the two canines has only become stronger with time. She has just returned home for Christmas from a trip and one can see them cuddled around her in blissful contentment. “When my mother got Kishmish and Anokhi, I didn’t live with her. I would only visit. I came to stay with her for the last two-three months of her life. When she passed away, suddenly everything became my responsibility—the house, the garden, the library, the housekeeper and, of course, the dogs,” she says. She and her husband gave up their home in another part of Delhi and moved into Vajpeyi’s parents’ house.
Things were complicated as the couple planned to go overseas on assignment. At the time, it only seemed logical to put the dogs up for adoption. “I was inundated with calls and messages, random people asking to adopt the dogs—or rather, Kishmish, ‘golden wala dogie’, but not both. Indians are caste-conscious even about animals, it turned out,” writes Vajpeyi in her essay. A pair of sisters—a doctor and a schoolteacher—reached out one day and came home to take the dogs. The departure of Anokhi and Kishmish triggered grief so profound and visceral that it evokes a strong emotion even now within Vajpeyi. She knew she simply had to get the two back home. Vajpeyi rang the sisters and requested that the dogs be returned to their original home—which is now their home for life. When the author told her friend, Rani Neutill—a writer herself and a passionate dog person—about this, the latter remarked, “They didn’t want to leave because they didn’t want to abandon you…I think your mother instructed them to stay with you no matter what, and to take care of you after she was gone.
“I thought I was saving Kishmish and Anokhi. But in fact, it was they who saved me,” writes Vajpeyi.
And they continue to do so till today. During the pandemic, being cloistered together 24x7 has brought them closer than ever. Vajpeyi calls them the greatest comfort of her life. “The fact that one has to completely organise one’s life around them doesn’t seem like a problem any more. I would rather do that than anything else,” she says. “I have had a very difficult year, with my husband and I separating. Earlier, we would divide their responsibilities between us. Now I realise that this is what people with children go through when they are getting divorced and sorting out child custody.”
While the process of separation—though amicable—is still painful, the dogs have ensured she and her husband stay connected. Anokhi and Kishmish also fully exploit the fact that their human parents feel guilty about putting them through the stressful process of breaking up their family unit. “They were my mother’s dogs but now they are mine. I will do anything for them that my mother would have done for them. And that includes never leaving them till I go or they go from this world. That is non-negotiable. They are the reason I love to come home,” says Vajpeyi.
The comfort of a dog’s love
It was around Christmas in 2018 that Chennai-based author and journalist Aparna Karthikeyan brought Shingmo home. But her acquaintance with the tiny pup was a few months longer. She had been walking on the beach in Mumbai—where she lived then—after a vicious spell of rain when she came across a brown puppy with a sooty black nose. Karthikeyan wondered how she would cope against the attacks of resident dogs. But resilient little Shingmo managed to survive.
That was until December, when the tick fever affected her health and she fell ill. “One felt that she wouldn’t make it. That’s when I got her home,” says Karthikeyan, who has authored Woof! Adventures By The Sea (published by Red Panda), her love letter about strays and the beach, set in Mumbai, a city she lived in for seven monsoons. “Around the same time, a family member also had a massive health scare.”
It was a traumatic time for Karthikeyan—she would find herself at the vet one day and at the doctor’s the other. “But things changed for the better. It was lovely that both turned the corner around the same time,” she says. Initially, there were some territory issues between Shingmo and Karthikeyan’s older dog, who was a year and a half at the time. However, as Shingmo began to move around, they quickly adjusted to one another. “I still remember the New Year’s Eve party that year. There is a photo of my husband and I, each with a dog in our hands. Fifteen days prior to that, neither of us could have imagined this scenario,” she says.
Karthikeyan has always been mad about dogs. But her grandfather was completely against the idea of a pet. At the age of 17, however, she convinced her grandmother. “She relented. Tracy came home, a beast of a dog, her mother an Alsatian, her father a Dobermann. She was 13 when she died, and I was heartbroken. When I was 43, I had a fit and begged my family—again!—that I must have a dog. This time was a little different. Puchu was born in a gutter, we had no idea what breed her mother was, what her father was. She became my heartbeat, my shadow; the rescue dog that rescued me,” Karthikeyan wrote in a 2020 piece for Lounge.
She formed yet another indelible bond with a stray around Christmas, two years ago. This is the story of Granny, Karthikeyan’s oldest adoptee at 13 years of age. One night in December, close to Christmas Eve, she saw a dog being attacked by canines from her own pack. “Until then, I had not given her much thought. She was an ‘outside dog’,” says Karthikeyan. After the attack, however, the author began looking out for Granny. She discovered that the dog was aged, had had many litters, and the canine that had attacked her was her own granddaughter. Granny finally came home to Karthikeyan five months ago. “I learnt, from watching the stray dogs up close, how clever and resilient they were. What personalities they had. And what capacity, to love, to forgive. Maybe we can, together, reduce conflict if more street dogs are adopted…. Perhaps we’d have fewer dogs outside, fighting to survive. They deserve better. And so do we; the love and loyalty of a dog—any dog—is precious,” she wrote in her 2020 piece.
All wrapped up in tinsel and gold
Christmas is a hectic time at Nalini Sorensen’s home. Hailing from a Catholic family, the Bandra, Mumbai-based author is carrying her mother’s traditions forward—of baking up a storm, sharing sweets within the neighbourhood, listening to carols while decorating the Christmas tree. And giving her company is Sydney, the beautiful Groodle (Golden Retriever and Poodle mix) who loves the festival, perhaps even more than she does. Dressed up in a Santa hat, she looks forward to seeing the ornaments go up and waits with bated breath for her present under the tree. “My sons aren’t spoilt but my dog-ter is,” says Sorensen.
Also read: Christmas 2022: A feast far away from home
Sydney came home around Christmas in 2017, when Sorensen and her family were living in Australia (hence the name). They shifted to Mumbai in 2018. At the time too, the puppy got all excited when she saw boxes of shiny baubles being opened. “She tried to help…by chewing the ornaments off the tree. As a result, the bottom part of the tree was bare, with only the top half featuring baubles,” laughs Sorensen.
This instance finds mention in her 2018 book, Lucky, It’s Not Just a Christmas Story!, published by HarperCollins. While the setting of the holiday season is incidental, the book is about companionship between a child and a dog, and is written from the latter’s perspective.
“The boxes are all open, and this is the most fun I’ve had in months.These boxes are the best! There are all kinds of interesting things in them. Things I have never seen before. First, I take a ball-shaped thing and run…. Then I take a long string of something that is soft and shiny and run. It’s so long that it feels like my tail has grown and grown and now trails on the ground,” Sorensen writes in the book.
At her home, Sydney seems to epitomise the very spirit of Christmas, spreading warmth wherever she goes—a classic case of real life spilling into fiction!