I wrote a love letter, a little over a hundred pages long. It’s called Woof! Adventures By The Sea. Yes, it is about dogs and a beach, and it is set in the city I have lived in for seven monsoons: Mumbai.
It all began on 14 February, 2017, when Puchu, our rescue puppy, came home with heart-shaped spots on her body. She was black and white and a little broken, her spirit destroyed by an adoption that had gone awfully wrong. But her foster mum was wonderful, Puchu had healed physically, and slowly, slowly the pup learnt to trust us. Quickly, she taught us how to be dog parents, and we learnt from her that thing called “unconditional love”. How easily it comes to dogs, we marvelled, how reluctantly, if at all, to humans.
Puchu changed our lives, forever. Definitely for the better. (Except some mornings, when the last thing we wanted to do was walk.)
It was thanks to her, to those walks, that I discovered a new world: of stray dogs.
I’ve always been mad about dogs. My family wasn’t, and thatha, my grandfather—a very tall, very gentle man—hated the idea. I was thatha’s pet, but I wasn’t allowed any, not of the animal kind. As a kid, I remember walking around the hall with placards demanding a dog, and my brother, then very little, trotting behind me. Years later, when I was 17, I convinced ammama, my grandmother, that I absolutely *must* have one. 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 hissy 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.
During our morning walks, Puchu and I met a pack of dogs. Initially hostile and territorial, they warmed up to us slowly. They hung out with us, and a couple became very close: Krya and Thin, mother and daughter, two dogs who couldn’t be more different. For Krya was sleek and beautiful, she walked as if she were royalty, and someone behind was holding up the train of her gown.
Thin was an everyday brown, an ordinary dog. Nobody had a name for her—Krya had many; one man called her Dommy, another, Chingma—but Thin had time for everyone. She went up to greet the uncle who gave her a chew stick; she ran to meet new dogs. She loved scratches. When she saw me sit on the sand, she came running, tumbled into my lap, and grunted (like a pig!) until I gave her many soft scratches on her tummy…
We went on long walks, Puchu, Krya, Thin and I; we sat by the waves and watched the sun paint the sea orange as it set.
Life was peaceful…until Shingmo tumbled into our lives.
The beach, I learnt, meant many things for many people. For me, it was a spiritual experience, every sunset divine, every morning, a miracle. For a few others, it was the place to chuck what they no longer wanted. Especially puppies and dogs. In July 2018, during a vicious spell of rain, I saw a new puppy, brown with a sooty black nose. I wondered how she’d cope—the resident dogs attacked and bullied her—but she survived. That pup—she had four names, one of which was Shingmo—became our Honorary Dog on the beach.
But that December she fell spectacularly ill. The beach was cold and windy, and she shivered and struggled to stand. We brought her home, worried how we’d manage—my husband just had a nasty health scare—but manage we did and everybody recovered, our family grew bigger, with two dogs and three humans, and many furry friends on the beach. And 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.
Of course, not everybody has such a positive experience. But maybe we can, together, reduce conflict if more street dogs are adopted. If more people came forward to give these wonderful creatures a home, instead of shopping for a pedigree pup. 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.
Ask me, I know. Every morning, I’ve walked with the girl-dogs, and they’ve taught me lessons no school or university can. Woof! is the (fictionalized) story of my best friends—Shingmo, Puchu, Krya and Thin; it is also the story of this beach, and many compassionate people who call this city home…