Like many of the people who have written essays, poems, short stories and created beautiful illustrations for two new anthologies on the animals who enrich our lives, I was a reluctant pet parent. Like Hemali Sodhi, editor of The Book Of Dog, writes in the introduction to the book about her own experience as a dog lover, I had never had pets growing up, and the closest I came to knowing an animal intimately was hearing my mother talk about a dog that had adopted her pet-crazy family when she was young. Years later, when we rescued an abandoned kitten from a petrol pump in Bengaluru, I was scared of the responsibility this entailed: “We already have a toddler at home, I don’t know how to care for a cat, and aren’t cats really cold and hostile?”
If anything, I thought of myself as a dog person.
Yet, within a few months, Neo had made a place in our home—and when she ran away one day while we were taking her to the vet, I walked around the neighbourhood looking for her in blinding rain for hours. We never found her, and, driving around, we would sometimes think we had spotted her grey and white body slinking around doorways. She’s not the last cat we lost, either—as anyone who loves cats and adopts them will attest, cat parenting is fraught with loss and grief, yet we become suckers for their feline presence and our lives feel incomplete without them.
All pet parents have stories to tell because loving an animal opens up corners of your heart you never suspected existed, and two new anthologies—Cat People, edited by Devapriya Roy (Simon & Schuster India), and The Book Of Dog edited by Sodhi (HarperCollins)—do a wonderful job of putting some of these stories together. Each essay and story brings alive a special relationship, and not always one of joy and humour and unconditional love—though there is all that too.
“Who can understand how I mourn for my pets unless they have mourned for a pet? Who can understand how I find it hard to write this, how I still stutter over the words, unless I equate it to loving a human, as though that’s the only kind of love there is,” writes Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan in her essay The Writer And Her Cat in Cat People, talking about having to put down a beloved cat.
Sometimes, these relationships can be complicated: In A Late Goodbye, Amitava Kumar writes about a dog he had given away in his teens in a tone that comes close to seeking redemption for a thoughtless act. “This brief piece is about not forgetting,” writes Kumar.
Both anthologies feature over 50 writers each, and essays and stories of varying lengths and even formats: If The Book Of Dog has several collections of photographs, among them Sooni Taraporevala’s The Dogs Of Marine Drive and Divya Dugar’s Chaos In A Coupe (about travelling in trains with three dogs and a baby), the cat book has a comic by Priya Sebastian and a photo essay by Craig Boehman. A few writers overlap: Arunava Sinha is in both books, in one as the translator of a short story about a cat by the iconic Bengali writer Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, and in the other as the chronicler of a series of haikus “written by a dog”; while Jai Arjun Singh writes evocatively about both the cats and dogs he has befriended, fed and tended to in his Delhi neighbourhood.
Each piece in these two books is to be savoured, re-read and shared, for even though they may not all be perfect, they all come from a true and honest place. Now excuse me while I go try to hug my cat Leo (yes, we are not very adventurous when it comes to naming our cats), who will no doubt just turn over and go back to sleep, not being given to sentimentality like us mere humans.