Mansi loves animals. In Berkeley, she spent a lot of her time working with the Berkeley Animal Care Services. She would attend to dogs and cats, take them for walks and help out in their care. My only contribution to this task in all the months she did it, was to drive her to the care shelter and pick her back up. In spite of multiple opportunities to accompany her to the shelter, I never did. I wasn’t too much of an animal enthusiast. It’s just something I had never paid attention to: whether I loved animals was a question I had never asked myself.
On our evening walks, we would usually find ourselves sitting in a park, watching people playing with their dogs. Berkeley is dog country: well, dog and cyclist country. To think of it, all world should be dog and cyclist country: people and vehicles have not proven to be very successful alternatives. Anyways I digress. Watching these dogs play, I started paying more attention to their behavior. What struck me first was dogs have very unique personalities: I could spot a playful one, a mischievous one, a bored old one, an unfriendly one that really didn’t want to hang out with other dogs. Some of these dogs would get bored of fellow dogs, and stray our way. When some dogs surround you and start acting cute, you have little choice but to pat them. So, over these evening walks, I started observing and even liking dogs.
The evening walks continued after moving back to Delhi. Like always, Mansi would pay attention to dogs, only this time they were everywhere and not in a park. She would stop often to either pet a stray, or buy a packet of biscuit and feed him. I often stood at arm’s distance and shouted cautions such as “don’t touch him – he’s probably infected!” Sometimes, I would make ridiculous statements like “you don’t have to feed them you know, they are strays and are experts at finding food. Your feeding them affect their scavenging skills.” I think what’s more ridiculous than that statement, is that I believed in it.
In some ways, Delhi is more of a dog country than Berkeley. For all the comforts and rights dogs enjoy in the West, a lot of animals with declining health and no owners are euthanized there. In Delhi, stray dogs thrive because they are not “put away”. They survive on what we throw away, sleep under cars, play and fight with each other, and die when it’s time. Bottom line: Delhi is a good place for an animal lover who wants to help. On one of her evening walks, Mansi spotted an old bearded man carrying a big bag of biscuits feeding every stray in the neighborhood. He was being followed by an army of dogs, all vying for his affection and some biscuits. She came home and told me of the Pied Piper of dogs she had spotted. I knew what she was talking about: I had seen him feed stray dogs ever since I was a child. I was happy to know he was still alive, and still at it.
Few days later, Mansi came back from a walk and told me she had spotted that uncle, and struck conversation. His name is AK Goyal. He told her that feeding strays was his way of experiencing pure, selfless love, and that he felt the affection he received from these animals far outweighed the petty price of feeding them. Mansi asked if we could help him (I was auto-signed up for the activity by her). He said that in the park right in front of our house lived two dogs, and he could used help in feeding them since his old dog Manu who always accompanied him refused to go that far (our apartment is some distance from his).
Mansi was very happy to be given this responsibility. The next evening, we bought a large bag of rusks, and left for the park with some of it. Dogs are good at hiding themselves when they want to, so we had to look around for dogs that fit his description: one old, white male and a smaller, brown female. We spotted them, threw some “come hither” gestures their way and waved the bag of biscuits. Reluctantly they approached us. The female was shaking and terrified of what we may do, but couldn’t help herself getting drawn towards food. We made two piles of rusks, and left.
The next day, we returned in the evening. They recognized us: the male came running but the female was still scared, and approached slowly. We fed them, and were on our way again. Over the next few weeks, they understood we were harmless (makes me think of how many people would’ve just kicked them around for the fun of it, they seemed scared of people in general). They would be joyous when we approached them, run around in circles, wag their tales furiously and escort us to the park gate when we left. All this affection rubs off on you; it did on me. I lost my reservation against strays, started patting them, and now usually come back home with their licks on my hands and sometimes even on my face.
Like Goyal uncle had said, as I got regular in feeding them, I realized they really were about pure selfless love. Feed a dog once, and he’s all yours. One small act of kindness is enough to convince him that you’re worthy of his love. And dogs always seem to have a lot of love to give away. We’ve been feeding them for four months now, pretty much without fail. It’s a routine: Mansi or I go to the park alone or together, they come running to us, insist we pat them, and only after we’ve played with them for some time do they graduate to eating their food. A lot of times, they accompany us all the way back to our apartment gate.
We bumped into Goyal uncle one of these days, and told him we had been feeding the dogs regularly. He smiled and told us he had given the two names (he has named every stray dog in the neighborhood, and some smart ones even respond to their names). He called the older male Buddhu, and the petite female Chhoti. Good names, I thought. Buddhu really is a little dumb, and Chhoti is pretty small for stray standards.
Everyday, I look forward to the 10 minutes I spend feeding Buddhu and Chhoti. To connect with another creature: not through words, or actions, but just through touch, makes me believe love can connect different species. Under this skin, maybe all of us living beings are the same: hungry for love, compassion, and some patting.