Mine is a home of cats. Before I met our first tabby at the age of 18, I had considered myself a dog person – the vestiges of which still remain. Of the many great things about growing up in India, the greatest possibly is that a child is always in close proximity to animals.

Even in the absence of a family pet, children grow up in the company of cats, dogs, and sometimes even cows who have made the neighbourhoods as much their home as the human residents. Shortly after meal times, it is not uncommon to hear voices wafting out of homes calling out to the various strays to have their own fill of the leftovers. In my neighbourhood—and in many others, I’d like to believe—animals and humans coexist in harmony.

My early school years in Bharuch were marked by Gudiya wagging her tail and following my mother and me to the school bus-stop. A few years later in Vadodara we were outnumbered by Romeo, Laila and their litter of seven puppies. A month in summer was spent with us dogsitting the neighbours’ indie, Raju, when they were away on holiday. In Kolkata, Bholu found her way to us and over the course of seven years we took care of her and her numerous litters.

Bholu died of old age in 2019, but her spirit dwells in our hearts and her descendants, who now rule the neighbourhood. When I go out for my evening runs, I stop to pet Biskoot, Blacky, Bholu (version 2.0), and any other dog who responds to my unimaginative calls of snapping fingers or tch-tch-ing.

Now that I look back on it, my life can be demarcated with the comings and goings of the canines – which is remarkable since we never actually had a pet dog. But my recollections aren’t special. We have all loved dogs in our own unique ways. The Book of Dog is an ode to all the wonderful times that dogs have gifted us and changed us for the better.

Remarkable, funny, introspective dogs

The Book of Dog chronicles the lives of man’s best friend through personal essays, poems, haikus, and photo essays. Written by dog lovers (who also happen to be some of India’s popular public figures), each piece is a celebration of the deep abiding love between canines and their humans.

I have always believed that there are three types of books – cerebral, sentimental, and a mix of both. The Book of Dog belongs to the second type. It is difficult to critically read books that have purely sentimental intent, especially those concerning personal relationships. To the editor Hemali Sodhi’s credit, she has chosen contributors who have rarely, if ever, floundered with words.

When I picked up The Book of Dog, I had decided to not read it in the regular old way. The only way to read this anthology is by celebrating the many dogs that have loved us and pledging to do right by our faithful companions for as long as we live.

As I flipped through the pages reading about the many remarkable, funny, and introspective dogs that live among us, I was reminded that so much of loving is also about losing. Among all the injustices of life, the short lifespan of dogs has to be one of the gravest. The only way to save yourself from this particular heartbreak is to fall in love with animals that will outlive you – tortoises, elephants, and maybe even red sea urchins.

The emotions in The Book of Dog are intense – you could be laughing at a dog’s silliness and sobbing just as readily in the next few lines as the author remembers a beloved pet through times of sickness and death. Whenever a piece would start in the past tense, I’d gear up for the heartache waiting for me in the final paragraphs.

As a pet parent who has nursed a senior cat through a stroke and maggot infestation, I know only too well that illnesses in pets can be especially distressing. I cannot fathom what it feels like to lose them. But I imagine that when the time comes, instead of grieving, pets would want us to remember them with fondness and have us care for other animals with the same tenderness that they had gleaned from us.

Lessons they teach us

“The Bow-Wow Years”, “The Dogs Someone Drew”, “Shehzada Ozu: The Postcolonial Pekingese”, “Tingmo’s Day’, and “The Canine Commandments” are laugh-out-loud funny. We have first person accounts of dogs as they narrate the peculiarities of their humans, a love letter to fictional dogs and imaginary pets, and the commandments for being the righteous human that your dog thinks you are. These pieces make for the happy, lighthearted segment of the book.

“The Way of Sunlight”, “Doggone Gods”, “The Elegant Mr Darcy and the Brooding Heathcliff”, “Dogs of a Lifetime”, and “Pumba and I” are about dogs that have saved us over and over as we swim through the tides of life. Warm and funny, these stories remind us that without dogs, it is but a diminished life.

“Till Death Do Us Part”, “Siddhi: Queen of the ATM”, “The Dogs of War”, “Why Do We Go Looking for Children of the Heart?”, “Death, Dignity, Dogs’, “Dogs Never Die”, “Editor’s Editor”, “Yippee, and “Kafka’s Last Mango” are incredible tales of love, devotion, and loss. These are the stories that completely wrecked me. Heartbreaking as they are, I think the fraction of our lives that we spend with our canine companions is what makes our time together so precious.

The Book of Dog, and all dogs really, teach us two lessons – to live in the moment and find joy in the small things in life. And as you go through life meeting, befriending, loving, and losing dogs, remember that there are only two things that matter – all dogs are good dogs, and dogs never die.

As for myself, I will probably not be adopting a dog anytime soon. But until then, I’ll continue to video call and send virtual kisses to friends’ dogs and pet the puppies that accompany me on my evening runs. As I grow through the years, I hope to fall in love with every dog that has ever extended its paw to me. I hope you do too.

The Book of Dog

The Book of Dog, edited by Hemali Sodhi, Harper Collins India.