When Abodh Aras walks down a street, he doesn’t notice the vendors, the people walking past him or the watchmen outside buildings. His eyes go to the little dog snoozing under a vendor’s cart; or a puppy following a passerby, his tail wagging enthusiastically; or the good-natured dog keeping a bored watchman company. For Aras, chief executive officer at the Welfare of Stray Dogs, an NGO that provides stray animals medical care and vaccination, Mumbai wouldn’t be Mumbai without their presence.
In his recently-published book, My City, My Dogs, Aras introduces young readers to some of these happy street dogs. Published by Pratham Books, My City, My Dogs is filled with pictures that have been created using a combination of illustrations by Sumedha Sah and photographs by Hashim Badani.
“Generally, we tend to think of street dogs as nameless, faceless [creatures] just hanging around,” said Aras. “We tend to forget that they are pets of the underprivileged – the chai-wallah, the shoeshine guy, or maybe a homeless person. Somebody is looking after them. They keep them as pets for the same reasons as an apartment dweller with a pedigree dog – for companionship, love and affection. I thought that this facet needed to be portrayed in a fun way.”
In My City, My Dogs, one meets Champi, who hangs out with the sugarcane juice seller named Mauryaji at his stand near Mumbai’s Azad Maidan and is named after the head massage Mauryaji was getting when he first met the dog. Aras writes about Bogie, who lives in the first-class ladies’ compartment of a Mumbai local train, and Periappa, who loves to eat idli and dosa. “Every day, he visits three different restaurants for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” writes Aras. “Periappa is always eating or dreaming about food.”
“I have been interacting with street dogs for over 22 years and I have come across so many who have their own personalities, idiosyncrasies, characters traits, names and stories,” he said. “They have quirky little names, maybe named after a favourite Bollywood hero or where they were found.”
One of Aras’ favourite characters from the book is Traffic, a dog who hangs out by the Flora Fountain signal. “I have known Traffic – a very calm and gentle dog – for quite some time. I see him every day on my route from office to Churchgate. The traffic policeman told me that whenever they haul somebody for a traffic violation, Traffic goes and stand next to them as if on guard. They joke that he must have been a traffic policeman in a previous life. So, just like us these dogs also have a story of the life they lead in the city.”
According to Aras, it was Bijal Vachharajani, a friend and consultant editor at Pratham Books, who approached him to write a children’s book about the dogs he has met over the course of his work.
“I think children have a natural empathy towards the animals around them,” said Vachharajani. “Street dogs are around us everywhere and sometimes that is a child’s first interaction with an animal. Sometimes the child is friendly, sometimes scared. But, dogs and cats do feature as companions in many picture books for children.”
Dogs have been the character of choice for many books meant for children, such as Chintu and Naughty Dog by Kanchan Banerjee, a trustee at Pratham Books, and The Stupendous Timetelling Superdog by Himanjali Sarkar.
“Dogs make for very good protagonists for children’s books because they are lovable, but also gentle and uninhibited in how they express their love,” said Priya Kuriyan, a children’s illustrator and contributor to Dogs! An Anthology, a compilation of comics on dogs by various authors. Her comic, titled Gingerly, included in the anthology, tells the story of how Kuriyan, who is not a dog person, started liking them after a neighbour’s cocker spaniel forced a friendship and changed her opinion on dogs forever.
“My City, My Dogs is a lovely, gentle ode to street dogs and a city where everyone gets by with a little help from friends,” added Kuriyan. “I couldn’t help but notice how Sumedha has managed to capture the vulnerability that one sees in the eyes of street dog. It’s spot on. The unusual treatment of using photographs and illustration add a lot of whimsical charm to the story.”
According to children’s books author Aniruddha Sen Gupta, animal characters generally work with kids. “I guess that’s natural, given their cuteness quotient,” said the author who has written several stories involving canine characters and is currently working on a book chronicling his travels with his wife and their pet dogs. “They have an innocence that’s difficult to build into human characters without making them one-dimensional or maudlin, while at the same time allowing for the possibility of commenting incisively on human folly. That’s a deadly combination.”
The mixed media images in My City, My Dogs take you through some of the iconic places in Mumbai – the Art Deco Eros Theatre, the inside of a local train, the Anand Bhawan restaurant in Matunga and the always-buzzing streets. However, according to Aras, the portrayal of Mumbai and its heritage is a happy coincidence. “It’s not like we chose dogs based on their locations, but went with the more interesting stories instead,” he said. “But it is true that thanks to these dogs I know Mumbai very well. Not just the heritage places and monuments but the small gullies and places to eat etc.”
Sen Gupta, as charmed as he is by My City, My Dogs and books dealing with animal welfare issues, feels there is one small problem with such initiatives: “Such books often end up being seen by exactly those who are already sensitised to the issue, and perhaps are minimal in their larger influence. However, every little bit helps.”