THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC made a lot of lonely people take in stray puppies or kittens for companionship, and those who already had pets (who were delighted with their owners staying home all day) got to know their wards more intimately. But we have been keeping dogs and cats as pets for thousands of years and in these two collections of 45 dog and 32 cat tales, there are essays, short stories, memoirs, photo-features and even verse.
Hemali Sodhi and Devapriya Roy have brought together a galaxy of pet lovers to give tribute to their beloved animals.
Both dogs and cats come with their stereotypical characteristics: dogs are exuberant, eager to please and give us unconditional love —something we value above all and usually do not get from our own kind. Cats are cool, independent and may condescend to please you if it pleases them. The most interesting pets of course are those that break these stereotypes, the mavericks: dogs which are stubborn, die-hard mutts who will have their way and maybe even snap at babies, and cats which will sit in your lap purring like miniature steam engines all day without ever slipping out their claws or stalking off rudely even as you murmur sweet nothings to them.
And likewise their owners! Most pet owners gush adoringly over their pets, describing them in saccharine terms, which they would dare not use even for their own children, or most beloved. (If dogs and cats could read I sometimes wonder how embarrassed they might be) These owners let their pets get away with bad behaviour, and indulge in habits they would never tolerate in their own kith and kin. Unfortunately dogs and cats have shorter lives than us —and there’s always heartbreak and trauma waiting around the corner, sometimes never to be gotten over. But then there are those, more grounded types who know that a dog is a dog and a cat is a cat and they must be treated within the norms of their own species.
In both these books, we meet more of the former (marshmallow) type of owner, which is perhaps an indicator of how much we still need the warmth, affection and most of all, perhaps, the companionship of another living breathing entity (especially in these times where everything artificial is up on a pedestal.) I was amazed at the lengths some owners went; the indulgences they allowed their pets. We had two golden rules for our dogs (two Boxers and a bipolar Labrador): no feeding at the table, and no getting onto beds or chairs —both for very good reasons, for both them and us. A drooling, whining dog looking imploringly at you while you ate (after having just eaten its own meal) kind of puts you off your food (and it is really just trying to claim the “boss” position in your household), and allowing a dog to recline on your bed or sofa is an invitation for ticks and fleas to turn it into an ashram for themselves and bleed your pet dry. Nor is a drooled-upon pillow the best place to rest your head. We learned both these lessons the hard way.
These two books are as much about the dogs and cats that inhabit them as it is about their owners. The books provide journaling of a type, and can be quite personal. Cats have always had a reputation of being literary muses (you can write/type with a purring cat in your lap, not a slobbering bulldog licking your face) and some of the pieces in Cat People are exactly that —literary works, and even short stories. Moreover, many literary leading lights —Doris Lessing for example, were obsessed with cats (and not so much apparently with her own children). And it’s often been said that the kind of dog you keep reflects the kind of person you are. Happy-go-lucky foodies will keep Labradors and stern disciplinarians go for Rottweilers or German Shepherds. And of course, we aam janta go for Indies.
What’s upsetting however—and what also emerges from these books —is the number of strays —both dogs and cats —to be found (and sometimes picked up) wandering our streets and in animal shelters. Most of these have descended from generations of strays who have lived on the streets (and know how to cross roads), the more unfortunate are abandoned by their owners —for one reason or another. One of the fall-outs of the post-lockdown era —those who picked up kittens and puppies during the lockdowns —are now shedding them on the streets to fend for themselves as they return to their own lives, which in turn tells us a lot about their own character.
Also reflecting our own character perhaps is the fact that there are zero pieces focussed on disciplining our pets; an essay or two on how to make a sociopathic pet fit for company (both human and animal) would have been very practical and useful indeed. There are, however, heart-warming stories of how traumatised, petrified puppies and kittens, rescued from the gutter, have with the application of copious love, patience, care, time and, I suspect, large quantities of biscuits and fish, turned into confident, happy animals.
I have deliberately refrained from mentioning the names of some of the standout contributors to this book, only because some as deserving will invariably get left out: all in all the pieces are engaging, personal, interestingly written and original; a few, alas, reminded me of essays written in school. None fall short on emotion.
The best takeaway from these two books is that as a reader you can marry the two and benefit hugely from the match. From dogs you get warmth, unconditional love; from cats you learn to be a cool customer who values independence above all
Share this on
As dogs and cats are considered like chalk and cheese, are “cat-people” different from “dog-people” in a similar way and will the twain ever meet? I think one of the best takeaways from these two books is that as a reader you can marry the two and benefit hugely from the match. From dogs you get warmth, unconditional love (which means forgotten anniversaries and temper tantrums are quickly forgiven and forgotten), the desire to please and sheer joie-de-vivre; from cats you learn to be a cool customer who takes no bullshit from anyone and who values independence above all. Then, of course, there are those who have kept both dogs and cats as pets, both separately and at the same time. Brought up together in the same house, dogs and cats will get on with one another despite the diktats of their glorious history of hostility. (Is there a lesson in this for us?) What is even more fascinating are the cases where dogs, living with cats, behave more like them than they do themselves—and vice versa. (Though I suspect there would be fewer cats that behave like dogs than the other way around.)
Most dog and cat owners these days call themselves “pet parents”, some even refer to their wards as their “children” and many of the contributors to this book are no exception. Personally, I would draw the line here; I would willingly accept being called a dog-owner, or dog-lover or even a dog-carer but never a dog (or should that be god?) father —even though I have talked a lot of toddler-gibberish to my dogs.
For anyone interested in our favourite domestic pets, both these books will make rewarding reading: there’s literary merit, originality, some very interesting characters (canine, feline and human) and an insight on how these animals can insert themselves into, and change, our lives and hearts forever, usually in the best, happiest way possible.