This is the story of five humans and five animals, all of whom are part of the same nuclear family. The humans take care of the animals, and the animals take care of the humans even better.
Within less than a year, we went from being a family who had never had pets to a family with five pets — one beloved dog, Scarlet, and four cats: Rahat, Faiza, Badal and Aasman. I will take many breaks while writing this column to open doors for four-legged creatures, serve food and treats, lay out a durrie in a spot of sun, bring back a runaway cat from the park next door and randomly check on the kittens if I don’t hear the sound of them chasing each other for too long. I will tell the dog to kindly leave me alone and call on others in the home to distract her. I might even get up to go take a photo of her when she settles down, because what’s the point of being in love if you don’t document it?
I’ll admit it without hesitation — the arrival of pets in our life has been disruptive. It is the exact disruption we need. Taking care of them has levelled the hierarchies between the adults, children and staff in our home, all of whom are secretly besotted with the animals. They leave us with less energy to indulge the anxieties and excesses that we are otherwise not smart enough to keep out from our lives. They bring discipline to our lives and reward us with the satisfaction of a job well done when they settle down for a long nap after a satisfying meal.
Our children had been adding a dog on a leash in their drawings of the family in their sketch books ever since they were little. Sometimes when I shared photos of these drawings on my Instagram or Facebook, friends have commented that I need to get our daughters a dog. I would be startled by the comment, because I hadn’t seen the connection myself.
“We can get pets when you are old enough to take care of them,” we told our children.
“How old do we have to be?” the youngest asked us.
I must have randomly said, “Eleven,” because she reminded us of this conversation a few months before she turned 11 last year. To honour her wish, we got a puppy and a kitten, both three months old and rescued by volunteers from the city’s streets. That’s when the surprises, unexpected joys and moments of great learning began to pile up.
“Priceless!” a friend had messaged when she first saw photos of Scarlet and Rahat. “It’s a completely new ball game from here. Pets stretch our hearts out and show us how deep our own reservoirs are. Very soon you will be having deep, meaningful conversations and wonder why others can’t understand that he/she is actually responding.”
Our third pet, Faiza, entered our lives during lockdown, which was as hard on stray animals on the streets as it was on India’s working poor. Faiza was scrawny and timid and probably hadn’t eaten for days when she appeared at our gate. We began to feed her and soon discovered that she was also pregnant. Eight months later, her kittens Badal and Aasman have converted our home into their playground as we try to keep track of feeding and cleaning schedules among us.
One of the surprises of becoming a pet parent is the bond one automatically feels with others who care for animals. An otherwise reticent person, I find myself starting conversations with everyone else in the waiting area outside Friendicoes, the animal shelter where we go to consult the veterinarian for our cats and dog. Most people are holding on to a sick pet or even a dying one, and the empathy flows easily. We acknowledge each other’s worries and fears about the animals in our care. We offer solace and are unembarrassed to speak lovingly with the animals, who look back with trusting eyes. Barriers of class and personal politics that otherwise separate us, crumble as we bask in the common love for our pets.
As I follow our energetic Scarlet on her morning run in the forest park next door, I refresh my own mind at the start of every new day. She picks up colourful plastic bags and other trash she finds in the grass and shows me her temporary new toy before running off to play with it. She leaps into puddles and races to startle egrets. Her unnecessary happiness rubs off on those who witness her boundless energy.
Being with animals truly does open our hearts. We find it hard to cross any other street animal without wondering about the quality of their life. We carefully re-calibrate our home budget to fulfil their needs. I sublimate the frustration of not being able to reach out to humans by connecting quietly with a grateful animal. Caring for others heals a part of us that was lying neglected. So, go ahead, do disrupt your life, too, like we have done.
— The writer is an author