That extra-friendly black-and-white dog I see at the beach every weekend, what does he do after humans leave? That reclusive brown dog I see at the tea stall, why does she prefer buns to biscuits? That senior white dog I used to see on my biking route, what is he doing now? Would he be lonely? Or does he have friends? What’s their story? How did they start living on the roads? Aparna Karthikeyan makes me ask such questions through her book Woof!: Adventures by The Sea. All the animals we see in public places, how much do we know about their lives, and how can we make their lives better? In the heartwarming tale about a pack that lives on the Mumbai beach, Aparna offers subtle answers. She throws gentle spotlight on the strays, our own Indian mongrels, and relates their stories with imagination that brims with authenticity, and empathy. If Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildlings made me purr for the cats in Delhi, Aparna Karthikeyan’s Woof! makes my imaginary tail wag, wag, wag for the strays in Mumbai.
On the third day of the great Mumbai monsoon, a small cardboard box appeared on the beach. It had rained and rained all afternoon; the sky was still and grey, and the sand was soggy. The box got wet very quickly. It started wriggling. The jute rope around its middle danced; the packaging tape along its sides bulged. Suddenly, a leg punched a hole through the top; quickly, another popped out. Then came a very long nose. And one folded ear. By the time half the creature had emerged, a small crowd had gathered. They were all dogs. And they were not happy.
The life on the beach is hard for the Don, and her friends. They are all stray dogs. Besides the harsh elements — the sun, the sand, and the sea — their souls are battered by the sheer struggle of living amidst a sea of humanity that ignores their existence, or unleashes its cruelty on them. Adding to their misery, there’s now another puppy — our heroine Shingmo. She will now become a part of their pack (the alpha is a girl, and that’s refreshing!), their joy, their everyday battles, and above all, she will go on a bigger adventure. While Shingmo is our heroine, the story just doesn’t follow her. The narrator knows about every dog in the pack, and even everything about their rivals. All the dogs’ backstories are memorable, their voices unique, their characteristics distinct. It’s only right to say that the book’s cast is an ensemble.
Woof! starts with a very delightful illustration. It’s an introduction of the characters, with some adorable adjectives about each dog’s personality. Throughout the book, Sagar Kolwankar’s artwork is a fitting companion to Aparna Karthikeyan’s story. Just like how, in Aparna’s words, the dogs’ unique traits come to the surface, the illustrations, even if shown without any captions, can make me identify the dogs. Who can forget Thin’s Dustbin-is-Best face!
You know, people keep talking about this thing called kindess; they write poems and songs about it, but I haven’t really seen it much… Of course, some people are kind, but mostly, they’re very, very busy. They don’t have time to notice us; we’re just lumps curled up on the sand.
A rounded commentary about humans is made by Thug, a misunderstood dog, who just wants to have a chat, be scratched and hugged. People of all types can be found in Woof! Damu doesn’t have money to buy a cup of tea because he spent all that he had to get medicines for the strays. A policeman feeds the dogs biscuits dipped in tea. A woman brings meat and rice for the strays on the beach after a storm stops lashing. These are quotidian scenes in India, and they are even more soul-nourishing when they appear in Woof! because the dogs talk about them. And then there are those who abandon the dogs on the road because the dogs don’t know how to be Labradors, because the dogs are too much responsibility, and because the dogs are forgotten after a baby’s arrival. Imagine reading this book to a child. And how wiser the child would be for knowing that there are all sorts of people, different choices, and what does it take to being right! And, books on dogs don’t have to be awww-inducing, and tickle young readers with stories about goofy dogs. In Woof!, there is an elderly called Coconut, and he is often found ruminating about death. His meditation is full of wisdom, and warmth.
I should be forgiven for being too sure about the belief that stories about strays should end with our heroine finding a home. But Aparna Karthikeyan doesn’t end the book there. She gives that, and more. The pack’s bigger adventure, which makes them heroes in the eyes of the humans, is quite a surprise. The author just doesn’t talk to you, about adopting our Indies, in a non-preachy fashion, but she also decriminalizes the strays through the bigger adventure, and through every back story. She tells you why the strays do what they do. When humans are quick to call the strays a menace, the book shows that knowing them makes it easier to love them, and they should be loved. They deserve nothing less.
Aparna Karthikeyan’s Woof! Adventure By The Sea is a paean to our community dogs, our Indian mongrels. This country is their home, our hearts their thrones.
There’s enough poori in the world for everyone.