In recent days, when walking Lara downstairs, or walking for provisions through colony roads so quiet that I imagine I can hear every leaf that falls from every tree, it’s been possible to appreciate how healthy and idyllic the natural world is when disinfected of most human activity. A few days back I saw six young tailless peacocks walking in single formation along one of our lanes; otherwise one rarely sees more than two together at a time. And it turns out the air-quality index can reset fast in even a place like Delhi.
It would be too easy — especially for a long-time misanthrope like yours truly— to turn this into a reductive “humans are the real virus/we are the most destructive species” meme. But because a large part of my life in recent years has been organised around street dogs, and because these are very social animals who not just depend on humans for food but also genuinely like being around us (even as they learn to become wary of the many people who dislike them), I have also had access to another vantage point. Namely, how sad and lonesome and empty a human-free world might look like through the eyes of a creature that has evolved socially alongside us over tens of thousands of years, become one of our most steadfast companions, emotionally enriching many of us along the way.
At a personal, immediate level, what’s been most difficult for me the last few days is hearing the new urgency in the barking of the colony dogs in the far distance. Plus the very nervous, agitated or watchful reactions of my home/part-time-home dogs (across two flats) as they hear distress calls from other members of their species. Or the sudden growling when they sense that an unfamiliar creature, terrified and hungry, has drifted into their territory in search of food.
As I mentioned in a Facebook post a few days ago, the dogs living in the PVR complex in Saket (that is, the ones who aren’t being regularly fed by Pratima Devi) have been looked after for years by individual shops and dhabas and secondhand-book vendors. People who have now had to shut shop and head home. Yesterday evening, along with Moutushi Sarkar — co-author of the dog book I am still hoping to get done at some point — I set off to check on the PVR situation. Part of me was prepared for the worst: for the sight of dozens of ravenous dogs fighting each other viciously for food, threatening humans too; an unmanageable situation where our packets of biscuits and paneer would amount to nothing. (And no point being idealistic or sanguine about this: such things *are* probably happening in many other places, and will continue if things get worse and stay worse for weeks.)
Instead we saw small signs, even in a spookily deserted and quiet complex, of the strength of this magical inter-species relationship. A young boy who worked at a dhaba, has to continue living in the complex because he has nowhere else to go, cooks his own daily meals with the most meagre resources, but still worries about the animals he knows well. The elderly bookseller who, filled with unrest, somehow managed to leave his house after two days and make his way back to the complex just to check on his dogs and cats (and gave us instructions about what each animal is likely to eat). The parking-lot attendant and the chowkidar who, despite being in dire straits themselves, were doing what they could for a litter of pups.
Moutushi and I and a couple of others are trying to coordinate efforts towards some regular/semi-regular feeding. It probably won’t be enough (what is ever “enough” anyway, even in a non-Covid time?), and as stocks deplete everywhere there may be enormous frustrations to come. For some of us, it can be a big emotional/mental-health risk at a time like this to take on the responsibility of regularly feeding specific street dogs and pups: they very quickly go from being a mass of yapping abstractions to individual creatures with personalities, they start communicating with you in their own distinct ways (my two big life-altering relationships with dogs began in this way, in the same colony lane, seven years apart) — and if we are forced to stop the feeding it will be devastating. But it’s a risk one has to take. We do what we can.