It is impossible to thread your way through Mumbai without glimpsing at least one or two stray dogs —it is hard to imagine this city without them. And it has always been this way.
In Mad Dogs and Parsis: The Bombay Dog Riots of 1832, Jesse Palsetia writes about the distaste felt by Mumbai dwellers toward the British when they indiscriminately slaughtered pariah dogs, following through on an 1813 British regulation. “Hindus and Jains held the caring for and feeding of stray dogs and other living creatures as an act of piety and religious merit,” writes Palsetia. But for Parsis*, “Zoroastrian eschatology held the dog to be the guardian of the Bridge of Judgement or Chinvat, before which every Zoroastrian is judged following death, and the faithful companion of the righteous across the Bridge to paradise.” Whatever the reason, the slaughter sent a tremor through the city, and its citizens–Hindus, Jains, Ismaili Muslims–led by the normally peaceable Parsi community, surged against the colonials.
This man-animal coexistence has lasted, somewhat fitfully, through the centuries. Mumbai isn’t a particularly kind city to animals. There are sudden rashes of intolerance; newspapers are clamorous with heart-crippling incidents of stray dogs being poisoned, starved, and beaten to death.
This man-animal coexistence has lasted, somewhat fitfully, through the centuries.
And yet, the city opens up oases. Apartment buildings keep strays that are fed and sheltered, in return for a touch of security. The general Parsi fondness for dogs has fruited at the headquarters of the Tata Group, a giant Indian business conglomerate. There, a small shelter has been opened on the ground floor, where a shoal of puppies are always tramping in and out. An Irani cafe near the Opera House opens its doors to “Lalee,” during the monsoon that chafes the city each year. The guards outside the American Consulate befriended stumpy little “Bush,” named after the once-POTUS. A few rickshaw drivers yield their back seats to sleepy strays at night. The teachers and bus drivers of J. B. Petit High School have fallen heavily for the charms of “Rani” (Queen). The affection for strays has spurred the creation of many new animal shelters, and photographs of warm-eyed puppies hoping for a home off the streets tunnel through social media. The city is punctuated with such hope.
Often, it appears to be the wealthy who lour at strays, believing them to be insanitary, intruders to civil society. But there is another city, a Mumbai lanced by bustling, asbestos-sheeted shanties, home to the poorest and most disenfranchised. Often, it is they who surrender their houses to animals. Footpath dwellers will share their beds with a stray dog. The threshold of a makeshift home will be curtained by a plucky mongrel.
After all, those who lead hardscrabble lives understand most keenly the struggles of the streets. Those who have the least often open their palms the widest.
*Followers of Zoroastrianism, the Parsis, are 10th C immigrants to India from Iran.