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Sunday, 16 April 2017

481) Leisure Time Short Stories (2): ARVIND DADA AND THE STREET DOGS:

481) Leisure Time Short Stories (2): ARVIND DADA AND THE STREET DOGS:

 (This short story first appeared in our blog It is being placed here for wider coverage)

My wife Sumita and I were posted in Mumbai for about five years during one of our assignments with a Bank.

 One of the things that we observed about Mumbai was the co-existence of humans and animals, particularly dogs and cats in a city where time and tide waited for no one and where the weak and faint hearted could not survive even for a single day.

For example, on the streets of Mahim where we were staying, we used to go for after-dinner walks and it was a strange sight for the pavements (like elsewhere in Mumbai) to turn into “residential quarters”, where you could see a family of homeless cane weavers co-existing with 4-5 dogs and cats. You could see some members of the family engaged in cooking, while others would be weaving  baskets  etc. or a set of elderly men engaged in an animated conversation seated on cane stools while a couple of teenagers would tend to babies lying in make-shift cradles.

Elsewhere, near a church, a small canvas canopy would come up for the night and a man (we never knew if he had had a square meal that evening, for he looked like a poor beggar) would be fast asleep curled up with two dogs and a cat who it would seem had had an even nastier day by the way they would be fast asleep.

Then again, at night, the vegetable vendors on the streets would have made bundles of their vegetable baskets/remaining stock under canvas sheets tied with rope and promptly at the appointed time, street dogs would appear from out of thin air, perch themselves on one of these bundles and zealously guard the contents underneath throughout the night, perhaps fed by the particular vegetable vendor during the day. Mysteriously, these living rooms, bedrooms, dining rooms, nurseries and animals would vanish at daylight and one wondered if it was all a dream or a figment of one’s imagination.

If you went for a morning walk, it was another common sight to see two-three senior citizens sharing space on a park bench with a dog sitting on its haunches on the bench, who at first sight would look very much a part of the morning walker’s group.

My wife and I used to commute by the Bandra morning locals 9.10 a.m. or the 9.22 a.m. from Mahim to Church-gate Railway station to get to our office on Madame Cama Road, a good three-quarter km. away. In the busy morning rush to get to office, during one of our initial trips to office, just opposite the Church-gate station exit, we spotted a bunch of 5 dogs parked around a shoe shine box guarding it and trying to sleep at the same time, perhaps exhausted with keeping guard around the shoe-shine man all night.

Suddenly, a thin lame man appeared who hobbled along to a neat looking seat and asked politely, “Shine your shoes, Sir?”.

We were rather intrigued with the dogs and what were they doing with a shoe shine man so I nodded in affirmation. He seemed to be in no hurry to finish with the shoe shine and seemed to go on for ever, quite a relief from the precision-timed Mumbai life which we were slowly getting accustomed to. We asked him how he had got the dogs.

 Shyly, he narrated his story. He was from Calcutta, and from a family of doctors and an avid football fan. There was some disagreement in the family at about the age of fourteen and he had run away from home some thirty five years ago. Since then he had lived in the streets of Mumbai and the dogs were his best friends ever since. He had been chased by the Mumbai Municipal Corporation several times, his little possessions confiscated; sometimes he had to go without food but his tenacity had made him survive on the streets of Mumbai. He had never thought of going back, because that would have been too demeaning for him.

Now he lived with his pet dogs about him, the waiters of the restaurants around would give him food and he slept in their quarters. He was particularly fond of a dog called Jackie, who was of a superior breed and who he had raised from a pup and he feared that Jackie would run away one day because he did not have a dog chain. Our office colleagues who were waiting impatiently for us to finish with the shoe-shine man were getting late as were we, so I asked them to go on and my wife and I continued with the discussion as we was very intrigued by this man’s story. All along several other commuters who wanted their shoes polished, quietly slipped away as Arvind Dada, for that was his name, would not stop shining my shoes. My wife, who is a Bengali, spoke to him in Bengali, and he responded. I asked him whether because of us he was losing his customers. He replied nonchalantly “I have already earned today’s quota, Sir, so it is not a problem. At the rate of Rs. five per shine I only earn Rs.forty every day and after that I stop. I spend Rs. twenty on myself and the remaining money is spent on buying food for the dogs. There are around forty street dogs in this area known to me and I do my rounds and feed as many as I can till the food is exhausted, then I come back and share my food with these five dogs.”  

Nevertheless, I thought that as he had missed his customers because of me, I gave him a twenty rupee note which he accepted gratefully. We hunted for a dog-chain through all the shops in Mahim but could not find one.

The next morning when we passed the spot where he used to sit, he was distraught. Apparently, Jackie had run away at night despite Arvind Dada calling out for him and he could not catch up with the dog with his bad leg and his single crutch. He did not shine any shoes for the next two days, but survived on the food given to him by the waiters and hotel staff. On the third day, we spotted him briskly shining shoes and gave me an out-of-turn shoe shine angering a couple of customers who quietly slipped away because he was very eager to talk to us. He shared that as in the case of many bad experiences in his life, he was making a valiant effort to recover from the loss of his favourite dog, but he had a duty to keep to all the remaining 40 odd dogs around Church Gate Area and was quite perturbed that he had not fed them for two days and that they would have missed him and gone hungry.

Then our “friendship” grew with Arvind Dada. Every day, I would stop to get my shoes shined and he would go on shining them for a good half-hour or so, while I would get a daily update of his previous day’s activities. So as not to get late for office, we used to catch an earlier commuter train from Mahim. Apart from the dogs, we learnt that he was very fond of watching Football matches and the waiters would contribute for his Taxi fare to the Football stadium as he could not climb into a commuter train because of his bad leg. He owned a little transistor and was fond of listening to F.M. radio stations. Like most cricket lovers, he was very fond of Saurav Ganguly, the Captain of the Indian cricket team.  Also, that several newspaper reporters and T.V. crew wanted to do a human interest story on him and his concern for the street dogs, but he had refused them as he did not want his personal life story to become public.

One day he had a bandage around his left hand. He shared that a jilted man had repeatedly stabbed a young woman several times the day before, and he had saved her from that man and got the injury in the process. He laughed as he recalled the whole incident. “Imagine, a lame man coming to the woman’s rescue and none of the other people passing by came to help her! Sir, this is Mumbai for you!!”. This incident was covered in several news channels and the T.V. crew finally had a field day interviewing Arvind Dada over the next two days.

During the monsoons, Mumbai is lashed by torrential rains interspersed by intermittent rains and he would sit crouched in a corner and his shoe-shine business would suffer immensely. More than his plight, he would worry more about the dogs he could not feed because he could not earn any money on such days to buy food for them.

The years passed and stopping at Arvind Dada’s shoeshine stand became a regular feature of our morning routine. Then, one day we told him that we were leaving Mumbai on a transfer to Hyderabad. He was very distraught and said that like several other persons whom he had met on the streets of Mumbai, we would forget him and never come to see him again. As a parting gift, I gave him 300 rupees, which I said should feed the dogs for the next few days, so that he could go easy on his shoe-shine work during this time. He gave me a one-rupee coin to keep as a memento.

The last time I saw him was on the day we were relieved from office for our next assignments. I saw him from a distance while on my way to Churchgate Railway station, busy shining shoes. He seemed to be caught in a time-warp, surrounded by his five pet dogs already a distant memory.

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