All creatures great and small

Updated: 06 October, 2020 10:23 IST | Meher Marfatia | Mumbai

Today is World Animal Day, feast of St Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals. We recall some Bombay animal lovers' furry and feathered friends

Ataturk the wonder horse who danced the waltz and foxtrot, climbing the Taj grand staircase for Dumb Friends Night in 1952. Pic courtesy/Taj Memories
Ataturk the wonder horse who danced the waltz and foxtrot, climbing the Taj grand staircase for Dumb Friends Night in 1952. Pic courtesy/Taj Memories

Meher MarfatiaThe parrot swore, "M*****, darvajo kholo!" at his first-floor family unbudging to answer the ground level doorbell. West View, in Bandra's Ice Factory Lane, witnessed many an eccentric yowl and growl, thanks to its Irani owners. The sandstone villa, veiled by palm trees and paan vines, bordered our building.

Squawking to be served his guava-chillies snack, the bird cussed in colourful Gujarati. His expletives echoed through the sprawling home Shirinbai and Sheriar Hormuzdi shared with fish tanks, the monkeys Tarabai and Sitaram, and even a hothead elephant chasing Hill Road cars on visits from the Dahisar farm.

Patron saint of animals, St Francis of Assisi, surrounded by his beloved birds. Mosaic by Aashika and Tanishaa Cunha. Collection of Madhavi Desai
Patron saint of animals, St Francis of Assisi, surrounded by his beloved birds. Mosaic by Aashika and Tanishaa Cunha. Collection of Madhavi Desai

When their leopard named Tiger scared passersby, the good lady of the house placated, "No, no, the small dog's meaner." Tiny terror Brownie the Silky Sydney was the cool, cigar-smoking carnival dog coached to puff stylishly as a circus trick. Warily, I wondered who might venture out while I plucked fresh kari patta from West View bushes for prawn curry lunch.

More big cats roamed further south. Churchgate residents gawped at Salim Barodawala strolling with a leopard he later gifted the Khandala zoo. Italian emigre Marconi made a familiar sight treading Warden Road with his leopard. Losing its mother to poachers in 1950s Matheran, that cub followed his jeep, despite attempts to release it in the forest and began lording the lawn of Marconi's rented home at Mecklai Mansion. Children of the house bowling cricket balls landing near his rope waited to retrieve these by moonlight after he was indoors.

Tiger, the Hormuzdi family leopard, in West View villa seen behind Thrity Irani, a daughter of the house
Tiger, the Hormuzdi family leopard, in West View villa seen behind Thrity Irani, a daughter of the house

Mecklai Mansion was veritably menagerie manor, with its leopard, peacocks (so it was rechristened Peacock Palace) and Jacko the monkey's antics. With Pega Mecklai introducing this bandarwala's creature, Chhote Khan, the family Jeeves, contentedly let the shoulder-perched simian pick nits from his hair.

Social scientist Meera Coelho Chatterjee's family doted on a sleek black panther. Her grandfather, Francis Xavier Saldanha, was Conservator of Forests in Kolhapur of the 1940s. A tribesman brought him a lost cub. Meera relates, "My teenaged mother was especially fond of Raja. Into her 60s, she proudly showed a thigh scar from playing with him. Growing, he pawed a house helper. Unable to risk him around anymore, Abba had him lodged at Byculla zoo." Till he shifted, leashed Raja strutted along Moreland Road, their Bombay address, to the admiration or consternation of locals. "He died soon after being caged. Pining for Mummy, he had real tears in his eyes whenever she saw him."

Kalu the mongrel at his Regal Cinema adda. Pic courtesy/WSD
Kalu the mongrel at his Regal Cinema adda. Pic courtesy/WSD

Not far in Khetwadi, another adored young Raja purred softly. Advocate Kumar Desai points to his balcony that had sheltered a tiger. The last to hold the combined post of Court Receiver and Liquidator, Kumar's grandfather Balwantrao Desai accompanied Indian and English officers to weekend hunts. The family doted on the cub trailing home one day. Growing beyond Alsatian size, Raja was sent to the Mysore zoo. Alarming telegrams reached the Desais. Their feline just refused to eat. Raised a shuddh shakahari in Gujarati-dominated Khetwadi, he shunned meat. Diet tweaked, he thrived.

Four-legged favourites of every breed held 20th-century citizens in thrall. Raising charity funds by maverick means, Sir Cowasji Jehangir's dynamo daughter Bapsy Sabavala presented with panache a pig at an animal rights gala at the Taj ballroom, to SK Patil. The Congress minister suddenly found himself shaking hands with a Shropshire-type pink porcine bundle etiquette-tutored to greet guests.

Bella the pig with Sameer Vohra at his Kalote shelter and Gordon the rescued pony
Bella the pig with Sameer Vohra at his Kalote shelter and Gordon the rescued pony

When the Taj hosted Dumb Friends Night in 1952, that benefit evening belonged to Ataturk, white wonder horse of showman Jimmy Bharucha, the only Indian trained at the Vienna Academy. Ataturk splendidly performed the waltz, tango and foxtrot, practising moves by car headlights at Wellington Mews, to avoid skittish moments under bright bulbs flashed in the equestrian extravaganza. The dancing horse ascended the grand staircase in nifty leather boots with slip-proof crepe soles.

Adil Gandhy of Chemould Frames shares an instance of 1960s Bombay benevolence that saved the Matheran horse which won him riding championships. When Super Boy suffered grave injury, everyone gave up hope. Barring Bapsy, of course, determined to enlist help from Parel's Haffkine Institute. Transporting large wounded animals by train was unprecedented. She did what she had to. Nonchalantly faking a telegram to the Central Railways chairman, with instructions to carry Super Boy, she signed it from SK Patil, declaring, "I'll explain to Patil. He'll understand." Graciously, he did. And Super Boy survived.

Intolerant of the slightest cruelty, Bapsy also struck fear in tongawalas hitting horses or bullocks. Politely borrowing an offender's whip, she threatened a licklash with it, asking, "Want to see how it feels?"

The Bombay Dog Riots of 1832, an early example of public protection of animals, resulted in Bhuleshwar's 1834-built Panjrapole. Protesting the British government's 1832 policy to massacre strays, the usually peaceable Parsi community, led by Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, surged strong against the move. Years on, passionate canine lovers have expressed feeling totally bereft without them. Actor Pran decried the worst effect of Partition for him: the only one of his 93 years endured minus a dog.

Rescue adventures abound in the annals of The Welfare of Stray Dogs. Daisy Sidhwa of WSD, who is from the Regal Cinema family, says, "Skinny with distemper-induced chorea, Kalu the mongrel recovered hanging about CCD-Barista where foreigners he smartly buttered up fed him." Often sauntering off to explore VT, Navy Nagar and Fort, he once disappeared for six days. A Colaba coconut seller traced Kalu in Bhayander where he lived. The wanderer pooch had hopped aboard a train to the suburb.

"The happiness of strays depends on their closeness to humans," says Daisy. Rani, a weak pup at the State Police Headquarters opposite, got sprightly on tonics and sipping chai cops poured her in paper cups. When she friskily started digging their flowerbeds, they kept watch though the day. At night Daisy took her home. Six months into the arrangement, the men in uniform requested Rani back 24/7—"Kyonki woh bahut achha chowki karti hai."

Abodh Aras of WSD, has a longstanding association with Irani cafe dogs and cats. "I'd go with my grandfather to Persian Restaurant at Grant Road for tea and brun," he remembers. "With WSD, I experienced the kindness of these spaces towards street animals. Proprietors welcomed them, calling us for their treatment, in Bastani, Britannia, Brabourne, Mondegar, Ideal Corner, B Merwan, Majestic and Paradise."

Setting up the Kalote Animal Trust (www.kaloteanimaltrust.com) on city outskirts as a labour of love, Sameer Vohra says, "We have 500 residents of different species coexisting without being caged or tied." I hear endearing accounts. Starved to extreme emaciation, Bella the pig with sores bad enough to stop her walking, transformed beautifully to join her nine-member clan. Hero, ditched by shepherds, healed with nursing but is convinced—with all the woofing dogs around—that he's one of them, not a sheep.

Equine veterinarian Krish Someshwar describes Gordon, a 10-day-old pony discovered on the Bombay-Poona highway. Standing in shock beside his blind, sick mother, he was dull, dehydrated, body lacerated by barb wire. "Both were taken to Kalote and Sameer phoned me. But she succumbed to her severe systemic infection in two days," rues Dr Someshwar. "Orphaned, baby Gordon needed a week's medication, round the clock bottle feeds and TLC to withstand surgery stitching his wounds. Independent in a few months, he befriended other animals and is now a happy, healthy two-year-old with a big personality."

Affirming the energy exchange of two-legged and four-legged personalities, naturalist Katy Rustom, the Hormuzdis' niece, says, "The distinction between the species simply got narrower. Those animals humanised us."

Miracles in mistakes

Zeus with NiharikaZeus with Niharika

Dog whisperer Niharika Gandhi tells a tender tale:

Faith is a rock-solid emotion. Zeus is one dog whose determination to seek fresh destiny brought him back to me, twice from abandonment and finally to his very own family.

I named him Zeus, spotting him sit majestically, godlike, silent tears rolling down furry cheeks. He became a Hiranadani Gardens, Powai, adoptee, falling in love with me from day one. As well as with rickshaw drivers parked at the stand and veggie vendors feeding him carrots, nicknaming him Lal Sahib or Goldie.

Six months post sterilisation he was left again, in the Aarey jungle. Used to rickshaws, he limped into one, refusing to get off, till its destination, Kora Kendra in Borivli. We know this from Gargi, who runs a boarding kennel there. She travelled in a rick owned by a Yadav. The same Yadav ferrying Zeus from Aarey to Borivli.

Dropping Gargi at the kennel, he said an injured, shiny chocolate dog had a long ride in his rick. News of lost Zeus was plastered across the Internet. Gargi showed Yadav the photo. Wham! Our dog.

We contacted Gargi via a chain of well-wishers. Unbelievably reunited with Zeus, I thanked the angels delivering him back. After two months, the Lobos from Shivaji Park called. Zeus resembled their late dog. I dropped him to his new home where he's treated like a darling. Renamed Dodger, he will always be our dog with the grit to survive and find joy. Dog bless.

Author-publisher Meher Marfatia writes fortnightly on everything that makes her love Mumbai and adore Bombay. You can reach her at meher.marfatia@mid-day.com /www.mehermarfatia.com

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First Published: 04 October, 2020 04:06 IST

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