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A Christmas story: The Bow-Wow Years

An excerpt from the anthology, ‘The Book of Dog’

Fiona Fernandez | Published 25.12.22, 12:07 PM


It’s Christmas, and Jim Brown’s sharp nose detects the heady whiff of the aromas emanating from the kitchen. It’s a typical festive day filled with canine tomfoolery, chasing unsuspecting squirrels and cats, and where food is always the centre of attention. Except this is doggie heaven. And for Jim Brown, it is a day to remember his happy life — the thirteen years on earth that were spent with a loving middle-class family in a quiet suburb of Mumbai.Christmastime was always special in the Fernandez household. Mrs F, my favourite hooman, would start prepping for the big day at least a week in advance. Did I tell you that she was the one who gave me this wonderfully different name? Brown, because according to her, I had the best brown coat she’d ever seen on a doggie. And Jim? Well, Jim Reeves was her favourite singer. She would say I was a ‘pukka Anglo-Indian bugger’ who loved his ‘khana-peena’, his afternoon siestas and music (yes, I was all ears each time she played a few catchy tunes on their home system). Thank goodness I wasn’t named Bingo or Rocky or Chickoo.


Many moons ago, one rainy morning, I showed up at their doorstep, trembling with fear and soaking wet. My mother had been run over by a speeding train as we — she, my brothers, sisters and I — tried to cross the railway tracks. It was night-time, and I could not locate my siblings in my hour of grief. The universe led me to this home that was a stone’s throw away from the railway line. Mrs F found me curled up in the daily newspaper. She wrapped me up in a towel and offered me some bread and warm milk. I became family that day, and the next year onwards, that very same day was celebrated as my birthday.


But let’s get back to those wonderful memories around Christmas. Mrs F ensured that delicacies like Country Captain Chicken, Beef Devil Chilli Fry and Fish Curry were always part of the spread for the big day. It meant I too could tuck into every part of that excellent meal. Let me tell you something right away. I’d always hear my doggie pals in the neighbourhood, Sheru and Hero, whine about how they’d have to fight for leftovers from their caretakers. But not me. I always had a bowl filled with all the best cuts and juicy bones, and I ate both my meals at the same time as the family. It made me feel blessed. Often, during teatime, when Mrs F played her favourite music, including Jim Reeves’s classics, she would call out to me for a quick snack. I could never refuse a few biscuits or banana chips. And if I paid real close attention as I sat by her feet near the doorstep, I’d be able to hear her hum the notes of the songs too. Those evenings, while everyone else was away, were so relaxing. Around noontime, if she spotted me from her kitchen window, all I had to do was give her one of my warm, fuzzy looks and her heart would melt. And a little treat would be passed to me over the windowsill! Now don’t get me wrong; though Mrs F loved dogs to a fault, I swear I never took advantage of her generosity.

I remember that one time, when Mr F (he worked in some really far-off place) had returned home for Christmas after a long time, the feasting never seemed to end. Mr F would shower his family with gifts during these short visits. Even I got lucky with treats whenever he spotted me nosing around the courtyard! During one of those humongous luncheons, Mr F’s younger brother—a lanky, good-for-nothing fellow who would hang around their home hoping to feed off their generosity—poured a colourless liquid in my water bowl. I sniffed at it and took a few laps, and before I knew it I began to sway from side to side while he danced around me like a circus clown, mockingly suggesting that I was as fat as a sausage. How rude! Luckily for him, it took me a while to regain my bearings, or else it would not have been such a funny ending for him. As I recovered and sat up, I could hear Mrs F yell at that ‘rascal’ (the loudest she had ever raised her voice), ‘How dare you trouble my dear Jim Brown!’ She was clearly annoyed with her brother-in-law’s antics. A bowl of warm chicken soup acted like a soothing balm to me. Fortunately, that was the last I saw of that mean man.

When Mr F was at home, our wrestling games, especially with a handkerchief, would be such fun, you know — the man-to-man kind. But just as we would get used to a routine, it would be time for him to leave again. Mrs F would become really quiet for the next few days. As it was, she was a soft-spoken soul, and in the weeks after Mr F’s departure, I’d barely hear her call me for my meals—until Small F would shout out to me from a distance in her sing-song drawl, ‘JimBraaauun, come faaaast! Your food’ll get cold!’

Pint-sized with a mop of curly hair, Small F was my second most favourite person in the world. She was Mr and Mrs F’s younger daughter. Small F would talk to me about her day, complain about her struggles with learning Marathi, and sometimes even cry to me when she got a poor report card at school or had a fight with her class friends. She probably thought I was a hooman with four legs. Each time Mrs F gifted her a new eraser, a raincoat or a cricket bat, she would bolt out of the front door, call out to me from the gate, or come looking for me in my cosy sandpit under the tamarind tree, kneel down and say, ‘JimBraaauun, see what Mama gave me today because I came first in class. You like it, no?’ I would nod and give her my paw. It was my way of congratulating her. Thrilled, she would giggle, flash one of her wide grins and hop across to play with her friends. Sometimes, when Mrs F wasn’t watching, she and I would harass the neighbour’s plump, pure-bred cat, Sundari: I swear she was a witch in a furry avatar. She imagined herself to be the queen of the colony. She had this impossibly white coat, but I was pretty sure she had it secretly painted or dyed by her owners every month.


Small F and I loved pulling pranks on her, like tricking her with make-believe food, and then leading her into a big, slushy puddle. Small F was a tomboy; her friends were the older boys of the colony who played cricket or badminton. I loved hanging out with her gang. After school, they’d all gather in the playground. And the best part? They let me be the umpire during a game of cricket! And if it was badminton, I was the imaginary net that divided the court. They had a music band too that would come to life during the school vacations. Oh, not the kind you would imagine. Mrs F called it a ‘rut-put band’, a tin-pot-sounding outfit because all the instruments—from the two guitars to the drums and the keyboards—were toy versions. But it was fun! They sang (off-tune) covers of songs from hit films or chosen from the enormous audio-cassette collection owned by the Fs. When those tapes went bad, they’d give them to me to chew on. What an interesting pastime that turned out to be! How Mrs F endeared herself to that gang, egging them on to sing encores, and feeding them snacks after every ‘concert’. Those entertaining summer evenings were the best.

Small F had an older sister, Big F. I was a bit wary of her in the beginning. Well, it was partly my fault that she wasn’t as indulgent with me as the rest of the family was. We didn’t get off to the best of starts. See, this one time, I spotted a bright-looking piece of cloth hanging on their clothesline. I was tempted to have a closer look, test my agility and stuff. I darted towards it and jumped up to grab it. But in my excitement, I ripped apart the fabric that happened to be part of Big F’s important school project. I received a thunderous earful from her. I imagined I would be banned from entering their lovely courtyard after that day. When Big F had cooled off and left in a huff, Mrs F came by to my sandpit. ‘Son, you mustn’t be a bad boy now; don’t behave like one of those other junglee strays, okay?’ she whispered in her typically gentle tone.

Big F eventually grew to like me, though not in an obvious way. What can I say! Clearly, the swag and the charm finally won her over! Still, I kept a safe distance after that scolding, and definitely stayed away from the clothesline. Then, one day, as I lazed under the mango tree, I realized that she had been observing me for a while. She was sitting by their doorstep, balancing a board of some sort on her lap. Gingerly, I headed towards her. ‘Jim Brown,’ she called, ‘come here … don’t worry, I won’t bite.’ (Ha, now that would have been fun!) She chuckled; she was always cheeky in her comments. And that’s when I saw it with my own eyes: Big F had drawn a sketch of me. ‘This is how you look, Jim Brown. You like it?’ she asked. Until then, I had no clue about my appearance, but my goodness, I must admit I did like what I saw in front of me. She earned a paw-shake that day.


My average day would fly past except for the bad, bad rainy season, when water would accumulate everywhere and there would be no cats to chase and no dry spaces for a quick snooze. On such days, Mrs F would create a temporary warm bed for me by their doorstep. Otherwise, my day began with a pretty important chore: seeing Small F and Big F off to school. We would wait near the gate for their school bus. Once they hopped aboard, they would turn around to wave back at me from one of the windows as the bus sped off. I never missed that routine. Of course, the petting from the other kiddos was a bonus. Some of them would even treat me with a biscuit or a toffee. Others would call me ‘Brownie’ and admire my handsome coat.

Then one day, Rajah arrived. He was this overfed, ‘high-class’ dog with shampooed hair. He would accompany his master’s daughter and pretend to lord over the place. He even had an attendant. Rajah would park himself in my seating area but I chose to be the cool guy and ignored his attempts to irk me, because I had a reputation. Then one day, the smart fella tried to dare me to enter the school bus. Aha! I was not going to tolerate any of this bunkum. It was against the rules. So I darted into the bus to show him who was the boss: ‘Get out of the bus, you big bully; this is only for schoolchildren!’ I barked my head off to make him see sense but he wouldn’t budge. Idiot. All I could hear were a range of shrieks from the kids, and a lot of commotion. An umbrella swung in Rajah’s direction and was accompanied by a booming yell. Tail between his legs, he meekly scampered off the bus. This intervention was courtesy of another ‘huge’ fan: Small F’s rotund class teacher who took the same bus to school. It was a no-contest. Rajah had lost—both the dare and his pride.

Following Mrs F around for her daily errands was another activity that I thoroughly enjoyed and, might I add, took very seriously. I felt I had to keep her safe at all times, what with Mr F away. She worked so hard all week and kept the home in such good shape; most importantly, she fed me and was kind to me—it was the least I could do in return. Whether it was her many trips to the veggie or fish markets (I could smell that bag from a mile away!), the circulating library or the post office—all of which were within a short radius—I would tail her by a safe distance to ensure she was fine. On one occasion, I spotted a scruffy-looking man walking suspiciously close to her. It made me uncomfortable. I was about ten paces behind her when I realized that he was aiming to snatch her handbag. She was an easy target since her arms were occupied carrying groceries. I lunged from behind and pounced on him. I’d never felt so athletic in my life. He shouted in agony because I had inflicted sufficient damage with my claws. I was angry. How dare he attack Mrs F! ‘Let him go, Jim Brown,’ I could hear her plead with me. After a menacing growl, I loosened my grip on him and allowed him to dash off. I hope I taught him a good lesson to never repeat such an act. It took Mrs F a few moments to collect herself. Poor thing, she was

shaken by what had just happened. I’ll never forget the gratitude in her eyes that day. Oh, and that afternoon’s lunch was epic.


My life was a collection of happy, warm memories and a lot of love from the Fs. Though, over the years, I noticed Small F couldn’t spend as much time with me as before because she had more homework. ‘I have to go for so many tooshins. Sorry, JimBraaauun, we can’t play,’ she bawled one afternoon while telling me about her school problems. Big F was hardly around as she had to go to some place called college (some far-off land, I guess) and Mr F’s trips home now happened after even longer intervals. Mrs F was the only constant in my life. My second mother. My guardian angel. My friend.

Every summer, it would be a struggle to find cool corners for my afternoon siesta as it got too warm to snooze under the mango or tamarind trees. I had my eye on this minivan that would always park above a large dug-out. There was still some time before Small F would hop off the school bus. I loved how we did this little jig all the way back home; it was our thing. That morning, as I waited with her at the bus stop, she had told me excitedly that it was her last day before school closed for the holidays. ‘No toooshins, JimBraaauun. Yay!’ she squealed in delight. I was excited too. Soon we’d be back to having more masti and playing cricket with the gang. Did I imagine it would be our last meeting?

Lunch that day was an unusually grand affair. Mrs F outdid her own levels of generosity, topping my feast with the most delicious mutton mince cutlets, chicken legs and — the Anglo-Indian staple — beef roast. The bowl was laced with some of her super-yum broth as well. A nap was essential for all of this to settle.

I found the minivan parked in that same spot and slipped into the sandpit below it. Soon I was in slumber land, chasing Sundari until her fat self fell into another puddle. A loud, jarring screech and the head-spinning, whirring sound of turning wheels jerked me out my snooze. I was in excruciating pain—as if two buses had rammed into me from either side. The drunken driver hadn’t bothered to check underneath his vehicle, and had started to back out the minivan while I was fast asleep under it. Silly me, I must have rolled over closer to one of the wheels to cushion myself.

Within moments, I felt a lightness envelop my body. I found myself floating over the scene below, actually able to see what was happening. Mrs F, Small F and some of her gang were sobbing uncontrollably as they stared at my motionless body. Even Sheru and Hero had showed up; both looked confused and began to wail in an odd-sounding symphony. I understood that my time on earth was up.

I was blessed with a happy, fulfilling life because my hooman family treated me like their own — from ear tip to tail end. Simply put, they made me feel extraordinary. I hope I was able to return the favour in my own, Jim Brown-kinda way.

Excerpted with permission from Fiona Fernandez’s essay The Bow-Wow Years from The Book of Dog, edited by Hemali Sodhi, published by HarperCollins. All royalties from this book’s sales go to registered animal welfare charities.

Last updated on 25.12.22, 12:07 PM

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