MK Raina looking into the distance with his hand beneath his chin

All the World’s His Stage

The multi-talented, multi-faceted MK Raina is impressive on every platform he graces and expressive over every cause he embraces, discovers Irfan Syed

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With his twinkling eyes, salt-and-no-visible-pepper beard and easy demeanour, MK Raina comes across as the soft-spoken sort. But have a deeper dialogue with him or talk about causes close to his heart (there are many), and Maharaj Krishna Raina proves to be very outspoken. He doesn’t lose his cool – he seems too dignified for that – but he makes sure his viewpoint comes across resoundingly, using his theatre-cultivated voice modulation to precise effect. He is also quite individualistic and a bit of a non-conformist. After passing out of National School of Drama (NSD) in the early 70s, with an award for acting no less, he was clear about being only a freelancer – and has remained so ever since. Where does this rebellious streak come from? “My Kashmiri arrogance,” he replies, with a mix of jest and candour.

From his family, MK – as friends and acquaintances call him – also seems to get his activist genes. His father, Janki Nath Raina, was a renowned political activist of his times. MK’s thespian and creative talents though seem to be all his own. Born in a large brood of doctors and engineers, the stage called him early in life. He acted in a play in the fifth standard, and was immediately given in to the proscenium. It also helped that he had an encouraging principal, the illustrious poet Dinanath Nadim, or Nadim Sahib, as he was popularly known.

Raina joined NSD after college, clear on pursuing direction. The school and its then director, theatre doyen Ebrahim Alkazi, though had other plans for the young man. He was urged to sign up for acting instead, as the direction classes had too many takers and the acting ones too few. He agreed, but resolved that he “would join direction classes when available.” At the hallowed school, Raina handled every aspect of the stage, from lighting to set design. He eventually graduated with a best actor award, but not without a head-versus-heart tussle during his final viva. He had an opportunity to go to Paris on a scholarship, but his heart was more keen on discovering India. “I hadn’t even seen the Konark temple,” he recalls his frame of mind then. In the end, even after an intervention by Alkazi, he did neither – life again seemed to have other plans. He started his career, work and life as an independent artist.

MK Raina in a scene from 27 DownThat footstep soon brought him to then Bombay, because “Delhi will not give you all the work.” In the city of dreams, he met theatre pole-stars PL Deshpande and Vijaya Mehta and luminaries of Hindi art cinema like Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul. The latter affiliation paved the way for acting in his first film, 27 Down, in 1974. Shot in B&W, the film is about a young man caught between following the path his father foists on him and forging his own. Raina plays the protagonist and looks a bit unrecognizable with an all-black beard and a head full of hair. Starring Rakhee as his love interest, the film enjoys cult status even now among aficionados of 70s and 80s Hindi parallel cinema. Raina soon found himself being cast in other art films, including Satah Se Uthata Aadmi (1980), Aghaat (1985) and Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (1986), based on Sidney Lumet’s classic courtroom drama 12 Angry Men. The latter two also star KK Raina, and here, this Raina answers an oft-wondered question: no, they are not brothers or even related, just contemporaries, although amicable ones; MKR older to KKR by a few years.

His parallel cinema journey, however, hit a road-block soon after, during the filming of Panchvati (1986), where this theatre maven from Delhi was “made to feel like an outsider” in the Hindi film industry. He tried switching gears to commercial cinema, with a role in Amitabh Bachchan’s Main Azaad Hoon (1989), but was next seen in Bollywood only over a decade later, in Lakhsya (2004) and later as the school principal in Taare Zameen Par (2007). After that, as he says, smiling, he appears in a film whenever “they want a daddy”.

Poster of the Hindi play directed by MK Raina, Hatya Ek Aakar KiIn theatre, the recently-turned septuagenarian is more of a grand-daddy – and this is neither in reference or deference to his age. He has been the architect of over 200 plays, grand and small, mainstream and experimental, in various languages and locations, including one 12,000 feet above sea-level. His plays have drawn on works of legendary playwrights and writers, such as Brecht, Gorky and Manto. Coming up, as a part of Gandhi’s sesquicentennial celebrations that commenced this October, are four plays on the Mahatma. The first, Stay Yet a While, based on communications between Gandhi and Tagore, was staged on Gandhi Jayanti. The second, Hatya Ek Aakar Ki, debuted a few days later to appreciative reviews. Yes, he is a Gandhian, Raina declares, as also “the best child of India’s socialism”. He has studied on scholarships, gone to places on fellowships and “has a home in every state.” When travelling for work or workshops, he puts up with friends, family and fraternity, you decode.

Gandhian values and principles will no doubt be invoked in a big way over the coming year. But it’s also compelling to ask Raina about Mantoiyat. Both because the writer is being celebrated presently, with the release of his biopic, and due to the attacks that artists have come under in the past few years, like Manto in his time. Raina is immensely familiar with the beleaguered writer’s work, having staged a play drawing on several of Manto’s stories, and has been his vocal self during the siege on artists. So, (how) is Manto relevant in today’s times? Raina responds with Manto’s famed aphorism: ‘Why do I write? I write on society’s blackboard with a white chalk so that the blackness of the board becomes even more evident.’

Another question about the artistic ethos, this time about Raina himself. If he loves theatre so much, having spent more than half his life here, why didn’t he set up his own theatre company – like so many theatre artists – especially as he was clear about being on his own? His response is characteristically candid, “I didn’t have any back-up.” He adds, though, that he is regularly approached especially by corporates to help set up theatre companies. He turns down these offers because he knows they are looking for “a shop or an institution”, which will need to begin showing profits soon; an actual theatre company would “only give dividends in its seventh year.”

This forthrightness and desire to do the right thing, does he get that from his father too? Or was there some other influence? There were two distinct triggers, Raina recalls, coming one on the back of the other around the early 90s.

In 1989, close friend and theatre activist, Safdar Hashmi, was attacked by political goons during the performance of a street play, succumbing to his injuries the very next day. Hashmi’s death left Raina deeply shaken. Putting his anguish aside, he decided to respond affirmatively. He spearheaded several communal harmony campaigns and marches and also became a founding member of the Safdar Hashmi Trust (SAHMAT), which works to engender creative and cultural expression.

In 1991, insurgency hit his home state Kashmir, forcing him to leave with parents and family and move to Delhi, where he has been ever since. The artist may have left his home, but home didn’t seem to leave the artist. Raina was restless. He longed to go back to Kashmir and help in some way. But how?

MK Raina during a rehearsal with Kashmiri folk artistsOne day, “without thinking”, he left for the valley state. On getting there, he was witness to heartbreaking sights, among people in general but especially among the rural artists. The militants hadn’t spared even art. Folk theatre venues had been attacked and their instruments all broken. The artists were in deep mourning. But seeing Raina, a familiar face and fellow artist, they felt they had something to hold on to. Raina too saw how he could help, through the only way he knew: theatre. Returning to the city (Srinagar), he first started theatre workshops and then initiated collaborations between city actors and their rural counterparts. Eventually, he moved the theatre scene from the city back to the villages. He remembers, when he started the collaborations, a couple of actors from the villages let out painful howls. They had found their release.

Raina, in addition to other Kashmiri artists, has also helped sustain bandh pather, the local folk theatre where men enact storylines often satirical or farcical in nature, offering a comment on some aspect of social or cultural life.

But Raina is also drawn to causes beyond theatre. Better still, and perhaps due to his standing and outspokenness in the artistic sphere, the torch-bearers of various causes are drawn to him. He is often called upon to speak on issues such as the attacks on writers and other creative folk that have been a constant the past few years and the need to protect the vernacular languages.

MK Raina speaking on the sidelines of Jashn-e-Rekhta 2018The artist-activist is especially given in to the latter cause. He is a multi-linguist, knowing tongues as diverse as Bengali, Rajasthani, Dogri, Punjabi, Sanskrit and Urdu, apart from of course Hindi, English and Kashmiri. This aptitude also comes from the fact that he’s directed so many plays in so many different languages over the years. His love for Urdu is evinced – apart from his knowledge of Manto’s works – from his WhatsApp profile pic, which is his speaker profile for Jashn-e-Rekhta, the annual festival held in Delhi to celebrate the language. His familiarity with Bengali is evident in his voice, which bears a hint of that rosogolla-laced tongue. That, he says is because, yes, he’s done some plays in Bengali, but also because his better half is half-Bengali.

There seems to be little in the public domain about his own family – or he hasn’t been as vocal about this aspect of his life – but now that it comes up, Raina is obliging. His wife is a doctor, and they have been married for 40 years, bringing up another personal milestone this year apart from turning 70. His son has followed somewhat in his footsteps. A freelance photographer and filmmaker, he has made documentaries, among other subjects, on Sufi music and more notably Zohra Sehgal. Raina himself was acquainted with the feisty and zestful dancer, choreographer and actor, having directed her in a play and film. Raina also has a daughter, who is into public policy.

The personal milestones do not seem to mean much to him. His 70th birthday earlier in the year, he says “was like any other day”. But on the work front, he seems to have moved toward new ones.

MK Raina in a scene from Three and a Half / Teen aur AadhaThree and a Half / Teen aur Aadha is a bilingual (English / Hindi) film about love, longing and loss, told as an anthology of three stories across three time periods, each story filmed in one continuous shot. Due for theatrical release early next year, the story featuring Raina is perhaps the most intriguing. It’s about the relationship and reflections, not all happy, of an older couple, and includes a love-making scene or two, going by the trailer. Was filming it uncomfortable, given that we live in a country and time where dada-dadi and nana-nani are meant to be seen more in a park than in a bedroom? Raina goes behind the scenes. On coming to know the hues of his story, he had put forth the name of his co-star (Suhasini Mulay, a shining silver and artist in her own right), as he shared a very good rapport with her, having known her for the longest time. It would be easier navigating those scenes with her, you decipher. It seems to have worked. From the trailer, all you see is: Love is love. Even when it is shaded silver.

Raina will also be taking a step into the mainly millennial playground of web series, with Kabir Khan’s upcoming The Forgotten Army, based on Subash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army.

In between, he regularly features in ads, as the affable senior. Most memorable is the Visa card ad from early last year, which depicts him as a literature professor haplessly seeking change in a post-demonetization world. He is eventually helped out by a student he took to be a drifter, but not before the actor has delivered a few dozen brilliant micro-expressions aptly conveying the plight of the suddenly cashless citizen – those expressions the result no doubt of over four decades of delivering and dealing with the best in theatre. Similar themed, but more cheery, are the Amazon Fire TV Stick spots, which present him first as a quizzical grand-dad learning the use of the device from his grand-daughter and then as a savvy senior showing off the powers of the gadget to his grand-kids.

How tech-savvy then is he in real life? Well, he is on Facebook and uses an iPad to check and respond to mails. He has been learning technology and its benefits slowly but surely. “How else would we be able to have this interview with you there and me here sitting on the footsteps of this room in Bhilai?” he exults.

Plays, films, ads, web series, workshops, tours, talks, causes… How does he manage to stay fit and healthy for all this? “I lead a straight life. No late nights… Helps me have a clear day.” To add, he doesn’t smoke, but does enjoy a drink from time to time. And like the elixir of many a silver, practises yoga. Thanks to which, he was able to jump into a moving train with alacrity in a scene for Forgotten Army, he recounts.

While on matters physical, a trivial question pops up. What explains the bearded look, which he’s sported for over 40 years now and seen gradually go from pepper to salt? “Oh, that is just being too lazy to shave!” There are chuckles both sides of the line, but they don’t seem to be done. He continues, “The few times I shaved, I noticed I have dimples… so I stopped!” At the end, this silver with twinkling eyes and an easy demeanour leaves you feeling the same.

I wrote this piece for Harmony: Celebrate Age. Here’s the edited version on their site: This piece on Harmony

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Writer Venita Coelho

Adventure, She Writes

Her first book, Dungeon Tales, was Arabian Nightsesque. Her second, The Washer of the Dead, a collection of ghost stories centred around women, was humanistic rather than scary. Her next, Soap! Writing and Surviving Television in India, a handbook for people writing for the cash-rich but quality-strapped Indian TV industry, drew upon her years of experience in the space. She then wrote a three-book animal fiction series on the trot. Her most recent, Boy No. 32, is about a boy in an orphanage with the name, or rather, number Battees (32). That is, the boy is named 32, not the orphanage, because orphans apparently don’t deserve any better. But his life and luck may be about to change when the orphanage is inadvertently brought crashing down, letting him and his mates loose on the pathways of Mumbai and setting off a series of adventures, rendezvous and discoveries.

Somewhere, Venita Coelho’s life is as varied, adventurous, unconventional and humanistic as the books she writes and the themes she explores. She was born in Dehradun, grew up in then Calcutta, worked in then Bombay, lived in Coimbatore (which she considers home) and presently lives in Goa. She is a single mother to an adopted girl of 10, whom she home-schools and has started taking off with on tours across India in a customized caravan, because she feels that’s the best way to learn geography and history. She also loves animals, due to which she turned vegetarian 20 years ago.

Cover of Soap: Writing and Surviving Television in IndiaVenita started off writing for TV, in the early days of satellite TV, and worked there the longest, before giving it up when the saas-bahu “poison” took over. She returned to front Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahi, but left TV for the second and final time when she saw Jassi too going saas-bahu mode. She wrote a few films, but took a break when none of the three scripts she penned turned out as envisaged. She switched her attention full-fledged to books, and has been quite prolific: seven books in 11 years, with about as many at various stages. She has started looking at films anew and is also interested in the rapid-rising space of web series. And somewhere in the midst of all this action, she has engaged in activism too, being a part of Goa Bachao Abhiyan and having taken on a celebrated writer and a well-known minister (both male) in different forums over different causes.

Irfan Syed spoke to the author whose life reads like one of her books, about her works and her writing motivations and inspirations. Excerpts:

You have written across mediums and genres…

Actually, I’m not a writer – I’m a storyteller. It’s allowed me the freedom of adapting, learning and going from genre to genre, medium to medium.

How easy or difficult is it writing across mediums?

TV is easy. TV is very formula. Once you’ve cracked the formula – 24 minutes, 12 scenes, ad breaks – it’s very easy to write… Film is the most difficult. In film, the universe you create has to be very credible. It takes many minds. It’s also very collaborative – and we as writers tend to be solitary… Easiest is books, because with books, you are the sole person in charge.

Cover of the book Boy No. 32 by Venita CoelhoIt seems the inspiration for Boy No. 32 came from the times you spent with street kids when waiting for the last train back from work during your TV days…

I was always on that last train back to the hostel. All the odds and ends would be on that train: hijras, fisherwomen, some urchin or the other… Because this train was empty, these kids would come and chat. I would have these absolutely fantastic conversations… They would also entertain me. They’d catch those handholds on top and swing from them and do acrobatics… I thought they deserved a book. I thought they deserved for people to look at them as more than just beggars. I wanted people to see them as children.

Were there any other motivations for writing the book?

Boy No. 32 is also about family. That’s what he is looking for. He’s never had family. It also came out of the conversations I had with my daughter about family, because by definition, we are not your standard family: single mom with adopted kid. The fondest, deepest, most loving family can be the family that you choose.

Cover of Dungeon Tales by Venita CoelhoThe book seems to have influences of Salman Rushdie: the telepathic communication between the kids and the various elements of fantastic adventure. You seem to be a Rushdie fan – also evident in your first book, Dungeon Tales. If so, do the similarities creep in subconsciously?

I picked up my first Rushdie when I was in college. I just fell into Midnight’s Children. Not as much for the storytelling, but for that the first time I read a book and said, ‘Oh my god, we can tell our stories and people will take us seriously.’ There was Rushdie using Bambaiya… accents… And he tells a truly Indian story. I was like: ‘I can admire an Indian author – and the world admires him as well.’ So, that’s why, for me, always at the back of all my writing is Papa Rushdie sitting there as inspiration.

The book could so easily make a movie. In fact, many of your books can. Is that your TV and film writing at play?

All the books are the movies that will never be made! Look at my animal rights series – climaxes that involve 250 tigers! So, that’s how I use my books. Because in films, you are trying to write stuff that will get made. But in books, you can write stuff that doesn’t have to ever be made – you can just go mad.

 Most of your books are aimed at children. Do you find it easier to write for children than adults?

Adults have a whole lot of opinions and prejudices that they might not openly show. And a whole lot of thoughts about what is good reading and bad reading. Kids haven’t done that at all. As long as you are telling a good story and in a funny way, they listen to you.

Front cover of Venita Coelho's first animal-fiction book, Tiger by the TailHow did the animal series books come about?

I got so sick of the way people are treating animals. Also because I fell in love with animals. In our family, animals are treated very much as beloved members of family. And I looked around at what we are doing in the world of animals. I said, ‘Animals have nobody to speak for them.’ I said I’m going to do it. And then I decided to talk to kids again – I’m going to tell them great fun stories, and those stories are going to teach them about animal rights, cruelty to animals, the space that animals have in the world and respecting that.

In Soap!, you’ve also talked about the physical problems you had while writing so much, which eventually receded through yoga. Is that you how keep fit and manage to write?

Totally. It saved my life. There is no problem I’ve had that yoga has not fixed.

You don’t intend to return to TV. But any plans to take up a web series, as they seem to be the flavour of the day and are also not saas-bahu?

I hope to do a web series. But what I discovered when I looked at the series that are really popular right now was, I felt I was a bit old and didn’t understand that kind of thinking or – well, not that kind of thinking – that kind of pitch. So, I’ve taken some time off and am just looking at the whole thing: at stuff that’s popular, at youngsters and what they are interested in, at pitch and sur, how it should be different… For me, it’s one more new genre to learn.

Finally, will you be writing on your pan-India trips?

I’ve got all these kinds of offers. ‘Take a camera and shoot it.’ ‘Do a blog.’ ‘Do a series.’ I said no to everything. I said I want to do something just for the fun of it for once. We are doing our tours, meeting people, seeing sights – and eventually I’m sure it will influence my writing. Any kind of adventure you have just deepens you, enriches you and feeds back into your work.

I wrote this piece for the magazine Harmony – Celebrate Age for this month’s issue. Here’s the piece online.

 

 

Chennai resident and silver, Benedict Gnaniah, with his two home dogs, Leia and Mulan

Silver Years, Golden Companions

I wrote this as the cover story for the April ’18 issue of Harmony, a magazine for silver / senior citizens. Find the edited version of the story (the main story and a few sub / box stories) on their site here.

“They got us bonding together again.” When asked how his pet dogs have been beneficial to him and his family, that is Benny’s spontaneous response. Benny, or properly, Benedict Gnaniah elaborates. “We are a strong-headed family. Comes from reading so much.” There are shelves upon shelves of classics and other literary works in each member’s room of the duplex house in Chennai. “Each has their opinions, and is expressive about them. As a result, there are often fireworks and tensions among us. The dogs changed all that.” The dogs under discussion are Mulan and Leia, both indies adopted from the street, and both – as testimony to the family’s stated literary inclinations – named after strong mythical / fictional women characters.

Benny, himself a youthful 59, continues. “Before the dogs came into our lives, conversations at the table wouldn’t be about finance or politics, but harder things like ‘When are you planning to get married,’ ‘What happened to that interview you went for,’ ‘How are we going to pay for that,’ causing everyone to super-stress out.” After first Mulan, and then Leia came in, the conversations started emanating from the canines. ‘Oh, she did this today…’ ‘She doesn’t look good to me…’ ‘Man, they are becoming a handful…’ As a result, talks and tensions between the family members began smoothening. The dogs, quite simply, got them warmed up again as a family.

Pets can add a lot, physically and emotionally, to a silver’s life. Be it a more high-level purpose as in the case of Benny, or more everyday benefits such as companionship, compassion, care, security and the famed unconditional love. We listened in to several silvers and their pet experiences.

Have pet, will not fret

Pune resident, Shilpa Mahajani, 50, thinks back to the time when her family’s bungalow was undergoing renovation and didn’t have the front door for a period of six months. No intruder could dare come in, thanks to the two full-grown Dobermans they had. Since then, the male Dobe (Raja) passed away, the female (Rani) remains, and the door has been reinstated. Rani now roams the compound of the bungalow, each stride an intimidating one to any newcomer at the gate.

However, to their owners (or to use the more politically correct term, pet parents), the animals are an endless loop of love, especially when the parents return home. Deanne Menon, 59, of Mumbai finds it de-stressing to get back home after a hard day’s work: waiting for her with a brisk wag and buoyant body is Lakshmibai aka Lakshmi aka Laku, an indie adopted from the road as a pup about 14 years ago. Research corroborates that having a pet helps bring down cortisol (the stress hormone) levels and helps up serotonin (the happy hormone) levels. But our silvers already seem to know that.

Kanpur resident and silver citizen, Bhupinder Singh Bagga, with his home dog, Caddie

Bhupinder with his dog, Caddie

When Bhupinder Singh Bagga, 63, too gets back to his three-floored house in Kanpur after an event or function (he is retired, so he is otherwise at home), he is greeted by the house dog, Caddie, who in rapid turns, first runs around unable to contain her excitement, then comes up to him and licks his hand and face, and runs back… Run-lick-repeat. With this kind of welcome on return, Bagga wishes he didn’t have to leave home in the first place.

Bagga, however, holds that you don’t bring home an animal only for the love they give you, you can also do so for the love you can give them. You understand what he means when he shares how the doggies, both indies again, came to the Bagga household. Along with Caddie, who stays more at home, there is Buddy, who is more of a visitor. Bagga describes this situation Hindi-film style: Caddie hai Ghar ki Rani (Queen of Home), Buddy hai Sadkon ka Raja (King of Roads). The two canines came in courtesy his elder son, Kamaldeep, who is vegan and works for animal welfare. Thanks to junior’s love and care, Bagga Senior, and the entire household of six (excluding the canines), came to dote on the doggies too.

Another vegan activist, Malvika Kalra, 54, based in Jammu Tawi, puts it succinctly, “Dogs, or any kind of animal companions (the PC word for ‘pets’ according to animal welfare individuals), are about one simple thing: unconditional love.” When asked to express in one word or line what their pets, oops, animal companions mean to them, we had our silvers gushing as much as the animals on seeing their silver parents. (See box story: What your pet means to you.)

Nicole Rego, veterinarian of 14 years, attests to the joy pets can infuse in seniors. She has had quite a few silver clients coming to her Mumbai clinic over the years, and has witnessed at close quarters the amiable companionship the quadrupeds offer the bipeds. They also help you overcome the melancholy of an empty nest, very common in silvers, especially in these times of nucleur families, increased urbanization, and unending aspirations.

Selma Pinto, a spry 63, lives by herself in Mysuru, along with four cats and one dog. Her children stay in Bengaluru, her husband having passed away a few years ago. Selma had even more pets earlier, but they died one by one. Apart from tending to the home animals (which actually doesn’t require so much attention, she insists), she also feeds crows and monkeys that come near her kitchen and kites that hover above her house. Empty nest? No, more like a full house, brimming with fuzzy bodies and fuzzier feelings.

Caring beyond petting

But animals, we know, have the energies, and demands, of a child. Walks and exercise, toilet training, food, doc visits, illness care… Facing some of those challenges themselves, are the silvers up to the task of tending to their four-legged companions?

Benny says, in fact, his dogs have taught him discipline. His life was quite chaotic earlier, but now, to walk, feed and care for his doggies, he needs to rise on time, take them for a walk on time, and be back from work on time. Leia, the younger one, can’t handle carbs, so he even has to make special food for her, which he does on Sundays and stores in the fridge for the week ahead. “The fridge belongs to the dogs,” he adds matter-of-factly.

Almost all seniors we spoke to said vet visits are scheduled and regular, with the vet either coming home or the animal being chaperoned to the clinic. Shilpa Mahajani provided sagely advice: “Go to a good vet. It might cost more, but the diagnosis (especially challenging for non-human beings) will be right the first time, costing you less – time, energy, effort – in the long run.”

Bombay / Mumbai resident and silver, Deanne Menon, with her home dog, Laku

Deanne with her dog, Laku

Most also shared that they have some form of help around. The Baggas’ family of six (senior Baggas, two sons and their wives) ensures at least one of them is at home to attend to Caddie. Buddy doesn’t require much tending to, for as Bagga already said, he is more of a street soul. Deanne Menon has her three adult sons walk Laku when she’s not free, although Laku doesn’t entirely relish these walks as they literally have her on a tight leash, Deanne adds, holding Laku in an even tighter embrace. Benny’s family of four is now spread across four different cities of the world (his wife works in Thiruvananthapuram and his children recently migrated to Canada, but to places 100 kilometres apart), but he manages with a maid during his day-time absence, and is also on the lookout for a watchman of sorts for when he needs to go out-station, something he hasn’t been able to do since the doggies arrived. A matter echoed by all silvers.

Once you bring home a companion animal, taking off on your own becomes a bit challenging. Selma hasn’t really gone on a vacation ever since the menagerie of animals took up residence at her place. She has at the most gone away for a day or two, that too to nearby Bengaluru. During her absence one time, she had appointed an acquaintance to check in on the dog.

This partly also comes from the separation anxiety animals face when their human parent goes away, at least in the initial days. They can get worried and irritable, triggering off their notorious rip-and-tear sessions. The Baggas and the Mahajanis have had their share of dogs nipping and pulling at their clothes on sensing they are heading out. Benny has had his older dog, Mulan, biting his shoes, perhaps finally revealing why dogs do so. They think that the shoe is causing the person to leave, rather than the other way around, and so attack the supposed villain. Ah, the innocence, or ingenuity, of animals. (See box story: Animal behavioural traits.)

The Mitras (Kishore, 63 and Madhavi, 53), earlier based only in Mumbai but now spending more time in their house on the outskirts of Pune, recount the time they left their beloved Sweety, a Lhasa-poodle mix, in Mumbai in the care of Ashoke’s mother, for a short holiday to Mahabaleshwar. The matriarch had insisted they do so, to allow for some level of detachment between the dog and the couple: too much love isn’t good, she seemed to say. Soon after they reached the hill-station and called home to check on everyone, Ashoke’s mother told them that Sweety hadn’t eaten anything since they left. The distraught couple asked Sweety to be put on speaker-phone (ah, the innocence and ingenuity of people), and were able to pacify her to some extent. The following afternoon, they took the first bus back home.

A limiting life? None of our silver pet parents feels so. The limitless love of the animal more than makes up for it. (See box story: If pets could talk.)

Choosing with care

Mysuru resident and silver, Selma Pinto, holding her cat, Cola

Selma with her cat, Cola

So, should you head out to the nearest pet shop or breeder and bring home a furry bundle of joy? The good animal doctor, Nicole, weighs in again. Get a smaller animal; they are more manageable. Also, as much as dogs are exalted for being man’s best friends, they are not easy. (Just like a high-maintenance friend, perhaps?) If your heart is really set on a dog, bring home a small breed and not one like a Labrador. Labs, young and grown-up alike, are a handful. Where silvers have enough anxieties of losing balance in a bathroom, the last thing they want is to handle a 25-kilo, four-footed, adolescent animal jumping on them in unshackled excitement. Cats are especially good pets for silvers, Nicole espouses, being both low-maintenance and high-independence. Do we hear you purring already?

All silvers we spoke to seem to be already following these to-dos. The Mahajanis and Mitras both have small dog breeds, the former Min Pins (Miniature Pinschers), the latter Spritzes. Benny, Selma, Malvika and the Baggas have indie dogs, and they swear by them. They are better suited to Indian conditions, and since they come from the outside (street), they are hardy and more independent. At the habitats of the last three, the indie dogs come and go as they please. Remember the Baggas’ sadkon ka raja, Buddy?

Vegan activist Malvika in fact has her indie dog, Razia, in her husband’s office, rather than at home. Apart from giving the reason for this, she adds further caution to – and perhaps throws a wet blanket on – keeping an animal at home. Malvika would perhaps know well. She has had four home dogs at various times in her life, all eventually passing on. The last, a Lab named Ralph, developed problems walking thanks to doing so on a concrete floor all day, which isn’t the animal’s natural terrain, she learnt. More learnings. Due to consuming another animal’s milk (the standard cow milk that most people have, and pet parents give their pets), Ralph eventually developed diabetes, which came under some control after Malvika switched to soy milk. For the same reason, Ralph started shedding hair.

Jammu Tawi resident and silver, Malvika Kalra, with her adopted dog, Razia

Malvika with her adopted dog, Razia

If you really wish to have a pet, bring home one from a shelter, advocates Malvika, who also works for animal liberation. That way, you get to give a loving home to a homeless animal, avoid contributing to the animal breeding industry (which has too many unseen horrors to begin discussing here, she reins herself in), and of course, as she averred earlier, you get the unconditional love that perhaps only an animal can give you.

The Mitras go one step further. While they would be the first ones to recommend getting home a pet, having had all manner of species from birds to dogs at their various homes (Muscat, Mumbai, Pune) over the years, they urge you to keep in mind your situation in life. If you can’t devote all your time and effort, but still wish to experience the joy of an animal, you could visit an animal shelter off and on. Just a few hours, or even minutes, with an assortment of homeless and abandoned animals (shelters have the gamut: from dogs and cats to chicken, cows, horses and turkeys) bounding or ambling around you, can bring smiles to your face. And do wonders for those serotonin levels, may we add.

Bhupinder Bagga, who went Bollywood about the doggie situation at his home (Ghar ki rani…), does a repeat with this decision. Dog, cat, bird (although caged would be cruel), small, big, medium, it doesn’t make a difference… Aakhir pyaar sabhi ek jaise karte hain. (After all, they all love you the same way.) No doubt, Caddie would have licked him some more for that.

And when they turn silver

Now, to a question many silvers may not have considered, or perhaps don’t wish to. What if the animals you bring home to add joys and years to your sunset years end up heading into the sunset themselves? What of… silver pets?

Quite a few silvers we spoke to have had animals ailing and then passing away. Pet animals, after all, have shorter lives than humans. The silvers have seen more than a few flailing and failing pets, and it’s never easy, neither to witness their suffering nor to make the decision to put them down. Those who haven’t had an ailing pet so far said they would never euthanize their animal, as they love them too much, and also that this seems more like “a Western concept”. Those who have gone through the experience seemed more pragmatic.

Bombay / Mumbai and Pune couple, Madhavi and Ashoke Mitra, at the grave of their departed dog, Sweety, in Pune's Salisbury Park

Madhavi and Kishore Mitra laying flowers on Sweety’s grave, as a neighbourhood indie watches on

The Mitras lost their darling Sweety of 18 years to a host of complications: pyometra (a disease of the uterus), diabetes, arthritis, and finally kidney failure. When the vet told them Sweety had only about five days more, and seeing her misery at close quarters, they decided to make the tough call. However, they ensured their departed daughter (they even gave her their surname) had dignity in death, burying her in Pune’s upmarket Salisbury Park, which has a pet cemetery. As if all of dog-kind knew, the street dogs of the area communed around Sweety’s grave, commiserating with the couple. Whenever the Mitras go visiting their dearly departed girl, the doggies at once gather around. No doubt about it: man’s, and dog’s, best friend. (See box story: Clicking with pets, for how you can save the dear moments with your pet for posterity.)

And what if – and this is something silvers may have thought of even less – they pass on before their beloved pets? That’s how the Dobes, Raja and Rani, had come into the Mahajanis’ lives and household: when Shipa’s father-in-law, who had the dogs originally, passed away. Initially disturbed, yet knowing somehow that their silver parent wouldn’t be returning, Raja and Rani slowly began settling into the Mahajani household, as they sensed that it was an extension of their original parent’s family.

Nicole, who has had experience with this too, says that, just as for humans, it’s important to have a succession plan: who will adopt the animals if you are no longer there and whether you have set aside money for their upkeep.

Hopefully, though, as long as you take good care of yourself and your pet, there will be no need of that. And you and your golden companion will have a long and happy life, enjoying many golden sunsets together. Cheers to that. And woofs. And meows.

The box stories…

Golden mean: What your pet means to you

Bhupinder Singh Bagga: Bachchon se zyaada (More than my kids)

Benedict Gnaniah: Turbo engines! They are so full of energy – and fill me with energy too.

Malvika Kalra: Someone you can shower your love upon, and get unconditional love from

Shilpa Mahajani: Friends – as I have a small friends’ circle

Deanne Menon: My baby doll – I do gibberish talk with her

Madhavi Mitra: My kids

Selma Pinto: De-stressors…

So, that’s why: Animal behavioural traits

We heard from a silver pet parent why dogs chew shoes: they think the shoes are making you go away, and thus try to prevent them from doing so.

Here’s why they, especially the males, seem to run away ever so often, sometimes never to return. They make the break on sensing that… a female dog is in heat. And then, the two elope, we guess.

So, it’s better to have a female animal, then? Umm, not entirely. When your female pet is in heat, who do you think is going to come outside your house or after her during your daily walks? Lots and lots of male counterparts. So, rather than having her, and yourself, slayed (with affection, aggression or both), have her spayed.

Speech is golden: If pets could talk…

If your pet got the power of human speech for one minute, what do you think they will tell you?

Bhupinder Singh Bagga: Ah, I wish for that minute too! They would say, Itnaa pyaar kyun karte ho? (Why do you love us so?)

Benedict Gnaniah: Thanks for finding me…

Malvika Kalra: You are not our best friends… (A true vegan, animal liberation response, may we say)

Shilpa Mahajani: I love you…

Deanne Menon: I love you… (She literally has a conversation with me when I return from work, lifting her rump, doing “Ooooo, ooooo.”)

Madhavi Mitra: What was ailing me (Sweety)

Selma Pinto: I love you… (the cats and dogs), I am hungry (the crows, monkeys and kites)

Clicking with pets: Through the lens of a pet photographer

Pet photographer, Bhavesh Karia, with a dog on a shootPet photographer? Is that even a job? Does it earn enough? No, that’s not us, but his friendly neighbourhood “aunties” asking Bhavesh Karia, a pet photographer based in Mumbai, whose studio has the winsome name, Pawtraits. (Find out more about Pawtraits on Facebook here.) We will ask him just that first question, and ok, a few more.

So, what does a pet photographer do?

I shoot portraits (photos) of pets (or babies, as I call them), either with their parents or of the babies alone. I shoot indoors as well as outdoors, although indoors is obviously easier. Outside, the animals have too many distractions!

How long does a shoot take, and how do you get them to pose?

It takes about an hour to three. My set-up is minimal. Posing? I typically manage with a treat or a ball. I usually check with the parent beforehand to know what will work with the baby. I try to capture the eyes of the animal, as the eyes are the windows to the soul.

Do you get any silver clients?

Not yet, as this is still a growing field. But I want to pursue it. Also, many silvers haven’t really thought of it, but it’s a great way for them to capture their special moments with their precious babies for their lifetimes – the baby’s and the parent’s.

A portrait of Bhavesh's home dog, BellaSilvers with pets, what’s your take, especially as you have a lovely doggie yourself? (Bhavesh has a gorgeous brindle Boxer, aptly named Bella, meaning beautiful in Italian. As part of his showcase, he shares many sample photos on social media of Bella in all her brindle glory.)

Oh, yes, makes so much sense. I agree that silvers should mostly keep a low-energy animal. However, some are dog people, some are cat people. As for choosing the animal, you don’t choose the animal, they choose you…

Golden words, those.