Puppies

A dog’s life in Gurgaon? It’s not for everyone.
Puppies - A dog’s life in Gurgaon? It’s not for everyone - Week 6 on Fifty Two

On a regular day, Chandra, the cook, carries Gobi’s chicken bowl through the house, calling his name as he lounges on an antique four-poster bed. Then, like a server offering a patron a sip of wine before pouring, she waves a piece of chicken under Gobi’s nose. If it’s inadequate, he flops his head back onto the pillow and shuts his eyes with a dismissive snuffle. If he’s ready for the day, he jumps down and follows his breakfast back to the kitchen.

Gobi is my parents’ dog. (He’s also called ‘Kuchu-Puchu,’ which used to be my nickname.) Just a little way from our home in Gurgaon’s DLF Phase 5, a version of his story plays out in another gated community. Lassie, a seven-year-old Lhasa Apso, has made dinner an interactive performance that cannot commence without her entire human family in attendance. Her meal-tray features a fried egg, a bowl with pieces of paneer, another with chicken organs and broth, and a third with rice and meat mashed together. The contents of this deluxe thali must be gingerly hand-fed to Lassie—a sudden movement from the gallery, and she turns her head away in disinterest. 

Say “Gurgaon”[1] and our brains conjure up flashy cars, cheap alcohol every 500 metres, and glass towers that shoot into a smoggy sky. Yet nothing tells a more dissonant story of its cultivated opulence and dizzying inequality than its pampered dogs.

Gurgaon’s relationship with its canine residents is both a symptom, and a result, of how this town, sometimes called India’s “Millennium City,” incubates new ambitions, heinous old inequities, and ecological ruin.

Right outside Galleria, one of Gurgaon’s oldest open-air markets, a shiny new board announces Critterati, a luxury pet hotel. At the reception, the staff can book your dog a spa appointment and also note down his details, in case you’re into doggie matchmaking. Since they must look the part, pet supply stores like Heads Up For Tails (HUFT) offer a variety of customizable shirts, sweaters, harnesses and leashes. Designers Shivan and Narresh recently launched a line of dog accessories in collaboration with HUFT.

The city has a history of taming, of domesticating. Now, it is pets. Earlier, it was land.

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he emotional shift from “owner” to “parent” paved the way for an entirely new category of consumers, and nowhere does the business of catering to these consumers flourish like it does in Gurgaon. “People are ready to indulge their dogs with the same amount of money that they spend on themselves,” said Mallika Tandon, co-owner of the Puppychino Dog Friendly Cafe, and its offshoot, the Puppychino Borkery.

“When we started off (in 2016), we had no idea about what we were doing. The dog-friendly cafe was basically my sister’s brainchild and we weren’t expecting any growth, but it has been phenomenal,” Mallika told me. “Now, we get 4-5 orders every day which is really big for a bakery that’s just for dogs.”

“People in Gurgaon expect a lot of their dogs,” said Namratha Rao, a dog trainer and behaviourist based in South Delhi. Rao has an anecdotal theory that Gurgaon favours well-behaved dogs because it attracts a younger working population in nine-to-five jobs who don’t employ full-time help and mostly live in apartment complexes that have very strict rules. “You really can’t afford to have dogs who bite or bark constantly in that environment,” she said flatly. “Whereas in a mansion (like those in South Delhi), if your dog is misbehaving, you can just take the dog away and put him outside—out of sight, out of mind.”

Her thesis is echoed by Akanksha Yadav, a professional dog trainer who used to work in investment and public relations in Hong Kong and Mumbai. Most of Yadav’s clients in Gurgaon resemble who she was when she first got into training: a young, newly-married, first-time dog owner who wanted to get it right, expense no bar. Yadav’s obedience sessions start at ₹1500 for 45 minutes. Aggression-related training goes up to ₹2000 per session. (In Gurgaon, rates for psychological counselling for humans also start at ₹1500.) Gurgaon’s spatial design requires dogs to be well-behaved, because private space is typically limited to flats in high-rises. Public space and common areas must be shared with hundreds of other humans and animals.

The city has a history of taming, of domesticating. Now, it is pets. Earlier, it was land. Gurgaon’s is the story of how private builders bought about 50 villages and sold off parcels of land—with minimal governmental interference—to build a city seemingly out of nowhere. It’s what happens when a wave of capital dislodges rural landowners, deposits wealthy multinational corporations, and sucks in droves of people to sustain this new economy.

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handigarh is Le Corbusier’s and New Delhi is Lutyens’s. Perhaps not strictly in the same way, Gurgaon belongs to Kushal Pal Singh.

Decades before Gobi and Lassie came to be fussed over in 20-storey apartments overlooking golf greens, KP Singh’s real estate company, Delhi Land & Finance or DLF, was floundering. He knew that swathes of tamed and untamed land beyond Delhi’s southern edge were tangled up in a thicket of legislation.

In the late 1970s, in one of the many villages that made up the Gurgaon district in those days, Singh met a future prime minister. “Gurgaon would never have happened had it not been for Rajiv (Gandhi),” Singh wrote in his autobiography. Like any good legend, there are a few versions of this first chance meeting.

In Singh’s telling, it took place on a sweltering summer afternoon, when he was speaking to some villagers. A man came by asking for water to cool his car’s overheating engine. The two started chatting and on a woven cot under a tree, Singh laid out his vision for a futuristic city. What’s stopping you, the young Gandhi asked. Singh complained about laws that were preventing him from breaking ground.

At the time of this meeting, DLF’s star was on the wane. After independence, the company had developed some of the first residential colonies of South Delhi including South Extension, Greater Kailash and Hauz Khas. The Delhi Development Act of 1957 established the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), which began building its own housing projects by the late 1960s.

In the mid-1970s, the Urban Land Ceiling Act came into force. According to Singh, it cut DLF out of construction in Delhi. “The Act provided de facto monopoly on urban land development to government developers,” he wrote. At the capital’s borders, he wondered whether “desolate” Gurgaon could be transformed into a city.

But KP Singh was not exactly transforming a blank canvas. Gurgaon was regulated by a host of laws, including the Haryana Development and Regulation of Urban Areas Act, 1975 and the Punjab Scheduled Roads and Controlled Areas Act, 1963. They dictated matters such as the amount of land private developers could purchase, how much of that land could be built on, and how much had to be left green.

Another constraint was the floor-to-area ratio (FAR), which prescribes how many storeys a building could have. Singh writes that when he first looked into building in Gurgaon, the limit was eight storeys. The Haryana government’s master plan for Gurgaon had strict rules for maintaining population density, which would have made today’s towers unthinkable.

Private developers weren’t allowed to borrow money from banks for buying land. And to top it all, a formal housing finance market didn’t exist until Housing Development Finance Corporation (HDFC) was founded as a mortgage company in the late 1970s. Which meant that even if Singh somehow managed to borrow enough from other types of lenders at high interest rates, it would be challenging for DLF to make sales.

Meeting Rajiv Gandhi just when he was at the cusp of entering active politics gave Singh the opportunity to sit down with decision-makers in Delhi and Haryana. He argued that the government’s caution had bred corruption and hampered well-designed urbanisation. Professional developers like DLF needed more leeway to realize their vision for a new Indian city.

Initially, “none of the major construction companies that rushed to build Gurgaon envisioned a brand-new city,” Veena Talwar Oldenburg wrote in her 2018 book about Gurgaon.[2] They “all had the same unoriginal idea of creating a new batch of housing colonies on parcels of land, much like the ones they had developed in Delhi.” But in the 1980s, after private developers managed to convince the authorities to amend the FAR ratio, DLF built Silver Oaks, the first of Gurgaon’s towering apartment complexes.

Public authorities failed to keep up with the rapidly-expanding “township,” and effectively handed it over to developers to privatize nearly all aspects of urban life. Builders brought in generators to provide electricity when the government’s meagre supply ran out. They dug tube wells to deal with water shortages, erected street lights in the sprawling complexes, and hired private security firms to pick up where the police left off. (Gurgaon only got a municipal corporation in 2008, nearly 30 years after the first towers were built.)

Over the next decade, entire villages were bought out. Newly rich agriculturists were encouraged to invest the proceeds into ambitious residential projects. Offices, “phases” with plots for independent homes, malls, and luxury apartments followed in quick succession.

Liberalisation and privatisation in the early 1990s created a new class of multinational corporation, and multinational worker, attracted by the idea of a self-contained township and proximity to the airport of the national capital. With them, came their children—and their dogs.

In 1997, Vikram and Vasudha Kapoor were one of the first families to move to Palam Vihar, then marketed as an extension of Delhi. Generations of their family had lived in a kothi[3] in Vasant Vihar since the 1960s, but as the area went from outpost to ‘up and coming’ neighbourhood, the Kapoors wanted more space. Palam Vihar offered more room, as well as relative quiet and tree-lined streets.

For the Kapoors, who own and oversee mines in Odisha, it seemed like a good place to raise their family of three children and two dogs. Back then, “there was nothing around, no markets or malls. There was just one vet and he used to come home if you needed anything,” Vasudha recalled.

In 1997, my father was a white-collar worker at Coca-Cola. That year, we followed the company’s office from Nehru Place to Gurgaon, ditching our rented flat in Greater Kailash II for a 2-storey villa in a development that Oldenburg says was the first “Western-style gated condominium residential community” in India. It was named Garden Estate, though the cleaning ladies who first came to work there were given to referring to its cluster of pale yellow buildings as “jungle mein mangal.”[4]

“Even the most inefficient man can make money in Gurgaon if he has the right instinct for buying land.”

Devender Singh, Gurgaon resident

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efore the yuppies, there were landowners, and it was their way of life that transformed nearly overnight.

“Even the most inefficient man can make money in Gurgaon if he has the right instinct for buying land,” said Devender Singh, in his fifties now and a lifelong resident of Gurgaon. In the 1960s, Singh said, the government had given his father a land grant in Gurgaon. A career working for DLF completely changed his family’s prospects.

There are others who have seen their fortunes change dramatically within the generation. “There were only a few really famous food joints at that time—Sardar Jalebi Wala, a tikki wala and Rewari Sweets who made the best milk cake. Rewari were the kings of Gurgaon. And even today, their shops look the same, but they’ve made enough that each generation of that family has 500-gaj[5] kothis in HUDA sectors,” said Singh, referring to the sprawling mansions in the government-planned neighbourhoods that predated DLF’s entry.

Singh laughed, and pet his black Labrador Coco. “We barely had enough to feed ourselves growing up, pets weren’t even imaginable for us at that time.” We were in his twentieth-story apartment in DLF’s Magnolias. Nothing about the room suggested that it was one of several boxes in a concrete slot. The white furnishings and glass windows that ran the length of the room made it feel like we were in a child’s rendition of a cloud palace.

Downstairs, perfectly groomed purebreds—two curly-haired cocker spaniels, a chihuahua, two tiny terriers with perked-up ears and droopy whiskers—went about their evening walks with staff. Most were heading to or from the dog park, a scrap of land for dogs to wander off their leashes, and poop and pee in peace. Right by the entrance is a wide ground-level sink for washing paws. The whole thing is hidden behind well-trimmed bushes.

It is easy to see how a badly-behaved dog might upset the precarious balance between private and semi-public spaces in Gurgaon’s condominiums. Muddy paw prints in the elevator with copper-coloured fittings and poop on the tiled pavement outside are tell-tale signs. Hostile barks have been known to shatter the evening calm. So, Gurgaon’s residents have to ensure that the dogs are minded.

Khurshid, who goes by his first name, came to Gurgaon in 2010. Before he started walking an employer’s dog in Central Park 1 (CP1), he bounced around as a security guard, housekeeper and car-cleaner.

“It was much more fun than other work. So, I asked around and soon started walking about 8-10 dogs daily,” he said. In the six years since he started, Khurshid has gone from living in a jhuggi[6] with no proper access to a toilet, water or electricity, to a pukka room in a makeshift colony close to Paras Hospital in central Gurgaon.

Khurshid’s day is divided into three shifts—5:30 to 10am, 3:30 to 5pm, and a set of night-walks that conclude at 9.30pm. He cycles back and forth from his home throughout the day, leaving at five in the morning, returning only at ten in the night. The city does not accommodate him easily. The seven-kilometre stretch of Golf Course Road, lined by some of India’s most expensive commercial and private real estate, does not yet have its long-promised bicycle lane. Footpaths exist but only in spurts. Paved concrete is interspersed with packed dirt.

The Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon (MCG) first promised dedicated cycling tracks from HUDA City Centre to Golf Course Road in 2014. Five Rapid Metro stations and the contingent of auto-rickshaws that customarily line up outside seem to have put paid to the proposal. Last year, when recreational cyclists raised the issue of a track, the MCG commissioner blamed delays on a dispute with the Gurgaon Metropolitan Development Authority (GMDA).

Pedestrians have it even worse. To avoid the swirling traffic of the roundabout, construction workers in orange vests and yellow hard-hats congregate in groups of 10-15 to cross the main road on which cars zip by at 70 kilometres an hour. There are no pedestrian underpasses or bridges on the entire seven-kilometre stretch. A study by Delhi’s School of Planning and Architecture found that 72% of Gurgaon’s roads have no footpath facilities, but nearly half the trips made in the city were completed on foot.

The Delhi Metro arrived in Gurgaon in 2010, but it was only in 2013 that the first phase of the Rapid Metro system started connecting commuters to and from the Cyber City corporate hub. (I met a dog groomer at CGS Pet Hospital in DLF Phase 1 who said the Metro changed his life, not by shortening his commute, but by making Delhi more accessible on his precious days off.)

The second phase, which started operations in March 2017, runs along the high-income stretch of the Golf Course Road. The lower- and middle-income residents of Old Gurgaon, cut off from the DLF-dominated parts by the NH48 expressway, remain woefully under serviced. According to news reports, the Detailed Project Report (DPR) to provide Metro connectivity to Old Gurgaon was only approved by the Haryana government in August this year.

A bus service was launched only in September 2018. It’s unfair to Gurgaon’s land-owning residents to accuse them of having built a city that requires personal vehicle ownership. But the best you can say for them is that they probably didn't do it intentionally.

Inside the condos, class boundaries are trickier to maintain, despite some obvious markers. In newer buildings, “service” lifts are hidden from the marbled, fragrant lobbies used by residents and visitors. Security guards are under strict instructions from Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) to monitor the use of parks, benches and swimming pools.

WhatsApp groups of dog-owners generate plenty of cute content but also function as a surveillance tool. Residents post insinuating images of canine excreta encountered on morning walks. From their balconies, they keep an eagle-eye on dog walkers, reporting on the misdemeanours of domestic staff, such as failure to pick up poop off the pavement, with alacrity.

Humans have fixed status here, but dogs resist categorisation. When Purnima Rai first moved to CP 1 from Darjeeling in 2017, she found that certain parts of the complex were out of bounds when she came down to walk her employer’s dog Gabru. “The guards used to tell us, ‘Don’t walk here, don’t sit there’, so we started asking them, ‘Why? Because we’re maids?’ They don’t do it anymore.”

Rai told me that her employer often stood up for her on the RWA WhatsApp groups, defending her right to access spaces, and speaking up when Rai was taken to task for carrying a stick while walking Gabru. This sort of egalitarianism is not a given. “It depends on the ma’am and sir of the house,” Rai explained.

She’s carved out moments in the day when she and her friends ride on their dogs’ privilege. They might not get time off for a mid-day walk, but taking the dog out is an easy way to have a short chat with a friend before popping back up to work. Rai is twenty-six years old, and lives away from her husband and seven-year-old son. One of the perks of the job is Gabru himself. “My heart feels lighter with him around,” she said, nudging his wagging bum with the side of her foot. “Other than the times he does badmaashi.”[7]

Sometimes, late at night, you can see a group of women and the dogs they are minding sprawled out on a patch of grass that’s hidden from the road by a thicket of tall bamboo. They chat in low voices and listen to music on their phones. It’s one of the only times I’ve seen leisure in an open space in Gurgaon.

“My heart feels lighter with him around.”

Purnima Rai, minder of Gabru

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ther inhabitants of Haryana’s semi-rural tracts feel the pressures of new construction and the attendant gentrification. “Where will the animals go if you keep building in these far-off places?” Nikhil Mahesh, a trained dog behaviourist and trainer who runs Ummeed, an animal-welfare NGO, asked. 

Nikhil gets about 25 street dog rescue calls each week. Most cases are “from areas where there are fewer animal feeders, places like the Old Gurgaon side, railway road, Khansi Mandi, everything beyond NH48,” he said, referring to the older, scrappier neighbourhoods.

Gurgaon’s street dogs are children of a lesser god. They occupy spaces that residents widely believe to be their private fiefdoms. They puncture the nightly silence with barks and howls, poop in the driveways of houses that cost crores, and nip at the heels of morning walkers and their well-groomed pets.

“It’s peaceful in Gurgaon’s villages,” Nikhil, who also rescues snakes and other wildlife from residential areas, said. “They grow up with animals, so they’re fine with their existence. My centre’s in a village and the locals bring the dogs for treatment themselves. They’re more compassionate.”

In the city, street dogs are generally treated as encroachers, both in gated townships and in neighbourhoods with independent houses. Societies post guards and erect fences to keep them out. The real trouble—and cruelty—starts when packs end up colonising scraps of land surrounding private property. Residents have been known to drive away street dogs with beatings and more brutal forms of assault. In condominiums, this task may be deputed to guards. In neighbourhoods with independent houses, residents go to war with each other.

In the face of such hostility, a kind of civic togetherness has emerged among some of Gurgaon’s dog-lovers. They coordinate rescues and adoptions across neighbourhoods, and are supported by heavy discounts from vets and trainers. In Valley View Estate, a far-flung high-rise on the Gurgaon-Faridabad road, a group of ten residents have banded together to care for the 40-odd strays that populate the area. Ayesha Matharu, one of these residents, explained that they spend about ₹25,000-30,000 monthly to pay three maids—one to cook chicken and rice in bulk, two to take care of the dogs’ medical and general needs.

This isn’t an ideal solution. Caring for street dogs is a city-wide problem and requires solutions that match its scale; but Gurgaon’s isolated parcels of land and scattered public infrastructure make collective action difficult to organise.

Nikhil thought Gurgaon’s residents would be unlikely to mobilise for anything unless it directly affected them. Those threatened by street dogs have filed police cases against animal feeders, and, on occasion, resorted to violence. The dynamic is fraught with tensions over territory. In Valley View, dog-supporters even accompany maids who feed the dogs, to protect them from dog haters.

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n a 2014 report for The Caravan, journalist Praveen Donthi told the story of how the teenaged sons of a landowner in Wazirabad village shared tense friendships with the boys from the swanky apartments bordering their lands off Golf Course Road, conscious of the social divide between the original residents and the new arrivals. Even schools, they said, wouldn’t admit them unless they provided a “sector address.” “Economic and social inroads into the middle class exist, but are tenuous, easily washed away,” Donthi wrote.

The inequities have naturally spilled over into resource allocation and use. The city’s accelerated growth has ravaged its water, land and air.[8] Construction gobbles up land and absorbs people in ever increasing numbers. Between 1991 and 2001, Gurgaon’s population increased by 44%. The decade after saw a 74% increase. In 2017, Oldenburg estimated there were 2.5 million people in Gurgaon.

For this rapid growth, water has been sucked out of Gurgaon’s earth at an alarming rate. On her DLF Phase 3 property, Oldenburg hit groundwater at 25 feet. When she dug her second well, she found water at 130 feet. This second well dried out before the first. The third, at 250 feet, “lasted only a year before developing a dry cough and then becoming defunct.”

Independent homeowners have tube wells or call for tankers that deposit thousands of litres in massive storage tanks. In slums, landlords charge their tenants for water from illegal wells. In 2015, the government banned new tube wells, but groundwater depletion continued through special permissions for new construction sites and existing pumps. In 2018, The Times Of India reported that Gurgaon’s water table had declined by 82% in a decade—going from 19.85m below ground level in 2006 to 36.21m in 2016.

It’s not just a problem of quantity. Soon after moving to Gurgaon, Purnima Rai noticed her hair falling. The water was bad, she realised. Calcium from hard water crusts around taps and corrodes metal pipes. In June 2018, The Times of India reported a steep rise in fluoride and nitrate levels in Gurgaon’s water, along with the presence of dangerous heavy metals such as cadmium and lead. The report suggested that untreated sewage and landfills were responsible for the rising nitrate levels.

Every monsoon, Gurgaon’s underpasses get flooded with untreated sewage from storm water drains. Data collected by the GMDA in 2018 estimated at least 80 million litres of untreated sewage was illegally dumped into the Najafgarh drain, which connects to the Yamuna system. Reporters from the Hindustan Times had discovered arbitrary dumping of waste by private tankers coming from residential areas. In 2016, economist Shruti Rajagopalan told a reporter, “If you’re living inside the development, everything looks great. It looks like you have functional sewage, but those lines are not connected to a main line. They go nowhere.”[9]

As its waste continues to hit its roads, Gurgaon has been scrambling for solutions. In 2019, following the young city’s oldest tradition—and under pressure from the National Green Tribunal to curb pollution—the GMDA ordered over 300 housing societies to construct their own sewage treatment plants (STPs).

Gurgaon’s primary allure has always been the promise of a frictionless existence, unbounded by the spatial, bureaucratic and environmental constraints of other Indian cities. But the cracks are beginning to show. Since 2015, the Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA) has ordered apartment complexes and construction sites to only use treated sewage water for horticultural and building purposes. It’s one way to maintain thirsty lawns and keep gigantic construction projects alive.

Priyanka, Devender Singh’s daughter, said their dog Coco loves a Sunday afternoon run through the water sprinklers that service Magnolias’ pristine lawns. However, she hoses him down in the bathroom before he’s allowed back in the living areas of the house. “It’s sewage water,” she explained.

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ast winter, the residents of CP 1 celebrated their pets with the inaugural edition of the CP 1 Dog Show. On a football field, in front of four judges, participants emerged to strut their stuff as children in the announcer’s booth read out their introductions.

Every dog trotted home with a goodie bag full of treats, sponsored by a newly opened pet store on the main road, and samples from the Nestlé pet food stall. A few days later, “parents” received a glossy calendar, each page with professional photographs of the participants and dog-themed quotes. Ours sits on a side-table, and features Gobi’s happy, panting face. He’s a French bulldog, which was first bred during Europe’s industrial revolution. It was a time when farm hands transformed into factory workers, and country became city. The distinction between work and play was institutionalized. Incomes improved but in rapidly-changing urban agglomerations, there was a premium on space.

The new class of workers sought canine companions, but they had to be smaller than the ones on the farms. The larger English bulldog was crossed with pugs and terriers, and the French bulldog was born.[10]

The flat face of the French bulldog is a genetic fallout of this breeding experiment. It has a tendency to constrict their nasal passage and cause breathing trouble. It’s the price they must pay for being born in the throes of a social upheaval, the product of human whim. Now both dog and city sometimes find themselves gasping for breath.

Nehmat Kaur has been an editor and a writer, and is currently an MBA candidate at the University of Oxford. She is @nehmatks on Twitter and @nemznomz on Instagram.

Acknowledgements:

This story would be incomplete without Chandra, Purnima Rai, Khurshid and Vijay Harshit who bore the discomfort and risk of discussing their employers with a (more privileged) stranger. I am so thankful for their words. 

I am deeply grateful to the Kapoor, Singh, and Bharadwaj families for sharing their lives and allowing me into their homes. And to Mallika Tandon, Akanksha Yadav, Namratha Rao, Ayesha Matharu and Nikhil Mahesh for spending hours on the phone with me, answering follow-up questions to my follow-up questions.  

Gurgaon’s dogs would have no sense of place in this story if it weren’t for the people who’ve written about the city’s absurd infrastructure before: KP Singh, Veena Talwar Oldenburg, Praveen Donthi and Vidhi Doshi.

I also absolutely have to say thank you to my parents, who try very hard to swallow their wariness when it comes to my writing (and my Twitter).

And finally, thank you to Jahnavi Sen, Bikki Gill, Veer Misra and Abhishek Vidyarthy Singh, who all read several versions of this story.