Late one night this June, a worn down Hyundai Santro made its way through the deserted streets near South Extension in Delhi. A large polythene bag was perched rather precariously on its roof. As I followed the car in a taxi, a number of shadows emerged from the dark. The streets began to come alive.
Once we came to a halt, dozens of stray dogs converged on the car. Some weaved their way through parked cars, others jumped over drains, but the ones who knew best were already waiting in anticipation of their nightly treat. A well-built man, over six feet tall, emerged from the car and was immediately surrounded by 20 dogs. It was enough to frighten me into keeping my distance, but Rohit Prem greeted them with a wide smile. They were old friends. He reached for the polythene bag, which was full of boiled chicken, and began feeding the dogs and playing with them.
Rohit is a 39-year-old milkman who, along with his brother Rahul, feeds over fifty cats and around four hundred dogs on the streets of south Delhi every day. Throughout the two hours I spent following him, I never saw him without a smile. The brothers inherited their love for animals from their father. He was also a milkman, who started out feeding a stray dog he had encountered on his morning route. The brothers have two cars—the rickety Santro and a shinier i10—but their father did his rounds on a humble scooter.
Our next stop was a gated colony near Uday Park, where the roads were truly empty. Rohit let out a few whistles, strolled up to a parked car, got on his haunches and held out a piece of meat between its wheels. A couple of tiny black heads with yellow and green eyes darted out and snatched the meat out of his hands. These cats were not nearly as sociable as the dogs had been. Feeding the cats was a different game, Rohit told me as he held out another piece of meat. “They don’t come out so early. They’re usually out much later.”
We moved to a nearby traffic signal where the brothers stopped to load their cars with milk for their daily rounds. Here, too, a pack of stray dogs had gathered for their treat. Rohit knew the life story of every dog he fed, and had fashioned names for each of them. Sitting on the curb and waiting for the distributor to arrive with the day’s milk, Rohit pointed at one of the dogs. “Shaila was born near Ansal Plaza,” he said. “Her mother passed away recently. Her brother Jhumroo had met with an accident while they were still living at Ansal Plaza. We had to rush him to the hospital. We didn’t think he would make it because he had broken his leg, but he’s okay now.” He occasionally takes recovering dogs back to his house in South Extension, nursing them back to health. Around 30 dogs had seen the inside of his small apartment, he said.