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Of dogs, friendships and finding a higher purpose

A shared empathy for street dogs and the wish to save them from being run over on roads sparked an uncommon kinship between automobile design engineer Shantanu Naidu and Ratan Tata, the Chairman of the Tata Trusts. I Came Upon a Lighthouse is Mr Naidu’s rendering of that bond and their mutual love for all things canine. It is also the story of Motopaws, the organisation Mr Naidu founded with friends. One of their solutions for keeping the strays on our roads safe: reflective collars that mark them out at night. An excerpt from the book:

Stories that end pleasantly don’t always start in pleasant places. This one certainly doesn’t. It’s hard to forget the late night when my motorcycle screeched to a stop under one of the many orange streetlights on a road in Pune. Cars sped by threateningly. I knew what I had seen that had made me pull over. Falsely hoping it might be something else, I looked at the centre of the road in the distance. A white dog with brown spots lay in a pool of his own blood. I was right the first time.

This is where it started — the first nudge of destiny’s curious finger on the first domino.

He wasn’t run over just once. And it wasn’t even a one-off incident. It was the sixth time I had had to pull over in those couple of months with nothing left to do but stare helplessly. I used to imagine doing terrible things to the people who had run over the dogs – worse to those who had run them over after they had died. Grief would fill my insides thinking about their last moment and how lonely they must have been, apart from their obvious pain. Were they crossing the road to meet their friend? To see their puppies? To find food? But it’s not like my conscience spared me any shame. I should have had, at the very least, the decency to move the dead dog to the sidewalk. I didn’t.

Shantanu Naidu with Ratan Tata, Chairman of the Tata Trusts
Shantanu Naidu with Ratan Tata, Chairman of the Tata Trusts

At work the next day, with colourful curses, I would go on to describe how evil we are as a race, not letting anyone do their job until my passionate preaching was done. On one such preachy morning, a colleague pulled me aside hesitantly to tell me about the time he had run a dog over several years ago.

‘I had no choice. It was either that or to swerve the car at the last minute and drive my family off the road,’ he said.

‘Last minute?’

‘Yes, last minute. I didn’t see him until the very last minute.’

After making sure I didn’t hold it against him and we were still friends, he left. But the ‘last minute’ part of the story stayed with me. Was this happening with all the drivers that run over dogs? Over the next few weeks, I was obsessed with finding out and set out to speak to people who had been in accidents involving dogs or close calls of some sort. All of them had a similar story to tell.

‘They appear so suddenly.’

‘The streets aren’t well lit.’

‘I didn’t even get a chance to slow down …’

If there was any way of fixing this, it wasn’t just about making the dogs visible. They had to be visible from a distance. Enough distance to give a driver time to think about what his next move should be to avoid the dog on the road.

I took all of this and sat down with Mihira, the girl I was seeing then. To call Mihira an animal lover would be a grossly unfair understatement. She was a cute little passionately dedicated animal soldier who would go to great lengths for a rescue. We discussed making the dogs visible.

‘We should put something bright on them. Shiny collars!’

I can imagine how very lame that must sound now. Mihira must have really been into me to be into this. Or equally lame.

But being her sweet, unselfish self, she obliged.

‘What would we make them from?’

‘Well, we don’t have a lot of money, so something cheap? My fashion designer friends said we could use denims.’

‘Yes! Oh, oh! We can cut denim pants! Let me go home and stitch one.’

Cut pants and make dogs shine. Sure.

As an automotive design engineer at Tata Elxsi, I was aware of the reflective tape used on cars. It’s bright, is seen from a distance and reflects any light that falls on it at a direct angle. I bought a few meters of the red tape for Mihira and she brought back a stitched collar the very next day, done well enough to get us excited. She also put slits and a button on it.

‘Let’s test this! Let’s collar a dog.’

Growing up in Pune you get to know pretty much all the nooks and crannies of the city. We went to a rather lazy one where a dog was kind enough to let us put the collar on. In fact, he didn’t care as long as he was being cuddled. With his wiggly butt and happy with the sudden attention, he didn’t even notice us putting it on. We took a ride around the block and returned with the headlight on.

Words cannot capture the glory with which the clueless dog shone that night. A beautiful, glowing phoenix! A fat and cuddly phoenix that couldn’t fly. But the collar worked!

As with any project, you are giddy with excitement about, we decided to name it first. A weird christening process later, ‘Motopaws’ was finalized. ‘Moto’ for the drivers and ‘paws’ for the dogs. Concerns were raised about it sounding very similar to ‘menopause’, but we stuck with it anyway. A local tailor was willing to cut up denims and stitch us 500 collars. I don’t know if it was because of the ridiculousness of Motopaws or because of the fact that it involved dogs, but the rest of the team just put itself together. Mihira, my best friend Sukrut and I, with the addition of another friend called Kalyani, branched out to discover hyper, young students dying to join this … well, for the time being, let’s call it ‘charade’.

I Came Upon a Lighthouse: A Short Memoir of Life with Ratan Tata, published by HarperCollins India, 2021
I Came Upon a Lighthouse: A Short Memoir of Life with Ratan Tata, published by HarperCollins India, 2021