On full moon nights my dogs take to thinking they’re Celine Dion. There are three of them of varying size, temperament and timbre, so when they sit on the verandah and croon at the moon, they can sometimes sound more like an a cappella band presiding over a pig-killing than My Heart Will Go On. When I first moved out of the city, I used to worry. Were they being attacked by other dogs? Were they disturbing the neighbours, who were this minute writhing on their mattresses, reaching for their slingshots? Now that I’m habituated, I know my neighbours are no acousticophobes because they routinely blast Tamil film songs from the temple speakers. I’ve also learned that dogs, like home ministers, must sometimes fight their own battles. So when they start with their howling, I just push my face deeper into my pillow and hope that their moment of Dionspiration will pass soon.
I still worry, though. Not for nothing did I carry bed wetting into early adolescence if not to be a worrier for life. I worry about the wind and the trees, about another tsunami, about how often I feel like Antoinette from Wide Sargasso Sea, thinking, ‘What am I doing in this place and who am I?’ Mostly though, I worry about my dogs, because they’ve adopted me rather than the other way around. So while I feed and bathe them, vaccinate and deworm them, wipe cruds of infections off their ears, and besides, have immortalised them in several poems—these canines are intent on doing their own thing. Two of them refuse collars. All three of them know where the holes in the brick compound wall are, so they come and go like the women talking of Michelangelo.
When my husband and I moved to this remote stretch of beach on Tamil Nadu’s East Coast Road, we had not anticipated having dogs. We were peripatetic writers, so pooches didn’t figure in the equation. Our descent into dog mania started innocently, as I expect it always does. We were befriended on the beach by a biscuit-coloured fleabag, who was as charming and persuasive as a Neapolitan singer. We named him Salvatore, and our caretaker, a spritely Tamil lady, rechristened him Selvadorai. He soon brought in a beautiful, black haughty creature, whom we named Bagheera. And between them they spun kingdoms. Before you could say ‘hot-diggety’ our population had rocketed from two to 16—five adults, and the rest in varying stages of puppyhood. And while I knew in the pit of my worrisome spleen that 16 was a sweet but unsustainable number, I still felt only hit after hit of rapture every time I walked down the garden path and a splodge of black and white fur-balls rushed out to attack my toes.
“You know this is getting to be a problem, right?” My husband said, one day, when he saw me in a dishevelled state, heading out with the dog poop scooper in one hand and the dog pee mop in the other. Friends from the city would visit, and they’d raise their eyebrows and say how charming our rustic, dog-filled beach life was, silently thinking that it wouldn’t be too long now before my husband and I turned into alcoholics.
I should mention here that my dogs were Indian native dogs,considered by some to be the first domesticated dogs in the world. They appear 41 times in the prehistoric cave paintings of Bhimbekta—depicted in hunting scenes (one of them even led by a leash), and in the form of 5,000-year-old terra-cotta Harappan figures, sporting collars and their most convincing begging poses. The technical term for these majestic animals is ‘Indian pariah dog’—something I imagine was coined with the same casual spirit with which we’re asked to attest to not being an ‘idiot’ or ‘lunatic’ on a marriage certificate. As a gesture of affection I suppose you could call them pi-dogs, which at least, has the sheen of cutie-pie, but mainly they’re known as strays or mongrels. Whatever you want to call them, you’ll see them everywhere in India—sunning themselves on corners of roads, rifling through garbage, getting kicked around, dodging cars; some mangy and thin-ribbed, others miraculously hearty. At last count, there were 30 million of them.
The problem with my fleet of dogs was our matriarch Bagheera. She’d come to us full grown and wary of human contact. So, while she happily accepted food and led the charge on our evening beach walks, she didn’t allow us to touch her. The other problem was that we lived in the boondocks—an hour from the nearest supermarket and two hours from a multiplex cinema (not exactly convenient for a vet to make house-calls).
Eventually, I managed to persuade the Blue Cross to drive over and pick up the adult dogs for sterilisation. We had to lure Bagheera into the house with Milk Bikis and throw a net over her. It was like a scene straight out of Old Yeller. I may as well have reached for my shotgun, I was blubbering so much. These dogs had never been in a car before. They’d known nothing but this stretch of beach, the salt in their nostrils. When I went to visit them afterwards in their morose little kennels I longed for a score of Hans Zimmer to engulf me, but all I got was a hit of incontinent piss and lodoform. “I’m going to take you home soon,” I told them. “Everything’s going to be all right.”
But in fact, soon afterwards, things slid into full-on tragedy. While I’d been away, one of the medium pups had gotten into a fight. His face had swollen to the size of a birdhouse and his neck was filled with maggots. Back to the Blue Cross we went, but he didn’t survive. Soon after, an epidemic of canine distemper wiped out the littlest of the puppies. And then, there was the incident of the poisoning. The nearby villagers, fed up with their chickens being killed at night, laid out poisoned rice at the front gate, leaving us with only one dog—Bagheera, the one who in fact had been stealing the chickens.
To go from having no dogs to 16, and then back to one, is a bit like being stuck in the pages of a newspaper where all the bad stories are happening to you. Apparently there are such people as pet bereavement counsellors, but they probably live close to the multiplex cinemas and specialise in pugs who’ve passed on to doggy heaven, rather than these part-wild part-domestic creatures. Things were awfully quiet for very long. When we walked the beach it was a bit like surveying the lone and level sands of Ozymandias. Life without a pack was a life without play.
My friend at the Blue Cross (now on speed dial) said he’d come to the village and explain that poisoning dogs was a criminal offence. In fact, a few months later, further down the coast, it was discovered that the panchayat of Marakkanam had given cyanide to 400 dogs and buried them close to the seashore. More recently, in Kerala, there have been protests about the state’s position on the culling of strays. Animal welfare civic bodies in India are obviously under equipped and overwhelmed. And still, all these dog dramas would just be part of the general drama of Indian life, if it weren’t for the out of control and totally upstaging cow drama, which begs the question of relativity.
How is it that when it comes to the cow, a man can be dragged out of his house and lynched on the suspicion that he eats beef? How is it that constitutional rights can be disregarded; that a prime minister can take two weeks to respond, and when he does, can call it a “sad” incident, a sort of accident really, painful even, like when a car sometimes runs over a puppy. Clearly, this is no country for stray dogs, or rationalists or Dalits or women or homosexuals or Muslims or idiots or lunatics for that matter. Or is it only for idiots and lunatics? I can’t decide.
Earlier this year, in an epistolary exchange with poet and dance producer Karthika Naïr, we talked about our mutual obsession for dogs. In her poem, Shunaka: Blood Count, she pays homage to Sarama, the mother of all dogs, who she says was inspired by her parent’s Indie dog and Arun Kolatkar’s Ugh from the Kala Ghoda Poems. We talked about why it was that dogs had lost their footing in Indian mythology—having had a decent standing in the Rig Veda, but getting short-shrift in the Mahabharata, which begins with a dog getting beaten up. Elsewhere, Alberto Manguel, in a brilliant essay Dante’s Dogs, examines the relentless insults hurled at dogs in the Commedia. He observes correctly that ‘to call a person a dog is a common and uninspired insult in almost every language’ and questions why despite dogs being important and loyal fixtures of the 13th century Tuscan household,they were so often depicted in stories as ‘quarrelsome, envious, gossipy, and greedy.’
What good, after all, has it done a dog to be man’s best friend? You schlep around with him, help retrieve divine cows, wait, pine, and in the end, what? You’re denied entrance to the gates of heaven. You wait 20 years like poor Argos in the Odyssey, and when your master comes home, he ignores you, so you die of heartbreak. You’re the dispensable friend, expected to give up your life in order to save your master’s. Even that word: master, which necessitates the counterpoint—slave. Which is why my heart fills arhythmically, knowing that the only reason our Bagheera has survived so long is precisely because she doesn’t trust humans. She comes close to the ring of love, but never submits to it.
We have three dogs now—our lone survivor and two other Indie dogs, who’ve been sterilised and vaccinated to the hilt. When we run along the beach, they sometimes point their noses up to the sky and howl. And because my husband and I don’t see people for days, because we think they must be trying to talk to us, we howl back at them. We go like this running and howling, and I think we must be the luckiest doggone gods in the world. But still, I worry.