In case I had forgotten, I am reminded. I am back in Delhi, the city of my childhood. “Be careful”, cautions Maya, the caretaker who I had known as a young school girl and is now a mother of three daughters in their twenties. Two of Maya’s front teeth are missing, like absent milestones of time, marking the passage of some 40 years. “Be careful of the dogs, big brother”, she warns me.
I go to the balcony and look outside. Hordes of stray mongrels roam the streets. Some have colourful winter coats on. Occasionally, they settle some canine scores with sporadic fights, but are peaceful on the whole.
I need to withdraw some money. As I open the gate and step outside the apartment building, the younger of the three chowkidars (security guards), asks me, “Where are you going, big brother?” A direct question, which anywhere else in the world would have been considered too direct. “To the cash machine”, I reply because I know his question is only a preamble to providing me with some unsolicited, but free advice. With a look I couldn’t quite place and a nod that said “Wait, don’t go away”, he disappears behind the building. He brings me a staff, roughly the size of a walking stick.
“If you keep this with you, the dogs won’t bite”, he said handing me the staff. “Hide it when you see the black and white dog,” the second chowkidar cautions, “she attacks people with sticks”. Resembling a biblical shepherd, I venture out. I see some dogs sleeping on the roof of parked cars, and some under them. I walk tentatively, stick in hand to ward off dogs who are afraid of sticks while scanning the streets for the vicious black-and-white dog who would attack me, for carrying one. I return home without incident and sleep off my jet lag.
I wake up to a clamour outside. A good Samaritan has come to feed the stray dogs, but a local resident objects and they argue loudly. Several others join in and soon it is a full-blown shouting match between the pro-dog group (dog-walleh, as Maya calls them) and anti-dog group. The dogs gather around and watch curiously. They are silent as if not wanting to add to the racket. A man tilts his head sideways at a black-and-white dog, not daring to point at her directly. “She has bitten 24 people so far”. She wags her tail at those who dare glance in her direction. Who? Me? Bite? Never!
I don’t find out who wins the argument. My friend arrives to take me for dinner. He explains the reason for the proliferation of dogs in Delhi. The government minister in charge of animal welfare has banned the killing of stray dogs. Her solution is to neuter them. My friend tells me how everyone drives, even two houses down the road, because of their fear of being bitten. That is, everyone who can afford a car, not the little people.
The little people, he adds in parentheses, include maids, chowkidars, drivers, cooks, gophers, ironing people, vegetable sellers, gardeners, hangers on, and visiting relatives of the little people. I remind him I am no foreign tourist and have grown up in Delhi. I know who the little people are and why they remain little. I am incensed by the social disparities in my native land, I tell him. “Ok, ok! Let’s stick to dogs”, my friend stops me midstream.
I conclude day one. Lots of running around, more wise counsel than I could shake a stick (staff) at, broken promises, circular arguments and dog fights. And, a fight about dogs too. Yes, I am home!
My wife and I are back in Delhi some three months later. Nothing has changed. The sterilisation programme seems to be effective; well, almost. I see a litter of six pups in the community garden opposite our apartment. They appear hungry and cold, and sleep on top of each other for warmth. Tiny heads, paws and tails poke out from the ball of dogs inflating and deflating as they breathe. They could be an art installation at Tate Modern. I hear horror stories of an entire litter being run over by a car causing the heartbroken black-and-white mother to bite passers-by. It is too horrific to even imagine and I console myself it is a fabricated tale.
My wife, devoid of any fear of dogs, strokes their forehead and talks to them. She refuses to carry a stick. The deadly black-and-white dog seems to have changed her character or is just overwhelmed by the kindness. Her brown eyes smile. She nuzzles up to my wife wagging her bushy tail in grateful appreciation.
Some dogs are allowed into the dog-wallehs’ homes to spend the night but are ejected at daybreak so as not to upset the anti-dog- wallehs. A passer- by stops and talks to one of them. It sounds like he is cooing to a baby. The dogs continue to be fed, surreptitiously and in darkness.
There is an NGO (non-governmental organisation) who takes care of their welfare. They are funded by a section of the community who believe that the first chapatti of the day should go to the cow and the last to the dog. At every nightfall, a young employee of the NGO arrives on a bicycle laden with tiffin carriers. He lays down newspapers at the side of the road to feed them rice and chicken. They are happy and come alive, energised by the meal. My sleep is punctuated by their collective barking. Their synchronised moan makes me uncomfortable and I pull my blanket over my head.
The sound of the chowkidar’s bamboo staff crashing on the tarmac every few minutes, and the piercing screech of his whistle transport me to my school days. ‘I am awake. I am alert’, is his message to thieves and other undesirable elements of the night. The dogs sleep, probably dreaming of warmth and food. They don’t do him the courtesy of opening their eyes. It is the Delhi I know. Nothing has changed, yet nothing feels the same.
Day breaks. A chauffeur, bored of waiting for his employers to emerge from their mansions, goes around beating random dogs with a stick. He has a sinister smile on his face and the dogs yelp in surprised pain. I scream at him from my balcony and ask him how he would feel if I were to go down and beat him with a stick. His wanton cruelty is exposed and he is embarrassed. His brief illusory world of a tiger-hunting Maharaja is shattered. He drops his stick. I go and cry in the bathroom.
Like everything in the country of my birth, things are not as they appear to be. There are layers of meanings to everything. Every story recounted has a moral, but their complexities confound linear analysis. Before long someone will build a shrine, on our street in Delhi, dedicated to a black-and-white dog. Truth and myth will merge and dog-wallehs and anti-dog-wallehs will pay obeisance to her, ring a bell and say a prayer. Of this, I am certain.