My fascination with dogs began when we moved to the central Indian city of Nagpur. We lived in a third story flat with four balconies. Each balcony faced a different direction and offered different views of the neighborhood.
I had just begun eighth grade that year. I used to wake up early in the morning, seat myself on a stool in one of the balconies and try to study. More often than not I would doze off, but if I did stay awake, the textbook was hardly what drew my attention. I would instead look at stray dogs that were very active at dawn. Early morning seemed to be their time. Maybe the cool air energized them. They played frantically, chasing each other down, trying to wrest torn rags from each other. At eight, with the sun up and strong, they would be exhausted. They would lie in the shade, front feet stretched, their snouts nuzzling in between, noses twitching and ears still alert for anything untoward. That was about the time I was ready for a heavy breakfast as well.
On the western side, adjacent to our flats, were two single story houses. The one immediately below belonged to a Rajasthani family. I often visited them because there were two kids my age – Dilip and Jeetendra – but also because the family always had pets. They even had a cow they kept in a shed on the other side of the house. This affinity for domestic animals seemed be a carryover from their rural past in Rajasthan. Strangely the animals of the house never lived long. The family saw three dogs during the five years I was their neighbor: Sheru, Rocky and Tommy, in that order.
The other house, diagonally across, I did not know much about. I mention it simply because there was a Doberman, Lucy, perennially leashed there. Her steel food bowl was replenished day after day but she was rarely taken out for a walk. She barked herself hoarse, asking for attention. Her pleas would intensify in the morning when the man of the house left for work.
To one side of these houses was the “Garden and Bar Restaurant”. It was the sort of place my parents, vegetarians and teetotalers that they were, would never visit. The restaurant had a square perimeter marked by a hedge of high bushes. Appended to one corner, like a jump drive to a laptop, was small stall, no more than 4 feet wide and 8 feet tall. This was a pan thela (a little stall selling betel leaf garnished with spices and intoxicants). Motorbikes, scooters and cars would park in the area in front of the thela for a cigarette or pan. The strays tended to congregate here too: the owner of the thela was someone whom the dogs seemed to like.
Another place the strays frequented was the garbage dump behind the restaurant. The dump was a large square space, disorganized and overgrown with weeds. This was where restaurant leftovers and other odds and ends were commonly disposed.
The northern balcony faced a busy highway called the Ring Road. The highway had a median with tall forked streetlights that provided pedestrians and dogs a break while crossing. The traffic consisted mostly of noisy trucks. Across the road were new flats still in construction. The poor laborers who worked on building had made their own patchwork huts for their families. One of these families had a dog named Moti. Moti was big and confident enough to be one of the alpha males in the neighborhood. He had ears that stood up as sharp as arrow ends even when they were off guard. He also had beautiful colors: a base of white with large patches of cream and brown. He sported a dark-brown collar that lent him a kind of formal elegance, like a man wearing a sharp suit.
The story I am trying to tell isn’t a single coherent story, rather a series of interlinked anecdotes and observations. But in my mind at least the protagonists are clear: three sister strays who were born in the neighborhood. By the time we moved in to Nagpur, they were already a few years old. Later I would marvel that all three had survived into adulthood. I say this because the sisters’ own litters over the years almost always struggled to make it.
The three sisters were mostly black, but their faces had a touch of tan or cream, in varying shades. In physical appearance, they were very similar, but their personalities were distinct.
The biggest (and I speculate the eldest) of them had a long and slender frame and a pointed snout. She looked the healthiest and the calmest. At some point after I learned to recognize her, she changed neighborhoods. Initially, she frequented the area around the restaurant and pan thela, but then she moved – and it seemed like a permanent move – across the road a couple of blocks away, near where Moti lived. I was surprised, since dogs are generally faithful to the territories they are born into.
The other sisters were smaller. One, whom I’ll call Mina, had strange faded black marks on her light colored face and snout. They suggested – at that time, to my overactive adolescent imagination – that she had been whipped or that these marks were scars. But they may just as well have been colors she had inherited. I found it impossible to get close to her, no matter how hard I tried or how friendly I was. Mina did not trust humans, and this allowed her to keep a safe distance from them -- probably a good thing, because not everyone liked strays. Dogs in India are wary every time they see a person bend down. More often than not, the bending down is a prelude to the pickup of a stone that will be hurled their way. The mischievous boy that I was, I resorted to this shooing gesture once in a while, just to scare dogs and tease them, even when I was not threatened.
I was closest to the last of the sisters, whom I’ll call Meera. Meera was a sprightly dog, playful, generally upbeat. She responded well to people. She was aggressive when needed, and especially when strange dogs passed her territory. She was also involved the few times I had seen packs of stray dogs hunt and kill a solitary stray pig. The balance of power between stray pigs, who generally traveled in groups of half a dozen, and dogs always shifted – you could never tell who had the upper hand. Sometimes the pigs, who competed with cows and stray dogs at garbage dumps – the pigs certainly seemed to have proprietary rights to the filthier places: sewage and gutters – could easily face up to and scare a dog. At other times the pigs were easy victims. Meera sensed this balance well, and could be vicious on pigs when the time was right. The occasional pig hunt, which happened once or twice a year, seemed to recall an earlier pre-domestication time, when an unstable truce might have existed between the two species in the wild.
Meera was also a wonderful mother and gave the best to her puppies, even though none of them ever (at least for the five years I was in Nagpur) made it to adulthood.
The three sisters also had a brother. I remember him well, because he was named Hari by the family that adopted him (that was an odd name for a dog in India, where pet names are noticeably different: Tommy, Rocky, Pintu etc.) The family had a house diagonally across the Rajasthani home. Hari looked almost exactly like his sisters except that he was larger. He was never leashed so he took the opportunity to jump over walls and interact with other strays. He roved fearlessly into other neighborhoods and was in this sense more enterprising than the other alpha male in the vicinity, Moti.
Moti liked to stick to where he was, but Hari traveled. Every time I looked out of my balcony, I would long to see a standoff between the two. It happened one day but ended pretty tamely. Hari had intruded too close to Moti’s area, and they growled at each other for a while. They were about the same size, so posturing and bluster seemed to be the best strategy rather than out and out attack, which would have doubtless harmed both. After some time, Hari retreated and that was the end of that.
I was always struck this natural intelligence that seemed to operate in the strays that I observed (It would be difficult to generalize, but this basic intelligence applies to other species in the wild, where, despite very brutal acts by animals, conflicts do not escalate. There is always a kind of letting-go, an understanding that further fighting isn’t worth it, as if a risk versus benefit analysis were being carried out instinctively by the animals.). The strays acted as if they knew what was best in a global sense. When a dominant dog spotted a meek, limping intruder, he always responded aggressively, but the aggression was mostly posturing. I have never seen a dominant dog attack a meek intruder especially when the latter has his tail down and under. The intruder, though, will be harassed and terrorized (through growls and threats of attack) until he leaves.
To date, I have seen one intense dog fight, also in Nagpur, at a bus stop near our flat. For some reason I don’t remember well, two dogs were suddenly locked in a serious combat. Each dog had his jaws clamped over some part of the other dog’s body and was unwilling to let go. It took the repeated threats and stones of people waiting at the bus stop to separate them. But once they did separate, they both limped off hurriedly in opposite directions, pausing now and then to lick their wounds – which were no doubt serious wounds that would last a while – but generally behaving as if the fight was a thing of the past and it was time to move on.
(To be continued...)