In the 1970s Allahabad India was a strange mixture of the ancient, mogul and colonial. The society was witnessing a transition from the feudal times to the modern. It was possible to enter into a discussion at a roadside tea dhaba about the efficacy of Hanuman Chalisa, the literary merits of Ghalib’s gazals or the veracity of Eliot’s objective correlative. The gasbags, the literati and the lumpen all jostled for cultural and economic palladium looking at each other with some derision. Imperialist writers such as Kipling and Forster saw Allahabad as an inscrutable place that always remained confrontational and primordial. The dog, goat, water ox, elephant, gavial and donkey all led a rough, grimy life competing with humans for living space. But the social abrasiveness did not prevent the times from being both exciting and magical. This is one such apercu of those times.
People called him by various names depending on the level of sympathy for him—lendi kutta (street dog), misrita nasal (mixed breed), or nikamma (worthless). He may not have understood the subtle nuances of the epithets but he was quite sensitive to the tone and pitch. The appellation would usually elicit a whimper, growl or a bark. Though he was not purebred he was majestic. Sheru was a cross between a deutscher schaferhund and a mongrel. Well, his weight and size was formidable for dogs in his neighborhood and there was hardly a canine who could challenge his supremacy and sway. But the Mehtas were a little worried about his weight as it had recently gone up to 36 kilos. He was no longer quick and nimble as he used to be and could not climb the staircase with bounding leaps as was his habit. Like all dogs, he had a snoopy nature.
A few years ago, just before the earthquake came, he barked and whimpered many times and pulled at Jay’s trousers. It was late evening and just as Jay came out into the street the house shook and the metal cupboard fell with a bang. Cracks snaked on the walls of the old house revealing the fracture. Sure he was intelligent and prognosticating! Once he chased a robber who was shining a torch through the window to see if anyone was inside. Sheru caught his hand from inside the metal bars and would not let go. His teeth were long like a tiger and his stride was equally long. His coat was reddish orange and there were two fingers of white above his eyes which made him look like a tiger. He stood about 25 inches tall. That is why the Mehtas called him Sheru. But he was growing old. He was already nine years old and in human terms he would be over fifty years. If he lived to be 13 he would be over seventy. Most of his time was spent in sleeping or eating. Age has crept on him slowly and has left him enervated. If he was on the streets he would not have lived so long.
In India it is quite common to see dogs dying on the streets due to hunger or sickness. Often they were crushed by vehicular traffic or killed on purpose to protect children of the neighborhood. Allahabad was no different. There was a general aversion to dogs as lots of them bred in the streets and were often vicious. They had a streak of wild ferocity that E. M. Forster identified in domesticated animals in India during his brief sojourns to the country in the early twentieth century. Forster felt that Indian animals had no sense of the interior. Birds trapped in the room could not get out and dogs defecated everywhere. Well, dogs snarled at passerby and chased bicyclists early mornings and on moonlit nights. No true Allahabadi would ever pet an ownerless or a stray dog. In a conservative town like Allahabad stray dogs caused some discomfiture when they copulated in public places. It often led to unintended violence on them. Often the Allahabad municipality sent dog catchers in upscale areas like Civil Lines, Holland Hall, George Town or Tagore Town but hardly ever in the crowded neighborhoods of Chowk or Atarsuiya.
Within this man-animal animosity there was also a desire to keep a pedigreed dog as pet. A domesticated dog was not only considered a status symbol but an added protection from intruders. By and large big dogs were preferred over small ones. After the British left India in the mid-twentieth century Allahabad had hardly seen a poodle in Civil Lines. It is a sad commentary on our westernization that we give more importance to the concept of graded pyramid of sentinel beings than the idea of cosmic equality. Dogs are usually placed much lower in the hierarchy of living beings than humans or the great apes. But some dogs are closer to us than other human beings or the great apes. Often our symbolic reality is intrinsically connected to our pet dogs or cats. Dogs often prefigure, transfigure and anticipate events in our lives. But let the philosopher wait.
This was the decade immediately after independence when Allahabad had become somewhat enervated with the burst of energy released during the freedom struggle. Freedom fighters like Tandon, Nehru and Gandhi were already dead and only remembered in parks and public meetings. The Nehruvian era was still with us but it was gathering a dull patina of decay. It was more style and less substance. In a few years Indira Gandhi was about to herald an era of authoritarian rule and further alienate the Punjab.
Most women not born and brought up in Allahabad did not like the town. It was difficult for a woman to go out alone. Streets became deserted by evening. A male chaperone was always necessary. Women in the Mehta household were not a part of the rickshaw-driven ladies of Allahabad. They had their own chauffeur-driven cars. Even then Sonal was worried about the uncultured aspect of the city. Allahabad had always been a strange mixture of the lumpen vagabonds and the cultured literati each looking down on the other, each vying for economic and political space. Obviously there was hell of a difference between the two. The pretentious gasbags from the city outskirts would lay to siege the Kutchery, high court, university and market places with their gung-ho bravado and petty feuds. Unkempt, smelly and loudmouthed they were ubiquitous and interventionist. Every respectable family avoided them. Occasionally some of these footloose men came in contact with army personnel or national wrestlers and got the beating of their lives. Girls had to be spirited away to school in hooded private rickshaws or private cars and could only have a family outing in respectable places like the Civil Lines.
Sheru grew up here in this large house on Mayo Road. He was all round and fluffy when he came to Mritunjay Mehta. Jay had married a pretty girl from Patiala named Sonal. Since the marriage was considered a love marriage there was no dowry. But it hardly mattered. The Mehtas were rich landlords possessing British bungalows in Civil Lines and Mayo Road and were in no need of any largesse. The Mehtas in our story were not a part of a caste hierarchy but representative of an honorific title given by the British to Khatri Punjabis who had distinguished themselves in the military. Some Mehta families in Allahabad also traced their lineage to the great chieftains appointed by Harsha Vardhan to administer villages in northern India. But this was not the case with Jay. Sonal’s mother often claimed that she was a distant relative of Maharaja Mahendra Bahadur and some of her relatives had gone to Laurence School Sanawar and Doon School Dehradun. She boasted that if Sonal had not married Mritunjay she would have found a husband for her amongst the royalty. Easier said than done! Leaving family bickering aside, Sheru came to them a year after their marriage and was immediately treated as another member of the nuclear family.
The house Sheru inhabited was a large thatched Georgian structure that had withstood many a storm and in some ways was a real Wuthering Heights. Jay’s grandfather had bought the house for just 50,000 rupees from the erstwhile British commissioner of Allahabad. The house was sprawling even by Allahabad standards. The backyard was like a forest and the front yard boasted of a football field where the sagarpesha boys played cricket. There were three big living rooms, three study rooms, three toilets and three kitchens The commissioner had also left behind a pre-war Rolls Royce car which needed minor repair. For their daily commute the family used an old Ambassador Mark II which belonged to Jay’s father. It was now twenty years old. There was a gnarled banyan tree in front of the study area whose roots spread like arms encircling a mango tree. Against the tree a water faucet sprouted where the outhouse women bathed seminude. The puddle of water that spread in the field and under the tree became a refuge for buffaloes during the summer months when the hot winds blew from the Thar Desert. At night street dogs howled in chorus if they heard any unfamiliar footsteps. There were many outhouses called the sagarpesha where working class families lived. The people of the sagarpesha were quite amenable to doing menial jobs for the Mehtas such as washing cooking and cleaning in lieu of a cheap accommodation.
Quickly Sheru lost his puppy fat and grew lean and strong. Not knowing his strength or agility he was responsible for the destruction of most of the crockery on the mantel shelf, the door leading to the living room, kitchen furniture and the large sofa in the main hall. Occasionally he was reprimanded by Jay for his misdemeanor. For an hour or two afterwards Sheru would sulk under the bed or run out frightened as the occasion demanded. But finally he would forget the opprobrium and romp about the neighborhood merry and carefree.
There was something tenacious about him. Any injury or stomach disorder would not last for more than a day or two except once when he ran on to the road and got hurt by a speeding truck. The garden gate was unbolted and Sheru as usual was gamboling amongst the shrubbery, when suddenly he dashed on the road. It was early morning when truck drivers in a tearing hurry to find tea dhabas to refresh themselves would take short cuts from Sher Shah Suri Road, past Boys High School through Mayo Road to Manmohan Park. Usually they were in no mood to slow down for wacky dogs like Sheru. Sheru saw a speeding Leyland truck hurtling towards him and got frightened. Instead of stepping back he sat on his hind legs hoping for the best. The driver swerved missing his snout. But the front tire went over his paws. For days together Sheru could not move and sat in the verandah.
There were no dog clinics in Allahabad in the 1960s. I wonder if there are any now. Sonal consulted Dr. Burke who prescribed some analgesic and some ointment. Those days in Allahabad no god-fearing middle class person would ever go to a hospital or take his canine there either. Often the GP came home, checked your internal rhythm and breathing with a stethoscope, opened your eyes with his thumb and index finger and prescribed some pills in his most illegible handwriting. Dr Burke’s handwriting was equally illegible but instead of sending us to Kings Pharmacy across the road he had an apothecary in his clinic. Here the pharmacist or compounder as he was often called would prepare tinctures, powders and mixture in bottles and label them to monitor dosage and quantity. There was no blood test, no mucus sampling, no plastic tube body insertions, no ultrasonic pulse technique and the diagnosis was invariably correct. I wonder why Allopathic clinics in Civil Lines were more reliable than the ones in Katra or Chowk! We also had Doctor Banerjee across Plaza cinema next to old Mercury Drycleaners. Doctor Banerjee was quite dependable as well but he had the strange habit of breaking tablets into two with his bare hands to ensure that the patient ate what was the required dosage. Sonal was not quite fond of Doctor Banerjee. It was Dr. Burke with his chiseled nose and sharp features who made her feel as if he understood the Hippocratic Oath better than others. When Sheru’s whimpered at night Sonal gave him Disprin mixed with water. Surprisingly his recovery with the analgesic was fast and complete. The accident made him cautious and somewhat obedient.
Jay worked in the only four-star hotel next to the Railway Station as a general manager. In those days it was called Barnett’s. The odd and long hours of work took him away from home quite often. But then it could not be helped. To add to this Jay was fond of hunting. Every Sunday he would pack his food and early morning travel to Shankargarh or Rewa to hunt. The places were known amongst the hunters for their small game such as green pigeon, porcupines, hares, cheetal deer and blackbucks. Jay would also try the Jumna near Naini for some medium-sized carp.
Since Sheru was an encumbrance and Sonal a liability they were both left behind on such trips. Obviously Sheru and Sonal did not like these weekly sojourns. They consoled themselves that Jay’s absence was not so bad. In the early years of their marriage Jay’s hunting trips were quite frequent. But since the last one year Jay’s hunting trips had decreased. One of his hunting companions was transferred to Bamrauli and Jay office work had also increased. He now worked on Saturdays as well. Sundays he just wanted to sleep.
Once a year during the summer Sonal visited her mother in Patiala and stayed there for two weeks. During these annual visits her worry was about the inquiries of family members and neighbors. And the inquiries always concerned her childless state.
“Sonal you shouldn’t worry so much. Children are a gift from god … he will give…he will give,” said her mother in consolation.
“Jay thinks I'm responsible. If it wasn’t for Sheru I would be companionless most of the day.”
“I understand, but don’t pamper the dog so much… mosquito net, a separate bed, weekly shampoo, pedicure and dog biscuits. He has become a nikamma.”
“Last month he ran on the highway and got hurt. So he couldn’t even get into bed. He sat on the mat all day and night.”
“Oh. Don't worry he'll get well soon. Animals have great alembic powers hidden in their bodies especially their tongues. They lick themselves to health."
“His paws were swollen and clotted. He wouldn’t allow anyone near him. But now he is okay. I wouldn’t have left him if he was not.”
Sonal's mother had grown old quickly after Sonal’s marriage and now was suffering from asthma. She had to work however for her three sons who were still studying in school and college in the Punjab. Of the two younger sisters, the youngest got married last year. The older one wanted to be with her mother.
“When Roopal gets married I will be free,” said her mother.
“Then who’ll take care of your three sons who can't lift a finger to do anything in the house?”
“In this condition?”
“Only in spring I have this problem. Rest of the year it is okay.”
Children are a gift from god. I will do havan, perform arti every day. Perhaps something will happen then, Sonal thought.
Allahabad was always an ancient and unhurried town. There was an amaranthine poignancy in its evenings and a primordial immediacy about its dawns. Everything here happened rather slowly. Evening set in slowly. The Ganga flowed sluggishly, so did the Jamuna. The mythical Saraswati that once created the Sangam must have also arisen from the bosom of the earth rather unhurriedly. The Sangam itself was a slow process where time and tide collapsed into moksha. But there was regal grandeur in its lethargy. Even when Allahabad was slow there was a rejuvenation taking place at the deepest levels of its psyche. Perhaps since the city was steeped in the religious rituals of pre-Vedic times it moved slowly.
Sonal was returning from Civil Lines in the car. She worked as a painting teacher in a convent school run by the Catholic nuns. Today she had asked the driver to take a detour around the Palace Theatre where she wanted to check out painting books and buy jewelry. The driver lived in the sagarpesha, so he was in no hurry to go home. Upon her drive back home Sonal watched Anglo-Indian boys practicing football near the Dhobi Ghat. She directed the driver towards Moti Sweets and bought some rasagoolas. An occasional car collected gas. Lots of trucks took to the Grand Trunk Road. Now boys were playing football in the BHS field. Most of the hawkers had left by late afternoon but a few still sold guavas by the roadside. Sonal picked a few for home. She rolled the back window shut and pulled her black shawl tightly around her. An early December breeze was blowing. Today she was happy. She had brought new clothes, new sandals, and she wanted to do something. But the inner urgency belied reality.
Things continued to move slowly. Mornings grew into afternoons slowly and even the frost on trees evaporated slowly. When she arrived home the lights were burning in the kitchen and Sheru was waiting patiently at the gate. Jay was making tea. He couldn't possibly be cooking. But how come, he was early today? she thought. Sheru started barking and got excited as Sonal disembarked. She felt positively happy to return home and see her white house silhouetted against the darkening sky. The guava tree they had planted earlier was now laden with fruit. Another week and they would be ready to pick. As she entered the house a budgerigar still on the fruit flew away screeching. Evening was setting in. Jay shouted from inside if she wanted tea.
“You are early today?”
“Yep! Going to hunt a gharial tomorrow with Bhor!”
“I hope it's safe?”
“Oh that. Yes it’s safe.”
“But a gharial is a large thing. How will you bring it back?”
“In his Jeep!”
“But Jay what will we do with a gharial? We can’t eat it, can’t sell it. What will you ever do with it?”
“You don't know much about them. The skin! The skin is just fantastic. And it’s the fat. That's the real aphrodisiac. It rejuvenates. It’s used as tonic.”
“I've never heard of it.”
“But who’ll draw out the fat?”
"Bhor! He is a Thapa and he knows all the tricks.”
The cold brought them together. They spent a passion-filled night writhing in climax a couple of times. After the calm Sonal could not go to sleep! Sheru was aroused by some movement, perhaps a jackal. He was barking at the enemy. Soon he'll be quiet and go to sleep. But do dogs sleep? Sheru hardly slept. But he's growing old. So are we. When will I be a mother? When? thought Sonal and a telltale tear fell from her eye rolled down her cheek on Jay's shoulder.
“Why Sonal, what's wrong?”
“Are you again worried about a child?"
“I was thinking when will I become a mother?”
“But that's what you’ve been saying for so long.”
“I know I know but this time, something tells me, it will happen. Don't worry, go to sleep. Tomorrow we’ll have to get up early.”
And with that Jay went to sleep.
Soon he was snoring heavily. Sonal was wide awake. A night jay shrieked piercing the silence like a sword. A door mouse squeaked. A truck thundered on the highway and a Canadian engine blew its whistle in the distance. Night has strange sounds, sounds of activity, sounds that become eerie in the darkness. This was a Saturday and then the gharial hunt and then another week of activity. Somewhere with these thoughts Sonal must have slept for when she woke up Jay was in the toilet. She checked the alarm which was yet to go off and it said 4 a.m.
Sonal felt fresh and alive in the December dawn. Sheru was up foraging in the lawn and returning periodically to check the progress inside the house. Bhor was dot on time and sat in the drawing room sipping tea. Sonal got busy preparing breakfast and lunch for the two men. Within minutes they were off. Sheru wanted to go but when no one paid heed to him he sat in the verandah and went to sleep.
Sonal had seen some cities of the Punjab like Jagadri, Bhatinda and Amritsar and now Allahabad. Once she had been to Delhi to attend her cousin’s wedding. But within these ten years she had begun to understand the pulse of Allahabad. The city was polyglot, multiethnic, multicultural and multi-religious in nature. It was the microcosm of the universe that encapsulated moksha at Sangam, British colonialism in Civil Lines, the enlightened legal world order in the High Court, the Indian freedom struggle in PD Tandon Park, the bureaucracy in small IAS centers, Hindi and Urdu literatures in VDN Sahi and Firaq, national politics in Nehru and Shastri. The city shared the values of different communities from the Bengalis and Kashmiris to the Punjabis and Parsees. The Hindus, Muslims and Christians competed for economic space, but others like the Jains and Buddhists also enjoyed social and economic well being.
This was a time when religious preaching was not looked upon as proselytization. Literature, poetry and drama ranged from Ramlila and mushairas to Bengali natoks and Shakespeare theatre. Though there was no politicization of religion there were clear insurmountable caste, class and religious barriers. A respectable distance was always maintained amongst the different communities, though occasional aberrations in urban areas were occasionally tolerated. Caste barriers operated within every religious community and caste hierarchies were adhered to with some zeal when it related to marriage. Sonal understood all these things. For the average Allahabadi who had not gone to Oxford or Cambridge, Allahabad was a minuscule world, a symbol of everything colonial, Brahmin and Mughal. Only the few convent-educated upper classes dreamt of going to England or the United States. This prevented Sonal from seeing anything beyond the present.
Sundays were slow and easy. Families bathed and got ready by around 3 in the afternoon. Then they moved out of the house. Some went to Eastman which had one of the finest bread and white butter, while others went to Nanking where the food was not as spicy as Mughlai restaurants of Chowk or Atarsuiya. El Chico and Barnett’s often exuded classiness which was occasionally eroded by some rowdy outcasts. Both Sonal and Jay preferred to go to Civil Lines and sit in the lawns enjoying Guzder’s ice-cream. It was possible to linger in the evenings on the manicured lawns eating vanilla or chocolate scoops in bone china.
One Sunday afternoon Sonal and Jay went to the Palace Theatre to watch Hollywood western Mackenna’s Gold. Both Gregory Pack and Omar Sharif were in it. There was a Hindi poster of the movie which read “McKenna ka sona” with a picture of Julie Newmar swimming naked in a black Apache wig. In Allahabad the movie was marketed more as European erotica and less as romantic western. It attracted the non-English speaking crowd from the cow belt. Both Sonal and Jay found it rather difficult to watch the movie as there was a constant hubbub for the salivating audience waiting for the translucent nude scene. But the opening song “Old Turkey Buzzard” in the romantic setting of Monument Valley Colorado became Jay’s favorite. Afterwards they went to brows books at The Wheelers Shop next door, Universal Book Depot and St. Paul’s Publications.
Sonal often read The Northern India Patrika and came to know about the momentous things that were happening in the world obviously led by the United States. That year Neil Armstrong landed on the moon and his famous statement “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” awed everyone to the greatness of America. There were endless protests on campuses across the US against the Vietnam War and music groups like the Doors, Led Zeppelin and the Beatles continued to protest through their music for US withdrawal from Vietnam. But the crowning glory of the year was the Woodstock Festival in New York where music lovers once more heard Who, Jimi Hendrix, Crosby Stills, Nash and Young and Joan Baez. Jay and his friends fell in love with Baez’s dreamy Indian face. Peace signs were everywhere. In India life was quite uneventful except for the death of Madhubala, the split of the Congress and Indira Gandhi becoming the prime minister.
It was raining when Jay and Bhor returned with a 15 feet gharial. Gharials are crocodilians and are also called gavials. They are exceptionally big with a powerful narrow-snout and rather sharp eyes. You can miss them under flotsam and driftwood. This one was big too. Bhor cut up the meat for friends and neighbors. Both Jay and Bhor spent most of the night cleaning it up. Sonal cooked the meat and it tasted like chicken with lots of fat.
“Where is the skin going?” inquired Sonal.
“It's going for curing to Khuldabad. It will take a couple of weeks. It was a great hunt. Got him square on the head! It just turned twice and floated towards the bank.”
Two weeks after the gavial hunt Bhor sent a 15-liter jerry can of gavial fat. Sonal closed the lid of the can tight and kept it in the kitchen on the lower shelf. Sheru sniffed the can, pawed its surface, sniffed it again, and then lost interest.
“He knows there's something interesting inside” said Jay.
“Just curious! He’s always curious when anything new comes in the house. Now his curiosity is satisfied and look he’s gone out in the garden.”
Winter solidified the fat like ghee, till soon it was forgotten.
A month passed and then there was rejoicing in the house. Sonal had conceived. Already she was not allowed to lift heavy things in the house. Jay came home early. Life after ten years was changing. Sheru however did not participate in the general rejoicing. He lay listless and slept a lot. His coat became lusterless and his skin sagged at the throat. Sonal wondered what to do with Sheru. I'll show him to the vet. Perhaps he'll have some answer. Perhaps Sheru is suffering from some infection or virus and with medicine he can be cured.
When Sonal returned home she did not see Sheru at the gate. Jay hadn’t returned. The house looked very quiet. Everything looked normal but Sonal felt something strange about the house. Inside the house Sheru lay on the sofa breathing heavily, his stomach bloated. He tried to wag his tail in recognition. Sonal panicked fearing he was to die. She ran in the kitchen for water and discovered it in a mess. A tornado had visited the place. The fifteen liter Jerry can of gavial fat lay open and nearly half of its contents were gone. A lot was spilled on the kitchen floor. Obviously Sheru had been up to mischief. But it was amazing how he could eat such large quantities of animal fat. And now that he had eaten what will happen to him? Will he die? Can all the fat be pumped out of his stomach? She rang her husband. Her husband was on the way home. Dr Burke’s clinic was closed. Sonal waited impatiently for Jay to come and meanwhile gave a bowl of water to Sheru. Sheru drank the water hungrily. The doctor advised no action.
“I am amazed at his capacity to consume so much fat,” said Jay.
“I nearly panicked when I discovered Sheru in this condition,” said Sonal.
For ten days Sheru lay lachrymose on the sofa like a lotus eater. In the evenings and early mornings he slept. At night he moaned and drank large quantities of water. Occasionally he ambled in the lawn. Then he lay there from morning till late evening till he was prodded inside. During this time he hardly ate. Sonal’s joy at having conceived diminished at seeing Sheru lack of agility. She prayed for Sheru to become okay. During these ten days either she took leave from work or Jay. In a way it was good. She could pick up on a lot of household work that was pending. Gradually the cloud over Sheru’s eyes cleared. The color of his coat improved. In fact Sonal felt the fingers of whites around his jowls glowed purer, not the dull white he had acquired in the last few years.
The first month of the New Year was nearly over when Sheru got up moved around the house. By afternoon he became quite active. He jumped over the wall, ran across the road into the park. Then he returned and jumped over the dining table and instead of crashing on the floor he bounded out of the door like a frolicsome filly. He chased an invisible adversary in the garden and trampled the cauliflower bed.
“I told you crocodile fat is an aphrodisiac. And maybe it affected us too,” said Jay smiling.
Sonal smiled embarrassingly.
“Come out in the portico… let me show you another surprise,” said Jay.
Sonal was intrigued.
Jay sat in the Rolls and started the engine.
“After nearly sixty years the engine is purring,” said Jay.
“Can this be true,” said Sonal.
“Yes we got the spares.”
“No gavial fat this time.”