The population of strays was on the rise in the neighborhood, and this bothered the residents, especially when it came to crossbreeds. They too were strays, but the blood flowing in their veins was mixed with that of foreign lands. In bearing and appearance they were of a different sort altogether. There were also a number of pet dogs of excellent pedigree who lived in homes. When the pedigreed dogs came out onto the street with their owners in the mornings or evenings, the strays that were running about froze in their tracks, and the drowsy ones suddenly awoke. Some strays, not understanding the delicacy of the situation, unwisely started barking. A few of the braver ones would tail the beautifully dressed pet dog as though they had joined a groom’s wedding procession. The owners of the pedigreed dogs were irritated by this behavior, fearing that these garbage-dwelling mutts might harm their pets. This prompted them to wave their canes in the air as if shouting Beware!
Some of the more serious-minded strays on the street gazed at their tame counterparts from a distance and wondered what desperation could have prompted them to exchange their freedom for a slave’s collar.
“Bread!” the first dog, whose name was Chirkut, exclaimed in response to the look in his friend’s eyes.
“Hunger!” mumbled the second dog. They fell silent for a moment. Then a thought occurred to them both, and they padded off lazily toward an alley. Chirkut’s friend, whose name was Landi, suddenly stopped dead.
“When did this one get here?” asked Landi, watching as an unfamiliar dog approached them.
“Who knows!” retorted Chirkut, and walked on.
The sun had come out.
Brigadier Lal from Lane Number 5 was returning from walking his dog, Bullet. He waved his cane, as usual, then stopped abruptly upon seeing a new dog crossing the road. The two dog owners shook hands and the dogs began to sniff each other.
“Your dog is truly magnificent. A Jack Russell, of course! When did you get it?” Brigadier Lal asked Mohan-ji from Lane Number 7, who owned a large grocery shop near the T-junction. They ran into each other often.
“Let’s have a cup of chai,” suggested Mohan-ji, sitting down on the bench in front of the tea stall.
Mohan-ji sat cradling his small dog in his lap. This would have been impossible for Brigadier Lal. Not only was his dog a Rottweiler, but he was also old and sick. The Brigadier glanced uneasily at the garbage around the tea stall but couldn’t bring himself to say anything. Bullet was a heavy dog. He looked uncomfortable as well. The flies had already settled on him; he was panting from his walk, and thirsty too.
“We got him the day before yesterday. It was expensive, for sure, but I found him appealing. I always like to keep the shop stocked with new items, after all!” laughed Mohan- ji. Stroking the dog’s head gently, he continued, “He’s very fast! I shouldn’t say this, but he seems rather Desi, despite being imported. His eyes are different, and his build too, but he feels like one of our own.”
“What have you decided to call him?” asked Lal Saheb, irritated at Mohan-ji’s last statement.
“We haven’t given him a name yet,” said Mohan-ji. “Although my grandson has given him an English name: ‘Friend.’”
“Good!” replied Brigadier Lal. He left the stall without drinking his chai. Secretly, he seethed.
“These civilians! They lack discipline and have unclean habits. Everywhere you look, packs of germ-infested dogs roam around. They piss here, they shit there! On top of that, they bark all night. They march about and station themselves in the middle of the street, like a line of infantry facing an enemy army. And then they sleep in the middle of the busy road without the slightest concern, as if they’ve been hard at work all day! They lie there, not hearing a single car horn, and show no surprise at the screech of hastily applied brakes. When will the sweet vendor and restaurant owner realize that these stray dogs are disease carriers? What was he thinking, letting a Jack Russell meet a street dog?”
To a certain extent, he was right. These stray dogs wandered around the chaat and momo stalls all day long. Litters of puppies tumbled about, making life difficult for pedestrians. The poor passersby had to look downward rather than straight ahead as they walked to avoid inadvertently crushing the puppies, which could result in angry mothers biting them in revenge. It wasn’t easy for drivers either. If they weren’t careful, they might run over the legs of the dogs sleeping under their cars. To prevent that, the dogs whined shrilly, prompting onlookers to think they were mortally wounded and causing the frightened drivers to fear they’d killed an innocent creature. They’d only start breathing normally again when other bystanders called out, “No, no, it’s alive! It’s alive!” And this was why there was no shortage of limping dogs in the neighborhood.
Seeing their community divided into two camps, some dogs developed a strange arrogance. These strong, well-fed dogs had become the self-appointed guardians of certain houses because they were fed leftover stale rotis twice a day by various homeowners. In truth, these dogs looked down on the strays that lurked at the margins of the neighborhood, scavenging in scrap heaps and garbage piles to stave off their hunger. To show their superiority, the guard dogs had set up their headquarters below the one house in the service lane that had no doors or staircases opening onto the lane. This spot was secure and steadily supplied with leftovers and crumbs from festival leaf plates thrown away by nearby households. Whichever dogs reached the headquarters earliest ate there. Because of this, every stray dog in the neighborhood had some reason to stop by headquarters from time to time. As soon as the clock struck midnight, all the dogs of the lane assembled there and barked so loudly that nearby residents imagined a thief had been spotted and was fleeing from the dogs. Everyone thanked the dogs and went back to sleep, or at least attempted to do so. But when this became an everyday occurrence, the residents began to worry and wonder what the problem was exactly. Why were these dogs seeing thieves all the time?
Some uneasily opened their windows and peered below, only to see a giant pack of dogs gathered there, including mothers with litters. They sometimes barked in turns, and sometimes in unison, as if a very serious discussion was taking place and they were finding a consensus on key parliamentary issues. A few annoyed people even tried to shoo them away when they saw this, but their interference did nothing to adjourn the canine parliament. People tossed and turned in their beds amid all this barking and shouting, mothers soothed their wailing infants, and the sleep-deprived muttered, “No damn peace by day, and none by night either. What a living hell!” Some of the men mumbled in their sleep: “Bosses screaming at us in the office, wives screeching at home, and on top of everything else, now these dogs with their barking!”
Translator’s Note: I would like to thank and acknowledge Daisy Rockwell for her sharp and constructive comments on this excerpt as it was being prepared for Words Without Borders.
© Nasera Sharma. Translation © 2023 by Akshaj Awasthi. Published in partnership with the Armory Square Prize for South Asian Literature in Translation. All rights reserved.