Vantage point

Friday, January 30, 2009

I Lost My Dog and All I got was a Lord Ram Poster

This happened some time in 1989/90, a few weeks before Advani's rathyatra. I was a 9 year old boy, and like most 9-year-olds those days, heavily into Enid Blyton. Deeply impressed by Timmy from Famous Five and Scamper from Secret Seven (and a bit by Rocket from Chacha Chowdhury), I too wanted a dog of my own. But my parents would have none of it. We lived in a small 450-sq-ft apartment, money was kinda tight, and I had other demanding demands which the parents were already busy fulfilling. Plus, my mom had a mild phobia of dogs and her trump card argument was - "who will take care of the dog when you are at school? I certainly won't!" So all my "I want a dog" whines fell on deaf ears.

Like anywhere in India, our neighborhood also had a healthy stray dog population. They would keep spawning puppies on a regular basis. I would look longingly at the puppies, often wondering if I should just bring one home. But strict parental directives against such moves made me resist. Until Don. Don was also a stray puppy, but he had a more regal look to him. He (and others born with him) clearly were of mixed parentage. My guess is Don's mother had managed to seduce one of the pedigree dogs in the neighborhood (my guess is Mr. Yardi's labrador) when the owner wasn't paying attention. So Don did seem to have a je ne sais quoi that other puppies lacked. To seal the deal for my then-amateur-astronomer self, he also had three circular spots on his back in a somewhat straight line, like the three stars in the belt of Orion.

So I gave in and took him home. Mom and Dad obviously raised hell. But I cried and fought back. Prolonged debates ensued. The settlement reached was that the puppy would not be allowed in the house but sit on the stairs outside. That's the way he stayed for a few days. I appropriated one of the bowls in the house and declared it Don's bowl. Got al old jute sack and made it his "bed". Why Don you ask? Two reasons - my favorite movie with only positive thoughts associated with it in the pre-Farhan-Akhtar days was Don. And with the Hugo Weaving series fresh in my mind, I thought of Don Bradman as the next best thing to god.

After my Mom, it was the building residents' turn to play villain. They objected to having a dog on the stairs. What if he poops all around, they asked. What if he bites someone, they asked. Keep him in your house, if you want, they said. But my parents wouldn't budge. So I made promises of taking him for walks twice a day and cleaning up after him if he emptied his bowels in the building. And I promised I'd save enough from my pocket-money to get him a shot. There were protests and objections all around, but my frequent crying ensured that no one kicked him out.

In a few days, Don began to win hearts and minds. My mom started taking some interest in his well-being. And even the building folks, who first scowled and spat when they saw him started patting him on the head as they walked by. Plus, even at that young age somehow Don had the instinctive cleanliness to hold it in until I took him for a walk, and piss only in the shrubs. Things were going fine. Until. Until that fateful night.

I had seen signboards and posters advertising an Elocution Competition in the neighborhood. The theme, if I recall correctly was why our nation is great, or why it will be great, or some such. I was a big elocution freak back then, with some school-level and Ganpati-festival prizes to my name. I decided to take part. The competition was at 8 pm in the night. So I went there with some friends, and with Don in tow, much like in Enid Blyton novels. However, when we got to the venue, we came to know that there was more to the elocution competition than it seemed.

The stage had a massive portrait of Lord Ram with some sort of a temple in the background. There was also another big poster with a lotus on it, next to a bow-and-arrow. The elocution competition had been organized by a local BJP/Shivsena leader. And as I now realize when I look back at the incident, they had just used the elocution competition to attract kids and indoctrinate them about the Ayodhya issue, which back then had not reached massive proportions. The agenda for the night was like this - a speech by some local RSS chap, followed by a speech from the local BJP/Sena leader, then some prayers/shlokas administered by some sadhu-type chap in saffron garb, and then the elocution competition.

Of course, there were some nice snacks and chocolates for everyone, so we too the food and sat on the mattresses laid out for us. That's when one of the organizers came and rather rudely asked me what a dog was doing with me. I said it was my dog. He said, no no, you can not have a dog here. Go home, leave him there and come back. I protested, he persisted. In a decision I was to regret for the rest of my life, I felt it would take too long to walk back home and then come back to the event. So I took Don a hundred yards or so away from the event, tied him to a lamppost there and came back. I didn't think the event would take too long.

Then the speeches started. And the speeches went on and on. After about half an hour or so, I got up to go check on Don, when another one of organizer guys came and sternly told me "If you go out, don't come back. We don't want the speakers disturbed." Another regretful decision - I caved and sat there. Listened to the speeches. I came to know that evil invaders had destroyed Lord Ram's birthplace and built a mosque there. That the hindus were still making reasonable requests of just getting that land back. But the evil muslims were being disrespectful and weren't willing to negotiate. That was the first time I learnt of the whole Babri Masjid issue. But I wasn't paying too much attention. I kept thinking about if Don was okay. My friends assured me he would be fine.

Finally the indoctrination ended and the elocution competition started. Most of the kids who were from a school affiliated with the local BJP/Sena leader, gave speeches with a lot of emphasis on India once being a "soney ki chidiya", our civilization's glorious past, etc etc. Maybe their parents or teachers had prepped them according to the tone of the event. My friends and I were from more "secular" schools, so what we spoke was rather light on the sort of stuff they would like, and more on the lines of unity-in-diversity, scientific progress, end-to-corruption etc.

Needless to say, when the competition ended and the prizes were announced, neither me nor my friends won anything. However, all of us participants were given a "consolation prize", which was a big 3ftX2ft posted of Lord Ram, with the temple in the background, and some lines on it in the "mandir vahi banayenge" vein. As soon as I got that "prize", I ran out of the venue to the lamppost where Don was tied. You guessed it. No sign of Don. He was gone, nowhere to be seen. I started crying, and asking people walking by if they had seen a dog with 3 spots. No one had. By then my friends reached there and tried to console me.

We searched in the nearby lanes and gullies but to no avail. It was already past 11 pm, so my friends were keen on getting home. I wanted to stay back and search, but they convinced me to go with them. So I walked home, crying all the way, with the Lord Ram poster in hand. When I got home, I told my mom what had happened and demanded that she come with me to look for Don. She also did her best to pacify me and explained to me that Dad was out of town, and it wasn't safe for a woman and a little kid to wander the streets at midnight.

I was up all night, alternately crying and sulking in bed, with my mom doing her best to make me feel better. The rolled up poster was in my hand all night, and obviously, in my grief and frustration, I had gripped it too hard in a lot of places, so it was completely crumpled. The next morning my mother allowed me to miss school and we went to the venue and searched for the dog. We searched in a radius of 1 km, but could not find him.

For the next week or so, whenever I got time, I would look for Don. When I was home, I would keep looking out of the window in the hope that he might find his way back. But nothing of the sort happened. Finally I gave up. My parents offered to get me another dog, but the episode had left me too heartbroken. I would never own a dog after that. In fact even my obsession with others' dogs ended. And since then I have never been much of a dog person.

Many years later, when I was 18, I got a new study table with drawers. So I was sorting out all my old stuff from the shelves and moving it to the drawers. That's when I came across a crumpled roll of faded glossy paper. I unrolled it, and recognized it as the same Lord Ram poster from that fateful day. And thought to myself, the Ayodhya issue directly or indirectly made our nation pay a tragically enormous cost. Add my first and last dog to that cost.