Spending time with your canine bestie in the mountains
There’s nothing like spending time with your canine bestie in the mountains (Photo: Patrick Hendry/ Unsplash)

‘Borrowed Dogs’, The Mountains—and One Cat-Lover

The cats know. They always know. 

The oldest is nineteen, a gentle ginger tom of forgiving disposition who burrows into my lap, letting me know it doesn’t matter, he’s just glad we’re back from the mountains. The next two—a gorgeous white with a tendency to high drama and a cheerful but possessive black-and-gold torty—take a long sniff at our clothes and stalk away, outraged. The youngest, another ginger, looks up at my husband and me with accusing green eyes. The message is clear: It is bad enough that we abandoned them, but how could we abandon them for the company of dogs

For over four decades, I assumed I wasn’t a dog person. My sister has asthma, so I grew up in a dogless duniya, never knowing what was missing from my life. I liked dogs, but I didn’t know them the way I knew and loved cats. In my twenty years in Delhi, I chatted with stray dogs across different neighbourhoods, ferried the ones who required rescuing to assorted vets, steered clear of the poor fellows who’d received such unkindness from humans that they were prone to attack strangers—but we were, socially speaking, only nodding acquaintances. Until Piku. 

An old friend was in a bind; she had to travel urgently, and her usual dog-sitter had dropped out at the last moment. Would we know anyone who could stay in her cottage, up in the Himalayas, for a few days, and keep an eye on her three dogs? Something got through in her message, some of her anxiety and love for her pack. My husband and I had planned a quick trip to the hills anyway (this was in the pre-pandemic days, when travel was an ordinary affair), and already made arrangements with a friendly cat-sitter who knew our brood well. So we said yes, we’d be there. She emailed us a remarkable document, a miraculous Manual for the Dog Neophyte, which allayed some of my concerns. 

Two of the dogs, an elderly fellow we dubbed The Digger and a brisk, alert, queenly creature we named The Commander, formed a meet-and-greet party at the gate of the cottage when we arrived. And there, under the dining table, suffering paroxysms of shyness, in full mourning for her owners who had left the previous day, her tail lying morosely on the floor, eyes watching nervously as we took possession of her home, was Piku. 

When canine meets feline
When canine meets feline (Photo: Anusha Barwa/ Unsplash)

On that first day, I worried about her. She sidled away when my husband approached, apparently terrified by his beard. The housekeeper, the neighbours, a random driver walking past, all informed us in hushed tones that the other two dogs didn’t mind being left on their own, but Piku was special. Could we please tell them if we had to go out without the dogs? It seemed that Piku, who’d been discovered by my writer friend as a brave, forlorn pup trotting along on an empty hill road, had abandonment issues. 

I crawled under the dining table and tried to make friends with her, hoping the same tone that worked on cats would also be appropriate for canines. Piku just buried her head deeper in her fur and sighed heavily, shrinking away from me. 

In the mountains with your dog
When was the last time you were in the mountains with your dog? (Photo: Karutopia/ Pixabay)

It could not be helped. The other two seemed comfortable with us but, as I told my husband that night, we would have to accept that Piku was a shy creature, and hope that feeding her and taking her on walks was sufficient. The owls hooted outside, the shadows of the mountains guarded us, the air smelt of tree bark and moss. 

I woke up at three in the morning, cold because someone had stolen the razai. Two liquid brown eyes gazed at me from the pillow, and a fat tail thumped the mattress tentatively. The Miraculous Manual clearly stated that the Digger was not allowed on the bed— he, as we would discover, sniffed out the smelliest dead creatures, the slimiest of mud puddles, and rolled in all of it if you didn’t catch him in time—but was silent on the subject of Piku’s sleeping habits. ‘Piku, are you sure this is allowed—’ I began. In response she laid her beautiful head against mine, her nose pressed into my cheek, and placed her paw in my hand. I melted. Besides, she was warmer than a hot-water bottle, give or take the odd flea. 

A few hours later, we were woken up by the Piku Dance, a hip-waggling, tail-thumping samba of pure joyousness. In my memory, that week stretches long and golden, punctuated by rousing walks up and down the hills, deep into the still forests; the dogs disappearing to chase monkeys they never actually managed to catch, hurling good-natured insults at other packs of dogs and quietening down at twilight, the ‘leopard hour’, when everyone hurries home and all animals go inside, and the hills become the realm of the hunter. 

Friends like Piku have liquid brown eyes
Cuteness quotient: friends like Piku have liquid brown eyes which would win anyone over (Photo: Lena Balk/ Unsplash)

My first impression of Piku changed rapidly. She was no shy, quivering creature after all. She had friends among the local dogs, was an accomplished stealer of roast chicken legs, an indefatigable explorer, a loyal friend when I went for longer walks on my own, a bold growler at leopards who passed by on the opposite hill at night— and a terrible flirt, winning my husband over with vulgar coquetry and sighs that said no one could possibly be a better scratcher of bellies or ears than he. At night, she grew winsome and tender. She jumped in a mud puddle and when I told her off, she pretended to be deeply hurt, shocked at my sternness. When I tried to make up with soft words, she gave me a look of bright cunning and jumped in the puddle a second time, soaking herself and us with oceans of mud. By the end of the week, I was desperately in love. 

We parted sadly. I crept out of the cottage and drove away, feeling like a criminal. Piku could not believe that, having got on so well, I would leave her. She watched us from the window, the reproach and accusation in her eyes so acute that the first thing I did when I reached Delhi was to call, anxious, guilty, hoping she was all right. ‘Piku?’ my friend said. ‘She’s fine, she went for a long walk today.’ I chalked up acting to the long list of Piku’s skills as my friend said, ‘You know, she’s quite the heart-stealer.’ 

The Book of Dog, edited by Hemali Sodhi
The Book of Dog, edited by Hemali Sodhi (HarperCollins India, 2022) features a variety of stories about dogs from all over India

The cats lie around in soft heaps in the Delhi heat. Our oldest is now so frail that we are unlikely to take long trips to the mountains for a while, even after the pandemic dies down and the lockdowns end. But from time to time, I think back to that summer week, the forests, the hills, the dogs—and it brings back such joy. 

The only dog I’ve ever had was a borrowed dog, but the place she’s made for herself in my heart is solid and permanent. And the cats, curled up at my feet, grow quiet when I tell them the Thousand and One Tales of Piku. They are still a little jealous, but even they love listening to these stories a lot. 

After Piku, every stray dog on the streets, hounded by the inevitable dog haters who complain about their barking and their smells, seems different, seems like an individual. Perhaps they too would do a Piku Samba every morning if they found homes, if they knew they were loved and had a permanent place to call their own.

‘Borrowed Dogs’ is excerpted with permission from The Book of Dog (HarperCollins India, 2022)

Nilanjana Roy

Nilanjana Roy is a noted essayist and the author of The Girl Who Ate Books and The Wildings, as well as the editor of anthologies including Our Freedoms: Essays and Stories From India’s Best Writers and A Matter Of Taste: The Penguin Book Of Indian Food Writing. She writes about books and the reading life for the Financial Times’ Life & Arts section and has written extensively for the BBC, Business Standard and others. A founder member of PEN Delhi, she has served on several literary juries, festival boards, and gender and literacy trusts.

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