Home 2021 The Underdog

The Underdog

by Hartman de Souza
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Illustration by Teesta Chakraborty

In another place and another time – definitely not lock-down days – Xander would have been a part of history that harked back to princes and kings who fought wars on horseback, perhaps even riding on elephants, while phalanges of foot soldiers marched towards the battle-field at double time, and in the spaces between, dogs like Xander, panting easily, tongues lolling out but swallowing air effortlessly, went about their job, readying themselves for their real work – waiting for the night when their handlers and the rest of army took a well-deserved rest and the dogs like Xander, kept watch, guarding the garrison against the possibility of an enemy stealthily creeping in with the night.

The metaphor of old-age battles suits Xander. You can so easily imagine him snapping at the legs of the royal horses and elephants if they got too close to him. Or, at night, on guard, sensing an unwanted intrusion, pointing his snout up and catching smells in the breeze, his hackles rising, raising a fevered alarm that starts off as a growl in the pit of his stomach and comes out in a sharp, rising bark – like a bugler – and not even waiting for reinforcements but, tail swinging, snarling, charging into the very heart of the enemy. Xander has that kind of panache. He’s a dog’s soldier.

The metaphor of old-age battles suits Xander. You can so easily imagine him snapping at the legs of the royal horses and elephants if they got too close to him.

So let me tell you about this dog-soldier who become very, very real to me.

Xander’s a very good-looking dog. Very good looking. Not good-looking like some pure-breed Labrador or a German Shepherd. Not even an Irish Setter. Most definitely not some dandified, gentrified breed like an Afghan Hound whose shampoos alone would cost more than Xander’s meals for a month.

Xander’s good-looking like a bhotia – the hill breed that you find in Nainital or Mussorrie, even in some villages in the upper reaches of the Nilgiris. They are often like overgrown Rottweilers with a little bit of something else, and often with the same colouring. Or like Xander, with fur that is longish white around his legs, like he was wearing stockings, with fierce shades of dark russet and wine on the rest of his body. If he was sired in the Indian hill-stations bordering the Himalayas, it is so easy to imagine him a good six inches taller, with more powerful shoulders, and fur slightly longer because of the cold.

Xander’s a very good-looking dog. Very good looking.

One can, of course, speculate on Xander’s immediate ancestry (in eastern Pune where he was actually sired and raised). His father could have been a grumpy German Shepherd and that too, for one seeking perfection, not with the best of prospects. He would be a German Shepherd whose front legs may not have been poised in front, exactly together either side of his frame when brought to heel – with the requisite slope from his shoulders all the way down to his tail, and his legs, one kept slightly behind the other ready and alert, and his drooping tail neatly tucked in between.

It’s sad to say but Xander’s father would not have won any medals at a dog show, he may not even have been admitted into the show-ground. If allowed some fascist reasoning, Xander’s sire would be referred to, as a ‘half-breed’ German Shepherd, with 60-70 percent ‘breed’ (maybe less) and the rest assorted Indian ‘stray’ (maybe more).

It’s sad to say but Xander’s father would not have won any medals at a dog show, he may not even have been admitted into the show-ground. 

From his father’s DNA, Xander may have got about 30 per cent in his ears pointing upwards, the fluff around his neck and ears, the alertness at which he comes to attention, the poise of his neck and his long white-tipped tail that looks it’s dipped in white paint, coming down to his legs – and the sheer swagger when it swings from one side to the other, one hind leg poised in front of the other. And maybe, thanks to his father being socially maligned for not being ‘pure’ enough, Xander’s latent tendency to crotchetiness.

Extremely difficult to speculate on the cultural antecedents on his mother’s side – definitely not as simple as his half-breed German Shepherd side – apart from the fact that she may have been shorter and contributed her russet and white colour to his deportment and style – and his striking face, snow white on his snout. climbing up between the eyes where it tapers, giving into the shades of russet around his eyes – like he’s wearing fancy spectacles. Xander, if he just had the right colouring would be like a Husky. Xander always gives you the feeling that he’s perpetually angry. Or, like he’s suffering from some deep-seated angst. So let me start at the very beginning – the background and context that led to my life getting entangled with Xander’s poor fate in these terrible days of the virus.

Xander always gives you the feeling that he’s perpetually angry. Or, like he’s suffering from some deep-seated angst.

It seems like it all never happened. Just four or five months back, the birds in Baner – the suburb in Pune where I live – had come back with vengeance, reclaiming their space and the important roles they play in our lives. Birds you had not seen before suddenly appeared as if seeing the trees in our area for the first time. You could actually cross the four-lane road south of our flat, a quarter kilometre away going west to east, and get to the other side without tottering on the narrow divider and praying to whichever Gods were at hand to make sure you wouldn’t get knocked down. Baner was, as they say, these days, in ‘lock-down’. But that was four or five months ago. Then the stray dogs in the neighbourhood seemed happy to see you as they met you, tails wagging, tongues licking your fingers, wanting to be petted.

Now lock-down days or not, Baner was back to business as usual. Just outside our flat. The real estate developer fifty yards away from us – got his loans from the bank cleared and brought in a gigantic pneumatic drill to break and clear rock so that the foundation could be laid for the next eleven-story building to come up in our area, where earlier, the buildings were not more than four or five stories. The birds disappeared again and you can’t blame them.

Just four or five months back, the birds in Baner – the suburb in Pune where I live – had come back with vengeance, reclaiming their space and the important roles they play in our lives.

From seven in the morning, till seven in the evening, this huge pneumatic monster bored into rock – dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah for fifteen seconds. Perfectly syncopated as only machines can be, and loud; then lifted its drill with the engine revving down with a whine, and going back down to pummel rock for another fifteen seconds, non-stop except for a forty-minute break for lunch for the operator. I locked the door to the balcony beyond which this racket came from; I closed the windows. I tried drawing the curtains.  Nothing kept the terrible sound away. Even after they called work off at seven in the evening, the sounds still came thudding from the rocks embedded in my head.

I needed to finish a challenging writing assignment and I needed quiet. I was losing it, as they say politely. This machine was making me dance – four steps forward, three back, like a frenetic samba. My partner was teaching online at her desk in our bedroom. I was on the dining table in the kitchen muttering to myself. The minute she finished her assignments for the day, the machine would get her and the two of us would meet and curse the machine. She’d get back to her desk, put her earphones on and leave me with the machine. She most definitely was not losing it, but then she’s not neurotic like her partner. The daughter has flown away. The son was locked down from his university. Strictly speaking he should suffer the most, because his sister’s room is being used by him as a study, and his bedroom, which is his chill-out space – and both face this iron beast. He seems totally oblivious to this evil noise – but what can you expect from a kid who studies economics and uses the tiles on his bathroom walls to work out calculations and write equations all over the place with a sketch-pen. The only time the partner loses her cool. Also, I was beginning to think that the two were discussing me behind my back and telling each other that I was losing it.

 Nothing kept the terrible sound away. Even after they called work off at seven in the evening, the sounds still came thudding from the rocks embedded in my head.

I found an NGO very far east of Baner – so far away there was no chance of a pneumatic drill searching for rock. It was also in an old part of Pune where the agricultural lands had long been colonized by the real estate farmers, close to the Cantonment, so lots of trees I was told, birds, squirrels, etc. The NGO oversaw two or three very successful projects in the rural areas some forty or so kilometres away but also ran a hostel for volunteers who visited from their donor agencies. The hostel was running with no one staying there, though part of it was the NGO’s temporary secretariat. It had a woman caretaker in charge, who doubled up as a cook, and a watchman. They agreed to give me a room with an attached bathroom, a bed, a desk and chair and a balcony, and meals, for extremely reasonable charges. I was also told that the NGO had taken on a dog.

That was my first introduction to Xander – a photo on my Whatsapp messages, looking balefully at me.

The NGO staff used the hostel as an additional office and their two accountants came in every evening, Monday to Friday, and that a day here and there, the director would come in with a manager. The caretaker/cook – let us call her Yashoda, and the watchman – let us call him Mamu – and I were the only people staying the hostel which can otherwise house more than fifteen people – and, of course, Xander.

When I entered the gate that first morning, Xander charged at me, snarling. Mamu yelled at him. Xander stopped in his tracks; the Director shrank, Yashoda was biting her sari. I ignored him, didn’t even look at him, which doesn’t mean he wasn’t looking at me with his baneful eyes. Xander liked Mamu, that was obvious – that morning, and even now. Xander wagged his tail. I gave him my hand to smell. He smelt it but still looked at me menacingly. ‘You got crazy eyes’ I told him. He ignored me.

I ignored him, didn’t even look at him, which doesn’t mean he wasn’t looking at me with his baneful eyes.

When the Director and Yashoda showed me to my room on the next floor, Mamu followed, I suspect, to keep an eye on Xander who watched me from the door as I put my haversack on my bed, and laptop on the desk. As I left the room to grab a cup tea below, he came snarling at me and even snapped his teeth near my jeans. I kept perfectly still as he smelt my hand. He didn’t react but let me pet him on his head.

Then I also meet the accountant who comes in every day except the weekend. Let us call him Ashok. Ashok looks balefully at Xander that first morning, then at me. ‘He bit my young son,’ he told me, ‘now my son is very frightened to come to the office with me’. I try to tell him it’s a new house for Xander, he’s more interested in telling me that Xander has been inoculated against rabies, and his young son had to take three injections – just as a precaution. Mamu, not to be left out of these blood-curdling stories, shows me where on his palm Xander nipped him. The Director gives the feeling that taking Xander on may have been a hasty decision.

That night passes peacefully. I choose to sit out and have dinner with Yashoda and Mamu and eat the same food that wouldn’t have got tastier if I sat down by myself and ate it in an unfriendly guest dining room. It’s December, it’s getting cold in eastern Pune where the trees grow at height, and Mamu has lit a fire in an old flower pot, burning fallen wood. It’s lovely and warm. Yashoda is a great cook. She enjoys cooking. There’s a veggie dish, chapati, rice and dal, and some chicken. I take the chicken pieces with bone with Xander in mind. He’s sitting on his haunches just short of salivating. I put them on the flat palm of my left hand, and offer them to Xander. Mamu says quite loudly, ‘No sir, no, no!’, but Xander already got his head down and happily taking the bones, his eyes half-closed in sheer pleasure. I tell Mamu and Yashoda that my mother told me that if you put the food on your palm like that, like it’s on a plate, a dog will eat it without biting you.

The next morning, I go down to fix my coffee, Xander comes, tail wagging and licks my fingers. I pet him. He comes out and sits with me in the garden. I meet one more of the employees, the driver – let us call him Motu – who is terrified of Xander. He yells to Mamu to tie up Xander.  He doesn’t. Xander ignores Motu. ‘He is biting,’ Motu says to me, his eyes on Xander.

The next morning, I meet the accounts clerk, a woman with a squeaky voice. Let us call her Maushi. She comes to the gate, first says Xander’s name and as he reaches, throws the gate wide open and makes sure Xander runs out. Then she runs in shouting loudly to Yashoda that Xander has run out. ‘You shouldn’t have done that,’ I tell Maushi, who is just short of trembling. ‘He will bite,’ Maushi tells me. Maybe a day more, some discussion on the emerging psychology of Xander takes place with the Director. Finally, the last of the employees arrives at work, a youngish, English-educated executive – let us call him Smart Phone. He doesn’t talk too much but stares at the screen of his phone.

The nights in the garden, sitting around the mud-pot bonfire eating Yashoda’s excellent dinners continued. I continue feeding Xander chicken bones from the open palm of my hand, as now also do Mamu and Yashoda. Yashoda now has a really comfortable relationship with Xander because she gives him his food every day and nags him to eat it before the crows get it. I tell her that Xander delays the matter so that he can chase the crows away. It’s a game for him.

Then, just before Christmas, I damn Xander to his fate, in the stupidest way imaginable. I give him my open palm with the chicken leg piece on it, the bone falls off, and like a slip fielder, I grab at it, and before I get the bone, Xander bites me. On the top end of the left wrist with four punctures. I thought vein first when I saw the blood. I gripped my arm before the bite, like a tourniquet, put it under the tap in the kitchen sink. I have prominent veins. He had missed them all. But he can bite for sure, he’d give Rahane in the slips a run for his money.

This was a bad dog bite that could have been serious had he got my veins. Yashoda looked like she was going to faint. It was not the end of the world. I went to a school where a course in first-aid was mandatory. I find out that Mamu is a very interesting character – he’s been a farmer, a head-loader who still freelances if he needs more money, and a ‘compounder’. The blood starts clotting, almost totally stops by the time Mamu rides back from the pharmacy, with a sheet of cotton, a bandage, and a bottle of antiseptic and some dusting powder. My wrist hurts, but the dressing would make any nurse pleased. There, thankfully, the night ended. The next morning and for the next three or four days, Mamu and I did the dressing. No sweat, no problems.

Before going up to my room that night of the bite, I go up to Xander. Mamu tells him something in Hindi. Yashoda says something to him in Marathi. Both are very polite. So am I. I say in perfectly enunciated English: ‘You are an absolute shit, I give you chicken and you bite my hand, you are an ungrateful little bastard’. I am not imagining things but Xander looked contrite.

But everything goes downhill very fast. I am the person bitten by Xander, I am happy, Xander is happy, but everyone else is agitated. The Director speaks to a dog behaviourist/trainer but it’s very expensive – 25,000 rupees. That idea falls flat. Ashok tells me they will have to ‘neuter’ Xander, and Maushi and Motu promptly agree with him. I do some research on the net, and tell both Yashoda and Mamu at night what I have found about neutering dogs. The next morning, I speak to Smart Phone who gives me ‘gyaan’ on the benefits of neutering Xander. ‘My friends tell me that is the only way to curb his aggression,’ he tells me. Neither he nor Ashok nor Maushi have ever had a dog as a pet.  I tell him of a study I read that looked at the relationship between aggression and spaying/neutering, and showed that there was little to support the myth of neutering a dog; that aggression was more likely influenced by the dog’s genetics and upbringing. He goes back to his phone. The Director has a neutered Labrador who is totally bananas. If you go too close to her, she snaps. On the road where I live there are at least five dogs who have been neutered and they are all bananas – barring one, called Rambo who can be bribed with a five-rupee packet of biscuits, after which he’ll snarl. All neutered/castrated dogs here look like creatures with oversized barrel-shaped bodies tottering on skinny legs.

Before I take my break for Christmas with the family, Xander’s former owner, a young guy in college, passes the hostel one night and Xander comes to life. Yashoda, Mamu and I are totally stunned. We have never seen Xander so happy. He becomes a puppy. His former owner tells us their house is too small for the dog. For three nights in a row, and two mornings before his college, he visits Xander, and the dog blooms. One afternoon the kid meets Ashok to ask whether he can come every day and take Xander for a walk. Ashok tells him he can’t. The Director doesn’t want it, I am told. Every morning and every night for a few days Yashoda, Mamu and I watch Xander sitting near the gate waiting for the young guy to visit him.

I give up trying to talk to the Director and Smart Phone, but continue trying to get through to Ashok. I try to tell him that Yashoda and Mamu have an amazing relationship with Xander. But everyone else has decided that Xander’s aggression has to be snipped off. Ashok tells me it will not be a castration, only a small operation. Christmas and New Year pass badly for me. I return only to find out that Xander’s vasectomy is in a matter of days. The day before I send the Director a photo of Xander, with the caption, ‘The last photograph of Xander whole’. He returns to the hostel limping on his back legs. He whines, groans and moans like an old man. After a week, they take him back to his surgeon, he comes back after a full day with tablets. He sleeps a lot, looks terribly confused.

The Director, Smart Phone, Maushi and Motu behave like nothing has happened. Ashok is happy that Xander goes into his office and sleeps on the couch there. I meet Xander every night when Yashoda, Mamu and I have dinner. The three of us note that he still finds it difficult to sit in the same position. Every ten minutes, maybe less, he has to move. When he stands sometimes, one of his legs curls and gives a twitch. I am convinced that this is a classic case of a botched vasectomy. I am not a vet, but I have had dogs at home since I was a toddler. Xander is in pain only he doesn’t know how to speak to the vet. Yashoda, Mamu and I hear him moan and whine under his breath like he’s cursing.

His angry eyes have changed. They look sad.

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