The missing mongrel

A magical story about a lost dog.

This is a magical story about my lost dog.
I have three mongrel dogs, around 18 months old. Two brothers came straight from their mother to us when they were a month old. As pups, they looked like huskies with their blonde coats. The third, Prince, a month or two older, had survived the harsh street life of Madras. My cook found him and brought him to us. He has a faint resemblance to an Alsatian’s colouring but with a very curly tail. A handsome dog wearing a red collar with a nametag attached. He fitted in but his experiences had scarred him and he would not take a daily walk on the road. The gate could remain wide open and he would not put a foot outside. He was frightened of the street.
One night, my careless watchman left the gate open. Prince and one brother, Apu, chasing a cat, raced up the 50-metre earthen lane that leads to my house. Moments later came thunder, lightning and heavy rains. Apu raced back, Prince vanished into the storm. Dog experts tell us that the first 48 hours are vital in finding a lost dog. It hasn’t gone far. After that the odds mount – a month is ‘forget it, you’ll never see it again. He’s moved too far searching for his home.’ Prince isn’t friendly, he is xenophoic and doesn’t allow strangers to touch him.
I searched for him, whistling and calling, but he was nowhere in sight. The next day, Maureen, my staff and I walked the streets looking for him. Two days later, my gardener saw him half down my road by a teashop and tried to catch him. Too frightened, Prince ran. It turned out he had been hiding first in a building site and then down a lane. It was raining again but we searched all the roads and lanes. Like every road, we have our share of street dogs, always in the same spot, looking well fed. No Prince. I created a poster with his photograph and offered a generous reward for the finder. These were distributed throughout the neighbourhood and stuck on walls. A woman called, she’d seen him at 4 am nearby. Maureen and I went out at four the next day, walked and called. Then someone said he was seen at night and we walked at nights. He had vanished again. The Hindu, in its Pet’s column, had him with his photo as a missing dog. Two weeks later, the paper ran it again. A local paper also ran a story of him, with his photo. He was also on two Facebook sites. I must add that people do respond and call in, but this time – silence. No one had seen him. If he was a pedigree, someone would have stolen him. He’s a mutt, a street dog, a mongrel with no monetary value.
Two good friends, Angelika, a German woman living in the city, and Kiran whose mother is German, suggested we consult a dog psychic living in Germany. A German dog psychic!! And living 10,000 miles away! As two weeks had passed since his sighting, I would try anything. I knew the odds were stacking up against us finding him. I Googled ‘dog psychic’ and found a few in America, and very expensive. Germany was closer, for what that was worth. The psychic needed his photo, our photos, staff photos and shots of our house, the lane. Obediently, we sent them off. She lives in a village in pristine Germany and I wonder how she’ll penetrate the Indian chaos. Three days later, she emailed in German (translated for us by Angelika). She wrote that he was very frightened and desperate. That stressed us further as we knew he hated the streets. She continued that ‘Prince showed me that he was hiding under a blue tarpaulin in a building site.’ She added that it was near us. There are seven building sites on my road alone, and we visited every one. In one, there was a blue tarpaulin but he wasn’t under it. How on earth, sitting in Germany did she see that through his eyes? How are they ‘talking’? She speaks German, possibly English, he has a dog’s grasp of English, Tamil and Telugu!
A week later, in the evening, the “ironing” man down the road, called saying Prince had just run past him very fast. I raced over. He and another man gave chase on their scooters but lost him when he turned a corner. Everyone now searched up and down roads, lanes, houses. Again, he had vanished. Kiran texted us to leave our gate wide open 24x7 and at night we placed a couple of his toys – my chewed Nike tennis shoe, a plastic ball – in the hope that passing by he’d recognise his toys. No further word from the psychic.
It was now four weeks. I had 15,000 flyers printed and slipped them into two major newspapers distributed in my area. Surely, someone would see him now. I did get a call and went to the place but none had seen him in that area.
It was nearing five weeks and we felt desperate for Prince, frightened, alone, hungry, thirsty. Was he alive? Kiran offered to contact the psychic again who emailed back a day later and thanks to Angelika we got the translation in the evening: he is still alive, lost, frightened, and confused. Searching for food, a human had thrown a stone at him. (I felt almost ill). She wrote on: ‘He’s showing me an arc or arch, a house with outside stairs leading to the roof, a muddy field, a dirt road, a broken wall, an old house, a sloping road. It could be on the edge of town. I told him to stay where he is as Maureen and Tim will find you. Don’t move away.’ It was confusing.
At dawn, we are out on our hunt. Not far is, not an arch, but a pillar, a possibility. We scour the area but there are no old houses or broken walls, nor stairs. Later, we cruise and I spot a metal arch over a school entrance and nearby a broken wall, with a muddy area behind it. We walk all around calling and whistling. No response. For five weeks, I’ve been stressed, and cannot work in my worry for him. It sounds hopeless
In the evening, we get a SMS on Maureen’s dying phone from a friend, Devika. We’re in a mobile store trying to revive it. The psychic’s mail had been forwarded to Devika, an animal lover. Devika’s friend, Shatru, knows that there are some old houses and lanes near the local telephone exchange. That is about a mile away, along very busy, noisy, chaotic roads. It’s a zigzag route too. We drive over, park and see a muddy lane beside the exchange. We walk down it, calling and whistling, the lane curves sharply to a dead end.
But, at the end, is an old house with an outside STAIRCASE leading up to the roof. We hurry into the muddy compound, calling and whistling. No Prince. The watchmen on the lane, shake their heads when I show them his photograph. Watchmen are not observant persons. Godzilla could stomp by them and they would not even look up.
When we get back to the road, we stop and stare. Right opposite, there is a splendid ARCH spanning the entrance to an apartment block.
We check with that watchman and an autorickshaw driver. They are helpful but, no, they haven’t seen the dog.
Next to this grand arch entrance is a dark lane about 100 yards long. We walk down, calling, whistling. At the end is an old house, a half broken wall. The watchman there says he hasn’t seen any dog. We walk back, feeling more depressed, calling and whistling. Parallel to this lane is another dark one, just as long. We turn into it.
I am a few feet ahead, Maureen’s behind. She says: ‘There’s a dog here.’
I turn. There is a bundle of something at her feet. It’s silent; its tail flickers. The light is so bad, it’s only a shape and I bend down. It’s a muddy colour. Prince has a darker coat. But it looks like him. The dog has a collar and hanging from it is a glitter of metal. I scoop him up. It is PRINCE. His tail now a windshield wiper. It is my happiest moment when he rests his tired head against my shoulder and nuzzles my neck, and then nuzzles Maureen as we hug and kiss him. I know he is as happy to have heard our calls and my whistle.
He had come in from behind us, so it meant he was down that first lane and followed my calls. He had been missing 37 days. Though we’re holding him, we can’t believe we have found him. He looks as dazed, all three thinking we’re dreaming.
When we reach home, the word spreads we’ve found him. He is heartbreakingly thin, very dirty, dried mud on his coat and has scars on his forehead and cheek that look like dog bites. He had been in a fight. A scab on his side where he had been hit by a stone. He had lost two kilograms but someone, somewhere, had given him scraps of food to keep him alive. He drinks a large bowl of water as if he has not had a drink for days. He is traumatised, still afraid though in his home. The two brothers sniff him suspiciously, and keep their distance. For the five weeks they had a monopoly of our love and attention and now Prince is back home. Fussed over by us all, fed, washed, brushed.
That psychic is unbelievable. How did she see through his eyes? I cannot explain it or even understand how she does it. I gather she is well known too. She will visit Chennai in January and we will have her over for a grand meal. We have to see how Prince reacts to her in person.

ON CHENNAI


Once upon a time, not that long ago, Madras was an overgrown village. It had the status of a city, an international airport and the capital of Tamil Nad, but that was mere camouflage. The city had little to attract the tourist. There is Fort St George, a dull granite bastion built in 1644, which does not possess the magnificence and the romance of the Red Forts in Delhi and Agra. However, from it sprang an empire greater than the Mughal one. There are no marble pavilions within these iron walls but there is St Mary’s Church, built in 1678, and the oldest protestant one east of Suez. The foot soldiers of this empire, men, women and children from the 17th and 18th centuries, are now plaques in St Mary’s church. Inside the cool interior, standing in the shade of a banyan, one experiences the melancholy of a past age. Not far from it is the Fort Museum, a grand building, with portraits of British governors and their ladies, alongside their weapons of conquests. It began its existence first as a club for the soldiers and then became a trading exchange. The British, like all conquerors, left not only their graves but also monuments which marked their presence forever.
They were eccentric architects. The High Court, domes and minarets, Central Station, Senate House, the Art Gallery (still under restoration) and Victoria hall are Indo-Saracanic, while the Rippon Buildings and the Ice House, resemble great English manor house. These are government buildings, and apart from the High Court, teeming with litigants, visitors aren’t exactly welcomed. The Madras Museum, in Egmore, has the finest collection of bronzes in the world, and the adjacent Madras theatre, is a half circle of red sandstone, where the British performed comedies. The theatre is in constant use by local theatre companies. Saint Thomas was once entombed on the mount by the airport and Christianity left its mark in the beautiful San Thome Cathedral and the stately Scottish Kirk, all three worth a pilgrimage for their history and magnificence. On Armenian Street in Georgetown is the Armenian Church, consecrated in 1772. The entrance is always open and one can wander through the shaded garden and, most surprisingly, the roar of traffic on the Esplanade dies away to a whisper. Behind high walls and alongside the Adyar River is the very exclusive Madras Club, one of the oldest in India. Its club house is unique in comparisons to the other British relics. It’s a white sprawling building and from the centre rises a cupola. At the rear, leading down to the lawn, a flight of wide steps and from this angle the building resembles a Brit Nabob’s home, which it was. George Moubray built it as his home back in 1770s. Also in Adyar, behind high walls too, is the Theosophic Society, set in 270 acres, founded by Annie Besant Chennai in 1905. In it are shrines of all faiths, including an 800-year-old statue of Buddha. Chennai is a city of hidden architectural gems which, sadly, are vanishing as TamilNad has no heritage act, and the bulldozers are given free reign to rampage over history. Old garden mansions have vanished and apartments rise from their ruins. The change is swift and chaotic with no realistic plan to shape its wild growth.
Georgetown, Flower Bazaar and Rattan Bazaar, the old shopping centres for the city, still remain, barely, intact. Here you see the old ways in the crowded lanes where you can buy anything from gems to stoves, clothes to sanitary ware. In a way, these areas were a sort of city centre for a city that didn’t have a centre. It still meanders like a lost goat trying to find a way out of its own maze. The nearest we had for a shopping mall was Moore Market, a square Indo-saracenic building, with an inner courtyard, where you could buy every ware from books, clothes and toys to antiques and caged birds. For the more affluent, there was the department store, Spencers, on Mount Road, a crescent Indo Saracenic building with the usual British department store items, ranging from furniture to bacon and sausages in the only cold store. The interior was high arched teak ceiling and light filtered through stained glass windows. Mysteriously, both buildings burned down and in place of Spencers rose the first true shopping mall, Spencer Plaza.
Madras became Chennai and the name change woke it to a new avaatar. More grand shopping malls rose in comptetition – Express Avenue, on the road opposite to Spencers, Skywalk Plaza in Amininjikarai,mega-malls in Vadalapani and Velachery drew away Spencer Plaza’s customers. Express Avenue is for the true big spenders with foreign retails giants lining the corridors.
Chennai even has the equivalent of a Rodeo Drive, admittedly a pot-holed road without pavements. On Khader Nawaz Khan Road, running down opposite the Taj Coromandel, is the jewel of the big high fashion spenders – Louis Vuiton’s grand show room. Diagonally opposite is Evoluizone and Naturally Auroville, further up is Wills and Benetton, standing next to Calvin Kline is the Hagen Daz ice cream parlour. The road is scattered with other exclusive boutiques and, around the corner, is the Harley Davison show room. Those massive bikes constantly remind one of the American road movies and of Easy Riders gliding along empty highways. Here in India, I’ve no idea where the enthusiasts can ride carefree.
. My favourite store is Amethyst, now on Whites Road. It was in a stately Garden Bungalow before it moved. It’s a place to shop for stylish clothes and jewellery upstairs and lunch, dine or sip South Indian coffee with Wi-Fi, downstairs, and it’s set in a lush garden. There, right in the centre of a busy road, a haven from chaos. But Vuiton and Bergamo can never replace the traditional saree and there is the chaotic shopping paradise of T’Nagar. It’s a grid lock suburb. Nallis, founded in 1928, and Sundari Silks are saree palaces of this city where, in the wedding season, a railway station rush hour is no match for the crowds that crush into the aisles and the air is almost magical with the brilliant colours unfurled casually on the counters. While women finger the silks and gold threads, men sit sullenly waiting to empty their pockets.
But our visitors don’t come for the shopping. They come for our Carnatic festival season which has existed for the last 50 years. During November and December we have a cultural feast of music and dance which both Madrasis and visitors from all parts of India and the world attend. I have Indian and non-Indian, American, French, English, friends who regularly fly over to immerse themselves in this cultural lake which renews and invigorates them for the rest of the year in their homelands. No other city, anywhere in India or the world, has such a cultural extravaganza annually. The centre piece of the festival is the Music Academy on TTK road where only the most well known perform and, like ripples in a pond, the other sabhas (concert halls) spread out across the city for the lesser mortals. Over a period of 20 days 1500 musicians, singers and dancers perform in 20 sabhas around the city. The basis of the festival is, of course, to celebrate Carnatic music but we also have dancers and musicians vying from all over India to be included in this cultural orgy. We have ghazals, Kathak dancers, Bharatanatyams, Hindi Classical. Name it, if it’s Indian it will be here during the season. The programmes begin nearly at dawn and finish only near around midnight, and the sabhas are packed. And if you think it’s only the old attending these concerts, think again. I’ve seen eight and ten year old children sitting still as rocks for three to four hours listening to classical music and keeping the beat. They might then go out and listen to their MTV but deep down they still retain their cultural roots through their music and dance. What other city can offer its people such a deep cultural and traditional mooring?
At one time, all we had in the form of art was Tanjore paintings. These were of our various gods, male and female, a traditional art form from the 16th century. The gods are vividly coloured, sometimes their jewellery inlaid with semi-precious stones and their clothing adorned with gold foil. I’ve known Sharon Apparao for years and when she first opened her gallery, just off Khader Nawaz Khan Road, she exhibited them and a few antiques. If there was any other art, I could buy a painting for a few thousand rupees. The other day she had a new exhibition of a young painter and there was nothing under a lakh. Over the years, Sharon has built up a reputation with her fine eye for promoting new talent. But apart from her there is the Focus Galley on TTK Road and Forum Art Gallery in Adyar, to name a few that now cater to the exploding interest in art in the city. We no longer need to wear traditional jewellery with modern designers like Ras Vihar by Ahalya on Sterling Road to match her saree shop, Sarangi.
Along the East Coast Road is the Cholamandal Artist Village where you watch the painters at work and negotiate a price on the spot. A few years ago, strolling through an exhibition in the Forum Art Galley I spotted a painting I loved immediately, and bought it for a low five figures. The artist, Shailesh, has his studio there and when I saw another one I liked, the five figures had become six. And, no doubt, still rising. But while you’re on that road heading south keep going to Dakshinachitra. It’s a living museum of South Indian architecture from TamilNadu, Andhra, Kerala and Karnataka. Deborah Thyagarajan, an American, who had lived in a village near Madurai and watched the destruction of the traditional homes, built Dakshinachitra. In their places rose concrete and glass houses. To preserve the old architecture, she raised the funds to buy homes about to be demolished, dismantle them and then reconstruct them on the 10 acre site. Each state has its own distinctive architecture and they are now lovingly preserved. Apart from the buildings, Dakshinachitra has both an art gallery, and craftsmen working at their traditional skills. There are also folk dancers from various states performing and holding and workshops.
Even our taste in food has changed. Its palate was sambar-rasam-rice with barely two Chinese restaurants where the more adventurous dined. Today in its new avatar as Chennai has leapt over centuries to become a gourmet’s delight, if not a paradise. It’s as if with the name change we took on a new identity, not backward looking as the ancient name suggests as it was called that when the British christened this strip of plantain patch on the Coromandel coast as Madras. We’re a 21st century people now, welcoming exotic dishes from all over the world. You want lobster thermidor, you’ve got it, you want steak au poivre, you’ve got, you can wallow in cannelloni, spaghetti with pesto sauce, duck a la orange, enchiladas, fish and chips, couscous, tortillas, paellas and wash it down with Australian and French wines, along with Indian brands. And this is not including Korean, Japanese, Thai, Chinese, tandoori dabbas, Chettinad, Guajarati, Bengali restaurants and hamburgers, pizzas and chicken kings.
Cities retain their characters, no matter who invades them, and you can sniff it in the air. New York smells of the manic infectious energy, London of the staid and historical stability, Paris of possible romance and beauty. The Madras air, beneath the new odours of Chanel and pesto sauces, and even its name change, is still replete with odours of sambar and rasam and, more significant, soaked in culture and old traditions.
In the evenings, we still have our Marina, where we can sit, picnic, talk and are grateful we live in a town with the sea breeze to caress away all memories of the day’s heat.