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Things we can easily pick up

india Updated: Jan 23, 2007 02:20 IST

In no other Indian Metro are there as many dogs as there are in Delhi. This makes the capital an ideal locale to examine the relationship between dogs and people. As is quite plain to the naked eye, there are two kinds of dogs in this Metropolis. White and black dogs that live in homes and brown dogs that live just outside. From the way dogs behave with other dogs and how humans behave with them we can learn a lot about our society.

Dogs that live in homes are nearly always not local but have European, or even Canadian, pedigree. They are Pomeranians, Alsatians, Dobermans, Labradors, and so on. But why don’t we keep local brown dogs that are plentifully available? They can get better looking with some food and regular care. Is it because through dogs most of us seek an affinity with the west? Are dogs a way of satisfying our deepest desire to separate ourselves from the rest of India?

Even the way we talk to our dogs is indicative of our social orientation. We rarely speak to them in any Indian language. It is always “come here,” “sit down”, “shake hands”, “good boy/girl”. Some of us also go into rather lengthy soliloquies in English with our pets as if they understand Shakespeare. Give us a dog and we break into English. Is this again a repressed desire to be non-Indian?

Dogs are notorious for the way they pick up attitudes from their owners. These Alsatians, Bull Mastiffs, and Dobermans throw themselves against the gates of their spacious homes snarling away viciously at other dogs. Their worst enemies are other pet dogs. There is clear competition here. Pet dogs won’t take loose talk from other pet dogs. Their owners after all are also in competition. Who has how many cars? Or who has a bigger farmhouse?

Street dogs rarely get into a slanging match with pet dogs. They know that they are out of this acquisitive league and calmly walk away from white and black dogs when they are paraded outside. It makes sense: these pets are always escorted by their owners who wield sticks and other hurting instruments.

Street dogs vie against other street dogs for space, food and mates. The lines are clearly drawn. Elite dogs live in their own world sheltered from the cold and rain, while the street curs face the elements and often die cruelly and untimely. And nobody calls them Tiger, Julie, Rex or Sheba. Nobody calls them anything at all. They are nameless, brown, scraggy animals, and like most Indians, foraging for food and living by their wits.

Then there are dogs in between. These are local brown dogs raised by chowkidars and tea vendors. They wear collars retrieved from trashcans and a swagger that is unpredictable. Like upstarts they don’t quite know when to snarl or wag their tails, as they are uncertain about their doggy codes.

If you don’t believe how dogs pick up social traits from their humans pay attention to European dogs for a comparative picture.  In Paris, for example, there are also two kinds of dogs. One sort, the ugly and short variety, is owned by middle class upward Parisians. I have never seen one such dog showing any happiness in being taken out for a walk. It always appears as if they have been disturbed while they were reading Sartre or Camus. Then there are those lovely large dogs with playful eyes and a happy demeanour that belong to the homeless bums who are carelessly downing beers and eating junk food.  Pets tell a lot about people, more than most of us would like to be revealed.

(Dipankar Gupta teaches sociology at JNU)

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