Review: Tall Tales By A Small Dog by Omair Ahmad
The author ventriloquizes a dog to tell eclectic stories, histories, anecdotes, and urban legends about the town of Gorakhpur
Does animal consciousness translate into human thought or sensibility in any significant way? Say, outside the usual affinities felt by pet parents and the stories of dolphin intelligences and elephant-whisperers? The natural and social sciences, along with millennia of experience, has made this a very difficult question. That hasn’t prevented people from trying, leading to the inevitable epistemic violence of understanding animal sensibility in terms of the human one, an unavoidable act of translation. Artists and storytellers haven’t had any qualms about this anthropomorphism, from which they have drawn great narrative and characterological energy. Who said the fox is cunning, that the beaver is eager, and the peacock is proud? What do even those qualities mean in the worlds of animals, if indeed they exist in the way we understand them? Aesop’s Fables set early precedent of humanizing beasts and birds to extract fictional excitement, and I wonder if there is any ancient culture which did not do the same – humanize, deify, or demonize beasts and birds. Vanar senas and gau matas certainly had their heady romps through many corridors of Hindu mythology, and they seem to be back in radically humanoid avatars across the corridors of public and political life in India today.
Omair Ahmad’s decision to ventriloquize a dog to tell his charming and eclectic stories about Gorakhpur seem to be rooted as much in metaphor of the dog’s curly tail that puns with tale as in the friendship and loyalty with which the canine being is known to seal their relationship with human beings. This relationship shows up in the first story, The dog thrower of Chhote Qazipur, particularly when Kallu the dog starts to follow Bilal with the devotion that leads to jokes about the dog being in love, being Bilal’s “Kallu ashiq”. Gorakhpur’s troubled reality is seen through the eyes of Kallu, who becomes part of the street life populated by its desultory young men whose friendships are rocked by communal tension between Hindus and Muslims. But the voice and the presence of the dog is pursued only half-heartedly in the stories that follow, which become pegs around which to hang the histories, anecdotes, and urban legends that make up Gorakhpur. It is impossible not to wonder whether Ahmad needed the figure of the dog at all. It is only to be expected that the dog will sound human – animals, gods, and aliens all do in artwork of human imagination – but the dogs in this book, be it Kallu or the fabled Indian and Chinese dogs that appear later – reproduce human loquacity too much for their voices to create the element of unexpectedness that is the soul of art. We don’t expect a dog to speak like a dog, of course – there is no such thing available to human knowledge – but we do expect a certain unique or idiosyncratic quality when the point of view is an unusual one. But that quality doesn’t quite show up in the narrative voices here. Clearly, it is not easy to say something interesting as a dog; perhaps the writer shouldn’t have tried it at all. Stealing samosas from roadside stalls and watching rival dogs get the better of him are tropes only too familiar and don’t do much to make the perspective unique.
Ahmad, too, seems to tire of the canine perspective and drops it quickly after the first couple of stories. As he says in his note at the end of the book, the book was really an occasion to write about Gorakhpur, and reading the spiralling, digressive tales, spirited cocktails of myth, truth, history and gossip, is fun enough, if one doesn’t mind the rambling, aimless quality of the narration. Ridiculous underbellies of colonial history come to the surface in these anecdotes, but the narrative voice does not quite become compelling. Humour is not easy to write, far less so the mock-heroic tone the voice seeks to adapt from time to time, and the lack of a striking narrative voice kept at least this reader from developing a real stake in these anecdotes. One can have a ball with the lack of a linear narrative trajectory if the voice is engaging and idiosyncratic enough; after all, we’re into the storyteller at least as much as we’re into the story, sometimes more the former than the latter. But that was not my experience while reading this scattering of anecdotes and para-histories about Gorakhpur, whose intriguing character is hinted at, but which fails to quite come alive in its fullness.
One reads fiction for many reason; a fulfilling narrative thread is only one of them. Interesting use of language is certainly as important, and it is often the articulation of yet another important reason – a unique narrative voice, which can range from the thunderous to the effete, or anything in between. In the absence of the latter, in the story The Golden Rendezvous, I found myself intrigued by the narrative thread cast by the teenage boy Tharki’s ailment, “White-itis”, specifically, the irresistible sexual desire for white women, who rarely appear in this provincial town. So when he meets a tall white female tourist in a railway station and even strikes up a conversation by way of interpreting information about the movement of trains, the narrative seems to perk up and we become eager to see what new hole this poor hormone-razed boy will dig himself into. But that is when the narrative abandons the whole situation and gets into the ravishing character of Tharki’s father, a chronic and “successful lecher.” And when we feel we want to know more about this fascinatingly ridiculous character just introduced to us, the story, like a distracted teenager itself, trails into another scattering of Tharki’s habits, his odd reading lists, and makes a half-hearted stab at his coming of age. There are many interesting ingredients here, and yet it feels that the author wasn’t sufficiently compelled by any of them to try to make them compelling enough for us.
Saikat Majumdar’s novels include The Firebird, The Scent of God, and The Middle Finger. He is @_saikatmajumdar on X (formerly Twitter).