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Archive for March, 2019

Discovering things about my little dog

Just the other day, on the way back from a weekend trip to Varanasi, my first trip there, we were idly glancing at the books in the airport bookstall there, when my eyes lit on a book that has made me question many assumptions in my life.

But, first the context. I have always been a dog lover. Shortly after setting up home in Mumbai, I adopted a dachshund. Like many obsessive dog lovers, I was the one who took him for walks morning and night, fed him, bathed him, and of course had him sleep on the same bed as us.

jilljill

my little dog


When he died a decade later, I had a beagle. A decade of cuddling and petting him, he passed on, and it was time for Churchill, a basset hound (named so because he had jowls like his namesake statesman).

After another decade, when Churchill passed on, we did something revolutionary: We adopted a pye-dog, a pariah dog, which we found wandering around the village near our weekend home in Alibag, across the bay of Bombay where we live.

These dogs are called ‘pye’ or ‘pie’ or even ‘pariah’ because they have no discernible breed; it is surmised that they are the result of unplanned cross-breeding between various ‘pure’-bred dogs.

This dog, a female pup, which we named JillJill, however, had some odd qualities.

First, it would not touch meat, but loved fish, unlike our earlier three dogs who seemed to live just for their twice-a-day meat portions.

Second, it was obsessively suspicious of anyone ringing our doorbell, unlike our earlier three well-bred dogs who welcomed all visitors to our home, ‘including robbers’ I groused in my mind.

Third, JillJill would attack viciously anyone who came close to me when I was sitting reading a book or having a drink. We and our fellow dog lovers put all this down to a possibly uncared-for puppyhood.

Finally, the string-like tail it had when it first arrived at our home, within weeks blossomed into a thick fan-like one, something like what some pure-bred dogs have. We then surmised that JillJill must have somewhere in its ancestry, a cross between its pye-dog ancestors and some well-bred bushy-tailed dog.

All of the above surmises so deeply ingrained in my belief structure must be the reason why I was thunderstruck when I opened The Book of Indian Dogs by S Theodore Baskaran at the Varanasi airport last weekend.

There, in the opening pages, was a picture of a dog who looked exactly like JillJill and which I learned was a ‘Bakharwal’, which were commonly bred and used by pastoral folks such as Gujjars to guard their cattle. Apparently, it was a pure Indian dog breed, not a bastardisation of a foreign ‘pure’ breed.

Book of Indian Dogs

Was JillJill’s antipathy to mutton and beef part of a centuries-old antipathy bred into her because sheep and cattle where what her ancestors reared and were employed to protect?

As I stood there at the Varanasi airport, transfixed, devouring that book, shattering one assumption that I had after the other, I learned that the origin of the domesticated dog was not, as I and my dog lover friends has assumed, from Europe.

DNA studies of 5,000 dogs from 38 countries done by scientists at Cornell University now place the origin of the domestic dog as Central Asia and more specifically in the area between Mongolia and Nepal. Terracotta figurines of dogs with collars have been found at Mohenjodaro, thus dating the domestic dog in India at 3500-1700 BC!

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Goa: Beyond the sun, beaches, food and feni

When I started reading Vatsala Mendonca’s book, The Shadow of the Palm Tree, the first thought that struck me was God! I thought Goa was only about than sun, sand pork vindaloo and feni; I had no idea that behind the charming, ever smiling Goan faces, there is so much complexity and history!

Take for example the palm tree, that ubiquitous object that we find all along the west coast of India. In Vatsala Mendonca’s Goa, they are not merely trees with long stems with a frond of leaves on top. Their gentle swaying in the sea breeze soothes the characters, they know that the ancient Egyptian god Huh was shown always with a palm in his hands, for the Greeks it was a symbol of Apollo, the Romans rewarded their heroes with palms, the Hindu’s wrote their scriptures on treated palm leaves and Mohammed built his home out of palms and a palm tree is planted to commemorate the birth of each son.

book cover

At one level this novel is an account of Abreau family, a wealthy, land-owning family in Goa and traces its evolution, from the time of the arrival of the Portuguese in the early part of the 16th century to the take-over by India in the 1960′s.

Salvador Abreau and his wife Dona Teresa and have five children. As is the practice in well-to-do Goan Christian families, according to the author, one son Luis follows his father’s profession of law, another, Miguel, becomes a priest and third, Joseph, a medical doctor, and Anne, the daughter is left for marriage. Salvador himself is a lawyer who spends his days practicing law in court and his evenings drinking feni and writing poetry. Then there is Salvador’s sister, Tia Rosa, whose dream of a home and family of her own did not work out and so continues living in the Abreau home “loveless yet desperately yearning for love”.

The Abreau family acquires its wealth by participating in the African slave trade; the European attempt to capitalize on the lands they acquired in North and South America had created an almost unending demand for African slaves. In a similar fashion, ships sailed from Goa to Mozambique carrying spices and hardwoods and returned with shiploads of African slaves.

At another level this novel shares a point of view with Toni Morrison’s 1973 novel ‘Sula’ in seeking explanations of a character’s behaviour not as is usually done in fiction in society, psychological make up, or the socio-economic background of the character but in the complex legacy of racial heritage, slavery and patriarchy.

Still another level at which this book operates is that of Latin American novelists which its foremost exponent, Gabriel Marquez, described in his Nobel Acceptance Speech as invoking “a sense of the incorruptible superiority of fate and the inhuman, inexorable ravages of history.” Thus, major historical events like Goa’s involvement with the African Slave Trade are alluded to but in the Latin American literary tradition are seen through their effects on the lives of characters rather than being described; destino is what is invoked to explain events.

The destino of the Abreau family is traced back to the founder Tomas Abreau and his role in kidnapping Immaculada, a beautiful young “negra” in a raid on a Mozambique village and bringing her to Goa. Though Immaculada and her descendants continue to serve in the Abreau family, “destino” ensures that no woman of the Abreau family through the generations is happy.

The novel’s pivot point is when Dona Teresa, the mother of Miguel, Luis, Joseph and Anne, throws herself in to a well and drowns. Each chapter of the book is in the voice of each of these children trying to make sense of this event.

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