In October 2001, I started my own company after having worked for others for nearly 15 years. With me operating from home, it became possible for my wife Anjali and me to consider having a dog. In April 2002, we brought home our first, Bhaloo, from an animal shelter in Delhi. Over the extended Independence Day weekend the same year, we went on our first trip with her. A bunch of friends – three couples including us – drove to Mussoorie, where we stayed in the atmospheric Carlton Plaisance hotel.
Bhaloo, who had had a serious mange problem from soon after we brought her home and as a result suffered greatly in the dry heat of Delhi, was like a djinn let out of a bottle. In the cooler, more pleasant clime of the hills, she galloped and gambolled, running away with our ball as we tried to play cricket on the hotel lawns, clambering over the rocks and slopes and generally having the time of her life.
So what if we heard some brat on a Mussoorie street ask his mother, ‘yeh kutta hai ya bakri?’ (‘is that a dog or a goat?’) and on being told the former, go on with ‘itna sadiyal kyun hai?’ (‘why is it in such miserable shape?’)? Bhaloo’s tail might have been stringy and hairless and her body grey in patches, but her heart was joyful, and that’s all that mattered.
On returning to Delhi, we resolved that we would make a trip with her every few months. It’s a resolution we have stuck to, even under the unanticipated condition of having another five dogs added to the pack over time. And those trips have been the highlight of our lives, the most keenly-awaited interludes and in many ways our defining characteristic. If someone were to ask us what sets us apart, I would definitely say that it is that we have travelled all over India, some 25,000 km in all, with a contingent of dogs that has ranged from a single one to as many as six. No mean feat, that!
Travel is always fertile ground for the sprouting of stories, and travelling with a gang of dogs is like adding a super-growth fertiliser to the mix. Here, then, is a nosegay of episodes plucked from our garden of wagging tales.
Mussoorie: The stuffed tiger
The Carlton Plaisance in Mussoorie, its management claims, was built in the late 1800s as the summer residence of one Mr Forbes of the East India Company. As such, it continues to exude colonial airs, especially evident in the furnishings and bric-a-brac in the long dining room. We’d been told that Bhaloo would not be welcome to roam around in there, which was acceptable, but Anjali became very keen that she be introduced to one of its exhibits: a stuffed tiger purportedly shot by Forbes himself. So she carried little Bhaloo, then barely a few months old, in her arms. Bhaloo, who was experiencing many things for the first time in her life on the trip, stretched out to sniff the nose of this creature. Evidently, there was still enough whiff of tiger left in the skin, for she immediately jerked back into Anjali’s grasp, the hair standing up along her neck and back, and let out a low but distinct growl.
Sat-tal: The meditating lady
In the hills of Kumaon, we saw for the first time how the dogs (at the time, we had only three) loved water. We had driven to Sat-tal, one of the many lakes that collect in the cups formed by the hills and valleys. As soon as we arrived, Jaya and Chipku walked happily into the crystal-clear lake and sat down in the shallows. Bhaloo needed a little coaxing, but she too was soon in the water.
Later, we took a long walk around the lake. In one secluded cove, we came upon a foreign woman deep in meditation on the bank. We passed by her in silence, but curiosity got the better of Chipku. She went and sat down directly in front of the woman, and made the enquiring noises she would to get our attention when we were sleeping. When that elicited no response, she cocked her head this way and that and shuffled a little closer. I rushed to pull her away, but before I could, she had raised her leg and pawed at the woman’s bare arm. As I yanked Chipku away from her, I could see a white streak on her arm where a claw must have scored the skin. But to our astonishment, the woman never flinched or opened her eyes, despite what must have been a completely extraordinary intrusion on her meditation routine.
Ganapatipule: The sea, the sea
By the time we took our first truly long trip – a month-long meandering excursion from Delhi to Goa and back – we had four dogs, and a Scorpio to fit them all in. Hero had joined the gang, the only male amidst three bitches. On the way out, we drove through Central India, traversing Madhya Pradesh and northern Maharashtra before heading for the coast. We made seafall at Ganapatipule. It was a big moment – the dogs were going to see the sea for the first time, and we were wondering how they would react. Considering that this was an exploratory trip to see whether or not we should shift base to Goa, a negative response would probably have put a large question mark on our plans.
We needn’t have worried. As soon as we got on the beach, at least three of the dogs started straining to get to the water. Chipku, a naturally cautious type, hung back somewhat, but the others were visibly excited. At the edge of the sea, there was a little hesitation as the water rushed at them like a hostile creature. But Hero, with his peculiar combination of nervous suspicion and adventurism, was the first to overcome any qualms as he jumped over the onrushing foam into the frothy turmoil. After that, the three of them were all over each other, having recognised a wonderful new medium to play in. Jaya tried what she has always loved doing at rivers and lakes – sitting down and lapping at the water – but immediately got up with a disgusted expression on her face. She hadn’t counted on the water being as distasteful as it was!
Goa: The miracle of the leashes
We are usually very meticulous with our planning, trying to ensure that every eventuality is catered for. When you’re travelling with a bunch of dogs, you can’t afford to be remiss, as there’s little scope for doing things on the fly. So it’s not often that we have to deal with the kind of crisis that faced us on the first day of a trip we were taking from Goa to Mount Abu and back. We had driven for about an hour, and were near the Goa-Maharashtra border, when we decided to stop to give the dogs a short constitutional. Preparing to disembark, we realised that we had astoundingly forgotten to bring their leashes! I had loaded the dogs into the car without the leashes on, and Anjali on her part had assumed that I had taken them as I would usually.
We were dumbfounded. Should we go back? That would surely create problems with reaching our first destination, as we would be trying to find some place that we knew nothing of in darkness (having had this experience before, we knew how difficult that is in rural India, given that there’s usually no one up and about after nightfall). But how to go on? The dogs would have to be walked every few hours, and without leashes that could be disastrous. There was no way we were going to let them off-leash next to a busy highway in places that we had no idea about.
Eventually, we decided that we would walk them two at a time, holding on to their collars, and try and get some leashes or chains at the first major town we came across. It was going to be harrowing, but seemed the only logical thing to do. So we got off, in the middle of nowhere, and somehow managed to walk the dogs around a bit. Having bundled them back into the car, we were preparing to take off when Anjali noticed a colourful clump on the ground not far away. On investigation, it turned out to be a bundle of ribbons of different hues, quite strong and long. From their colours, we reasoned they were probably detritus from a rally held not long before in Goa by the Maharashtra Navnirman Seva, Raj Thackeray’s outfit. Why they were dumped where they were, on a lonely ridge, miles from any hint of civilization, we’ll never know, but they served well as makeshift leashes until we could get hold of real ones. That happened the next day, in Chiplun, where we just happened to run into the one person (so he assured us) in town who had a shop that stocked them, but that’s another story.
Coorg: The teppa riders
For my parents’ wedding anniversary in 2008, we planned a trip to Coorg. My father had been growing old very rapidly, and we knew there weren’t going to be many more long car trips with him after this one (as it turned out, it was his last). Though it was the first time we were visiting our destination, the River Tern Homestay at Suntikoppa turned out to have been a brilliant choice. Lolling on the banks of a backwater created by a dam on the river Harangi, it gave us – and the dogs – everything we needed.
Its most enticing feature, of course, was the large lake that had flooded what evidently used to be a meadow. The grassy bank slipped gently into the water, and we could see through the clear water that the grass was still growing on the lake bed. On day four of our stay, the brothers Kariappa, who ran the homestay, arranged for a teppa ride on the lake. Teppas are coracles made from cane, little more than big baskets really, with a tarred plastic bottom to keep things waterproof. Anjali was the first one in, and Bhaloo immediately wanted to go with her.
As they drifted away from shore, the other dogs also got interested. Hero actually swam some distance into the lake and then tried to scramble in. With no ground for leverage, he was trying to hoist himself into the boat using his front legs , and naturally the boat started tipping over with his weight. To save the teppa and all on it, Anjali had to flip him over into the water. He went under for a few moments, but then resurfaced and paddled back to shore, sneezing and spluttering. He spent the rest of the time howling unhappily at Anjali from the shore.
Aniruddha Sen Gupta qualified as an aeronautical engineer, but took to writing. He is the author of Our Toxic World, a look at toxics in our lives through the medium of comics. He has also authored a children’s adventure series, The Fundoo 4 ; He is working on a chronicle of his and his wife Anjali’s travels with their dogs.6 comments so far — Join the discussion