Never tell anybody you are a writer, especially a dog. Every dog is a storyteller, but dogs do not write—you know, the whole thing about opposable thumbs and all. And once they find out you are a writer, they will want to tell you their stories, ask you to put them down, and they have so many.
Did I say they are storytellers? Well, that is a polite word, the damned things are gossips and divas, all convinced they are the artists and oracles of the age because they can sniff better than you and I. And they hear all the dog whistles too, far better than even the foot soldiers of the strongman.
They will tell their stories to one and all, and if you do not write them down, they will tell stories about you—complicated, twisty things, with grains of truth mixed up with the spice of scandal, fantasy and heady lies, all wrapped around and slathered over the meat of the matter. Such a meal they will prepare for you, that you won’t be able to tell if the bones are those of beast or man, or of which beast and what man.
The things they have howled about me across continents! It is so shameful, about women and boys, about forbidden drink and sinful meats, about silks and gold, blood and shit (and they love their gore!). None of it was true, of course, but presented with just the right touch of plausibility, barked loudly enough, and repeated across town and city in a chorus of agreement. Even I started wondering about myself! Before the power of their tales what could I do but flee, hide until the dark of the new moon, until people forget and move on?
Ah, but dogs don’t. Forget and move on, that is. They are famous for it, for staying on a trail, for scenting the faintest whiff of a scandal—here and now, or in the moment yet to come—and chasing it, and leading all the world to the poor sod who would be most embarrassed by it.
We’ve all heard the story of how the dog accompanied Yudhishthira to the gates of swarga-lok itself, and that faced with Indra’s unwillingness to allow them both into heaven, Yudhishthira was willing to exchange places with his loyal companion. We are told that the dog was Dharma himself, more faithful than brothers and wife. It is a great story, one of thousands in the greatest of all stories, told long before the firangi thought up their paeans to loyal hounds and terriers. Why, even the beloved Prophet Himself is said to have blessed a man who went down a well and brought up a shoe full of water for a thirsty dog, the very creature whose saliva is haram, for it eats anything and everything.
I gave in to the rascals, the sons of bitches who claim the nights with their howling and yammering, the FM radios of all the nights of Hindustan. This book in your hands is proof, if any was needed, of my cowardice and capitulation, of their long manipulation. But I had some little shred of dignity left. I set some terms, lines in the sand. Gorakhpur, I said, the land of my father, my father’s father and his father’s father before that—centuries of bones and flesh turning to soil and mud, nurturing the soil that has nurtured us, aeons of a snake eating its own tail—Gorakhpur, I said, must be the muse.
I knew the rascals would lie, spin fantastical tales, play with my mind and yours. And here, on my own soil, this soil mixed with the clay of my ancestors, I would stand some chance of fighting back, of taking the flights of fancy and tying them to earth, so that whatever tall tales I was fed, I could add a note or two of reality to them. I would defend the honour of my mitti, I thought to myself, the only honour they had not stripped from me.
In the end it was just one specimen of their biradari that they sent to me: Kallu, Kallu Maharaj, also known as kutta, kamina, harami, chor, and a string of more colourful names that my pen does not allow me to record. He seemed a nondescript character to have earned such fame from bakers and butchers, maids and washermen, a small dog of indeterminate colour and parentage, with a tendency to tuck in his tail and skitter away at the slightest sense of danger. But only to return, courting danger from a distance, until it was time to turn tail again. Wars have been won in such fashion, so for this, at least, I will not judge him.
A bit of a runt, then, this mongrel. Nothing remarkable about him.
It was only when you looked closely that you realised he had the oddest eyes—they’d glint disconcertingly, sometimes blue in the light of the sun, sometimes red in the light of the moon. It was the spookiest thing, and I politely broached the subject at Professor Malik’s house at a quiet moment in one of his mehfils. He scoffed at the notion and told me to go easy on the liquor. I knew then that I had been forestalled, for it was only the dogs who told tales of my drinking. Somehow, they had planted their rumours even in the heart of the greatest zoologist of the region.
I did not enquire further, but I wondered about this dog, Kallu, whose tribe, we are told, cannot see colour, only black and white, with only their fantastic noses painting the world for them in vivid tones. How could I believe this about a dog whose eyes glinted in colour, and that too in different ones at night and in daylight?
And the tales he had to tell—delivered with the skill and poetry of a dastango, or mumbled from the corner of his mouth as he ate a samosa stolen from my plate, enjoying himself as I goggled at what he said. I have been told that Zen masters debate whether a dog has a Buddha nature, but who would have thought that a dog would be so informed about the Buddha’s mother? And about tigers and shikaris and gangsters and banjaras and the wily firangis. About the Chinese who are now so Indian that they eat Gobi Manchurian and do not complain; about Gandhi and Kabir, and much else that I could never in any way confirm.
And they are all so mixed up, his stories, twisted, tangled and knotted, like the strings of the kites we used to bring down in our aerial battles back when we were boys. But I no longer have the wisdom of my youth, the felicity of mind and fingers, that I can untangle the knots and loops of any of Kallu’s tales and tell where it begins and where it ends. In my tongue they say you can never straighten a dog’s tail. How much more difficult to straighten a dog’s tales, then!
May the clay of my ancestors forgive me, and not turn me from my mitti.
Extracted with permission from Tall Tales by a Small Dog by Omair Ahmad. (Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2023.)