Sleek, mild-mannered Radha sat in that alert manner dogs do, all elbows and toes and barely a chest-hair on the ground. In her few short months of living the life of the streets, she had learned this permitted the quickest getaway should things turn ugly.
The pariah life was fine, if one paid attention and had been blessed with an alert brain. Of course, Big City was perhaps not so great as country life, where all the dogs were default pets and guard dogs. It was harder here to make a niche for oneself and find humans willing to make regular contributions to the day's provisions. Radha, though, did okay. She was quiet, respectful and never snatched.
It was not the humans she had to watch out for. Rather it was the lead dog in the street where she was born and spent these first five months of life. Mother had disappeared a few weeks prior. Milk had finished anyway, but still Radha cried for the warmth and familiarity of mother, and even the scoldings she got.
Her siblings had all scattered. Survival rates are not good for the INDog and out of a litter of nine, only she and Pinki remained on the street. Two brothers had taken off, probably looking for mother and who knows what had become of them. Pinki was a different temperament altogether from her sister and was going a bit haywire. She seemed to want to join the gang with Billu - the huge lead dog of the local pack. Radha knew enough to respect him, but also didn't want to run with the group. She had found two humans on the next corner who put out left over rice and dahl each night, and she wanted to keep that to herself.
However, Billu had taken a fancy to her, young as she was. He kept up behind her, checking her out, and Radha was not happy . Radha realised that Pinki had found her level and was not going to fret much if she left so, just like that, the decision was made.
Radha went one last time for the evening rice meal and lingered longer than usual. The boy at the house had always spoken gently to her and she wanted to let him know how grateful she was. When he came out with the pan, she let her tail wag. Despite her heavy heart at this farewell, she smiled for him and pricked her ears.
"Accha kutta hai!" he said, grinning in return.
Just this once, for the first and last time, Radha ate whilst he watched and even let him reach out to touch her. Only for a moment, but enough to let him know she was fond of him.
Then she turned away from the place that had been home and walked through the night. Many other dogs sniffed and snarled, but somehow she escaped any major incident. By morning she was exhausted but wanted to keep going. She had a sense there was a place waiting for her. Just as she thought she could not put one more paw forward, the whiff of paratha came her way. Was it from that house there?
That one over on the corner at the top of the steep street?
That one over on the corner at the top of the steep street?
...But what was this?! An enormous brick wall, except for the part behind that last house. It was collapsed and it took Radha seconds only to clamber over the rubble to see what was behind. Her eyes gleamed and her heart beat fast.
It seemed like a forest yet there were buildings. It was quiet and people moved around peacefully. There were occasional voices calling out "Hari OM!" There were birds and lizards and rats. There were other dogs. She was suddenly face to face with a ginger, hairy fellow, who barked and barked at her.
"This is our ashram little bitzer, keep off!"
Radha dropped and wagged her tail. Her mouth was open and tongue relaxed. She wriggled forward and made play gestures, then rolled over and showed him her tummy. Every grovelling trick in the canine code of companionship was displayed. Finally the dog stopped barking and sniffed at her, still letting out the odd whuff and gruff.
"What're you called?"
The handsome fellow sniffed and walked around her and nudged at her a couple of times and she kept very calm. He put on his best prancing stance, to keep up the show of who was boss, then turned and trotted away, towards a second, much older dog. These two communed for a moment then ginger-fur called out.
"I am Kaneya. This is Krishna-ji."
With that they turned and walked off.
Radha sat for a while, the smell of paratha causing her mouth to water desperately, but not willing to push her luck too hard. When nothing else happened after some minutes, she loped in the direction she had seen Kaneya and Krishna-ji running. Sure enough the smell grew stronger. Before she realised it she had come into the centre of where the buildings were and there were lots of humans moving about.
"Look, kid, this is our turf, but behave yourself and wait your turn. You'll do okay."
"Kaneya! Stop that barking. It's just a puppy!" called one of the humans. Kaneya looked sourly up at the man but clearly respected him and reluctantly ceased his shouting. The two dogs took up vigil outside the main entrance to what was clearly the building in which the humans ate their meals. Radha dropped into her flight-safe sitting pose. Her stomach was rumbling and reeling, but she knew she had to be patient. She couldn't understand why, but she was sure she was safe.
After what felt like an eternity, humans appeared and dropped paratha for the dogs. When Radha was spotted there was some human 'oohing and aahing' and some of the tasty bread was brought for her too. Kaneya made a show of butting in, but the humans made sure she got her share.
So the pattern was set. Kaneya chased her off to a corner of the ashram and let her know that bit could be her territory. She could visit 'his bit' for food, but then was to leave. That's fine with me, she thought. Oh yes. That is fine indeed.
© Yamini Ali MacLean
NB - this is the first in a series of tales about the dogs on the ashram. There will necessarily be a lot of fiction, as who knows how they came to be here? However, the personalities and events will be depicted as close to life as possible. This will sometimes entail some difficult reading. Please have care if reading to young people.