Viet Nam News
by Hồ Anh Thái
The street dogs of Bangalore have no owners but they do have friends. People of kindness and goodwill. My friend Ravikanth is such a man. He befriends with stray canines all over the city, his pockets always stuffed with biscuits for them. Anywhere he happens to park, get out of his car, and by chance meet a passing mongrel, he immediately gives it a biscuit.
He is not only a friend to the street dogs scattered all over the city. The homeless dogs who happen to live in his neighborhood often congregate at his front gate for their lunch and dinner. Exactly twenty-one of them.
Ravi has named each and every one of those dogs. But before I continue, let me fill you in, chronologically, on Ravi’s back story. The first time I visited Ravikanth Shankar’s house was at the end of 1993. The year before, the Shankars had helped out a destitute Vietnamese student, giving her free room and board at their house for a month, and helping her navigate the entrance procedures for a university. That student, Diep, had received an Indian scholarship, including travel expenses. It was her first time abroad, and her first time traveling by air. But when she arrived at Bangalore, there had been no one from the university to meet her at the terminal: the semester had actually begun three weeks previously. She had been standing there, helpless and sobbing, when she met Ravi, who had come to the airport to pick up a business colleague. Ravi’s mother, a teacher, and the rest of his family extended helping hands to Diep. They put her up in their home and proceeded to bang on office doors for a month, fighting the bureaucracy in order to get her enrolled into a university.
Later, Diep would tell us funny stories about those first days in India when she had been so helpless and clueless, and also moving stories about how kind and accommodating to her those Southern Indian people had been. So in July 1993, I took the opportunity of an official trip I had to make to the South to meet Ravi family. They were quite friendly and spoke very openly with me. Ravi’s mother led me to a room, opened the window and said: You see, this room has been kept exactly as it was when Diep stayed here. On the table was a tiny lacquer screen, consisting of the four panels representing spring, summer, fall, and winter, left there by Diep.
When I came back to visit the Shankars this time, I had not seen the family for twenty-four years. It took me four and half hours to go from Jakarta to Colombo, Sri Lanka and an hour and fifteen minutes from Colombo to Bangalore. The city had changed its name to Bengaluru and though it had been secluded and quiet in the old days, it is now teeming with cars and people. The only thing that had remained the same was the climate: it is cool and mild like the Da Lat hill station in my country. Ravi’s family had also gone through changes. His parents has passed away and now Ravi, his wife Sangeeth, and their twenty-seven-year-old son, Rishab, lived in the house.
At the doorstep, Sangeeth — who is an artist — had created colored chalk designs of flowers and leaves. I had to step on her work in order to enter and accept the customary Indian welcome for a noble guest. Sangeeth came forward with a bowl of ghee, the purified butter that fueled sacred lamps, and waved it in circles before me, following the Indian custom of driving away the demons and bestowing good fortune on a guest. Their son Rishab put a garland of flowers and a shawl around my neck, another customary way of drawing luck to guests.
As these simple and friendly ceremonies continued, I felt something large and heavy rubbing against my leg. I looked down. A black dog, as big as a calf, was going through its own welcoming ceremony for me. I found out later that he was the only dog that actually belonged to the family. At the same time, several brown and a yellow dogs pushed through the front gate, wagging their tails. The black dog barked at them loudly, as if to drive them away. Stop it, don’t be jealous, Ravi said to him, Be polite and let them come in for a little while to welcome my guest.
Later, Ravi took me to visit the institutions run by his family. The education center was founded by his mother, Mrs. Vimala Shankar, in 1957 with only four female students at the beginning. It has now grown to 1600 students, with classes ranging from kindergarten to college. The college enrolls 350 students in the natural and social sciences. After his mother had passed away, Sangeeth became president of the institutions and Ravi and their son Rishab are members of the managing committee, with Ravi as the committee secretary.
A red carpet had been spread for me, from the front gate to inside the entrance. I bowed to the copper statue of Mrs. Vimala Shankar there, remembering the day she showed me the room where the Vietnamese girl had stayed and said to me: See, it has been kept exactly as it had been when Diep stayed here.
Afterwards, we returned to Ravi’s house. It was dinner time, and the tribe of street dogs had gathered at the front gate. A big pot of milk rice was brought out and Ravi ladled the contents into plastic boxes lined up at the gate: one box for each dog. Each even had his or her own name. Tony, a hefty lad. Daisy, an elegant girl. Mr. Brown, most certainly a gentleman with brown fur. Chikki, a meddlesome little girl. And Doey, Stanislaus, Joe, Sam, Cheenu, Tito, Robin, Durwas, Princey, Rani, Cutie, Spotty, Sarge, Cop, Anu, John, and Nick.
Initially, the black dog would not accept them. A pampered domestic dog, he arrogantly drove away the strays. Ravi had to scold him, lecture him about his attitude and instruct him how to conduct himself. Gradually Blackie learned to restrain his annoyance. Ravi, in the meantime, taught the street dogs to behave with respect and discipline. When Robin, for example, stuck his snout into Cutie’s box and shoved her away, Ravi rebuked him. A deluge of reprimand poured down on Robin and then Ravi confiscated Robin’s rice box. Tears filled Robin’s eyes. Only then did Ravi return the rice box to him. Seeing that the master had cooled down, Robin got mischievous again and rubbed up against Ravi’s calf, always finding ways to jostle the other dogs away from their master.
As for the food for these dogs, Ravi bought bags of dog biscuits and had his cook prepare rice with milk. Everything was vegetarian. And since the master was a vegetarian, the dogs had to be vegetarian also. Pet dogs in Vietnam eat about a hundred milligrams of beef a day, while dogs in India eat only milk rice and vegetarian biscuits. Diep told me that in 1992 when she stayed in Ravi’s house and ate with his family, she went vegetarian for a month. One time she was about to cook some Vietnamese instant noodles in the kitchen, but seeing the illustration of prawns on the package, Ravi said that prawns were also animals and she couldn’t cook them in his kitchen. Ravi had been a vegetarian from the time he left his mother’s womb.
The tradition of vegetarianism began during the time of Buddha and then influenced Hinduism, resulting today in the existence of almost a billion vegetarians in India. Because of that same belief, Indian pets are also vegetarian. The vegetarians do not follow that diet for health reasons or because they have allergies to certain foods and fear meat – though someone would vomit whenever they see meat and fish dishes. They are vegetarians because they follow a philosophy of non-violence and refuse to participate in the process of killing any living being.
Does the presence of a pack of dogs wandering all over the streets and gathering at the Shankars’ front gate ever make the neighbors uncomfortable? Yes. Sometimes. It isn’t that they are annoyed at their neighbor feeding strays, only that sometimes the dogs get into fights with each other and bark up a racket. Ravi then has to apologize, which usually satisfies his neighbors. But sometimes even his wife questions his behavior: her husband leaves food on their rooftop terrace for the monkeys and peacocks who are now frequent visitors. You’ve turned our house into a zoo, Sangeeth told him.
For the last six years, Ravi hasn’t even been able to leave town on job-related travel. A mechanical engineer, he worked for Swiss and Korean companies before establishing his own IT company. In addition, after his mother passed away at the age of eighty, while in the middle of teaching a class, he began to manage his family’s educational institutions. It was a return to the family business for him, and now his wife and his son have joined him in that career.
One might worry that if Ravi had to go away for a few days, the dogs would be helpless. There was a time when Ravi didn’t see Rani for two days and worried that something had befallen her. The name Rani means “queen” and he ordered the rest of the pack to search for their queen. It turned out she was sick and lay in a corner of the Rose Garden, the Lal Bagh. Ravi took her to a veterinarian, who told him that he only treated household pets and never street dogs. Then here’s your chance, Ravi told him. A doctor could not refuse to treat even one of the wandering urchins who hawked newspapers with the excuse that such a boy was homeless.
In the end, Ravi and the veterinarian became friends. Every year Ravi bought twenty-one anti-rabies shots from him. Stand still, Ravi would say, as he patted each dog. This will just take a second and it won’t hurt, he reassured them as he stuck the syringe into their hindquarters. Each dog would cringe and bark, but they would stand still and let Ravi give them the injections. Only the mischievous Robin ran away. Looking back from a safe distance, he wagged his tail, as if teasing Ravi. Ravi disciplined him by withholding his food that day, and reprimanding him. The next morning, Robin let Ravi give him a shot.
One of the neighbors wondered why Ravi, who was so close to the dogs, didn’t just build a cage in his house and keep them there. No, Ravi said; it’s like those roving newspaper boys in the street, if they were put into a re-education camp and given plenty of full meals, they would still run away after several days. They are the free sons of the streets. They need freedom above all.
One time, the dogs became confused and worried.
They had not seen Ravi going out of his house for two days. At meal time, only the lady cook brought the milk rice out and ladled it into their boxes. That part seemed normal to the dogs because every day the cook helped Ravi to do it. However, it was not normal that Ravi didn’t go out.
The dogs rubbed against the irongate. They peered through the lattice-work vertical and horizontal bars to see what was happening in the house. Blackie, the house dog, came out to drive them away. Go away, you guys, the master isn’t coming out today. Why not, they demanded, but Blackie resolutely refused to give information. Just go away, he barked and drove them out.
And so the situation remained for four days, until the dogs could bear it no longer. They were confused. They questioned themselves. They worried. What was wrong with the master? They barked and howled incessantly. The whole street was disturbed. Blackie ran out to bark at them. Yes, we are sorry, they howled back, but how is our master, what’s wrong with him?
What was wrong with Ravi was the flu. His doctor had insisted he remain on bed rest and not go out into the wind. The four days had passed, and it seemed the dogs had mounted a protest demonstration at the front.
Finally Ravi let them come in to visit him.
One after one they were led in by the cook. Playing the role of domestic dog, Blackie escorted and monitored them, constantly reminding them to behave in accordance with the house rules. It was their first time these street dogs had been permitted to enter the domicile of a respectable family and they had to act accordingly.
One by one, they came in. Came to the side of Ravi’s bed. He was still tired, but he had to pat the head of each dog, telling them behave themselves and not to worry, in a few days later he would recover.
But for Robin, old habits died hard. He was the seventh dog to come in to visit Ravi. But after he had left and was back at the front gate, he found a way to pretend to be the sixteenth, and came in to visit Ravi again. He was aided by the cook’s poor eyesight and Blackie’s straying attention.
But Ravi recognised him. He tapped Robin’s head; you devil, he laughed. Robin was so elated that he wagged his tail crazily and then ran out of the house.
But Ravi cares for more than just a pack of twenty-one street dogs. That evening, at the gate of his house in Bangalore, I also saw four wild cows. Cows are holy animals for Hindus. Ghee or purified butter, is processed from their milk for the holy lamps used in the rituals of the Brahmin priests. In this no-killing country, the holy cows are free and not possessed by anyone.
There are four free cows who always come to the gate of Ravi’s house to be fed. Ravi has named them Ganges, Gowri, Lakshmi, and Sarasvati.
Ganges is named after the Goddess of the Ganges river. Gowri is another name for Parvati, the spouse of Lord Shiva. Lakshmi is the Goddess of Wealth. Sarasvati is the Goddess of Learning and the Arts.
All the cows named after the goddesses.
Translated from the Vietnamese by the author
Adapted by Wayne Karlin
* Hồ Anh Thái has published over forty books, from novels and short story collections to essays, literary biographies and travel reportages. His books have been translated into over ten languages including English and French: Behind the Red Mist (short fiction), The Women on the Island (a novel), Apocalypse Hotel (a novel), L’ile aux Femmes, Aventures en Inde etc.