Living in India, walking the streets is a continual process of deciding when and when not to lower your guard.
I have found that there is a special breed of creature that can connect with me like no other―the ubiquitous Indian street dog. Wherever man resides, there too are our canine companions, whether they are wanted or not, and in India there are literally millions of them.
They have evolved over thousands of years to have an existence closely intertwined with human populations, always needing to be close at hand; seeming to thrive on the attention and companionship of people rather than other dogs; largely dependent on humans for food, health, and survival.
Three or four years ago, a large, clumpy, dark lump of fur with a tongue started following us home at the end of the evening, to our apartment near the Dalai Lama’s temple in McLeod Ganj. Because he was sturdy and overweight, calm and steady in his purpose, he became a reassuring presence in the darkness. So we called him Guardian, and that was his role during our late walks home.
He had no idea of the normal rules of territory and would wander past other street dogs who would bark in a frenzy of disapproval while he calmly ignored them. He could do this because his immense bulk and thick dark fur left him unaffected even if they tried to attack. Once he was hit by a speeding vehicle and just bounced off―that’s how padded he was. I think he got us thrown out of our flat because we sheltered him in the winter weather and our landlady discovered our secret. She asked us to leave on another pretext (we were complaining about a plumbing problem) but I believe having Guardian lurking behind our front door was a large part of the reason.
Since then, I have stayed in a number of different places around McLeod Ganj, but Guardian is still special to me. He used to follow me around town until one day I obtained permission to bring him into a restaurant. His bearish presence and calm friendliness soon won people over and he had all manner of customers petting him and giving him the kind of attention he seems to love. We had taught him to raise his paw to shake hands, and he soon discovered he could use this trick on virtually anyone he met and would get an adoring response―often accompanied by food. He is still at the restaurant to this day. He has become territorial and does not wander aimlessly around town. He has acquired a devoted dog-friend, Jhar, who has been at the restaurant for as long as I can remember, and they have become almost inseparable. I see them together all the time, following the same food pursuits or lying in the sun together on an old roof around the back of the Rogpa charity shop. If I say hello to Guardian, Jhar pushes himself between us, because he doesn’t want to be left out of the action.
Guardian seems to have found his niche. With his ultra-thick hide and his winning personality he seems to get by quite comfortably. I used to be concerned for his survival, but he has developed a lifestyle with friends and food sources, and a daily routine. I am very happy for him. He still greets me every time I walk by and rolls over with his tongue lolling out, leaving my fingers black when I stroke him.
It is relationships like this, my on-going friendship with Guardian and his kind, that remind me that affection is not the province of humankind alone. Sure, these denizens of the streets are only dogs, but they open us up to the love they have to offer―a true gift, and a big part of my Indian experience.