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In the Valley of the Dog

(The January 2013 issue of India Today Travel Plus is a special one, with contributions from many writers on most of India's states. My bit, on Uttarakhand, travels the valley of the dog...)
Photograph by Anuradha Roy
Our dog’s ears are oddly shaped. They resemble enormous lily petals, or bat wings. The world, viewed through the valley that those bat ears forms, looks different. Kumaon’s hills, where we travel and live, aren’t invitations to energetic climbs, for example. Instead they call for detailed olfactory explorations followed by wide-ranging squirts of pee. By dusk our legs are aching to walk — but we can’t be out much longer with BatEars as company since dusk is when our resident leopards step out for dinner. Their favourite food is freshly-caught dog.
Before BatEars entered our lives we regarded most wildlife differently, perhaps indifferently. I never used to hear far-off foxes. Now, if there is the faintest call of a fox, BatEars, in a primal throwback to her wolfish genes, flings her head back and yodels. The foxes recognize a fellow creature and yodel back. The singing continues across forest and valley until the singers tire.
Travelling in a car with BatEars means going slow because she has monkeys to scold and passing dogs to talk to. She insists on frequent breaks — taking seriously the old cliché that it’s the journey and not the destination that matters. Pausing to find places where paths meander off highways is a priority because BatEars says she must be let off her leash for a run. Secluded mango orchards, streams, banks of wild kari patta — we find them because of her. We stop at a particular plant nursery at Kainchi for its slopes filled with the pee-mail that BatEars needs to check. On hot days the nursery’s gardener offers her water and asks her how she is that morning. This means our car suddenly blossoms, becoming a moving garden bursting with bilious magenta petunias that we never wanted.
BatEars is particular about hotels. She has no patience with towering glass cubes, preferring places close to earth. Her hotel room must have grass nearby, and not so tended that it’s too short to nibble. It must have patches of sweet-smelling earth to dig up and roll about in. A hosepipe at hand to wash off the mud afterwards — perhaps? A hotel bed soft enough to stomp down and hollow, then sink into with a sigh. These comfy, tolerant hotels almost only occur, like the Himalayan magpie, in the Himalayan foothills.
Philosophical conversations elevate the road because of BatEars. On blazing summer days, when we pause on the highway, people look in at the brown mongrel pasted against the AC vent in the front seat and exclaim “Yehi hai karma! We’re burning up while that dog’s sitting in an air-conditioned car.” In the hills of Kumaon, the men struck by such sudden images of destiny are delighted they can tell the neighbours what they just saw. In the scorched badlands of mofussil Uttar Pradesh the expressions of these men, reminded of Fate, turn bitter and malevolent.
We  drive on. BatEars stares neutrally ahead, a weathered traveller who has clocked thousands of miles over her eleven years.

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