When you are the first Indian woman to ski to the South Pole, tough decisions are bound to have been part of your diet.
Yet Reena Kaushal Dharmshaktu struggled to be strict with the black dog that knew her well from past treks in the Pindari Glacier area and worse, seemed to know how to soften her resolve. As Reena said repeatedly, taking dogs out of their familiar territory can be hard on their lives. It was better that this dog stayed put at Khati.
She had begun the day determined to enforce it.
Kaalu though had a mind of his own.
At first he stayed ahead of the trekkers slowly picking their way up to Khati Khal en route to villages east of the Pindari Glacier trail. Every time Reena caught up with him and shooed him away, the black dog – hence his name Kaalu – slyly fell back. He would almost drop out of sight only to emerge at the periphery of the trekkers’ world – typically lying down and nonchalantly watching humans huff and puff through his backyard. Early evening as we set up camp, we knew Reena’s best attempts to discourage Kaalu had failed. That night the newest member of the trekking party announced his role by keeping vigil and chasing inquisitive jackals away. Next morning, our group composed mostly of high school students learning the finer aspects of wilderness travel, were in love with Kaalu. The old trickster had got the better of Reena. She sat there smiling at him. We had another ten days or so to go.
It was April 2011. The Young Leader India (YLI) course from the Indian branch of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) was underway. Reena was course leader; Gaytri Bhatia, who loved to run ultra-marathons, was second in command. I was Instructor-In-Training. Kaalu became mascot at large for the course. And he wasn’t mascot for one day or two – it was so for more than ten days.
Some of us knew him well from previous walks in the region. Usually you found him lounging near Khati’s Jai Nanda restaurant, bordering the small ground where hikers pitched their tents. One of those mountain sheepdogs, Kaalu had exactly the looks and demeanour that would endear him to anyone. He could look at you expectedly as only the word expectedly meant, while you spooned food to your mouth. You patted him on the head and your hand sank into a cushion of eminently pat-able crown. If you didn’t give him any food, he didn’t complain, whine or create a fuss like other dogs did. He would stoically go back to rest like a hermit meditating on empty stomach; except, he knew that such behaviour elicited your respect and firmly reserved his seat for the next dinner. He was an investor; he worked on you quietly, patiently, diligently.
Kaalu was what you would call a `tourist dog.’
He kept no particular loyalties to anyone and was therefore an outcast at Khati, a village where the habits of settled human life and by extension, the same for canines, appeared held in high esteem. “ Kaalu? That dog would go with anybody,’’ villagers would say dismissively. Man measures dogs by their loyalty to him. The more a dog has qualities revered by humans in other humans, the worthier the canine becomes. A dog loyal to one master or household was therefore dog personified.
Kaalu’s sole loyalty was to food.
Whoever provided it or hinted that they may provide it; he went along. The human aspects of the deal – he rationed it and played it like a master stroke; a sort of embellishment to what actually mattered. As in our case with no indulgence offered, he still managed to nudge the cards in his favour, hanging on long enough to make the human being feel guilty if such an unobtrusive guard dog wasn’t spared some scraps.
Day after day, Kaalu stayed with us.
He followed us into valleys; hiked up mountain passes, camped in the forest and near wild rivers. For the most part, he was well behaved, something I will come to a bit later. The only irritating things about him were the scruffy unwashed look that came with being the backpacker of the canine community; a weakness for cheese and a penchant to crawl into the instructors’ tent when the weather was adverse. What I remember most about him was something else. He rarely picked up a quarrel with another dog although a wanderer like him passing from one village to another was perennially trespassing territories zealously guarded by other packs. Barked and howled at – you could literally say hounded – from one end of a village to the other, he simply kept his cool and walked amidst the file of trekkers.
It reminded me of seasoned human travellers. They lose their interest in the territorial defence of settled life, almost becoming useless for such defence. They would much rather keep their peace and take in the world, aggression, defence, shallowness and all.
On the last day however, Kaalu met his match. Tiger of Munar village was not only fiercely territorial but he was also a good half size bigger than Kaalu. As the two dogs squared up in a fury of growls and bared teeth, the surrounding humans intervened to eliminate a fight. Had there been one, I doubt very much if Kaalu would have survived. Travellers rarely do for their mind is not in such householder-lunacy.
Defend a piece of territory when a world waits?
That day we dropped off Kaalu at Song, which is the official starting point of the Pindari trek. It wasn’t easy on the humans. The driver of one of our vehicles wanted to take him to Ranikhet; a student was ready to take him all the way to her house in Ahmedabad. Reena and Gaytri weighed the options and decided that the hill trails he knew were his natural home.
A fortnight later, I was back in Khati.
Kaalu wasn’t around.
When he appeared, it was from the Pindari Glacier side, as usual, leading a group of trekkers.
I have been a regular visitor to the Pindari, Sunderdunga and Saryu valleys.
On several trips, I ran into Kaalu.
In May 2013, my cousin Rajeev and I had an enjoyable hike in the region that was memorable for the dogs we encountered.
A cold evening, camped below Jatoli village, we were woken up from sleep by somebody saying hello. Outside were a Polish couple and their pet canine, `Duna.’ She was a Czechoslovakian Wolfdog. Over the next few days spent hiking into and out of the Sunderdunga valley, we got to know them better. The Wolfdog was trifle detached and aloof in temperament. Unlike regular dogs, it was mostly silent and never wagged its tail. Its expressiveness seemed to be in its eyes; how it tilted its face to observe, how it held its ears, how it listened. It rarely barked; it had a repertoire of whines instead, some imploring and questioning, others, stating. A big, lean, athletic animal, its body movements were deliberate, often slow. It had its playful moments but it often left me imagining a melancholic loneliness.
It’s was a serious, soulful presence.
I liked that.
Some days later, the morning we commenced a day hike from Khati to Dwali, we were accosted by a dog that was as white as Kaalu was black. It walked with us all the way from Khati to Dwali and back but never completely with us. It seemed shy of heart and soul-commitment. Clearly preferring independence, it hung around the periphery of our world drifting through life like a satellite orbiting a moving planet. Aside from the times we rested or halted for tea and snacks, it usually stayed ahead, pausing to look back and make sure that we were following. From its appearance, we quickly realized its Husky roots. It had brilliant, pale eyes and every once in a while chose to cool itself by lying down in the flowing water of streams. The nippy Himalayan air seemed too warm for it.
Later, our deduction was proved correct. At Khati we were informed that the dog belonged to a Russian couple staying in the village.
I have since looked up photos of Siberian Huskies on the Internet and those eyes and demeanour match.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. An abridged version of this article was published in The Hindu Business Line newspaper.)