The Humanly Dog of Colonel Haider Usman
by Anubha Yadav
The park opposite the Sea View apartments of Andheri East was divided between two kinds of walkers—some who walked clockwise and others who walked anticlockwise. It is not known why people so ardently prefer one direction over another in city parks. But they do. So much so that a young married couple parted ways at the entrance of the park—every morning the woman turned right and the man left, exchanging smiles as they passed each other. They created quite a stir in the park for a week or so: discussions on whether Sita still walked behind Rama regularly occurred. How times had changed!
The clockwise walkers met the anticlockwise walkers during each lap around the park; at this repeated meeting, greetings were exchanged the first time they crossed, short conversations happened during the last crossings, and observations were made throughout their circular journeys. Colonel Haider Usman thought parks were to life as faces were to people. Parks offer physiognomy. An objective study of people could happen here, he thought, as he adjusted his peaked cap at a forty-five-degree angle to his podgy nose.
The Colonel was very aware of the park’s high regard for him, and he worked hard to maintain it. His iron-straight back creased only a bit around the chubby folds of his fleshy neck as he marched clockwise in his sports shoes. The green peaked cap, even without the symbol of the Maratha regiment—trumpets and cords with a pair of crossed swords and a shield—gave an air of military-ness to his otherwise rotund grandfather head. He swung a copper-colored swagger stick with golden ends as he walked, holding it in the middle with a firm right hand. He made it easy to believe that the whole Indian Maratha regiment was marching behind him every morning.
Ms. Bhonsle lived life in a carefully measured manner. She called it balance of flavors, a philosophy she had learned from cooking and which she generously sprinkled on every aspect of her life. She knew the diplomatic power that is necessary for a single woman in her fifties who lived alone. Indeed, balance meant a moderation of excesses that would otherwise not fit into Indian middle-class life.
Ms. Bhonsle balanced her excesses judiciously. The dark lipsticks she loved, the flower in her hair, the robust red bindi, the very loud laughter, the colorful silk Paithani saris, the perennial betel leaf in her mouth, the tastefully matched gold earrings, the dazzle of the diamond nose pin—all of these were offset by the plain spectacles framing her kohl-lined, fishlike eyes, her disciplined manner of rising promptly at five in the morning and sleeping at ten at night, her reserve with men, the respectable cooking classes she conducted for young girls of marriageable age (a sign reading TRADITIONAL MARATHI RECIPES TAUGHT HERE hung outside her home), and her no-nonsense attitude toward men who rang her doorbell after sunset.
She gained the approval of the women of the Sea View apartments based on her willingness to provide a room every Thursday for keertan, though the women who came also noticed Ms. Bhonsle’s own stubborn disappearance from these godly proceedings. At the very first congregation, her absence prompted the ladies to declare her a nastik almost immediately. However, she had appeared at the end of the hour and announced in her chaste Marathi: “Naralache ladoo.” The women walked home with the mildly sweet flavor of grated coconut and ghee; the treat melted in their mouths and made them forget her high-handed absence from the keertans.
In actuality, Ms. Bhonsle would have liked to join in the singing, but she feared being labeled an old maid. The word spinster scared her more than the thought of a lonely death. She maintained a safe distance from other spinsters and their general habits: she never went to temples or religious ceremonies, and instead prayed at home; she lived a reasonably social life with its occasional dinners and invites; and she never displayed anger or raised her voice at anyone in public lest she be perceived as unhappy or frustrated.
Given a choice, she would prefer to be called a single woman. But she never corrected a gentleman or lady who introduced her otherwise. She moved to other topics with a discreet amount of haste and accepted the barren description with cheerful good humor or occasional sarcasm. She took care not to offend anyone directly, but if she struck them off her list, they had no future in the rather tight-knit community of Sea View. Her gentle persuasion and keen social skills almost always succeeded in making her neighbors fall in with her wishes. Men kept a safe distance from her after a cordial namaskar unless she initiated conversation with them on some serious matter. Women felt a sense of safety around her. On occasion, if a scholarly-looking progressive gentleman approached her with a drink on a Diwali night or a Navratra function, he would gently be deflected after a short conversation on Marathi food, her brother’s rich life in San Francisco, or her belief in the power of destiny. She was often described as “lively” by men and “sensible” by women, and she was quite sure that she did not desire the reverse.
Why do so many women walk in bathroom slippers? This was the day’s observation for the Colonel. He enjoyed the mysterious game of sociology he undertook as he watched the park’s own microcosm of society. Until now, he had found that only Ms. Bhonsle wore sports shoes—the expensive variety—tucked neatly under her green Paithani silk sari. Contrary to the Colonel, Ms. Bhonsle was an anticlockwise walker. She walked fast, her arms swinging to give her more momentum. She was neither tall nor very thin. Her hair was always fastened into a small tight bun, adorned with a fresh-looking China rose at the nape of her neck. She walked with small steps and a slightly bent back, much like a person who has lived in hilly areas for many years.
Ms. Bhonsle and the Colonel crossed paths every morning, and the exchange of pleasant good mornings was therefore obligatory. Ms. Bhonsle kept the conversation short—if she even stopped for a chat. She was painfully aware that the Colonel was a bachelor.
The Colonel thought her walk showed exceptional courage. The sports shoes added another layer, a layer of wisdom. Indeed, one needs to change with the changing times. Sports shoes and sari—the new face of the Indian woman!
As he marched at a steady pace to the trumpet playing in his head, he continued to make notes. He noticed he had not crossed the Sikh fellow with a limp for six days. The Colonel felt anxious when regulars did not turn up, and he would wonder what had happened to them; his calm returned only when the person returned. Parks indeed were strange places, thought the Colonel, as he marked newcomers with the skill of a hunter. Just then, Ms. Bhonsle’s bent back passed him for the seventh time, and as always, his eyes caught sight of the red China rose. The Colonel preferred to recognize the flower by its scientific name: Hibiscus rosa-sinensis. His experience serving in the Indo-China war always made him wince at the image of the China rose. Why would the good Ms. Bhonsle choose this flower?
One afternoon, there was a small theft at the Colonel’s house. A few garden chairs went missing. News traveled immediately through the park. The next morning, the women in the park instructed him to get married, and then laughed at the ridiculousness of their own idea. The men suggested he buy a new kind of Godrej lock. The young folks and Ms. Bhonsle told him to get a dog, a foreign hound with good training. His clockwise march was interrupted all morning; as soon as he finished one round of the park and regained his pace, another person would stop him to offer advice. This constant firing of suggestions continued for five months. Only after it subsided could the Colonel make any decisions.
Meanwhile, Ms. Bhonsle received the delivery of an Apple laptop from her brother in San Francisco. She installed it in her immaculate bedroom, placing it on a study table between a small pile of recipe books and an ornate green side lamp. Above the table hung photos of her parents, who now peered down at the new silver laptop, and a framed goddess Durga stared straight at the opposite wall. Two jasmine flowers and some marigolds lay beneath her, along with two incense sticks.
Every day, a girl from the cooking classes stayed behind and taught Ms. Bhonsle how to use her laptop: how to switch it on and off, how to type, how to surf the Internet. Soon she was e-mailing recipes to the four batches of fifteen students she taught. And in no time she had a blog with a photograph of herself sitting at the desk in a sari. The red China rose peeped over her right shoulder, adding a dash of color.
Almost every evening—after tea and before dinner—Ms. Bhonsle would sit at her computer to sample new recipes virtually. A task that had needed twelve books could now be done with a few clicks. She felt as if she were living on a new planet. She soon began to post recipes on her blog.
On one such night, she found other pleasures of the Internet.
The Colonel stood still and spoke with certainty: “This is the one. The one with the defiant eyes and the long hair, there in the southwest corner.”
A young volunteer with short curly hair had stopped just behind the Colonel. The volunteer saw two spaniels with long hair, but amidst the ten dogs in the kennel, the volunteer couldn’t spot the canine with the defiant eye. “So a Boykin Spaniel is your species, Colonel? But obviously they are hunter dogs.”
“The species is immaterial here,” answered the Colonel. The flaccid skin around his double chin jiggled as he attacked every syllable and added, “Physiognomy is only what matters.”
Eager to know more, the volunteer asked, “So which one has the defiant eyes, Colonel? Please help me there—the brown or the black one?”
“Black,” answered the Colonel, as if he knew the volunteer’s mind and could have predicted his ignorance. He looked at the volunteer and said again, “Physiognomy is only what matters.”
The dog would not bark. Not during the day, nor at night, nor at sunset or dawn. The Colonel started wondering if animal physiognomy was different from human beings. He tried everything: strangers, squirrels, cricket balls, wasps, houseflies. The dog would yelp, cry and jump, catch a ball in his mouth, lick, chew on bones. Meanwhile, the Colonel waited for the first bark with much anticipation. A week passed in silence.
The Colonel’s disappointment turned into a feeling of failure. The barks of street dogs now left him restless. He looked at them wistfully as he patted Tipu’s back like an indulgent yet dejected mother. Tipu’s ears stood up at the sound of these barks, and on occasion his tail would even stand erect. At such moments, the Colonel fervently hoped for the possibility of a counterattack. He would wait, bending, almost on his fours, to look at Tipu’s robust mouth. But Tipu’s ears would only stay up until he got bored. He would then settle down between the new garden chairs on the veranda. Deflated, the Colonel would return to his newspaper, hiding his disappointment behind it.
The thought of returning Tipu to the kennel crossed the Colonel’s mind a few times. But the embarrassment would be intolerable. Also, the Colonel had become a bit fond of Tipu—the way the dog sat on the floor with him as he did his morning and evening namaz, the way Tipu efficiently caught every ball thrown at him. Tipu had become a meditative presence in his life.
The Colonel sighed deeply one evening as he stared at Tipu and decided to accept this grave deficiency. Often, sitting alone in the evenings, the Colonel wondered if he should take gentle Tipu along to the park for morning walks.
Ms. Bhonsle found Savita Bhabhi by accident one day. The more she tried to avoid typing those words into the browser tab the next evening, the more tempted she was to search and travel into the erotic world that had opened to her. She was careful, though. She closed the windows and curtains; she angled the screen of the laptop away from the door; she lowered the volume of her speakers. One blue link led to another; strange vibrations and commotion filled her body until she finally felt a numb tingling and then a strange tiredness. She slept late that night.
She had an extended bath the next morning before going for her daily walk at 6:00 a.m., dressed just like every day: the China rose, the sports shoes, the Paithani silk sari, and the dark red lipstick. She was glad no one could notice anything different about her. She felt like a child who had seen an adult film. “Balance, balance,” she told herself softly.
As she walked, she repeated favorite recipes to herself to put her mind at ease. Now and then, images of nocturnal adventures danced before her eyes, despite the potent recipes she was whispering like a chant. She quickly dabbed her face with the end of her sari before anyone could notice her flushed appearance. The next day she tutored herself to resist the temptation.
But in the evening she yielded. She told herself it was a passing fascination. Instead, it only grew. Soon she found many other websites, and every evening she navigated to new blue zones.
But however late Ms. Bhonsle went to sleep, she set off for her morning walks at the usual hour. She continued to teach recipes to the girls punctually every afternoon. She updated her blog every week. She still switched off her bedroom light at 10:00 p.m. sharp. Still, the dim light of her laptop screen continued to light her face for several more hours each night.
Finally, guilt stopped hounding her. A new ritual found its way into her bedroom. Her hands discovered her body. A strange tingling joy left her wanting more and more every day. She waited eagerly for the sun to set. But even after so many nights, she would always try to resist the yearning first. She distracted herself with household chores until she could no longer wait, as if it were a game, a needed foreplay.
She often imagined herself in the erotic tales she read. Her Paithani sari fluttering, revealing her navel; her long hair undone, the flower still in her hair, tucked just under her ear. On some mornings the Colonel noticed how she smiled coyly as she walked past him. She crossed him a few times, but did not acknowledge his respectful namaskar.
Tipu entered the park on a breezy November morning with Colonel Haider Usman and became a clockwiser like his master. As usual, the dog didn’t bark at anyone or anything—the gardeners, two clockwise joggers, a Pomeranian walking on a leash, the Sikh fellow walking with his suspicious limp—Tipu simply walked by all of them like a somnambulant.
The Colonel was prepared for this—he knew Tipu would remain silent. He held the brown leash tightly and pulled on it every few minutes. The gesture worked: a few morning walkers crossed slowly and cautiously when around the Colonel, hopefully scared of Tipu. When the Colonel saw Ms. Bhonsle, he inclined his head slightly, like always, before he said the usual namaskar to her bent form. But even before he could utter the daily greeting, an extraordinary thing happened: Tipu started barking. First, a low, wolf-like growl, and then a real bark that deservedly belonged to the hunter species.
Ms. Bhonsle stopped abruptly and greeted the Colonel with an awkward smile, hoping that the dog would settle. But Tipu blocked the path and continued to bark, his neck outstretched, straining at the leash. The Colonel finally had to drag him away so that Ms. Bhonsle could continue with her walk. But even as she passed, Tipu continued to bark as if fighting a personal battle. The Colonel was quite surprised by the inaugural barks and this welcome aggression. He was so pleasantly surprised that he didn’t apologize to Ms. Bhonsle for Tipu’s misbehavior. He also didn’t notice that Tipu did not bark again for the rest of their walk.
As the Colonel entered the park the next morning with a silent Tipu, he was convinced that there was a social experiment of consequence at hand. He tracked Ms. Bhonsle carefully through the gaps between the rose plants and the neem and sheesham trees. As she walked toward Tipu, the Colonel’s excitement increased. He clutched at the leash with intensity and marched forward. And just as he inclined his head at Ms. Bhonsle, Tipu barked like he had the day before—a loud, fierce bark that echoed through the whole park. The Colonel had to hold onto the leash with all his strength to restrain Tipu.
Sensing the dog’s aggressiveness, Ms. Bhonsle stepped back. She remembered to substitute her anger with gentle sarcasm as she spoke: “Colonel! Kaye karat hoyese?” She laughed. The Colonel was equally amazed, and so with little thought, he answered loudly, “Ms. Bhonsle, it is only you he barks at. He has some issue with you. I can’t tell you how quiet this dog is otherwise!”
Ms. Bhonsle cut her walk short that day. As she returned home, she thought about what the Colonel had said. She pulled her sari pallu around until it covered her other shoulder and recollected the stories she’d heard of animals with special powers of premonition, who could sometimes even predict earthquakes. She’d also heard about their extraordinary smelling powers. Could the dog know?
The idea bothered her all day. It was only at night when she opened her laptop that she felt some peace in the subdued darkness.
The next morning, she decided to rework how she looked and smelled. She set aside the China rose, chose a light-colored sari, and replaced her dark red lipstick with a gentle pink. She lit jasmine incense sticks and, like always, twirled them around the photos of her parents and the picture of the goddess, but today she also twirled them several times around herself.
She smelled of incense as she walked, but the dog barked, anyway. A fierce force consumed his body the instant he saw Ms. Bhonsle. The growling and barking continued until Ms. Bhonsle vanished from the park, embarrassed, in a hurry. Many Sea View residents noticed the way the dog relaxed as soon as Ms. Bhonsle walked away from him.
That Thursday, Ms. Bhonsle participated in the keertan at her home for the first time. She did not sing but sat with her eyes closed all through the communal singing. She also changed her screen saver. Goddess Durga now guarded the computer with her hands spread across the four corners of the screen.
As Ms. Bhonsle opened her laptop later that evening, she resolved to stay away from anything of that type. But as the evening passed, an urgent need rose again. A severe, unexplainable force seemed to suck her back into the vortex of erotica. As she pleasured herself that night, a voice urged her to stop. The voice, her own, would plead loudly for sanity to return. But something within her pressed her to continue until she lay spent on the bed.
Ms. Bhonsle dropped the flower from her hair again the next morning as she pondered the idea of addiction. By now, the entire Sea View apartment complex was talking about her strange duel with the Colonel’s dog. Ms. Bhonsle knew she was being observed. So although she felt tense and agitated as she entered the park every morning, she continued to go daily. Her stomach made loud noises, and her heart pounded and thumped as if it were a military drum. The pounding became even more unbearable when she finally saw the Colonel on the other side, walking clockwise with Tipu on a leash, coming toward her. On a few occasions, deafened by her heartbeats, a chorus of strange whispers swallowed her, as if the park had changed into an arena of spectators.
One morning as she walked toward Tipu, Ms. Bhonsle felt sick. She berated herself for not putting a stop to her nightly adventures. She was sure the wretched dog somehow smelled it on her. You are a bad woman, she chided to herself. Balance! You old spinster! She pounded the concrete walking path while eyeing the dog.
The Colonel was equally uneasy. His eagerness to conduct a social experiment had worn off. Indeed, he would rather have the former all-silent Tipu. Also, he had been hearing that Ms. Bhonsle could get him ousted single-handedly from the park and the Sea View community. He knew how difficult it would be to look for another accommodation in Mumbai for a man of his age and religion. And a bachelor, too!
As they walked toward each other, he realized that he hadn’t apologized even once to Ms. Bhonsle for Tipu’s misbehavior. The thought made him limp with anxiety. Ms. Bhonsle was marching determinedly toward him with her swinging arms and bent back just as he was approaching a small side exit. As if ducking a bullet, he headed toward the exit and vanished from the park before Tipu could start barking.
Ms. Bhonsle was sitting in her drawing room after her cooking class when the doorbell rang. “Who is it?” she asked, gently raising her voice, still on the sofa with her laptop. She had vowed to remove all the bookmarked sites that might tempt her, deleting any traces of her nocturnal activities from her laptop. She’d started on this task before evening fell, when her urges might become uncontrollable.
“Sorry to disturb you, madam. It is me, the Colonel.” The Colonel paused and added, “Colonel Haider Usman.”
Ms. Bhonsle glanced at her watch. She never entertained men after five, but it was only half past four, so she let him in.
The Colonel sat quietly, looking around the room the way people do when they are still collecting their thoughts. Meanwhile, Ms. Bhonsle sat down on the diwan next to the door; the Colonel noticed she left it open. Clearing his throat, the Colonel decided to launch a direct defense: “Madam, I have come here to apologize for Tipu.”
Ms. Bhonsle acted surprised, although she’d known why he’d come by from the moment she heard the bell.
“So, I have a suggestion to resolve this strange . . .” The Colonel struggled for an exact description. “. . . crisis, madam. And I have thought long and hard on it. I have a solution.”
Ms. Bhonsle noticed that she had left her laptop on the center table next to the Colonel. In her anxiety over his visit, she had forgotten to shut it. She blushed. She tried to remember what she’d been working on when the Colonel rang the doorbell. The screen saver of Durga was dancing in and out, as if coming back after a holy submersion.
The Colonel did not seem to notice the laptop or her distracted demeanor. “So we walk in a round park,” he continued, leaning forward, much closer to the laptop now. Army drums stationed themselves in Ms. Bhonsle’s heart again. The Colonel traced the shape of the park on the center table with his middle finger as if explaining guerilla warfare. “If I walk a measured five hundred meters ahead of you, then the problem will be solved. Tipu hardly looks behind, and then we will never cross paths with each other like we do right now. And so Tipu will never bark.”
The Colonel stopped talking and looked at Ms. Bhonsle expectantly. He could read faces well enough to know she was not listening.
Ms. Bhonsle was still staring at her laptop, hoping the Colonel’s fingers would not touch the space bar as he drew some imaginary lines on the glass table. Was the screen saver still hiding the real screen? She vowed on her mother’s Marathi recipes: If saved today, I will never even think of such things again.
She then realized the room was silent. She got up suddenly from the sofa to walk to the door. “Yes, that is fine, Colonel. Of course I don’t mind it.” She pointedly looked at her watch.
The Colonel marched out reluctantly, befuddled as though his own men had fired at him. He was expecting, at the very least, a gracious cup of tea for his sacrifice of changing the direction of his morning walk.
Ms. Bhonsle rushed toward the laptop after the Colonel’s departure. Durga was no longer on the screen. Instead, she saw one of the erotic sites she had been deleting from her bookmarks. Had the Colonel noticed? Ms. Bhonsle took the laptop to her bedroom. She wondered what the Colonel had said in his apology. For the first time, she found herself not knowing how to deal with a situation, and she nervously hurried to make some tea. The water simmered to a boil. Her worry intensified.
The Colonel walked back slowly. Tipu greeted him with loving licks and sat at his feet. The Colonel was thinking about physiognomy again. As he remembered Ms. Bhonsle’s blush, a peculiar shade of crimson traveled from his cheeks to his earlobes. He patted Tipu’s head as he stared at his image in the mirror on the opposite wall. His face was expressionless. He stared the way people do when they are in deep thought.
Anubha Yadav is a writer, academic, and filmmaker based in New Delhi. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Wasafiri, Himal, Indian Literature, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Reading Hour, Out of Print, and others. She was shortlisted for the Wasafiri New Writing Prize in 2013. Currently, she is working on a book about women screenwriters of Mumbai cinema and a short story collection. When not in a classroom, she travels with a backpack full of tea leaves. Her work can also be read on her blog.