The story this year will begin with Boori the dog. Five days after I arrived in Delhi I took a flight to Khajuraho, in the state of Madhya Pradesh, a place I have visited twice before—chiefly in pursuit of understanding India’s river-linking scheme, but twice now to enjoy the Indian classical dance festival held in the shadow of Khajuraho’s famous temples.
A couple of days after I arrived, still working my way through jet lag, I shook myself out of torpor and asked Surendra, the young manager here, to show me the hotel’s small organic garden. (I have been eating salads from it for a week at this point—Cheryl the incorrigible salad eater.) On the way back inside we stopped to see a dog and her five puppies, still nearly blind and piled atop each other except when burrowing into Boori’s slack nipples.
Boori was pretty much nothing more than nipple and bone. She must have been very sick with some kind of dog malady. She acted normal for the most part—not rabid or anything—but was very weak and slow. After she got to know me as a friend she would wag her tail weakly. Surendra claimed she had been okay before the puppies, and was about four years old. But she was so extremely emaciated I couldn’t believe that just nursing the puppies had done that much damage to her. Of course, she was not being fed well. Only dogs that belong to foreigners and rich people are fed well. Still, plenty of dogs wander around here and look relatively healthy, including a Boori lookalike that is apparently her daughter from an earlier litter. They manage pretty well on scraps from kitchens and maybe a little hunting.
Surendra says boori means brown, and that dogs are named based on their color. So maybe boori is a generic name for a brown dog in Bundelkhandi—the local language, a variant of Hindi. Surendra’s cousin, however, calls both her and her daughter by a different name which sounds more like “cherry.” In any case, my friend Chrissie in Kathmandu calls her dog Kaire, which also means brown. And of course some of you may remember the famous Kaalo: that astounding little cat’s name means black in Nepali. So it’s not just South Asians who give animals generic names, which can still indicate fondness.
I began to agitate for a doctor soon after I saw Boori, for which I said I would pay. Boori disappeared one evening and was not back the next morning. I said she probably had gone somewhere to die, as she would not otherwise leave her puppies. Then she showed up again and nursed them as attentively as a healthy dog would.
Surendra asked me what to feed her, after she showed no interest in biscuits and only lapped some of the milk from a stew of bread and milk. I suggested some chicken sautéed in butter. He sent for that and she ate.
We got her into a car that evening with difficulty and took her to a veterinarian’s place but he had already left. The next morning a driver who has taken me several places during my stay went to get him. The vet, who may or may not have been competent, took a quick look at Boori and said she needed calcium, an antibiotic and some other medicines. He gave her four injections, which she tolerated. They must have hurt; she had hardly any muscle left, her hip bones and ribs clearly visible under her tawny brown skin. She was a sweet dog, like all the South Asian street dogs I have known. The next morning the “vet” came on his motorbike and administered four more injections, including one to stimulate her appetite, he said.
I worried that in her weak state, and after his cursory examination, the injections might do her no good—might even push her over the edge—because it was too late.
This morning I went to look for her after breakfast. I went first to the puppies, who could sense my quiet presence and began to tumble out of their pile of puppydom, squealing and searching for mom with their tiny noses. I am sure they are still blind. I walked back toward the entrance and saw her lying on the balcony outside the door of the grandfather’s room. I thought I saw her ribs lift, because I wanted to believe she was breathing.
She was not. I have been sad all day, but in some ways relieved for her. Even if those injections had been beneficial and the chicken kept coming to fatten her—as it did for a couple of days—what was in store for her? More hunger, more puppies she would be too weak to feed? I thought of leaving money to have her spayed but never got that far. And who would want to put such a weak dog through surgery? I wish her peace.
Now they say they will feed the puppies milk from a big round pan, flat like a pie pan. A couple of them lapped at the milk, others kind of waded around in it. They seem far too young to survive without their mother; they need a wet nurse. I am leaving and can’t do much else, aside from the sentimental foreigner’s fond wish that I could take one of them home with me.
I wonder if I made things worse for that sweet dog by poking my foreigner’s values and will into a situation—a kind of ecosystem—that operates according to its own rules.
Postscript: One of the five puppies made it. Her name is Bella.