Not a Folktale, Featuring a Dog by Parvati Sharma

Whenever Sunny’s tall, gangly mother saw another cottage being built on the outskirts of her village, or whenever she passed another cheerful family of holiday homeowners out for a walk in the forest of pine, huffing and puffing their way on even the slightest incline, she would mutter to herself, ‘Huh. They come here and breathe up all the air of our mountains, and we go to their cities and live in their dirt.’ She had grown bitter as the men in her family left, one after the other, first her father-in-law, Hari Singh, then her husband, Gopal, unable to make a living from the wretched crop that grew on their little land. The crop grew only if the wild pigs and monkeys would let it; more often than not, they wouldn’t. So, Hari Singh and Gopal had gone to work as construction labour in the city, and Sunita was left alone to take care of her ageing mother-in-law, and her son.


Her mother-in-law was often possessed by spirits. At night, she would begin to howl uncontrollably, sometimes as if she were being attacked by a leopard, sometimes as if she were the leopard herself. It would take all Sunita’s cajoling and scolding and shouting to get her to stop. Sometimes, the neighbours would have to come and help. Earlier, she had worried little Sunny would get scared and begin to cry, but her son only stared, rapt, as if he were watching TV, and then got bored. It was Veeru, sitting with his ears cocked by Sunny’s side, who was alert, his eyes shining. She had been silly to think Sunny would be scared. Would you be, if you had a dog as big as a wolf with only one thing on his mind: to protect you?


On the day she brought Sunny home, Sunita had been in a panic, she almost threatened not to come home if the dog wasn’t sent away – he really was big, Veeru, standing still he reached a man’s waist – and Sunny was so very little. Only a careless snap, it seemed to her, and he would be finished. But her father-in-law would have none of it. ‘Veeru is part of the family,’ he said, ‘if he goes, tell your wife, I will go.’


How fitting it had been, then: Veeru approached the infant in Sunita’s tense lap, he stretched out his large shaggy head and sniffed the baby, and Sunita was alive with tension and about to scream when he lay down at her feet, put his head between his paws, and whimpered. When Hari Singh approached to claim his grandchild, Veeru looked at him from the corner of his eyes and growled. Hari Singh stopped. They all stopped. The house held its breath for a beating moment, and then the old man laughed.


So that is how it was. You couldn’t even raise your voice at the boy, or the dog’s ears would cock. When he was learning to walk, Sunny was always falling on Veeru, clutching at his fur, his tail, his soft ears. Veeru only ever nudged him encouragingly with his nose. Once, she saw Sunny dip his hand in Veeru’s milk, and put it to his own tongue. She yelled at them both. Later, that night, she whispered to Gopal, ‘The dog and the boy, it isn’t right.’


The next day, Gopal was going down to the city, for the very first time. At dinner, he had eaten less than he usually did, and been irritated when Sunita and his mother asked him questions. Now, Sunita said, ‘It’s me, I’m the mother,’ she wasn’t sure how to put it, or even what she meant, ‘but that dog…’


Gopal muttered, ‘Go to sleep.’


‘It isn’t right.’


He turned on his side and whispered, violently, ‘What isn’t right? What rubbish are you talking? You don’t see, Veeru has a god-ling in him protecting our son? When I’m gone, you listen to him!’


In the dark, she grimaced and thought, Not the same god-ling that ‘protects’ your mother, I hope.


When Sunny was four, Sunita’s mother-in-law died. It wasn’t a spirit-induced convulsion that killed her, but only a silent heart attack as she dozed on a late spring afternoon. Hari Singh, when he heard the news, felt like he was having a heart attack himself. He clutched at his chest and complained to his son.


‘I told you to stay in the village,’ said Gopal, unsympathetically. ‘Look at your age. Who asked you to work?’


They were in a bus, on their way home for the funeral. Hari Singh had brought a quarter bottle of alcohol to soothe his nerves, and its stench was spreading from his breath to the seats in their vicinity. Gopal wished his father would breathe out of the window.


‘Ungrateful…’ Hari Singh muttered.


‘What ungrateful? You have to do what is fitting for someone to be grateful. As if there is no work in the village. This time, you stay. Take care of the land.’


‘In my old age, you want me to run after monkeys.’


‘Then what? In your old age, you want to carry bricks? Don’t argue. This time, you stay.’


But Sunita flatly refused. ‘First you left me with your possessed mother. Now you want me to take care of your drunken father? I won’t do it.’


They argued as she milked the goat. She pulled at its udders harder than she had to. Outside, she could hear Sunny, babbling commands. He was the boss of all his friends because Veeru always took his side.


‘You want to make things more difficult? He’ll help you with the crop.’


She laughed. ‘He’ll walk on the road, falling this way and that. Our money will be cut in half, and he’ll spend it on his…’


‘He won’t! Have some respect.’


‘I won’t live alone with a drunkard! Not with Sunny.’


‘Then…’ He rose abruptly and clenched his fists, ‘then you come with me.’




‘To the city, where else? You can work, can’t you?’


‘And Sunny?’


‘He’ll come too,’ Gopal put his hands in his pockets and frowned, ‘let him get a taste of his life.’


Sunita rose from the goat. ‘And Veeru?’


‘Good god! Must you have a question for every answer? Veeru will bring wood from the jungle, light the stove and make chapatis for dinner. Satisfied?’


When Sunita was young and unskilled, she would often get burnt at the stove, as she poured onion paste, too fast, too wet, into hot oil. The city was like that: a constant splutter, scorching her exposed skin. From head to toe, she was consumed with pain; and at night, the air was a hot, prickly blanket you couldn’t throw off.


On their first day at the construction site, Sunny had sat alone and scared. In the lunch break, she made Gopal run to the market and buy him a paper bag full of toffees. He was happy for a moment and then, a moment later, he was howling with anger and pain. The other children had taken his sweets. Their mouths were sticky, unsmiling slits. She raised a hand at them and they fled; then she went to Sunny and tried to comfort him. His face was hot and snotty, she cleaned it with the pallu of her sari. He cried and cried, he called for Veeru. She raised her hand at him, then, impatiently. ‘Stop it! Veeru isn’t here, you have to fight for yourself, understand? Stop it, or I’ll hit you!’


He stopped it.


Now, he wandered dusty like the others, wearing a fine white film of sand and cement powder on his skin, in his hair. He ran with the other children, and played with them under scaffolding, and clambered upon piles of bricks and tiles, and peed wherever he pleased. And though he didn’t invoke Veeru again, at least not in his mother’s hearing, whenever one of the neighbourhood dogs walked by, it was as if Sunny’s gaze was stuck to it, like chewing gum, stretching endlessly until the dog was out of sight. She saw him one day, kneeling in front of a spindly black stray, petting his neck with long, unhurried strokes. He was pulling out bits of food from his pocket to feed the dog.


At night, she scolded him. ‘If you give the dogs your food, what will you eat? They have enough, you understand. All the rich people in the houses give them milk and rice every day, I’ve seen it, so no need for you to behave like a king!’


He stared at her with angry eyes, and she had to look away.


That night, Sunita dreamt of Veeru. She dreamt the majestic old dog had come hurtling down the mountain to carry them home, Sunny and her, up through the valleys, so close to the clouds. She woke up almost happy, almost in tears, and whispered into Gopal’s sleeping ears, ‘I’ll take care of your father. I’m going.’


Without opening his eyes, he mumbled, ‘No.’


Sunita made extra chapatis, then, so Sunny could feed himself and the dogs. She thought of them as an offering to Veeru’s spirit, and hoped for a miracle. Eventually, though, she stopped. The extra chapatis were a strain on their economy, and the dog and his god-ling were too far, anyway, too far away to call. Sunny would just have to manage without.



Parvati Sharma is the author of The Dead Camel and Other Stories of Love, Zubaan, 2010, Close to Home, Zubaan-Viking, 2014, and, most recently, a book for children called The Story of Babur, Goodearth-Puffin, 2015. She lives in Delhi and is working on a novel.