India postcard

[From December 2007.]

Had my first Indian social protest action yesterday (and night).  I was walking down the ghat and saw that there was a bulldozer excavating the spot where a couple of days ago I’d seen an improbably large number of seemingly motherless puppies.  A woman is sitting on nearby steps disconsolate, with tiny dogs swarming about.  They are unbelievably cute.  All the construction that’s going on is evidently part of a wider ghat restoration project, where they are removing the non-traditional buildings and generally smoothing stuff out along the river.  Sunnit cynically thinks that the rich hotel owners have bribed the city to remove the old buildings so the guests have unobstructed views.  Maybe, but it seems like a good idea.  Anyway, the puppies got displaced, and it wasn’t clear what was going to happen to them because the dogs apparently have their well set territories, so if they are just put somewhere else a half k away, they might be killed.  (Dog Girl, who is American and whose real name is Katie, but who was given the name “Dog Girl” by the locals, is explaining this to me, and there’s an asian guy nodding vigorously next to her, and, naturally, a crowd of Indians enjoying the overwrought performance. And then there’s the leader of the apparently homeless guys, everyone calls him “Baba,” the traditional name of respect.  So he’s agitating too, since he’s the earlier crusader for the dogs and is responsible for bringing Dog Girl on to the worthy cause.)

We all sit around minding puppies to see what happens, then the bulldozer heads off leaving piles of dirt and trash where the stray puppy pen used to be.  The guys associated with the bulldozer tell us that they will come and remove the dirt in two hours, it’s 7pm or so, and we’re like, yeah, uh huh.  So we move the puppies back to a new makeshift puppy pen in the same space, and Dog Girl says that she’s staying there until the dirt movers come, at which point, she’ll move the puppies to the steps again, wait for the dirt to be gone, then set up a new new puppy pen.  But she needs help.  So after animated debate, we’re all in, well, obviously Baba is, ’cause that’s where he lives, and Dog Girl is going to get some people from her hippie guesthouse to join us.

At 9pm I deliver dinner to the campers; we are now six, with the crazy Swiss guy, and some Aussie chick who dresses just like Dog Girl, that is, in off-smelling rags. By midnight the ghat is pretty deserted.  My new friends Sunnil and Raju, street kids, have begged me not to spend the night out, that I’m going to get murdered on the ghat.  All they can do to provide evidence for their assurance is that a few months ago two Japanese women were kidnapped in Agra and held for a week as love slaves.  Mostly we’re just getting savaged by the mosquitos.  I’m reading the Odyssey again by headlamp.  Baba is asleep in his usual spot across the walkway, Dog Girl and Australia are asleep on a cot, Kiri has gone home having rethought the whole thing, and Maruti keeps trying to talk to me.  Soon he falls asleep, but I can’t.  Tons of crazy shit happen in the night, and now I understand what the noises are that I’ve wondered about from my apartment.  At one point three or four people came through with torches singing.  Another guy had some instrument that consists of two pieces of wood on some sort of hinge that gets clapped together.  Super loud.  A guy in a rickshaw rode down to the ghat, but there are stairs, so he turns back around.  And a bunch of people come sprinting down the block, as the dogs bark savagely and growl.  I guess it would seem dangerous from the dogs if you didn’t know that it was mostly Auntie, the mother of some of the puppies, going apeshit to protect the puppy pen.  Another homeless guy coughed all night, seriously, and made a spectacular groaning noise after each cough.   The next day Sunit would tell me, when I ask him, that that guy was a heroin addict for a long time, and that we’re lucky he didn’t rob us.

Naturally, the dirt moving guys didn’t show up until dawn.  The ghat is unbelievably beautiful at sunrise, I can see why people make it a point to catch it then.  And then they accepted a 500 rupee bribe (the paying of which I was the only person in a position to do) to work around the puppy pen.  So it was all for naught.  But it was enlightening, and now I’m on the puppy action “A” list, especially since Dog Girl trusts me because I’m American and clearly love dogs.