A Barking Place

I can’t believe it! Here I am in Amsterdam, Western Europe. How long have I waited for this? How many years of hard work have gone into making it happen? My friends have arranged a picnic on the grass the better to enjoy our summer day together. The children go off to play football in this lovely park.

If dogs could think like some of us do, they’d figure out that the posts in the grass on either side of me are there to let them know where dog territory ends. The small painted posts are the markers that form the boundary to separate two areas; behind me is the place where people may roam and in front of me is the one where dogs may roam. A sort of boundary, not unlike the ones I have seen on the bicycle trip my friends have taken me on from Zeeland, in Netherlands into Belgian Flanders. Those were of stone, and larger. These are made of wood. Those tell us of a great aspiration – to do, as I understand it, with doing away with borders. These apparently exist here to serve as a border. Those stand several meters apart from each other with no fencing in between them. These stand three meters away from each other with no fencing in between them. Those have a number and a letter of the alphabet. These have a little engraving of a dog on them. Those you can miss and it doesn’t matter because the suggestion is that they are there but they are not there. No bad barriers. These you can miss because the suggestion is that dogs should be able to understand they are there. No bad feelings.

When I see our children, playing football in the ‘dog territory’ that extends in a gentle slope before me, I am nervous. Dogs are playing too, with the full legitimacy of belonging where they should. Some of their owners have a ‘ball thrower’ – a long plastic arm with a flexible plastic cup at the end of it. They pick up balls with these ‘arms’ without having to bend or dirty their hands. They then fling them for their dogs to go after. The dogs, who tend to be quite focused on their habitual games with their beloved owners, do go after them. However, our kids have a ball too and this one is large and rather attractive. What’s more, our kids don’t quite roll but they move fast and suddenly, and dogs like this and may choose to jump, wagging their tails and barking with sheer delight, on them. Some of the dog owners chat together leaving their dogs to make their own choices. Sometimes they miss the moment that their dog shits. Sometimes they don’t miss that moment and continue with their chat. Sometimes, they clean up, picking up the shit in a plastic bag and depositing it in the bin. It all depends on the dog, the owner and the moment. I am nervous that a dog will jump on my child, or bite him and I dread the moment that someone will run into a pile of fresh, moist, foul smelling dog shit.

But who am I to say anything?

Besides, I convince myself, I should be enjoying the picnic my friends have arranged for me. I take a large swig of delicious beer. I close my eyes and try the relaxation technique my Yoga teacher back home in India has taught me. ‘Om Shanti’, I say to myself. ‘Om Shanti. Om Shanti. Om Shanti Om….’

The wooden marker just to the right of me has turned into stone. I see a Greek letter ….yes, yes of course those borderless borders do go right down to Greece, don’t they? One stretch of the same idea that I experienced here in Netherlands/Belgium. And now I see my grandmother shouting at her cook, ’you let that beast lick the rice pot. Idiot! Vessels, which have been licked by dogs, are to be cleaned several times including once with sand. Dogs make even their surroundings impure. Do you have any brains…. or not’? The bicycle I am on turns and enters Greece and just keeps going despite my attempts to steer and control it. I am flying, gliding, swaying away from my grandmother’s shouting towards Athens. Suddenly I appear at the big gate that I have to enter or leave every time I want to get in or out of the ‘gated community’ that I now live in in New Delhi. On one side is my grandmother and she is barking incessantly. She sounds frantic. On the other is a beautiful black dog, speaking in impeccable Urdu. ‘Seema jaan’, he says, as he smiles, ‘ your delicate nerves are getting frayed with this stupid cook’!

It’s a soft bark accompanied by a big slurp that startles me and forces my eyes open. From the hairy face comes a second lick before my friends manage to shoo the dog away. Wiping my face I see my grandmother before me – licked by a dog! I decide maybe the best remedy for me is to wash my face several times, then bury my head in the sand and keep it there. The dog prances into the cheese spread, inviting a curse from my Amsterdam friend.

The owner of the friendly dog, in response to the curse my friend let out is a lady with strong words. She calls us uncivilized and asks what we think we are doing sitting on the border? ‘We were having a picnic’, replies my friend ‘until your dog jumped on us’. ‘ Then you should be on the other side of these markers’, she yells, pointing to one of the posts with the cute dog picture painted on it’. ‘ Don’t you see…’? ‘We do actually’, my friend replies, rather calmly. We look at each other. I do see but…. ‘Then don’t you think you should keep your filthy mouth closed’ she….. er barks. This makes my friend furious who shouts, ‘and don’t you think you should keep your filthy dog from licking us and our food’.

By then, the dog has lifted a paw out of the sticky cheese spread to continue happily wagging her tail onto the ‘people’s’ side of the border. There she is joined by a couple of her friends whose barks sound much happier than ours. Our children watch as we try to calm my friend and the lady laughs at the sight of her cheesy dog.

If only dogs could think like some of us do, they would figure out that the posts in the grass on either side of me, have been put in there to let them know where dog territory ends.

Nandini Bedi

May 2011

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