Stray Memories

by Hari Balasubramanian

During my middle and high school years, I became fascinated with two generations of stray dogs that lived in my neighborhood. This was in the early 1990s. My family lived in the central Indian city of Nagpur, in a 3rd story flat. The flat had a couple of balconies (decks) which gave me the chance to watch the dogs go about their routines. Instead of studying for exams – which involved the dreary task of memorizing entire sections of textbooks – I would get up in the morning and spend time watching the neighborhood strays. The dogs liked the cool air of early mornings. They played frantically, chasing each other down, trying to wrest torn rags from each other as if the rags were of great value. At 8 am, with the sun up and strong, they would be exhausted. They would lie in the shade, front limbs stretched, their snouts nuzzling in between but their noses still twitching and ears still alert for anything untoward.

Image0000 (1)

Stray dogs (desi kutta in Hindi, theru nai in Tamil) can be found almost everywhere in India. The term ‘stray', in the South Asian context, does not refer to abandoned pets (although some mixing with pet European breeds does happen). From the genetic viewpoint these dogs are actually very ancient and have been around for millennia. They seem to have evolved independently by natural selection (they were not bred commercially) and have adapted well to living in and around human settlements. And they are still around, living on the dirt shoulders of streets, alleyways, the platforms of railway stations, and the ignored nooks and interstices of infrastructure. Residential families and street vendors may occasionally feed them and look after them informally, but the strays largely fend for themselves, scavenging in rubbish dumps or wherever leftover food is available. They mark their territories with their seemingly bottomless bladders, participate heartily in the chaotic and noisy mating season which happens once a year, and work hard to raise their offspring. In this sense, the strays are as wild and independent as, say, the squirrels and crows we find everywhere. They are not always liked due to the risk of rabies, and there is an ongoing debate on how their numbers should be controlled (see this for another perspective).


Memories of the strays I knew in Nagpur came back to me because of a recent episode of PBS Nature, which discusses the “wild” side of the animals in our midst. The last ten minutes feature interactions among the free roaming dogs of Cuzco, Peru. Watching the Cuzco dogs triggered a bit of nostalgia, and I felt like putting together observations from my Nagpur days. I am not sure if any of this is interesting at all to readers, but I'll go ahead anyway! I don't have a single coherent story to offer, only a series of loosely interconnected anecdotes.

The pictures I use here are not of the Nagpur dogs – I had no idea how to use an analog camera at the time! – they are instead pictures of strays I captured many years later in other towns (the very last image in this piece, for example, is of a 3-legged dog catching some sun and sleep on a train station platform in Chennai).

The Neighborhood

The northern balcony of our Nagpur flat faced a busy highway called Ring Road. The highway had a median with tall forked streetlights that provided pedestrians and dogs a break while crossing. Across the road were new flats still in construction. The laborers and their families, who worked on the buildings for many years, lived in small patchwork huts that they had put together in front of the construction. At least two of the families had adopted strays. Thinking back, it makes sense that the families kept dogs because the places they lived in – unlike homes which had concrete walls and iron gates – were open and vulnerable, and the strays could alert the families about intruders.

One of these dogs was named Moti, which means pearl in Hindi. Moti was big, healthy looking, had a deep kind of bark and always carried himself with great confidence. He had ears that stood up as sharp as arrow ends even when they were off guard and a tail that arched backwards (characteristic of strays in India). He also had beautiful colors: a base of white with large patches of cream and brown. He sported a dark-brown collar that lent him a kind of formal elegance, like a man wearing a sharp suit.


The other balcony of our flat overlooked the “Garden and Bar Restaurant”. It was the sort of place my parents, vegetarians and teetotalers that they were, would never visit. The restaurant had a square perimeter marked by a hedge of high bushes. Appended to one corner, like a jump drive to a laptop, was small stall, no more than 4 feet wide and 8 feet tall. This was a paan thela – a little stall selling betel leaf garnished with spices and intoxicants. Motorbikes, scooters and cars would park in the area in front of the thela for a cigarette or paan. The strays tended to congregate here too: the owner of the thela was someone they liked.

Behind the restaurant was a large square space, disorganized and overgrown with weeds. Here, restaurant leftovers and other odds and ends were commonly disposed. It was an informal garbage dump. People walked quickly by it or avoided it, but all the animals that co-inhabited the neighborhood– dogs, cows, pigs, rats, scavenging birds – lingered here, looking for tasty scraps and leftovers, and competed with one another for access. The female strays often chose this space to give birth, because of its relative seclusion from people and easy access to food. It's probably fair to say that the more such informal garbage dumps there are in a neighborhood, the greater the population of strays.

The Three Sisters

The protagonists of this piece, in my mind at least, are three females that were probably siblings. They were already adults by the time I arrived in Nagpur to begin 8th grade. Later I would marvel that all three had survived and made it to adulthood. I say this because the sisters' own litters over the years almost always struggled to make it – mortality rates for pups were extremely high. The three sisters were mostly black, but their faces had a touch of tan or cream, in varying shades. In physical appearance, they were similar, but their personalities were distinct.

The first sister, the biggest of the three, had a long, slender frame. She had a relaxed temperament and was never too agitated when strange dogs passed by. A year or two after I had gotten to know her, she changed neighborhoods. Initially, she frequented the area around the restaurant and paan thela, but then she moved – and it seemed like a permanent move – across the road a couple of blocks away, near where Moti lived. I was surprised since dogs are generally faithful to the territories they are born into.

The second sister had faded dark marks on her light colored face and snout. To my overactive adolescent imagination these marks looked like scars. But they may just as well have been colors she had inherited. I found it impossible to get close to her, no matter how hard I tried or how friendly I was. She did not trust humans and kept a safe distance – not a bad idea at all, because strays are often considered a nuisance and are the target of casual violence. Dogs in India are wary every time they see a person bend down. More often than not, the bending down is a prelude to the pickup of a stone that will be hurled their way. The mischievous boy that I was, I resorted to this shooing gesture once in a while, just to scare dogs and tease them, even when I was not threatened.

Image0000 (3)

I was closest to the last of the sisters. She was a sprightly dog, playful, generally upbeat. She responded well to people. She was aggressive when needed, especially when strange dogs passed by. She was also involved the few times I had seen packs of stray dogs methodically hunt and kill a solitary stray pig, then feed on the carcass. This was something that happened without explanation, but only rarely, perhaps once or twice a year. It was as if a long dormant pack-hunt instinct had suddenly come alive. I was often troubled when I saw her like this, in hunting mode.

But then she was also a wonderful mother and gave the best to her puppies. On one occasion, she decided to give birth in the parking area of our flat. There were two adorably cute pups. One day they were alone, without their mother, wandering around playfully. Then their mother came, with a cooked rice meal that she had found somewhere and stored deep in her mouth – underneath her tongue it seemed. She regurgitated the meal to the pups, who fell upon it immediately. The fact that other species could display care and affection was not a surprise or something I had ever doubted, yet to see it happening first hand and in such close proximity elevated the experience and left a deep impression.

Aggression and Mating

The three sisters also had a brother. I remember him well, because he was named Hari – yes a namesake! – by the family that adopted him. That was an odd name for a dog in India, where names for pets are noticeably different: Tommy, Rocky, Brownie, Sheru, Pintu etc. Hari's family had a house close to the restaurant. He looked almost exactly like his sisters except that he was larger. He was never leashed so he took the opportunity to jump over the walls of the house and interact with other strays. He roved fearlessly into other neighborhoods and was in this sense more enterprising than the other prominent male in the vicinity, Moti.

Moti liked to stick to where he was, but Hari traveled. Every time I looked out from the balcony, I would long to see a standoff between the two. It happened one day but ended pretty tamely. Hari had intruded too close to Moti's territory, and they growled at each other for a while (low growls: it all seemed very civil). They were about the same size, so posturing and bluster seemed to be the best strategy rather than attack, which would have doubtless harmed both. After some time, Hari retreated by crossing the road and that was the end of that.

Even then – a decade and a half before I read anything about evolutionary theory – I was struck this natural intelligence that seemed to operate in the strays. There was always a kind of letting-go, an understanding that further fighting isn't worth it. The strays acted as if they knew what was best in a global sense. When a dominant dog spotted a meek, limping vagabond passing by, he or she always responded aggressively, but the aggression was mostly posturing. I have never seen a dominant dog attack a meek intruder when the latter, teeth bared in submission, has his tail down and under. The intruder, though, will be harassed and terrorized with growls and threats of attack until he leaves. Sometimes the intruder is allowed to stay.

“People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that's a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as man, so artistically cruel.” That's Ivan Karamazov, one of the three brothers in Fyodor Dostoevsky's classic work. The claim does resonate with my experience – for the most part – but it requires some adjustment. We humans can be extremely kind and helpful even when we don't know someone, but we can also be, as Ivan notes, artistically cruel as our methods of torture suggest. And there are exceptions in the animal world, too: lions murdering the cubs that are not their own, and rampaging insect colonies which go to war with other colonies.

In all these years observing dogs, I have seen only one intense dog fight, also in Nagpur, at a bus stop near our flat. For some reason I don't remember well, two dogs were suddenly locked in a serious combat. Each dog had his jaws clamped over some part of the other dog's body and was unwilling to let go. It felt that one dog would have to die for the fight to end. It took the repeated threats and stones of people waiting at the bus stop to separate them. But once they did separate, they both limped off hurriedly in opposite directions, pausing now and then to lick their wounds – which were no doubt serious wounds that would last a while – but generally behaving as if the fight was a thing of the past and it was time to move on.

Image0000 (6)

The mating season, which happened once a year, produced its own burst of aggression. When any of the three sisters became receptive to the advances of males, it caused serious tumult in the world of strays. Male dogs that I had never seen before arrived from far-off territories to make their claim, possibly a mechanism that avoided inbreeding. Like a royal princess the female had a procession. A sudden profusion of males, a great deal of yelps, whines and growls, and a few blustery dog-fights to figure out which males went earlier in the ‘mating queue', and of course the actual mating itself, which was very embarrassing for residents to watch since the sexual act, the signature doggy-style hump, happened in the middle of a road or in plain view, and the mating pair was conjoined for some twenty minutes after, unable to separate despite their best efforts – all these things characterized the season of courting and sex.

A Sudden End

When the mating hullabaloo was done and the male strangers had all disappeared, the sisters were left alone and eventually had to deal with the hard task of raising pups.

Year after year I would see the sisters giving birth and losing the entire litter within a few months. It wasn't clear to me what exactly caused the mortality. In some cases, the pups became sick early and never recovered. I'd always admired the independence that strays had compared to the confined life of pets, but the flip side was that survival was that much harder – finding a steady and healthy source of food for the young was not easy. Further, the road was a treacherous place and it was easy for an untrained pup to die while crossing it. It wasn't uncommon for me to hear loud squeals – I would rush to the balcony only to find that it was a dog that had come under the tire of a moving vehicle.

It makes me wonder now – having seen countless videos in which mothers of mammal species, from lemurs to bison to elephants, struggle with the loss of their young ones – how much pain the three sisters must have endured.

In five years, only one puppy, a female, managed to grow into a 2-year old. She was part of the second sister's litter and looked very much like her mother and aunts. She didn't grow fast enough and remained somewhat small – possibly due to a lack of nutrition in her early months. But that did not stop her from being spunky and joyful, a welcome new presence in the neighborhood.

Image0000 (2)

One pet peeve this young female had was the traffic. She barked at moving automobiles and chased them for a few yards, as if complaining how noisy and intrusive they were. Once, when a few dozen newly manufactured large trucks – odd, bald-looking, convertible-style trucks without trailers – were passing by, the young female felt something was askew and protested seriously. It was this dislike of automobiles that got her in trouble. At some point, she injured her left front leg on the road. It was a serious injury and she could no longer put any weight on that leg. She had to rely totally on her other three legs. But if you've seen three-legged dogs, you'll know that after some time it's not really an issue at all – the dogs learn to live with this disability very well and stay active. So it was with this young one.

Unfortunately, her flirtation with traffic did not end there. One evening – it was around 8 pm – I was looking out from the balcony. A police jeep was moving slowly along the dirt shoulder of the road, close to the restaurant and paan thela. The young female probably considered it an encroachment. She chased the police jeep, despite her limp, and barked viciously. The policeman seated in the rear was annoyed. He asked the jeep to stop, got out, and with his wooden cane – something police constables at the time routinely carried – hit the chasing dog once.

She simply flopped on the ground and did not move at all. As time passed, I got more and more worried. Even the policeman and the jeep hung around, checking the fallen and limp body a few times for signs of life. The policeman clearly seemed to regret what had happened and could not believe that the young female might be dead. But it was true. One hit with the wooden cane was all it took. There had been no yelps; I had not heard even a whimper. She had passed away very, very quickly.


And that's where my story ends. The year the young female died was also my last year in high school. I left Nagpur to start an engineering degree in south India. My parents moved south soon after. So I never got the chance to know what happened with the three sisters, who were alive and well when I left but had lost all of their young ones in five years. But I do have fond recollections overall. It was those years spent closely observing and interacting with stray dogs that sparked a broader interest in other species and wildlife. It is an interest that still continues unabated, and now I find myself drawn to everything from beavers to birds to monarch butterflies.