In a deal that clicked a couple of years too late for me, Syed sold the disused Nikon from his studio for a thousand rupees to me. He loaded it with a complimentary black and white roll too, making it a point to quote the cost that he was sacrificing as he stepped out of his three by three darkroom. But Tinku had already passed beyond the point of infinity where no film ever captures anything.
I was twelve when we moved to the small town of Jaunpur from Varanasi on account of my father’s transfer. It was a disturbing experience to have moved away at once from everything that had meant anything to me, my school, my friends and my favourite haunts. Life seemed to have come to a grinding halt in the new, alien place. The new school and its boys had an unkempt, rustic aura. The markets were shabby, the roads dilapidated and the shops sold ludicrous stuff. It was like falling into a black hole of unenlightened ages towards the end of the twentieth century.
We got used to certain Mr Lalchand who would drop in often, trying to be friendly with the ‘English speaking family’. He never tired waxing eloquent about his brother who was in employment of a wealthy merchant who owned an ‘Alsatian Dog’. The German Shepherd had somehow fallen to bad ways, we were informed, and raised a family with a local bitch. The litter was housed in a garage at the back of the sprawling estate.
After many family sessions and heated debates, my parents acknowledged that we deserved to be treated with a pup, if for nothing else than to be shifted to a rural habitat. We set off early on a cold December morning and after due permissions from the owners, I laid claim to a week-old pup, chocolate-furred with a cute black snout, his paws white as snow. I don’t remember why we named him Tinku but I believe it was inspired by some Hindi movie.
Although we made a cozy little house for the pup with the best stuff we could lay our hands on, he preferred to hide in our beds under the quilts. He was a ravishing little thing with black haunting eyes that begged to be hugged. He moaned and whimpered like a human infant. He had a small appetite and would turn away from milk after just a few licks. He preferred to wet our faces instead with his moist little tongue as if that alone filled his tummy. For a while, the entire family was excited except when he soiled the beds.
Tinku grew up to be a wolf of a dog in a matter of months. His yelp made room for a deep-throated bark that could freeze the hearts of strangers. His reverberating growls ended in sharp, snapped reports quite like that of a pistol. He gave short sliding chases to people trespassing spaces around our house. But to his credit, he rarely put his teeth to a human ankle.
The very first rains had me excited and depressed in equal measures. My cherished shoes got ruined in the omnipresent mud and goo. Tons of wet soil sandwiched itself between the wheels and the mudguards of my spanking new bicycle. It poured so hard that the river nearby wandered right up to our veranda, chasing the rabbits and foxes from its banks into the fields and farmhouses and the mango orchards. Tinku had a fertile season of adventures chasing the unfortunate creatures through the grassy, waterlogged expanses. He wasn’t hugely successful in his sorties though except when he chanced upon the lazy and frazzled rodents. But it did hone his hunting skills, his pounce, his snarl, his speed and his murderous bark. Many were the times when I ran after him, my hockey stick waving in mock fury, till one day a shard of glass cut open my sole after I let off my slippers in the middle of a wild chase which was what would happen often. It grounded me for a fortnight and made both of us tense and restless. Chained to a longish leash, he had to make do with bawling at ants, lizards and houseflies, as I devoured more and more of Famous Fives.
Soon Tinku became a famous, some would say an infamous, landmark in the vicinity. Humans, felines and canines of the neighbourhood were all deeply awed by him and most did their best to postpone a rendezvous with him. Even our friends and acquaintances grew wary and their visits plummeted. It was not for the faint of the heart to cross the path of the deadly Indian Shepherd!
The river receded with the rains and reclaimed the denizens of its banks to their natural warrens in due course. Tinku started missing the gorgeous times he had had and turned sour and irritable. He would often stun us with his deafening outbursts for the tiniest of provocations. There were times he would go in mad circles chasing a fly on his tail, his paws grazing the floor furiously. And when he was particularly upset, he’d leap into a midair somersault. ‘He is an acrobat trapped in a dog’s body,’ my father swore when he saw him do that the first time.
Before the rains finally said goodbye it brought forth a howling tempest that refused to subside. Trees tumbled and power lines snapped and with no electricity, it was pitch dark by the time it was evening. It rained for hours and hours never missing a beat and water filled up the fields again. We finished a hurried dinner among candles and took to bed early. But Tinku could barely contain his excitement. He barked and whined and kept rushing from one room to the other and then to the veranda that resembled a raft.
The gale relented towards the midnight and we could hear the frogs croaking in a chorus through the windows. Suddenly though, Tinku’s howling took over everything else. For all I could remember, I had never heard him wail so ominously before. It was punctuated by shrill barking and a mad scratching of the floor. I chided him angrily to stop the ruckus he was making in the dead of the night. But the dog seemed to have gone mad. He didn’t seem to be pausing even for a breath and carried on howling, braying, barking and jumping up and down all the while. Remembering the torch that always sat on my study table I was about to get off the bed when suddenly I heard the stern voice of my father, ‘Stop! Don’t move, wherever you are!’ He was standing at the door and he sounded highly alarmed. Tinku’s dancing increased in intensity. I could hear father calling out my sister for coming up with the other torch or something. I was aghast and stunned, not knowing what had happened. Had the dog gone berserk and was about to attack me or what? Weird things were reported to have happened to bastard dogs and had it happened to our own mongrel in the tempest?
By the time a source of light was found I was sweating profusely and Tinku was still at his rabid best. The sharp beam of the torch hit his green fluorescent eyes that were focused on the study table and he was salivating profusely. The beam moved to the study table to fall on a glistening, black cobra, standing tall with its hood fully extended and the tongue flashing in and out, swaying sharply, ready to jump.
A yelp escaped my throat and I flew on top of my father in a trance. Tinku refused to leave the battlefront and we had to close the door on him. Before long our house was bustling with neighbours known and unknown. Mr Lalchand appeared and vanished to return with a spear and a set of canes. My mother appealed to them with folded hands to allow the reptile to go away. But it was argued that instead of slipping away the deadly creature will stay put because of the rains and then God only knows what may happen. It didn’t take them long to crush the cobra’s hood but it put up quite a show before it went down. It was a six foot long beauty and everyone agreed how lucky I was to escape its wrath and how I could have met the Almighty that very night. Everyone started singing hymns to Tinku. I knew I owed my life to him and I also knew I will never forget that night any of the nights of my remaining life.
The following day I pressed my demand for a camera, even a second hand camera, so that I could take my saviour’s photograph, or even a cobra’s photograph, were I to face one again. Father conceded, but fixed a small budgetary ceiling beyond which he felt it was a waste. My eyes were set on an SLR camera and the grant could have bought only a used one. I started doing the rounds of the studios of the town asking them if they could spare one. Syed’s brother was a classmate of mine and that is how we came to meet and start the negotiations that lasted beyond the brief life of Tinku, my Indian Shepherd. He lived for two years or so before he was fatally poisoned by a slimy neighbor who suspected him of murdering his cat but then that is another unfortunate tale.