Dogrib's Conversion || by Mozid Mahmud



WHEN I ASKED FOR his name, he said, “Dog.” 
It surprised me. Did he call me dog? I figured I caught the man with his head elsewhere, perhaps thinking of dogs. Perhaps, he had seen a dog right now. 
“Dog? Where?” I asked.
“Here,” He said. 
“What is your name?”
“I’ve told you. Dog.” 
I shifted my posture, wondering how a man can call himself dog. 
He said, “Humans can have names of cats and dogs and flora and fauna. If not directly, then in a roundabout way. The Americans had a president named Bush. The prophet had a companion whose name meant ‘father of cat.’ Don’t parents often name their daughters Myna? The Shukur in Arabic becomes the Shuor in our tongue. Pig! There are men named snake, too. The Nagaraja who fought the Gods in Ramayana, who else where they if not the divisions of mankind fighting each other? There’s the Dogrib, an indigenous tribe in Canada, who believe their ancestors came from dogs. There are many such totems in our world.” 
His reasoning left me puzzled. It could very well be that there would be men named dog—I’d never thought of it like this before! Yet even if he was called dog, I couldn’t see him as one. How can one call another person ‘Dog’? Perhaps he really wasn’t right in the head. Yet, I couldn’t say anything definite. He walked a little stooped, perhaps due to age. His hair was unkempt and longer than usual. Even his clothes were disheveled. But when I looked into his eyes there was a sharpness in there. As if he was hiding something and would like to avoid others. 

I must provide some background to this story. Quite a few years ago, I took a job as assistant professor of Bhabaniganj Degree College down in South Bengal. The beauty of the place attracted me to the point where I had to accept. The college stood upon the ruins of an old zamindar house. Mere lakes populated the expanse of fields near it. A tiger-sculpted gate lay in the middle of the hundred-year-old mango orchard, welcoming the college’s main building. The authorities hadn’t let the relics to be ruined yet, perhaps as a respect to the man the college was named after. The college had been expanded with as much thought to preserving the old structure as possible. Applications were also sent to the government to help conserve it as a heritage site. 
     One thing I was quite surprised with was the presence of this enormous orchard, since usually it wasn’t the sort of region where one saw many mango orchards due to the weather and the soil. The mango here would be rid with bug infestations before it could ripen. Even the taste wouldn’t be that good. But I’ve heard that the zamindar had brought soil here from Maldah to build his orchard. 
     Another reason I liked this place was for the river that ran near the college in a strong current. There’s a saying that rivers, canals and paddy makes Barisal, that whether or not there were roads, the rivers in the region reminded you of the essence of life. We couldn’t see the river right from the college. There had been measures by the flood management board to build elevated roads, some of which had recently been paved as well. Every evening, many would visit the place through these roads toward the dam. 
     As heartwarming as the place was, there were snakes living in their ancient walls. Carbolic acid was used to repel them at nights. Though the availability of poisonous snakes in the region was enormous, there weren’t many attacks. Many claimed the snakes could recognize the inhabitants of the area, that unless they felt threatened they did not harm anyone. Still, it is true that because of these snakes, other dangerous animals gave less of a nuisance. Stray dogs are among the few who populate the area here. They live off our leftovers, afforded more privilege in the college hostels than in nearby houses, where the students act more sympathetic to them than the other kids. Really, it seems that in youth we treat everything with a lot more delight. We sympathize strongly with the helpless and this love extends to the stray dogs. 

Afterwards, I heard a lot about dogs from the man who said he was Dog. Though, I never called him that. All my life I’d seen men being called “Dogs” when they committed something bad. How could I then, in good conscience, refer to him as that? Yet, human names disgusted him. To him, you were insulting the dog when you called a man with his name. One should rather call a great man a ‘Dog’. He thought that men did not possess any of the good qualities dogs did. Though he conceded that sometimes hujurs would come by in the winters and compliment dogs on how they piss with one leg raised behind a tree or a mound of soil in contrast to the young boys of our generation who do it standing with their jeans. Yet, they would also compare them with the youngsters who drink and meet with the opposite sex out in the open. Satisfaction in little, hard work and devotion – dogs seem to have them all. 
     Unless it was a human’s name, he had no problem how you referred to him. So I had begun to call him Dogrib. Even though he didn’t know what the word meant, I felt it would prove to be quite appropriate. 
     We used to talk a lot about dogs back then. Such as, even though the hujurs called dogs impure, there are instances of dogs being granted entry into heaven in the holy book. There was the dog who accompanied his masters, the seven sleepers, into exile for hundreds of years in a cave to avoid persecution, guarding their door and dying in the end of hunger while protecting them. The lord had infinite compassion for the selfless dog in service of those virtuous men. Perhaps no other dog would have his luck. 
     In Islam, keeping a dog as a pet is not only forbidden, but one’s virtue declines continually while one is in hold of the animal. Prayers do not become difficult in its present. Yet some say one can have a dog as a pet for protection. But who would go to such lengths amid all these restrictions. In Islamic society, anything done without the motive for profit in this life or the afterlife isn’t seen with a lot of enthusiasm. Yet our great prophet did not forbid us from showing the dog mercy. There has been Hadith, that recounted how a whore went to heaven for assuaging the thirst of a dog with water. 
     Dogrib would say how Yudhishthira was accompanied to heaven with his father Yama, the god of Death, in the form of a dog. 

All this talk of dogs is mainly because of Dogrib. If I hadn’t been acquainted with him, I wouldn’t be telling an entire story about them. I myself had grown quite curious about the nature of dogs. Certainly, apart from a couple of strays, I hadn’t given much time to anybody in my life of exile here. I did not grow close to anyone. I do not feel embarrassed saying this: my most base moments were spent in the company of my fellow colleagues. To assume this profession was noble brought about the deprivation in me. Teaching had to be most self-conscious and self-aggrandizing work I encountered. One could only compare it with politicians, journalists and the mullahs. For this reason, other than the occasional time spent with a few stray dogs, I had no other work to do in during my time of leisure. 
     Whether dogs were stray or domestic, their behaviors were the same. If you fed them a little for a few days or looked at them pleasingly, how happy they’d become! They would lie down beside your feet, raise their feet to the skies in strange postures. Those who do not like dogs would not understand. 

All my knowledge related to dogs were from Dogrib. I would sometimes call him Magrib, too. But he liked Dogrib better than Magrib. As a result of our growing friendship, he didn’t mind human names with me. The teachers here had warned me about him. “He’s a little out there in the head,” they’d said. One or two of them even said: “Sir, he is not human. He is, for real, a dog in human form. Once he bit a boy just like a dog does. The boy had to get fourteen injections for rabies because the doctor thought Dogrib had rabies as he used to keep dogs as pets. But after three years at the Pabna Medical Hospital, the doctors there gave him a certificate of release, saying he was completely fine. How could it be? He has symptoms of every sort of mental imbalance a person might possess.” 
     Dogrib would be feared though because of the companions around him. He was never seen alone anywhere. Anywhere he went there were dogs surrounding him. None of these dogs were his. Their numbers would vary. Yet they would play the role of his unpaid bodyguards. Bound by a relationship that was hard to understand if one didn’t pay close attention. 
     Dogrib used to stay in a room of an old college building. No one ever objected to him staying there. He hadn’t annoyed anyone there, for one. When at nights one saw him around with his dogs they’d be relieved.  
     The dark solitary night is a bizarre occurrence, one that comes to us in the guise of various scares. No other scare is comparable to this in the word. This is why even when faced with a thief in the night, one feels their spirits lift up in courage. And anyway, the world’s unknown mysteries usually do not scare us. 
     Dogrib’s ancestors used to work in this zamindar house. His grandfather’s father was a watchman for the young zamindar. They would help keep the administrative accounts. Before the partition, when the zamindar family left for Kolkata, his grandfather had in effect become the owner of the zamindari. He could’ve had all the papers done in his name. But he wasn’t that interested in acquiring wealth. Seeing it this way, Dogrib was one of the original inhabitant of this estate. His forefathers had lived through all this. Perhaps for this reason, the college authorities let him stay on. There were others who were supported under the estate. Some would do small work to feed themselves. A few bighas of land were used in cultivating spinach. There were women who worked as help at the college hostels. 

My acquaintance with Dogrib had been at the time for a few short days. Before, I’d only seen him once near the larger lake. I was seated alone on the wharf in the afternoon. At first I did not notice him. I saw a man washing his feet in the water. I called on to him and we had that conversation I talked about in the beginning of this story. 
     After this, I didn’t see him for many days. I was curious to meet him. The couple of people I asked of him had told me to stay away from him, that he was mad. Others even claimed he was possessed with djinns and ghosts. No one went near him due to these fears. Many even believed that he took on human form during the day and became a feral dog at night to guard the zamindari estate. Hearing all this made me all the more curious. 
     The second time I met him was during a foggy winter morning in a broken-down room. I had to come out of my room in the morning to answer nature’s call. There were a few toilets beside the old building. There, after I was done, I heard a man doing what seemed like baby-talk. His voice was deep, unclear and came out in murmurs. How could anyone live here in this cold, I thought. But I could clearly notice him in the morning light. I asked him, “What are you doing there?”
“Looking after my grandchildren. My daughter’s given birth,” he said. 
     Several newborn puppies were lying on their backs beside him. The mother was eyeing me from one corner. “Won’t you get a cold lying down there on the floor? Your grandchildren would get a cold, too,” I said. 
     “I’ve spread some straw on the floor,” he said, “The dogs are used to not wearing anything. They don’t have hands to make blankets, you see.”
     All these people who’d told me Dogrib wasn’t right in the head couldn’t be right. Yet the words rang true in my head. I’d heard stories of human transfiguration but never believed them. I didn’t want to believe it now, either. 
     I asked, “How many grandchildren?”
     “Two boys and three girls,” he said, “Though one of them hadn’t yet opened his eyes. His health hasn’t been very well.”
     I cut out of there quickly, wondering how the world was full of so much absurdity.  
     After this incident, my curiosity for Dogrib only increased. How can a person be transformed into a dog? Know their language? Usually mother dogs wouldn’t let strangers near their newborns, but Dogrib was another story. I would sometimes ask after his grandchildren. Ask him if they needed anything. This was how we’d grow close. Even Dogrib would come by my place when no one else was around. He wouldn’t say much, but his facial expressions would say a lot. They would also show some inconsistency. Really, he had been staying around dogs for so long his behavior was becoming like them. Both love and distrust for humans are a dog’s trait. 
     Dogrib had decided that humans were the most cursed and inferior in the animal kingdom. For no reason they considered themselves the greatest. The reason they do this is so they can do as they please with their two hands. The majority of animals in this world tend to not take anything after they’ve fed themselves. Man not only deprives others of what he already has, but also accumulates. He even wants to be master of all ideologies. 
     In between all this, Dogrib told me the story of how he’d become a dog. 

He had found a mother of newborn puppies on the streets. By the side of the road, several children were enjoying themselves throwing a puppy into the pond repeatedly. When the puppy was trying to come up the surface to survive, the children would try to stomp it back into the water with their feet. At such a point in the puppy’s life, Dogrib came to rescue her from the children’s cruel game, taking her away with him. 
     The puppy was malnourished. Her legs were willowy. She couldn’t walk on her own feet. Yet she was quite a beautiful specimen for her age. He thought: of all the mammals in the world, puppies were born with the most beautiful faces. He wanted to pick it in his arms. Of course lambs and kids come out beautiful too. One can see in many villages womenfolk taking them in their arms in affection. Yet one rarely sees anyone taking up a puppy in their arms here. If in their childhood they put up tantrums for a puppy, the discouragement of their parents force them to abandon their wants. Not only do they abandon it, over time, they become dog haters as well. 
     Dogrib, too, had to face adversity to have a pet dog. But he had no father and in the end his mother gave in. Other than her kitchen and her prayer room, this dog would move around the house at will and soon she grew close to his mother. They named her Rina. 
     The history of men keeping dogs as companions and pets is old. It’s only now that the necessity had receded. Dogs are the only animal that love being around humans for no particular reason. 
     When the world was still a tough place for our kind, dogs made it easier for us with protection, helping with food collection, livestock rearing and transportation. Yet their cousins who live in the jungles and hunt freely have more worth for us than them. 
     A dog could’ve been a hyena, living their life through violence. It could’ve been a fox, stealing chickens off a coop, or a wolf, even. Was it really for a piece of food that their ancestors started living beside our feet? In fact, it’s our helplessness that the dogs were enthralled with. Today we forget that history. 
    Many consider the abundance of food and a greater life expectancy should be the only objective in their life. Yet, since a soul only exists once in this earth in one form and its destiny seems apparent, therefore it should value freedom more than anything else. If there is no freedom in life, what would one do with prosperity?
     Rina, being a female puppy, had a lot of courage and curiosity. In few days, she had learned to differentiate the different smells of all the products in the house. She could identify whether one was an enemy or a friend just from looking at Dogrib’s eyes. 
     Dogs have no work other than pleasing their master. No one eats their flesh, why else would man keep them? Of course, we also keep cats, bats, and mynas as pets. It seems that every one of them have their distinct work. Enjoyment, the love of beauty—they’re enough all by themselves. Even though the concepts differ culturally. 
     The developing years of a dog isn’t any less beautiful. When Rina had grown up, there was a thrust of beauty from her legs up to her waist. Usually, local dogs do not tend to be slim, but there was no excess fat in her body. In the south, one could still see the descendants of Portuguese dogs. No one could make a journey of two hundred years without being unadulterated. The dogs in our region had easily mixed with the European ones. This was why it seemed natural for Rina to have the agility and likeness of foreign dogs.
     Her back was a bit elevated than her front. Her belly felt tightened to her back. We humans have often hesitated and been embarrassed about dogs’ genitalia. Perhaps because it stays visible behind them, especially of females. Therefore, no one can look at it straight.   
     Dogrib once told me, those who have never gone near a dog think of all dogs as alike. Even when one wants a dog for a pet, they think any one of them would do. If anything, they would think dogs of the same species are similar. Yet that is not the case. Every dog is different. Their intellectual development, resilience, ability to survive, ingenuity and skill are all unique to themselves. Moreover, a lot of their skill depends on their health during childhood and their education. 
     Dogs that do not get to be around humans in their early years learn from their environment and their mothers. Those who do, get proficient in learning the master’s ways. Afterwards, the master’s approval on any activity becomes increasingly important. 
     Even though Rina was a puppy born without a master, there was no shortage of poise in her movements. She wouldn’t stay indoors either. She would walk around the college square every morning after breakfast. Sometimes she would try winning Dogrib’s or his mother’s affection before coming out on the streets in the late evenings as well. 
     Dogs do not sleep at night like us. Their sleep tends to be light, even the faintest noises could wake them up. Dogrib’s mother would say that the girl had a habit of walking around their neighborhood, that she had no leash to stop her.  
     However, she was quite picky when mingling with other dogs. 
     In her childhood, one of the neighborhood dogs had started following her. It was her time to return home. Dogrib was waiting for her. He noticed for a long time that the dog was trying to annoy her by sniffing her back. Rina was trying to cut past him home, but the dog was not letting go of his pursuit. She even barked at him a couple times. This was the first time something of this sort had happened with her. This was their season. Perhaps the dog could have nothing else on his head. Rina was getting to her youth, too. Perhaps this was the year it happens. They say when a dog becomes an adult, he urinates with his legs raised. 
     Dogrib noticed Rina run up to the dog’s raised hinds and sink her teeth into the flesh. The dog whimpered, running away. 
     Dogrib had noticed it before. Whenever anyone new came near him, Rina’s mood would change. She would always keep him guarded. If he’d gone to an outing near the river, he wouldn’t find her anywhere near me. She’d be off trying to make friends with the other people who’d come here. Rina had a lot of curiosity towards children. Even when they boxed her ears she did not get angry at them. Even as the kids would throw the ball in the water, she would go over there to fetch it for them. The naughty kids wouldn’t let her go. With the all the might in their bodies, they would throw her in the river. But Rina felt happy! Happy that she’d made a human child happy with their antics. 
     One time, Dogrib was returning home at night to find Rina on his path. A dead snake in her mouth. The snake was still wriggling. Perhaps she’d realized the danger he would’ve been in. In these hot nights, sometimes snakes would come out of their holes and lay down on the ground all curled up, only to come bite at any one coming through.

Yet, an event happened that year. Rina got more restless. Her body seemed to ooze beauty. There would be days she would go away and then not return for two, three days. She had quite the independent spirit, so Dogrib and his mother never tried to curb her freedoms. But whenever she didn’t return home for the night, they couldn’t sleep that well. Dogbir’s mother would wait with the food. She would go check the balcony, hoping she had returned and was sleeping in there. She would return and say that she had become spoiled. 
     It was really her safety that they were worried about. All around us there were dog hating men. Men who were against freedom. Some even went as far as trying to deprive dogs from speaking their language. Yet this was the same people who had once fought for their own language rights. You would see neighbors coming over to complain: Can’t we be in peace? When we get out of the house, it comes over and touches us. Makes us impure. I know you all don’t have any God. If only you knew that once you touch a dog, you aren’t pure anymore. You’d have to perform ablution again. 
     I never understood their hatred. I never saw a dog take a bribe or murder or rob.
     The reason Rina disappeared sometimes was because it was time for motherhood. She needed male companions for this. Dogrib had seen her copulate twice. He didn’t stop her, for it should be every species’ right to mate. How would a being evolve otherwise? The mating of dogs is one strange process – a combination of pain and pleasure not seen with any other animal. 
     Three months later, Rina gave birth to four puppies. A house was built so that the winter doesn’t become too difficult. The puppies never left her alone. 
     But Rina couldn’t see through their adulthood. She died within two weeks of their birth. Perhaps it was the neighbors who did it. It seemed like society couldn’t admit the need for such a faithful, kind, and grateful but unnecessary creature. If one’s meat had no price, how could they have the right to live? 
     Poisoned, she was found lying in the fields near the house. 
     Dogrib’s mother died three months after Rina’s death. Afterwards, the responsibility of raising the puppies was on Dogrib. Most puppies do not live that long. After their mother’s death, three of them had died too in quick succession. The remaining one, Dogrib raised like his own daughter. He named her Bina. This was the daughter Dogrib was referring to who had given him his grandchildren.  

Dogrib’s story could’ve ended here. We had hit upon such a close friendship, that he no longer felt unease coming at my place. If he didn’t come over, I wouldn’t be in a good mood either. I used to wait for his company. My place didn’t have much to show for: a table, an almirah and a bed to sleep in. A girl named Amina would come over to my room to clean and bring me food. She didn’t like Dogrib that much, who never ate in my presence. If I gave him anything to eat, he’d take it with him. He never liked eating without his grandchildren. 
     That day, it had become quite late. A sultry autumn night. The heat made the air vapory. Though there was a moon in the sky it was kept hidden by the clouds. A time when the snakes are quite the nuisance.  
     Dogrib had taken away all the food after supper. I’d fallen asleep reading a book. There was no electricity either. Suddenly, a yammering sound woke me up. 
     It looked like a dog pummeling something, the hair on its back was upright. It was quite big. I hadn’t seen dogs here that big. The dog seemed to have yanked something with its mouth with great force. It was shaking its head, it’s neck craning sideways. There were squeaking sounds. I started shouting, “Who’s there?” I couldn’t find the light near me. The door was open. I was scared for a moment. Even called out Dogrib once. 
     My cries for help brought Dogrib to my door. His tongue was visibly salivating. His body was trembling, he was panting. 
     He said, “Sir, I’m dogrib.”
     “What are you doing here in this late hour?” I asked. 
     “I saw a snake making his way toward your place from my room. I followed it here.”
“Where’s the snake?” I said. 
     He pointed at a dead snake, all bloodied and mutilated lying there. Its’ body had bite-marks. 
     I asked, “Was your daughter with you?”
     “No,” he said, “I came alone. They are sleeping.”
     Then he laughed, saying, “Sir, there’s no problem anymore. I’m here now. You can go back to sleep.”
     Yet I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night. After this incident I never stayed at Bhabaniganj again. I took medical leave, even leaving behind my clothes and other amenities there. 
     Thought my intentions had been to run away from Dogrib, I didn’t think I’d be able to stay away the rest of my life. One nightmare and a love for a dog-man named Dogrib had ruined the rest of my life. 
     I’d thought a lot of going back, thought of staying with him and learning how to be a dog from him. Yet it would never be possible for us cowards to travel from one such way of life to another. 

MOZID MAHMUD is a poet, novelist, and essayist based in Bangladesh. Some of his notable works include In Praise of Mahfuza (1989), Nazrul – Spokesman of the Third World (1996), and Rabindranath’s Travelogues (2010). He has been awarded the Rabindra-Nazrul Literary Prize and the country’s National Press Club Award, among others.

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