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Lessons in love, loss and survival from the dogs of Dharamkot

This canine community is among the main reasons I decided to continue living in the mountains of Dharamkot, and how I survived the ups and downs of my mental health

My journey with dogs in Dharamkot goes deeper than just observing them to entertain myself. (Photo: Nidhi Iyer)
My journey with dogs in Dharamkot goes deeper than just observing them to entertain myself. (Photo: Nidhi Iyer)

It’s pouring outside as I tiptoe around the house, putting things back in place. I run a cafe here, and three whole weeks of the New Year frenzy have left me with no time to do anything else. Sky has been fast asleep, tucked in a pile of quilts. She likes to laze around on rainy winter days, I suppose it gets too cold even for a gaddi dog in the mountain town of Dharamkot in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh. I hear bizarre scratchy sounds amidst the thunderstorm and peek out of the window looking for the source. Perched on our cafe seating in the porch, is Yeshe, nonchalantly cleaning the mud off his fur.

Yeshe is one of my favourite dogs in all of Dharamkot, and also Sky’s best friend and walk-buddy. Adopted by Chinmay, a close friend, a couple of months ago, Yeshe had a traumatising few years prior to that. He used to be a scrawny little neighbourhood pup, who would almost always be found inside someone’s garbage bin scrounging for leftovers, or being chased out of the corn fields with sticks and stones by residents of the village. To watch him get from that space to now happily settling in with his kind humans and two beautiful cats, after Chinmay finally took him in, has been inspiring.

My journey with dogs in Dharamkot goes deeper than just observing them to entertain myself. It would be fair for me to say that not only was this canine community one of the primary reasons I decided to continue living in Dharamkot, but also the grounds for my survival through the many ups and downs through the course of my mental health.

At home, I have often opened the door to find Sky’s youngest sibling Anda Bhurji sitting outside. Just last week, one snowy evening, Messi, a rather feisty puppy, had been knocking on our door, away from Akshita, who has adopted him. As always, he barged into the room, found his way into the blanket, and without a blink, just curled up to sleep. Tazu, a friend’s boxer, with whom we once lived, continues to come home and wake us up in the morning once every week, years after we have moved out.

After walking out of my previous job straight into therapy, a job that I rather loved and was compelled to leave due to clinical reasons, I moved to Dharamkot and these furry friends became the foundation for my support system. Every morning walk with Tazu, Rain and Oreo helped me face the rest of the day. Rain has been my spirit animal throughout.

Rain disappeared one April afternoon, two years ago. She went out for a regular stroll and never came back. She was a free soul and I would like to believe that she just ran into the jungles to live in the wild off her own will. But in my head, I know that probably isn’t true. While there is a possibility of her having disappeared into the wild, we cannot rule out the probability of someone having stolen her. And this brings up deeper issues of dog thefts around this region.

We’ve stopped strangers two other times from putting her in a vehicle and taking her home. I have watched other dogs disappear too, most of them pure-bred. What drives people to lure pet dogs and steal them, especially in a world where many other strays are desperately waiting to be adopted into a loving home, always puzzles me.

The irony also strikes close to home. We have female and gaddi dogs disappearing around this region on one hand, and on the other, we struggle to find homes for female puppies we foster. Just two weeks ago, two of Maya’s puppy girls finally went to their permanent homes after half a year of actively looking for one. There were many people who had enquired only to never follow up after finding out they were mixed breed, and especially females. How did humans come to find a way to discriminate even amongst dogs, I wonder, and when will they ever learn to stop?

Nevertheless, no matter where you are, there is absolutely nothing that can compensate for the loss of a dog. The measures you take to preserve them in your memory seem inadequate. There are still days when I wake up and think of what life would be having Rain running around creating quite the ruckus, demanding to be the centre of attention. And one thing I am grateful for, is the babies she left behind, who are now growing up to be beautiful dogs just like their mother. The feisty bitch she was, Rain chewed her leash off while in heat two autumns ago and came back to give birth to eight healthy puppies, amidst a snowstorm.

And that is how I came to have Sky in my life—a puppy I picked for having the same spirit, a puppy who has grown up to have her mother’s eyes. If it weren’t for Sky today, I wouldn’t be sitting here and writing this. At a time where my clinical depression had robbed me off my will to live, it was the birth of a dog that breathed back life into me. Today, I run a cafe named after Rain, where her daughter, Sky, runs around bringing just as much joy into the lives of the people who come here. And for this, I am ineffably grateful.

As someone who grew up to fear dogs, I had always wondered if dogs were overrated. I laugh when I come to think of it now. I wonder how many other lives they have saved in the course of our lifetime. I wonder what we have done to deserve them.

The many times people visit home, they casually mention how I should perhaps just shift gears from running a cafe to a dog-boarding home. Hearing people say that, looking at all the dogs strolling into the house at their own whim, watching sky curl up on the window chewing her toy, speaks volumes about one thing for me—that this is a safe space for them. And that means it is a safe space for me.

Nidhi Iyer is a baker and illustrator based in Dharamkot.

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