The question was about my four year old German Shepherd and was put to me one evening by my daughter’s friend as she thoughtfully stood outside our garden gate. I supposed the girl was being funny till I looked at her genuinely incredulous face and realized that my mild admonishments to Ginger – my dog – in my mother tongue must have seemed pretty weird to her.
So what does it mean for a dog to grow up in a multi-lingual family? Mostly we speak in English with friends while at times we switch our national language, Hindi. With family members, it is our mother tongue, Bengali, which seems natural and comfortable. Does the plurality of our linguistic identities confuse our dog? Could this be the reason that most of the time Ginger remains regally indifferent to what we tell her to do and more importantly, not to do – like spare my tender marigold saplings as she rushes about chasing a cat in our garden?
Dogs generally learn to associate the sound of the words – or commands, during training – with specific actions. For example, if she learns to come down on her haunches when I say ‘sit’, when one says ‘baitho’ or ‘bosho’ – equivalents in Hindi and Bengali respectively – it will mean nothing to her. Also the tone matters – if I want her to get down from my bed, the same two-three words voiced in stern staccato sounds is more likely to elicit a prompter response than when spoken leisurely and indulgently.
However, animal behavioural experts and researchers are learning new things about our canine companions every day – indeed there are reports that dogs can process language much like humans do. According to an August 2016 study whose results were published in the well-regarded journal Science, a group of Hungarian scientists led by Dr. Attila Andics of Eotvos Lorand University, in a first-ever experiment of its kind, found that dogs could not just recognize what humans say and how they say it but could also combine the two to come up with a correct interpretation of the very meaning of the words – exactly what we humans do when conversing amongst ourselves.
All this I told my daughter’s friend while she waited for my daughter to join her with the badminton racquets. I am not sure how far she followed my explanations but as the two girls walked away chatting excitedly, Ginger gave three short barks which almost sounded like “Hey, you leaving me behind?” Both girls turned back, looked at Ginger and said laughing, “We’ll be back soon”.
From my corner in garden, I smiled at the scene before me and thought, “I guess it’s ok – as long as we all understand each other…”
Yup! That’s the name of this literary workshop I have started with around six kids in the Nilgiris. Going by the fact that for each session, they arrive well before time, duly accompanied by a pen and notebook and before leaving, actually ask for “homework”, I think it is going pretty well.
So we started with a session on fiction writing where fundamental concepts like character, plot and setting were discussed. This was followed by a game where the character and setting were randomly matched and such hilarious combinations as “FLOTUS at the Wellington Gymkhana Club” and “Policeman on a deserted island” were threaded into a plot.
Next followed a session on essay writing – and I was determined to make it more interesting than the usual school exercise. So I set the tone by asking the kids to read up the delightful “Bathing in a Borrowed Suit” by Homer Croy and then followed it by suggesting similar humorous topics for their essays.
Today of course was the most active session of all – drama. After a couple of theatrical warm-up exercises, we went on to discuss dramatization of character and plot besides setting a scene. The kids had a rollicking time acting out varied characters and minor plot-lines. In the end, they even dramatized a story of their own and agreed to write proper dialogues for it as a home assignment.
“You are never to do old to do goofy stuff…” said the character Ward Cleaver in the widely loved family sitcom of the 1960s, Leave it to Beaver – on this bracing Saturday afternoon by the Wellington Lake, as we all tumbled along the grassy slope, I couldn’t agree more!
On the day of The Hunt, the sun dawned on a regal scene. Red flags fluttered in the gentle breeze as the lush valley glowed a pale emerald in the heart of the Wellington Gymkhana Club – today the site where the dashing riders of the Ooty Hunt Club would converge on their steeds after a three hour ride. Even as elegantly dressed ladies twittered in the pavilion and their bundles of energy darted through chairs, there was a palpable sense of expectation – any moment now, the riders might come into view…
The Hunt in this context is actually a formalized horse-riding exercise, often through uneven terrain. Though real hunting of game no longer takes place, the hounds faithfully carry on before the riders – in a throwback to the British tradition whereby the erstwhile colonial rulers brought the Hunt into this corner of the Nilgiris in 1835. It has remained active ever since, thus making the Ooty Hunt Club the only functional one outside England and Ireland. The Club is primarily patronized by the riders of Defence Services Staff College in Wellington, whose Commandant is its Honorary President as well. Every year there are around ten Hunts conducted, with each getting progressively difficult.
Low sighs of wonder rustled through the audience as the riders galloped into view – the Masters of Fox Hounds resplendent in their red blazers and other riders – including a lady and two kids as well – smart in their navy ones. After the new riders were ceremonially given their lapel pins, it was photograph time…
All around were bright, happy faces – riders and spouses posing proudly with the mounts, kids petting the now-sleepy hounds, the grooms beaming proudly upon being complimented on their excellent work – I wondered at the shrill ugly voices of hyper-nationalism, always dangerously near. Always up in arms to defend “tradition”, would they ever understand this scene before me? These values of fairplay, respect for rules, regard for the sport and sheer love for these grand animals – values that represented tradition in the best sense of the word.
Recently I came across something very interesting about certain creatures of the deep sea. At great depths of the ocean where there is no natural light, there are a few species which actually produce their own light. The angler fish and the appropriately-named flashlight fish are two such kinds. In fact the angler fish has a spinal projection from its head at the end of which is a bulb that glows – it can even switch on and off the bulb by controlling the flow of blood to the particular part of its body. Incredible!
The phenomenon of living things giving off light is known as bioluminescence. And while glow worms and fireflies do this by mixing chemical compounds in their bodies, the deep-sea fish described above, do it with the help of special light-producing bacteria in their bodies.
Then at the other end, is a kind of deep sea fish which has the ability to make itself practically invisible. Known as the hatchet fish, it has sides covered with large silver scales that act like mirrors besides two rows of light-producing organs on its underside. With any light falling on the fish being reflected back by the mirror-like scales, it can easily escape detection by its enemies and predators.
It is only a matter of time, I guess, before DC and Marvel Comics come up with a super-hero inspired by these amazing creatures of the deep!
A ten km hike – did you say? I pushed my brains to some extreme calculations – alright, if the morning walk with my dog amounts to roughly one and a half kilometre, then multiply that into…mmm….a little more than six times?! And yet even after such mental calisthenics, I was no nearer to gauging how the hike would turn out in reality.
When I had first looked up the word ‘zen’, I had found that one of meanings was a state of such complete absorption in a particular experience that there was no place for doubt or anxiety. Something similar happened in the hike – both my physical and emotional faculties were so deeply immersed in the sights, sounds, smells and texture of the forests that we passed through, that nothing else mattered – not the undone laundry at home, unreplied mails, pressing work deadlines or long pending appointment with my hair stylist.
The soft forest floor which sprung ever so gently under our steps, the myriad shades of green all around us, the refreshing scent of pine and ever so many kinds of bird calls – chirps, trills, whistles and even the occasional outburst of the laughing thrush…all this engaged my senses so entirely that at the end of three hours – including a couple of ten-minute breaks – I returned to the everyday world with mixed feelings – looking forward to a hot, three-course meal but also concerned for the sanctity and the vitality of these sylvan Nilgiri slopes.