Imagine a small, shiny-faced boy sitting in a sitting room – as one does – where it was hot – really hot. Well, this was India – Hyderabad – a majestic city high on the Deccan plateau. That boy watched his mother walking up the steps to the wide, thrown-open doors into the sitting room – her face flushed like the Flame Tree behind her. He could see she was excited – happy. She had just flown back from a quick trip to Bombay, as it then was. She was carrying something – something mostly white. She put it on the Kilim rug that spread over the stone flags of the room.
Well, it was white with brown patches, a docked tail and ears like fluffy flaps. At first, it felt to the boy to be a huge nuisance and intrusion – like that baby that one really did not want added to the familial unit. The boy was scared of it; whenever it came near, he’d climb up onto the armchairs and tell it to keep away. It was perplexed. After a while of this repeated scene – a few days perhaps – that the bearer (a servant title that was a sixties ‘hangover’ from the Raj name for a butler) Angus (quite an old man, dark-skinned, sensitive and serious, ex-Indian Army, had seen World War 1) had watched silently, unapprovingly, he then came over to theboy perched up on the armchair and said in his own particular tone of gentle serenity and severity:
‘BabaSahib, you should be nice to him. He wants to be your friend. He needs your friendship, isn’t it. You should not be climbing on the chairs. It is not dignified.’
The boy felt ashamed and got off the chair and started to make the dog’s acquaintance. Well, it, the dog, he, Benjy grew and grew and got stronger and stronger, and prouder and prouder (in a wholly good way); dog and boy played together day to day in the compound, in its gardens, on its lawns, in its wild areas, its jungle zones. Often, Benjy would scoot off into the trees to chase and bark and to chuck himself at tree trunks and generally do all he could to get the lithe, disgruntled monkeys into a complete state of hysteria. And then, in the searing heat of mid-day, he would lie flat-out on his side on the flags under the piano, breathing heavily through his thick coat, his ears flopped over his eyes, his mouth agape with fangs and drewel, and the boy’d follow him in under there and use him as a pillow to sleep on.
In the relative cool of the evenings, dog and boy would set out from the compound out to where the buffalo wandered around in their muddy pool, through the shanty towns, the huts covered in pats of dung drying in the sun – tomorrow’s cooking fuel, amongst the starving and desperate, and back to the makeshift market and sit and watch the snake charmers do their thing.
Benjy was no ordinary dog, if such a thing exists, but a pedigree English Springer Spaniel and had a pedigree name that was something bizarre like ‘Jocund of Jaipur’. He may have been of Jaipur, and he always came second in the gun-dog category in the local dog shows, but he wasn’t really jocund. The then-super-rich Nizam, as soon as he heard that there was a pedigree Spaniel dog in town, arranged matters so that, about once a week for a while, a black chauffeur-driven car drew up at the front of the house, and the Nizam’s Spaniel bitch was escorted round to the back of the house to a special room that had been prepared and where Benjy was waiting for his weekly experience. (Actually, no, it was not his only such experience - most of the local dachshunds were producing dachshund-spaniel puppies at a fairly amazing rate.) Angus would check that all was running smoothly through a little window at one side of the room and then come to the mistress of the house/mother, sitting reading Vogue, and say, moving his head from side to side and smiling:
‘All is good, MemSaab.’
She would look up briefly and say primly:
‘Thank you, Angus.’
Sometimes, Benjy’d catch a small bird in his mouth and then do nothing with it. All his instincts told him not to pierce the feathers. He would take it to the sweeper and drop it before him and the sweeper would pick it up and nurse it in his palm and wait patiently while the bird recovered from shock, while the mali, in deep contemplation of things, squatted on the lawn and picked out each weed between the pincers of his gnarled, skin-tight, almond-coloured inner thumb and finger for hour after hour feeling the sun slowly rotate around him, basking in the perfect unblemished shining white of the folds of his dhoti, and the cook from a neighbouring house crouched by a puddle in the drive, small memories of the last thrash of the ear-splitting drumming of monsoon, and scoured the pans with moist grit, and everybody suddenly looked up when Benjy did an extraordinary thing – something that almost never happened – quite randomly and without any obvious cause as the monkeys had long left – he barked.