OK. Picture this if you can:
It is 8:30PM, pitch dark. I am standing at the open gate of a neighbor’s compound. I am naked except for a (I must say, ravishing), emerald green, tie-dye cotton sarong wrapped around my waist and Birkenstocks on my feet. The vast whiteness of my belly is exposed to the world, my locally unnatural furry body proclaiming my foreignness. Perhaps, then, it is fortunate that I am alone in the dark.
Pregnant with Freudian symbolism, in my left hand I am carrying a foot long, Kenyon-purple torch (flashlight for those of you in the Western Hemisphere) and in my right hand I am brandishing (for no other word will do) a four foot, rolled up, white umbrella, wooden handle foremost. With my gray hair and gray beard I am the very picture of an Avenging Angel of the Lord. Or at least one of the Lord’s more fey, pale, and decrepit Avenging Angels.
Got that pictured? OK. Don’t worry. A couple of stiff shots of arrack and an hour or two should be enough to clear it out of your mind.
True to my avenging angel role, I am yelling angrily for the occupants of the house to come out or I will call the police. And I am angry. Hot angry. Not under total control angry. I am shouting at the top of my lungs in a residential neighborhood of a foreign city. When no one appears immediately, I call out that it is fine with me if they stay inside and call the police themselves. Either way. No one save for Kris and my nangi, Anna, have seen me this hot.
So how did I find myself in this situation? Well, it has to do with an increasingly vicious neighborhood dog. There are dogs everywhere here, mostly strays, mostly in miserable condition, feeding off piles of garbage. I have found that the strays are never a threat, too enervated from disease and starvation to challenge a human. But there are some pet dogs, elevated one might say, above the masses. This is a tale of two pet dogs.
The first is the pet dog owned by our landlady. We willingly took on the responsibility for the dog both because we had just had experience with the difficulty of finding someone to care for pets when one is traveling and because we genuinely like dogs and knew we would appreciate its cheerful companionship. She is a small dog with long hair, all white, weighing between 3-4kg (7-9 pounds). She is a bit small for my taste and she is a bit “yappy.” She prances rather than walks, bushy tail high, mouth slightly open giving her the appearance of a happy smile. Her open-mouthed, excited greeting will give you a distinct whiff of “doggy breath” when you stoop to return her greeting with a pat on the head.
The dog worships the maid, who is conditioned by her culture not to return much affection, so the little dog is predictably desperate for attention, alone in the world without an accepting “pack.” But the maid bathes her weekly and feeds her daily and generally looks out for her. The dog is approaching twenty years old, a bit of a holdover from when the landlady thought that her two children should have a pet, and not much liked by the landlady either as we were to find out. Though I have lived with the dog for seven months now, I am not really sure of her name. Between my difficulties hearing and my unfamiliarity with Sri Lankan names, the best I can do is “Mitzi.” And she looks like a dog an American would call “Mitzi.”
Early on, Mitzi earned a place in my personal “Dog Hall of Fame.” She is a credit to dogs the world over. Born into an unappreciative, un-understanding, human culture, she has soldiered on doing what dogs do: standing guard; alerting on intruders; never failing to greet each family member enthusiastically even if the parting has been for only five minutes; and being continuously devoted to their family no matter how she is treated. Mitzi Amarasinghe Gunaratne deserves a medal on this Earth and I am sure as an agnostic can be that she has a place in Doggy Heaven waiting for her arrival in the not-too-distant future.
Less charitable things can be said about the villain of the piece, a mostly black, short haired, male and maleficent dog belonging to the aforementioned neighbors. The dog is twice the size, so ten times Mitzi’s weight. I do not know this dog’s name either, but will use our maid’s sobriquet, “this bad dog” which is suitably descriptive. This bad dog first came to my attention in the first month of our stay when it challenged me as I was walking home from the University. This bad dog was hanging around the path that leads off the alley toward our house. It ran at me, growling, barking, and baring its teeth. I raised my umbrella and challenged it right back. This bad dog’s owner eventually appeared. She said that this bad dog did not like humans carrying umbrellas. I responded that humans have the right to carry umbrellas, not to mention their obvious utility in a tropical climate, and that the real point was that she should keep her dog under control. Displaying the obvious lack of control she had over the dog, she then proceeded to ineffectually herd this bad dog back toward her house. It would circle around her, coming back at me, until she would get between me and it and start the process over. The dog was totally unresponsive to her voice commands. In fact, this bad dog was one of the reasons why item number four in “101 Reasons to Carry an Umbrella in Sri Lanka” was noted as true and not humorous.
From time to time, this bad dog and one of his packmates would enter our yard and we would chase them off. But not too long ago, this bad dog attacked Mitzi on one of these forays. Mitzi received a puncture wound that our maid treated with an antibiotic. The location of the bite on her hindquarters made it obvious that Mitzi was in full submissive posture when bitten. Mitzi was obviously shaken, but recovered well after a day or two. We tightened our efforts to chase this bad dog out when he appeared and to make sure that Mitzi was safely locked up when we were not around to protect her.
Mitzi generally sleeps in a reasonably sized dog house outdoors as do many pet dogs in the neighborhood. This is as much to protect them as to confine them. Mitzi, while loyal, is not particularly bright and, even after twenty years, has not yet quite got the concept about the wisdom of staying in the dog house all night. She really wants to be with her family. A few nights ago, Mitzi was able to make an opening in the screen of her dog house and escape. Sadly, this bad dog found her that night. When I awoke in the morning, the maid had taken Mitzi to the garage. She was laying at the rear of the car, shivering violently. The maid had applied an antibiotic to the wounds, but, in addition to a deep puncture wound at one spot on her abdomen, there was a second wound that had torn the skin open, exposing the abdominal wall. I was not at all sure that Mitzi would recover with just home care.
I was frustrated and angry. A dear old pet dog should not be abused like this, especially not on my “watch.” Dammit, this was a creature under my roof, even if it was a rented roof. I was tired of not knowing what was the culturally correct way to discharge my duties heretofore leaving it to the maid, leaving it to the neighborhood. I was angry, but not in any way out-of-control angry. But Kris knew I was angry and so did the maid.
Things began to happen. The maid took the dog to the vet where it received several stitches and more antibiotics. Kris wrote a carefully considered, even handed letter to the justice of the peace in Dongolla, to whom our landlady had introduced us before she left, pointing out among other things the danger to the half dozen children living on our lane younger than six.
The dog was in much better shape upon returning from the vet and the letter to the justice of the peace was acted on the very next morning. The justice of the peace called Kris to verify details and confirmed to Kris that this neighbor had caused some trouble before. He then called the neighbors and let them know that if they did not control the dog, he would involve the police. He called Kris back to let her know that the neighbors had agreed to keep the dog confined.
And then came last night. Kris and I were finishing dinner when we heard a ruckous in the kitchen and the maid shooing some animal out the door. It was this bad dog. This bad dog had entered our house and attacked Mitzi. Fortunately the maid’s timely action prevented any harm to Mitzi, but once I appreciated what had happened, I went off.
While the maid and Kris chased the dog out the back door, I went through the house girding for battle. By the time I had collected sandals, torch, and umbrella, this bad dog had fled from the yard, but I knew where he lived. Kris asked where I was going. “Hunting,” I said. I marched to the neighbor’s house where this bad dog challenged me. He was loose, in clear violation of the agreement.
I will give the neighbor’s credit. They did come out. I’m not sure I would have under the same circumstances. The man was placating, apparently accepting responsibility. The woman uttered simpering excuses about how she had put a collar on the dog, but “somehow” it wriggled out. What a miserable, pathetic, ignorant creature she was. It was so flippin’ obvious that the behavioral problems of this bad dog were totally due to her. By this time, this bad dog was defying all of their efforts to rein him in, standing in a narrow, human-inaccessable space between a parked car and a wall, barking away, ignoring their verbal commands. The man assured me that he had things under control and, though I doubted it very much, I let myself be placated and returned to our house. The justice of the peace will be called in the morning and we will see how it plays out from here.
A footnote to my dear friend Kara. Kara is my guru for all things about international education and was very helpful in helping us learn about acculturation by recommending some excellent books. She reads this blog and has contributed a number of useful and insightful comments. And I am ashamed that she now knows that by allowing myself to become angry, I committed one of the cardinal sins of intercultural communication. I will childishly snap back that intercultural exchange is a two way street, but then I will beg to be allowed to remain in her virtual ashram.