Skip to content

TOP DOG

Dogster attained a certain stardom on the ghats of Varanasi. One might even call it notoriety. It really wasn’t his fault. He was an accidental entrant in the ‘Really Stupid Tourist’ Competition – but he won.

My lodgings stood in a commanding position mid-ghat, perched directly at the top of a steep flight of murderous stairs overlooking the river far below. At the end of every exhausting day in Varanasi I always knew I had to climb those thousand stairs, from the edge of the filthy Ganges up the steps of the ghat, up to the foot of the Rashmi Guest House, then up their bloody steps, then up, up into the lobby then, God help me, up – up – up four flights of stairs to Room 303, best room in the house.

The Dogster Suite was exactly like every other room in the hotel except it was up high. The shower sprayed water all over the bathroom, the beds were thin, the walls were thin, the sheets were thin and dirty – but I was happy here, it was perfect for the Dog’s random daily wanders. Good food, friendly staff, this place ticked over like a clock – I stayed a week, climbed those bloody stairs, slept like a log and never once made it out of bed in time for the famous dawn boat-ride down the Ganges – or breakfast either, for that matter.

My luxury suite came with a view, a sweeping sandbank, a murky torrent, river traffic passing by. On one side the Observatory, Bauhaus sculpture from the Brahmins, home to a pack of terrifying monkeys. My suite had bars on the windows.  When I woke up, windows open, to find a giant monster monkey reaching urgently through the bars for my vitals, I understood why. His face contorted into a ferocious frozen scream, he screeched and posed, ready to fight. I thought he was angry but now I think he was laughing – pre-emptive mirth at the fate that was in store.

*

Varanasi was easy. All I had to do was walk down those infernal stairs to the ghat then I had two choices – go left or go right. This I could process. It wasn’t until much later, at the moment of my sudden celebrity, that I discovered there was a third option.

Left led to the main cremation ghat via a walkway of smooth talking ‘guides’. Evenings along here could be great – the glow of the cremation fires, the bad singing at the apprentice aarti ceremonies that dot that stretch of the ghats – even the guides and hasslers were low key along this part of river bank at night. After a few days they just let me be.

A right turn meant deep therapy immersion in the centre of it all, the place where all that Varanasi business goes on: the bathing and the wedding banquets, the drums, the massage men, the boatmen, the temples, the Varanasi ‘thing’.

So between those two options: left or right – I passed my week.

I grew to be a familiar face in what became a very small town. At first, as a fresh face, you run the inevitable gauntlet – but it’s the same comparatively few people out of the thousands who have their particular patch, get to know you as you pass on a regular basis, don’t try to sell you anything any more, then eventually smile and shake your hand as you pass. It all about the magic words ‘How’s your business today?’ the nod, the smile, the wink. After a couple of days of that your progress becomes easier, you can slip in around the corners, catch a breather, sit, relax and enter into this strange cycle that Vananasi calls a day.

*

My Varanasi was bloody, bloody hot – forty-four degrees. Everybody was on the same schedule – by the middle of the day everybody had given up: only after the hoses had washed the day’s devotions from the steps mid-afternoon, then, and only then would the gentle throng appear.

The ritual implements laid in their lines ready for evening aarti, the evening bathers jumping in and out of that disgusting water, happily drying their skin and dressing slowly as the sun went down, the boats leaving crammed with tourists, heading off to take secret pictures of the Burning Ghat, the steady stream of the faithful taking up their positions around those famous platforms where six handsome men slowly wave stuff around in the air – the endless fascination of Varanasi, the no-two-days-are-alikeness of Varanasi sucked me in. That I didn’t understand it, that I couldn’t understand it only added to the intrigue – I was learning rapidly that the only thing I could do was to abandon myself to it.

Almost every night I was there was a concert, some bizarre event in the open air, swallowed up by a sound you’ve never heard of before, a speech you don’t understand, a school orchestra of such fantastic awfulness that wild horses wouldn’t drag you away – each one interrupted by savage power cuts at unexpected intervals. Two evenings organised by the Clean Up the Ganges guys, huge concerts with famous Indian musicians, both came to a premature end, which was a shame. It was a good cause.

The papers had been full of it. The Ganges at Varanasi is just one huge flowing petrie dish. The amount of pure disgustingness in that river, the e-coli levels, the dead fish, not to mention the dead bodies floating lazily along, rendered it officially the dirtiest river on the planet. I looked at the black ooze between the steps and the water in front of the hotel. They were right, I decided. I shuddered and walked away. I knew that if I so much as placed one toe in it I would surely die.

*

This hotel has an enormous bouncer, a Muslin man of great size. He could only talk in grunts and bellows, had no English and I no Hindi – but that was fine by me. As the days slip by, as you become familiar to the locals, so you bond with the staff – you chat, you smile, pass the time of day – it’s the usual traveller thing. We found communication. He was the biggest man I’d ever seen and to him I was probably the strangest and skinniest – but in our own odd way we got on fine.

Perhaps he felt I needed protection.

The owner of the Rashmi Guest House kept an equally enormous Great Dane called Bruno. I’d heard him howling like a demented Hound of the Baskervilles at night. The Bouncer and Bruno were bosom buddies and presented quite a ferocious sight, calculated to strike fear into any would-be burglar and petty crim – of which Varanasi has many. This lethal combination would stand at the top of the stairs in the late afternoon chained to one another, anxious drool flying wildly from Bruno’s mouth as he looked for a naughty Indian to eat.

I met Bruno the Great Dane on several occasions. As I was a friend of the family Bruno took me as a thoroughly fine foreigner and was content to let me pat him. More than that, Bruno was content to climb up on the couch with me, lean his whole body over to my side and slop Bruno drool on my head. He was a lot bigger than me. Sitting together on the foyer couch his head towered above mine. He loved me, instantly. He was a big, scary puppy-dog who could kill you.

Dogster showed no fear. No, even worse, he had no fear.

From his post at the top of the stairs the Bouncer see a huge swathe of the ghats. His sheer brute size meant that, wherever he went, he was king of all he surveyed. He knew the locals; he knew precisely who the hustlers were, the touts, the boatmen, the ‘guides’, the dealers. He also knew the gullibility of his tourists: he saw it all. So he witnessed the Dogster’s progress from afar, saw who stopped to chat, who stayed too long, read body language and the reaching for pockets: he saw it all and understood everything.

*

One afternoon I was wandering home and was overtaken by an old acquaintance, some hashish hustler from the left hand ghats who’d been gently working on me for days. This was a ‘loser’ hustler, a not very good hustler, a bit of a bumble hustler and in his charming fashion, of course, led me astray. Within seconds Bouncer was there.

He rounded on my nefarious companion and abused him in several languages, bellowing at the top of his lungs. This went on for some time while I stood there completely bemused. This man was here to protect me and here he was in operation – Bouncer, my bodyguard.

The poor belittled hustler knew when to run. This was his moment to live or die and he chose life, rapidly backing away. I thanked Bouncer in a manly way, for just what I wasn’t quite sure. Probably from yet another dud deal, another block of mud disguised as charas, another thousand rupees gone to feed the chuckling crooks of Varanasi.

But not today. Not yet, at least.

So Bouncer and I had a secret – and he, with his amazingly simple logic, had come up with a plan. When I next appeared at the top of the stairs Bouncer and Bruno were there. Every day at this time they went for their walk and, with a nod and a gesture, Bouncer made it clear that if I wanted, I could come along for the walk.

Now, this was some serious male bonding. I was fully aware that this was not part of the everyday tourist experience at Rashmi Guest House, that I had been somehow plucked from the crowd for a special honour. So of course, even though I was already tired, I wiggled my head enthusiastically and said ‘Let’s go!’

I tagged along with Bouncer and Bruno, trying to keep up with their cracking pace. Bruno was highly trained, except when his enthusiasm got the better of him and he saw a cow or something large he could kill. Then he leapt for his prey with little warning as Bouncer yelled commands and was dragged along. But the Bouncer was strong, he was Bruno’s master and knew how to keep his dog in control – there were just these little bursts of lethal enthusiasm to contend with.

In terms of the crowd, he may as well have been walking a lion. As we strode in to the busiest area people would shriek and cringe away. A path was created in front of us, a considerable wake in our rear as the Mighty Dogster and his super-pals, Bruno and B. B., carved our way through the multitude. It was the single most vivid demonstration of brute force I’ve ever experienced. To be inside that, to be an acknowledged part of that as we forged along was quite exhilarating – in all the wrong ways. I felt absolutely as strong as the Great Dane at that moment – and that was one very strong dog.

What Bouncer was saying to the crowd, with a very deliberate, clear message, was that Mr. Dogster was with him. In that crowd watching was every street hustler, every shady masseur, every boatman, every pimp and reprobate and they all received his message loud and clear. From that moment on Mr. Dogster walked the streets un-harassed.

Bouncer was a well known figure; he was loud, scared of nobody and well-respected. No wonder. We continued on along the ghats, our walk like a victory march.

Then he stopped and handed me the chain.

‘You?’ he said and cocked his head.

This, I felt, was a great honour.

 

The dog was perfectly behaved, walking at my side, not dragging me away, the steel chain hanging loose between us, Bouncer keeping an eye on us from the rear. This dog was truly enormous. His head reached half-way up my chest and slopped friendly drool on the front of my shirt. That’s how tall this dog was. He was strong, finely balanced, trotting docilely beside me, like a giant killer wolf. We walked some more and I learnt on the move how to handle Bruno’s needs, made manly Dogster comments and pulled occasionally on his chain. We progressed in a civilised fashion right down to the far cremation ghats, paused, had chai and didn’t talk for a while. Two men and a dog watching the dead.

I let Bouncer take the reins as we began to walk back. To tell the truth, walking that mountain of a dog had been nerve-wracking – and my legs were getting tired. Just as well – Bruno spotted a Hindu cow. The cow turned on Bruno and stood its ground. Bruno lunged, dragging Bouncer behind him. The cow ran wildly up some steps while Bruno raced after him.  Bouncer hauled on the chain, screaming Arabic abuse.

Then Bruno completely forgot the cow and turned away. He was not a smart dog. He belatedly obeyed his commands and meekly wandered back along the path – panting, but perfectly in control. We came back to the main crowds, sliced through them like butter, made our progress right back to the ghats at the base of the Guest House.

Bouncer handed over the chain again just before we got there so I could walk the monster home.  This event was of some significance.  Quite why, I didn’t know.

I wrapped the chain round my wrist and held it tight in my right hand. Together Mr. Dogster and Bruno arrived on the stone ghats, those sloping steps that lead down to the Ganges.

We were standing on a wide stone laid terrace. Bruno was sitting down, drool scattering, tongue lolling while I playfully patted his head. Bouncer was chatting to some other guy while I looked around. It was the customary evening Ganges scene. About three metres away were four or five steps leading to another flat terrace, another few steps, another terrace covered in green slime, more steps then a stretch of disgusting mud that extended into the Ganges. In the water half a dozen or so bathers splashed around, dunking themselves and getting spiritually enriched at the same time. Bouncer nudged my arm and jerked his head at the water.

‘Boss,’ he grunted. ‘Boss Boy.’

I nodded but had no idea what he meant.

An old man crouched nearby washing his trousers, two others sat on the steps passing the time of day, somewhere in the distance I could hear bells and singing – Bouncer and Dogster stood side by side, catching our breath after our long crazy power-walk. I was showing him the pictures I had taken. He held my camera in his enormous hand and pushed at the buttons with delight.

The catalyst for my great Varanasi celebrity was the boss’s son standing chest-deep in the water. This was ‘Boss Boy.’

I didn’t hear Boss Boy shout out ‘Bruno!’

I didn’t feel the dog leap to his feet and hurtle in his direction – all I felt was an almighty tug.

I was still attached to the dog.

*

It was one of those moments when the pure karmic cowpat of India bursts splat in your face. I made it across the first few metres, then rapidly down the first stairs, across the second level below us and down the next set of stairs. My skinny legs were operating at a pace I never felt possible. I still had no idea what was propelling me. All I knew was steps and flat and steps and – whoosh!

It was the green slime that did it. Whoosh! My legs went out from under me.

I landed. Bam! Flat on the cheeks of my arse and, still pulled by Bruno, slid off the edge, on to the next flight of steps.

Slide! Ouch!

Bounce! Ouch!

Bounce! Bounce! Bounce! Ouch! Ouch! Arghhhhh!

Deep into that putrid, poisonous mud – then up to my neck in the Ganges.

Bruno was splashing happily around next to me, completely content. I was splashing, not so happily, next to him – trying desperately to keep my head above water.

A face leant over me. It was Boss Boy.

‘Sorry,’ he said brightly.

Pride, it occurred to the Dogster there and then, did indeed precede a fall.

It’s not often a tourist is dragged fully clothed into the Ganges by a Great Dane. I was rapidly the talk of the town. There was rescue, fuss and photos – and a very worried looking guest-house manager. He felt my head – but somehow that alone had escaped injury. Right at that moment I had no idea where I was hurt. I certainly found out later.

I stood up and, at that moment, with adrenalin coursing through my body, sloshing through mud up to my knees, dripping with filth and looking like the fool I was, I felt, for the first time, as if I had truly arrived in India. Here it was, the height of my magnificent voyage: the perfect moment of my sub-continental stumble. Here I stood in the Ganges covered from head to toe with mud, soaked in toxic water that would soon dissolve my clothes.

‘Don’t you worry, Mr. Dogster,’ said the manager of the guest house, ‘Mother Ganga will protect you!’

*

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: