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Colonial canine conundrum

Is the Western nomenclature of dogs in India a coincidently adopted practice or has it descended upon us from our erstwhile masters?

Colonial canine conundrum
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Tucked away somewhere in the reams of reportage on COVID-19, its daily and cumulative tolls, and the politics, economics and science surrounding the pandemic, a minor news item catches attention: "Goodbye to Western names, only Indian names for its K9 team members, decides ITBP". The Indo-Tibetan Border Police have decided not to give Western names to their K9 team members any more, and confine rather strictly to Indian names for the dogs of the squad. It also held a naming ceremony where some of the pups were given names like Galwan, Chip-chap, Daulat, Shyok etc. One wonders how the dogs of their K9 team, or for that matter, a vast majority of pet dogs in India, came to have Western names in the first place.

The award for the most classic dog name in the country, if such an award were to be instituted, would surely go to 'Tommy' — a shortened form of 'Thomas'. There were times when any passing-by dog would automatically be addressed to as 'Tommy' as if it were the default name for all the dogs. Some three and half decades ago, a friend of mine had two dogs, both of whom were called 'Tommy'! The two Tommies stood in contrast to each other. One was as docile as any living being could ever be. It couldn't be bothered enough to lift his head to see what the matter was, or if a cyclone were to make landfall somewhere in his vicinity. The other one, however, was a different being altogether. A hunting dog to all appearances, complete with cropped ears, a loud gruff voice and a menacing look, it was always straining at its leash and was ready to pounce upon anyone he could lay his eyes on. It did not seem to make any distinction between a friend and a foe. He was evidently a subscriber to the "Kill them all, let God sort them out" school of thought. My momentary thoughts about my friend, after a brief encounter with Tommy the Terrible, could perhaps best be summed up in the words of acclaimed Swedish writer and painter, Johan August Strindberg: "I loathe people who keep dogs. They are cowards who haven't got the guts to bite people themselves."

Coming back to popular dog names of the good old days, 'Jacky', possibly, was a distant second in popularity to the ubiquitous Tommy. While it was not too rare to encounter an odd 'Raja', 'Moti' or 'Sheru', dogs with home-grown names were in a minuscule minority in comparison to those with Western names like Blackie, Brownie, Tiger, Rocky, Rover, Boxer, Bruno, Husky, Bullet et al.

But then, as the Great Bard wrote, "What's in a name?" Well, on the face of it, nothing. But the extraordinary preponderance of Western names among Indian pet dogs surely cannot be a matter of mere coincidence. Moreover, it isn't just names. Urban Indians, even those who are otherwise constrained by their proficiency in English and would never venture to speak to another human being in the language, go out of their way to address their dogs in English. It is as if every dog is a natural-born English speaker and cannot be expected to respond to commands, in any, of the 19,500 odd mother tongues spoken in the country. So, what explains the phenomenon?

One theory is that if you were to call your dog by a common Indian name instead of a culturally alien name like Tommy or Jacky, you might end up offending your friends, relatives, kin, neighbours or sundry other acquaintances who happen to share the name. They may even think of it as a deliberate attempt to insult them. After all, wasn't "Tere naam ka kutta paalun" ("I will keep a dog bearing your name") an ignominious insult thrown by a hugely popular Bollywood hero at the local baddie in a blockbuster of the 1980s? That dialogue never failed to elicit rapturous applause from the audience.

Another plausible reason which is sometimes cited is that most of the popular breeds of pet dogs are in fact of foreign (especially Western) origin. This is no doubt factually correct. Most breeds of dogs that Indians like to keep as pets, like German Shepherds, Labradors, Pomeranians, Beagles, Cocker Spaniels, Golden retrievers, Pugs, Poodles etc., are indeed of Western origin. Indian breeds like the Mudhol Hound, the Rajapalayam, and the Chippiparai et al are yet to capture the popular imagination. But the foreign origin of the breed alone cannot explain why they must have foreign names and be addressed only in English. Most of these breeds have been around long enough to have become naturalised members of Indian doghood. After all, isn't assimilation supposed to be the country's greatest cultural strength?

'The Book of Indian Dogs' by S Theodore Baskaran may offer a clue. According to the author, although Indian dogs were historically in demand abroad, at home, except for some kings and nobles who indulged in hunting, the upper and middle classes in India shunned them. The people who owned and handled dogs were working-class people such as farmers, graziers, trappers and hunters. The word "dog" itself was used as a derogatory term in daily usage. Dogs were generally not treated as part of the family and allowed to roam free inside the house. The practice of keeping dogs as house pets, he observes, seems to be of more recent origin. A 2006 research paper by an Australia-based scholar, Sanjay Sircar, notes that middle-class Bengalis used to say jokingly that dogs were the Sahibs' pets, and so, all dogs understand English.

It would appear, therefore, that the habit of giving Western names to pet dogs and addressing them in English, owes its origin in a large measure to our erstwhile colonial masters. If so, then it must have all begun when a certain gentleman called Sir Thomas Roe came to India back in 1615 AD.

Much water has flown down the Ganges since then. Surely, it's time to make a change. So, here's to the ITPB and to their Galwans and Shyoks; may their tribe grow and prosper!

Views expressed are personal

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