The Dog of Titwal
A dog looking for food and love, trapped in a battle between two waging sides
The soldiers had been entrenched in their positions for several weeks, but there was little, if any, fighting, except for the dozen rounds they ritually exchanged every day. The weather was extremely pleasant. The air was heavy with the scent of wild flowers and nature seemed to be following its course, quite unmindful of the soldiers hiding behind rocks and camouflaged by mountain shrubbery. The birds sang as they always had and the flowers were in bloom. Bees buzzed about lazily.
Only when a shot rang out, the birds got startled and took flight, as if a musician had struck a jarring note on his instrument. It was almost the end of September, neither hot nor cold. It seemed as if summer and winter had made their peace. In the blue skies, cotton clouds floated all day like barges on a lake.
The soldiers seemed to be getting tired of this indecisive war where nothing much ever happened. Their positions were quite impregnable. The two hills on which they were placed faced each other and were about the same height, so no one side had an advantage. Down below in the valley, a stream zigzagged furiously on its stony bed like a snake. The air force was not involved in the combat and neither of the adversaries had heavy guns or mortars. At night, they would light huge fires and hear each others' voices echoing through the hills.
The last round of tea had just been taken. The fire had gone cold. The sky was clear and there was a chill in the air and a sharp, though not unpleasant, smell of pinecones. Most of the soldiers were already asleep, except Jamadar Harnam Singh, who was on night watch. At two o'clock, he woke up Ganda Singh to take over. Then he lay down, but sleep was as far away from his eyes as the stars in the sky. He began to hum a Punjabi folk song:
Buy me a pair of shoes, my lover
A pair of shoes with stars on them
Sell your buffalo, if you have to
But buy me a pair of shoes
With stars on them.
It made him feel good and a bit sentimental. He woke up the others one by one. Banta Singh, the youngest of the soldiers, who had a sweet voice, began to sing a lovelorn verse from 'Heer Ranjha', that timeless Punjabi epic of love and tragedy. A deep sadness fell over them. Even the grey hills seemed to have been affected by the melancholy of the songs.
This mood was shattered by the barking of a dog. Jamadar Harnam Singh said, "Where has this son of a b**** materialized from?"
The dog barked again. He sounded closer. There was a rustle in the bushes. Banta Singh got up to investigate and came back with an ordinary mongrel in tow. He was wagging his tail. "I found him behind the bushes and he told me his name was Jhun Jhun," Banta Singh announced. Everybody burst out laughing.
The dog went to Harnam Singh, who produced a cracker from his kitbag and threw it on the ground. The dog sniffed at it and was about to eat it, when Harnam Singh snatched it away … "Wait, you could be a Pakistani dog."
They laughed. Banta Singh patted the animal and said to Harnam Singh, "Jamadar sahib, Jhun Jhun is an Indian dog."
"Prove your identity," Harnam Singh ordered the dog, who began to wag his tail.
"This is no proof of identity. All dogs can wag their tails," Harnam Singh said.
"He is only a poor refugee," Banta Singh said, playing with his tail.
Harnam Singh threw the dog a cracker, which he caught in mid-air. "Even dogs will now have to decide if they are Indian or Pakistani," one of the soldiers observed.
Harnam Singh produced another cracker from his kitbag. "And all Pakistanis, including dogs, will be shot."
A soldier shouted, "India Zindabad!"
The dog, who was about to munch his cracker, stopped dead in his tracks, put his tail between his legs and looked scared. Harnam Singh laughed. "Why are you afraid of your own country? Here, Jhun Jhun, have another cracker."
The morning broke very suddenly, as if someone had switched on a light in a dark room. It spread across the hills and valleys of Titwal, which is what the area was called.
The war had been going on for months but nobody could be quite sure who was winning it.
Jamadar Harnam Singh surveyed the area with his binoculars. He could see smoke rising from the opposite hill, which meant that, like them, the enemy was busy preparing breakfast.
Subedar Himmat Khan of the Pakistan army gave his huge moustache a twirl and began to study the map of the Titwal sector. Next to him sat his wireless operator, who was trying to establish contact with the platoon commander to obtain instructions. A few feet away, the soldier Bashir sat on the ground, his back against a rock and his rifle in front of him. He was humming:
Where did you spend the night, my love, my moon?
Where did you spend the night?
Enjoying himself, he began to sing more loudly, savouring the words. Suddenly he heard Subedar Himmat Khan scream, "Where did you spend the night?"
But this was not addressed to Bashir. It was a dog he was shouting at. He had come to them from nowhere a few days ago, stayed in the camp quite happily and then suddenly disappeared last night. However, he had now returned like a bad coin.
Bashir smiled and began to sing to the dog. "Where did you spend the night, where did you spend the night?" But he only wagged his tail. Subedar Himmat Khan threw a pebble at him. "All he can do is wag his tail, the idiot."
"What has he got around his neck?" Bashir asked.
One of the soldiers grabbed the dog and undid his makeshift rope collar. There was a small piece of cardboard tied to it.
"What does it say?" the soldier, who could not read, asked.
Bashir stepped forward and with some difficulty was able to decipher the writing. "It says Jhun Jhun."
Subedar Himmat Khan gave his famous moustache another mighty twirl and said, "Perhaps it is a code. Does it say anything else, Bashirey?"
"Yes sir, it says it is an Indian dog."
"What does that mean?" Subedar Himmat Khan asked.
"Perhaps it is a secret," Bashir answered seriously.
"If there is a secret, it is in the word Jhun Jhun," another soldier ventured in a wise guess.
"You may have something there," Subedar Himmat Khan observed.
Dutifully, Bashir read the whole thing again. "Jhun Jhun. This is an Indian dog."
Subedar Himmat Khan picked up the wireless set and spoke to his platoon commander, providing him with a detailed account of the dog's sudden appearance in their position, his equally sudden disappearance the night before and his return that morning. "What are you talking about?" the platoon commander asked.
Subedar Himmat Khan studied the map again. Then he tore up a packet of cigarettes, cut a small piece from it and gave it to Bashir. "Now write on it in Gurmukhi, the language of those Sikhs …"
"What should I write?"
Bashir had an inspiration. "Shun Shun, yes, that's right. We counter Jhun Jhun with Shun Shun."
"Good," Subedar Himmat Khan said approvingly. "And add: This is a Pakistani dog."
Subedar Himmat Khan personally threaded the piece of paper through the dog's collar and said, "Now go join your family."
He gave him something to eat and then said, "Look here, my friend, no treachery. The punishment for treachery is death.
The dog kept eating his food and wagging his tail. Then Subedar Himmat Khan turned him round to face the Indian position and said, "Go and take this message to the enemy, but come back. These are the orders of your commander."
The dog wagged his tail and moved down the winding hilly track that led into the valley dividing the two hills. Subedar Himmat Khan picked up his rifle and fired in the air.
The Indians were a bit puzzled, as it was somewhat early in the day for that sort of thing. Jamadar Harnam Singh, who in any case was feeling bored, shouted, "Let's give it to them."
The two sides exchanged fire for half an hour, which of course was a complete waste of time. Finally, Jamadar Harnam Singh ordered that enough was enough. He combed his long hair, looked at himself in the mirror and asked Banta Singh, "Where has that dog Jhun Jhun gone?"
"Dogs can never digest butter, goes the famous saying," Banta Singh observed philosophically.
Suddenly the soldier on lookout duty shouted, "There he comes." "Who?" Jamadar Harnam Singh asked.
"What was his name? Jhun Jhun," the soldier answered.
"What is he doing?" Harnam Singh asked.
"Just coming our way," the soldier replied, peering through his binoculars.
Subedar Harnam Singh snatched them from him. "That's him all right and there's something around his neck. But, wait, that's the Pakistani hill he's coming from, the motherf*****."
He picked up his rifle, aimed and fired. The bullet hit some rocks close to where the dog was. He stopped.
Subedar Himmat Khan heard the report and looked through his binoculars. The dog had turned round and was running back. "The brave never run away from battle. Go forward and complete your mission," he shouted at the dog. To scare him, he fired at the same time. The bullet passed within inches of the dog, who leapt in the air, flapping his ears. Subedar Himmat Khan fired again, hitting some stones.
It soon became a game between the two soldiers, with the dog running round in circles in a state of great terror. Both Himmat Khan and Harnam Singh were laughing boisterously. The dog began to run towards Harnam Singh, who abused him loudly and fired. The bullet caught him in the leg. He yelped, turned around and began to run towards Himmat Khan, only to meet more fire, which was only meant to scare him. "Be a brave boy. If you are injured, don't let that stand between you and your duty. Go, go, go," the Pakistani shouted.
The dog turned. One of his legs was now quite useless. He began to drag himself towards Harnam Singh, who picked up his rifle, aimed carefully and shot him dead.
Subedar Himmat Khan sighed, "The poor bugger has been martyred."
Jamadar Harnam Singh ran his hand over the still-hot barrel of his rifle and muttered, "He died a dog's death."
Translated from the Urdu by Khalid Hasan. Excerpted from Bitter Fruit by Penguin India.