Saturday, September 17, 2011
Afghan Affair – A dog and his Master
In a land where it is nearly impossible to make someone smile for the camera, Shukur is an oddity. It is nearly impossible to make him stop smiling, on or off the camera.
I first noticed Shukur when he came along with the Kheret guesthouse keeper to serve us evening tea. While the score of people gathered in the room ogled us with various expressions on their weather-beaten faces, this one boy (couldn’t be more than 25) laughed and smiled openly at all of us, especially at the two ladies in my company. He didn’t seem curious rather extremely jocular and merry at seeing us; though I later realized that he is merry about everything since I never ever saw anything but a radiant smile on this simpleton’s face.
What endeared him to all of us were his pantomime abilities. Through silent gestures and hand movements he could make us understand exactly what he conveyed and in turn could interpret our gestures. He said his name is Shukur. My first conversation with Shukur was filled with silent gestures and strident laughter. He has a bulbous nose, large round eyes (that rotate all the time) and an easy swing to his stride, all reminding me of Rastapopulous (the arch villain of Tintin). I sincerely wished that Shukur would be one among the eight porters we had asked for our climb to the Base Camp.
The morning of our departure (we were supposed to leave at 8 am) for the BC, I found Shukur outside our door at 6, smiling and laughing at the birds that scattered across the sky. I opened the door to find him dressed in his same pale salwar kameez (which must have been white in some remote past), knee high plastic boot and a rope on his back, which delighted my heart since it meant he was indeed one of our porters. I greeted him in local dialect, he greeted back and then I noticed a dog lying under a bush little distance away. My dog, Shukur gestured with another of his big smiles. Really, I gestured. I love dogs and this was an excellent specimen. All white, fluffy, sharp looking, intelligent (to a degree that astounded me later), and very obedient to Shukur. He introduced me to Zak, now I am not sure if a dog is called Zak in Wakhi tongue or was the dog’s name Zak but since then Zak he was.
I cuddled Zak and he licked my face and we became instant friends. He seemed old (perhaps a decade) as his jaw flanks were flared otherwise he was in excellent condition. I ran my fingers through the thick coat and Zak purred contented. Shukur, seeing my instant bonding to his dog, literally started jumping like a kangaroo. We all laughed and by then Pat and Chris had also come out to investigate all the ruckus we had created. At the determined moment our train of porters and climbers started the uphill trek towards the mighty mountain with white top.
Shukur and Zak stayed close to me; Zak several times getting entangled between my legs since he loved my petting and ear rubbing I gave him every now and then. For me he provided an excellent model and so did his master who would always smile. As we climbed higher and our halts became more frequent and vegetation almost non-existent, I realized that Zak and I shared some common instincts. My philosophy of ‘never stand if you can sit and never sit if you can lie down and never do anything if you have nothing to do’ seemed Zak’s mantra too. He would be the first one among us to find the coziest shade spot or a patch of green to spread his four limbs akimbo and then sprawl and fall asleep (at least he shut his eyes the instant he lied down) within a second of our stopping for rest. At times he would find a nice rock to perch his head while the rest of his body draped upon another larger rock to provide him some warmth. So I start following Zak, knowing for certain that he would lead me to the finest spot each time to throw my backpack down and rest. We often sprawled like that, both competing who would doze off first – much to the amusement of others.
At every stop, Shukur would be the first to open his magic bag and extract naans, kulcha, khomoch and sugar for all of us. At the river Zak found us the safest passage across. He crossed first, literally hop skip and jump and then stood on the other side atop a big boulder watching us cross safely.
All the porters were merry people and extremely hardy but as the trail gained inclination and altitude everyone fell silent and gasped for breath under the heavy burden. No one seemed sad but no one really smiled except Shukur and Zak. It was easy to understand Zak since he carried no load and must be the fittest among us and had four legs on ground so had better balance and poise. But Shukur was something else. I kept close to him, looking at him intently, but the smile was always there, even when he didn’t know I was looking; and each time our eyes met, the smile would only inflate into a huge teeth baring grin.
Just before we went up the final moraine towards the glacier (an extremely steep unstable ground of rolling stones) we stopped for a tea break. It was an open area without any shade but I spied Zak disappearing behind a boulder so I followed him to find a thin passage (barely wide enough to allow me to sit) formed between boulders that offered the only shade and Zak had gone straight into it. It was a bit of a struggle to get up to where Zak now sat with his tongue lolling. I got into the groove and sat next to him. Patted his head like an old buddy and offered him dried apricot.
On reaching the base camp area, Zak found us the debris of the last expedition amidst a wide field of boulders, ice and glacial streams. The porters dropped our loads and built a fire to make some tea. They would go down in less than half an hour. When it was time to bid goodbye I found it hard to part from Zak and Shukur. His smiling face was a bonus in the arid land and a welcoming sight first thing in the morning when he would get my tea. Zak was and still remains the cutest and boldest and cleverest dog in all of Afghan that I had seen.
I met them again on our return from the mountain. I found Shukur riding his donkey towards the river to fetch stones and sands for his roofless house; Zak followed him at his feet. They saw me from far and galloped to catch up. We hugged like old friends, our words all confused, but gestures worked fine.
Shukur offered me a handful of fresh apricots. Zak literally jumped on my chest and then rolled on the ground begging to be scratched on his belly. He wagged his tail like a windmill and barked joyously. After a while I realized that Shukur must go and so should I, even though I would love to linger with this smiling boy and his dog Zak. Human modes of communication through words and voice was created so that all human emotions and feelings can be conveyed without ambiguity, since gestures and pantomime can convey only this much and no more.
As Shukur rode away with Zak trailing, and they both looked back at me and once again all three of us broke into smiles, I realized that there’s a whole lot I would have loved to know about the pair, the secret of Shukur’s perennial happiness, where did he live, what did he think, what were his dreams and when did he last wash his clothes. But I would never learn those things, perhaps never again see him or Zak, perhaps my feet would never again traverse upon these enchanted valleys and for me this journey would forever remain incomplete and therefore more endearing than the ones I complete.
This journey now remains a promise of further adventure and a motivation to return again one day.