Kuttay (Dogs)

I asked the professors of zoology. I questioned the vets. I racked my own brain. Alas, I could never understand what use dogs are! They say the dog is a loyal animal. I mean if you call loyalty barking at six in the evening and continuing breathlessly till six in the morning then I think I’m good without a tail. Just yesterday, around eleven at night, this one dog felt a tingling sensation, came out onto the road and put a poetic verse in the air. In about a minute, a dog from the neighboring house came out and recited the first couplet of that poem. Oh lord, one experienced master lost his shit. He jumped out from the stove of a confectioner and furiously chanted the whole ghazal till its last couplet. From the southeast, an identity-conscious dog showered his loud praise. Now, gentlemen, the poetic symposium had warmed up. Ask me not, some of these rascals had penned down two or three poems and improvised many more odes. The fuss had heated up so much that cooling it down seemed impossible. I yelled “Order, order” from my window a thousand times but in events like these, no one listens to the chief. One should ask them that if it was so necessary to conduct this symposium, why couldn’t they test their geniuses on the river bank under open air? Is it civil to carry this affair from between houses?

Also, we desi people have these dogs that happen to be horribly ill-mannered. Most are such nationalists that no sooner do they see a pent and a coat that they start barking. Anyways, this is worth some appreciation too, so let’s not mention it. Other than this, there is something else: I happened to go to the bungalow of the elites to drop off some stalks and — I swear to God — I found such decency in their dogs that I was just awestruck. 

As soon as I entered the house, the dog on the porch whispered a light woof, shut his mouth and stood there. When I moved forward, he took four steps ahead too and — in the purest, most delicate voice — whispered another woof. A guard and a musician, both at once! And then there’s our dogs: no melody, no scale. Neither head nor tail. Their awful voices can’t carry a note in a bucket, and yet, paying no attention to the time or occasion, they throw these flowers at each other while priding themselves on the fact that Tan Sen was born in this country.

It is without doubt that my relations with dogs have always been quite strained.  But you can make me swear that I have never turned away from nonviolent resistance in such a situation. You might find this self-praise, but never have I been able to lift a hand against a dog. Oftentimes, friends have advised me to carry a cane or a baton in my hand during the night, that it protects you from evil. But, you see, I don’t wish to make any unnecessary enemies. As soon as a dog barks, my innocent nature engulfs me so much that if you happen to see me at such a moment, you will surely consider me a coward. Maybe you even assume that my throat has dried up. This is absolutely true. If I ever try to sing at such a moment, I can’t get anything past the initial C note. If you have ever found yourself in a condition similar to mine, you will find that in such an event, you will forget the Verse of the Throne and might instead start reciting the Supplication of Obedience. 

Sometimes, I’m swinging my cane while returning from the theater at 2AM, trying to memorize the melody of a song from the drama whose lyrics I don’t really remember. I’m just a newbie, though, so the whistle alone is adequate; even if I’m horrible at it, people would just think that it’s English music. Just as I take a turn, I see a goat tied in front. Picture this: my eyes consider it a dog too. A dog… with the physique of a goat? Truly a son of a bitch. I got cold feet: the motion of my cane slowed down until it stopped at an odd angle somewhere in the air, the music of my whistle trembled into silence, but my god-awful face, on which this beak rests, didn’t change one bit; a symphony was still being produced, just without a voice. I have a health problem in situations like these: even if it’s cold out, I can get very sweaty. But hey, that’s not a problem, it dries up later.

As I’m characteristically quite careful, I haven’t ever had the chance of experiencing a dog-bite. That is, a dog has never bitten me. If such a tragedy had ever occurred, my elegy (and not this story) would be in the process of publication. A historical verse would have been penned “May the soil under this dog produce a bitchy grass” but:

To whom should I say what it is, the roadside dog is a curse

Why would I complain of dying, if it was to happen only once1

As long as dogs are present in this world and are bent on barking, please know that I have one foot in the grave. What’s more, these barking conventions are so unique: first, this contagion spreads like wildfire and then the old and the young alike are infected with this virus. If a bulky Rambo dog wants to assert its might through a bark every now and then, I will inevitably say: “Dude, bark all you want” (although at such a moment, he MUST be tied with a chain), but these scoundrels start barking with such fervor in the middle of the week, that even heavy chains can’t stop them. A shrill voice, a tiny lung — such pressure is exerted on these during the bark that the vibration of their voice hits the tail too. And then they bark at moving cars as if they’ll be able to stop them; now if a poor guy is behind the wheel, surely his hands will give up on him. But then everyone won’t forgive him for this, would they? 

My biggest objection to dogs barking is that their voice numbs all cognitive faculties, especially when a clandestine cult of dogs emerges from beneath the shutter of a shop, marches onto the street and begins preaching. How, then, can your senses remain intact? One by one, I have to devote my attention to each of them: some of it due to their noise and some of it due to the cries of my protest (under my breath), as well as the awkward movements and pauses (their movements, my pauses). Amid this mayhem, how can you expect my brain to work? Although I’m not too sure that even if the brain does work in such a situation, what feat can it possibly accomplish? Anyways, I have always held contempt for this gross injustice committed by dogs. If only one of their representatives approaches me politely and says, “Your Excellency! The road is closed”, then I swear to God I will go back without so much as a whimper — and this isn’t something new for me either. At the behest of dogs, I have spent many a night planning out my routes but this united audaciousness of the whole procession is truly a shitty act (a humble request to my honourable readers: if a beautiful and respectable dog is present in your room, please do not read this passage out loud, I do not wish to hurt anyone’s sentiments).

God has also created pious people among every nation. Dogs are no exception.

I’m sure you must have seen a virtuous dog — you can notice the effects of asceticism on its body. When it walks, there is such humility and modesty as if the burden of his sins cannot let him lift his eyes; its tail is often tucked under its belly. It lies down in the middle of the road for deep contemplation and closes its eyes. Its face is like that of philosophers; its spiritual lineage resembles Diogenes. If someone repeatedly honks the horn, knocks from different sides of the car, calls people to intercede, shouts a dozen or so times himself, the Devoted One keeps Its face resting on the ground and opens Its red intoxicated eyes to cast one glance at the situation around It, and then closes them again. If someone beats It physically, It gets up with utmost contentment to lie down a yard away and continues Its deep ruminations from where It had left them off. If someone on a bicycle rang their bell, It understands in Its resting state: This was a bicycle. Clearing the way for such frivolous objects is a stain on the honour of fakirs, It believes.

At night, this dog keeps its dry, thin tail spread on the road, heedless of consequence. It merely desires the test of God’s chosen subjects — where you step on It by mistake, It begins a vehement lecture: “Son, you disturb the fakirs, do you not see that the simple people are resting here?” From that moment, the rage of the fakir has befallen us! For many nights, you see nightmares of countless dogs wrapped around your legs who won’t let go. The eyes open to find your legs stuck in the ropes of the woven charpai

If God grants me the supreme power of barking and biting for a while, I carry a burning fire for revenge. Bit by bit, all the dogs will reach the hospital for their treatment. There is a couplet:

عرفی تو میندیش زغو غائے رقیباں

آواز سگاں کم نہ کند رزق گدارا

 Arfi tu mendesh zagho ghae raqeebaan

Awaaz-e-sagaan kum na kand rizq-e-gadara2

It is this unnatural poetry that has brought shame to Asia. There is a proverb in English: “Barking dogs don’t bite”. This is very true. But who knows when a barking dog stops barking and starts biting!


[1]  A clever play on words that alludes to Mirza Ghalib’s famous couplet: “To whom should I say what it is, the night of grief is a curse // Why would I complain of dying, if it was to happen only once”

[2] Translation: 

Arfi, let not the noise of your rivals bother you

The barking of dogs reduces not the sustenance of the fakir

A Note from the Translator

Kuttay (Dogs) was written by Patras Bukhari in 1927 as part of his short story collection, “Patras Kay Mazameen” (Essays of Patras), a masterpiece of Urdu humorous prose. Originally published almost a century ago, the humor resonates in Urdu even today, which is what inspired me to try my hand at trying to translate it for a twenty-first century Anglophone audience. 

Over the course of translating this short story, there were many challenges that I ran into. For one, Bukhari’s prose features an Urdu idiom in every other sentence. In such situations, I found myself making a decision between either finding an equivalent idiom in English or to pick a suitable word/phrase in English that encapsulates the same meaning (and perhaps making space for an idiom in English elsewhere). But the product of translation is more than just words. It is to breathe life into an entire culture — in my case: mid-twentieth century India — with all its cultural references and allusions. I must shoulder the weight of this responsibility as a translator, while also making sure that the story retains its characteristic humor. 

In some situations, this got quite tricky and making a decision got very tough. For instance, Bukhari alludes to the habit of chanting different Islamic verses/passages for different occasions when he jokes about how one may forget “the Verse of the Throne and might instead start reciting the Supplication of Obedience”. Dua-e-Qunoot, or the Prayer/Supplication of Obedience, is offered as part of the evening prayer whereas the Verse of the Throne is recited in times of difficulty. This contextual humor is quite clear for a South Asian Muslim reader who recognizes the absurdity of seeing a dog and reciting a prayer that is completely irrelevant to the situation. But it doesn’t quite translate the same way for an English-speaking non-Muslim. I had debated between using some other reference (such as “morning prayer” versus “evening prayer”) but they did not have the same effect, so I decided to stay true to the culture being depicted and use it as a point to show the reader that they are reading a translation, something written in a culture that is not their own. A similar reasoning went behind my decision to keep the Urdu word fakir instead of translating it as something like ascetic, mendicant or dervish; I wanted my reader to expand their vocabulary by learning about this specific aspect of Sufi asceticism, rather than connect it to a familiar word. My task is to familiarize my reader with the unfamiliar and make known the unknown, not to stick to my reader’s comfort zone. Remember: this is a translation!

Bukhari also alludes to Urdu literature in two instances, incorporating two couplets into his story. In one such situation, Bukhari plays upon a couplet by the renowned classical poet Mirza Ghalib by replacing “night of grief” in the original verse with “roadside dog” in the story, which fit perfectly into the humor of his narrative. A reader familiar with Urdu can immediately recognize and laugh at this play on classical poetry, but reading in English does not create the same effect. I hence decided to add in an endnote and explain Bukhari’s masterful humor. Even though there are no footnotes/endnotes in the original text, I felt it was important to include this so as to highlight the intricacies of Bukhari’s humor for my English reader. 

When translating humor, being true to the original text cannot always mean being very literal. Instead, being “faithful” to the author involves recreating the same reading experience for a different audience — at the heart of which is producing a text that is funny. With this in mind, I had to take certain liberties to make sure I didn’t get so lost in translation that my story was no longer entertaining. In my favorite part of this story, the narrator mistakes a goat for a dog and makes a hilarious remark at it. Literally, he calls it: “very dog”, which is funny in Urdu since kutta (dog) is a common insult. But in English, it’s not quite the same. So instead of being literal and producing an odd phrase, I had to take the liberty of saying: “Truly a son of a bitch”, another dog-related insult which has a similar punch to it and goes one step further to also imply promiscuity between a bitch and a goat. 

Having always translated poetry and never tried my hand at prose, translating Kuttay was a very interesting experience. I hope it does justice to Patras Bukhari’s genius… while being, or rather, by being humorous! 

Singing with the heat of what he imagines and foresees, Ammar is the nightingale of the garden that is yet to be created. That said, he’s also a Pakistani student at Bennington College, where his Plan focuses on catalyzing socio-political change by provoking audiences within Drama and Politics. 

“Kuttay (Dogs)” was written by Patras Bukhari in 1927 as part of his short story collection, “Patras Kay Mazameen” (Essays of Patras), a masterpiece of Urdu humorous prose. Originally published almost a century ago, the humor resonates in Urdu even today, which is what inspired him to translate it for a twenty-first century Anglophone audience.

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