Whenever I think about the circumstances of Hero’s return — and at least in these initial days, that’s a lot of the time — I can’t help but be astonished at the number of things that had to fall together at the right time and place for us to be able to find him. I’m not taking away from his spirit, which kept him alive for three weeks in an area where there is little but dense forest and where predators roam. But even that indomitable will to survive would have led to nothing if it hadn’t been for some very lucky breaks at the end of it all.
Let me tell the whole story as it unfolded, and I can highlight these instances when they occur. On Tuesday evening, three weeks to the day since Hero went missing, I was out in the backyard trying to make a call on the cellphone. After one aborted try, I was about to dial again when the phone rang.
Here’s the first piece of luck: When the cellphone is lying inside the house, it usually has no reception, so people making calls to it don’t get through. It just so happened that I was out in the yard with it at the moment the call came. Also, those who know me well know how rare it is for me to make calls, that too from the cellphone. In the six months since we moved to Carona, this may have been the fifth or sixth time I have done that.
The voice on the other end, a girl’s, asked, “Aap woh hain jiska kutta kho gaya hai? Hero?”
I said I was.
“Woh hamare ghar ke paas se gaya hai abhi abhi.”
I wasn’t immediately excited. For many people, a dog is a dog, and there is little to differentiate between two of the species. But a little probing seemed to indicate that this might indeed be a positive sighting, the first we’d had since the day we lost him.
There was some confusion about where the girl, who introduced herself as Sunita, was calling from. I got the impression — reinforced by the STD code of the number showing on the cellphone — that she was calling from somewhere in Goa, and that she was referring to a cousin who had seen the dog in a village and called her. I asked for the cousin’s number and went indoors to get to a pad and pen. When I did, the connection dropped.
I told Anjali what had just happened and she immediately called the number back from the landline. A long conversation ensued, and the story seemed to be that Sunita had seen Hero outside their house in Koishi, the village closest to the path into the jungle where we had started out trek to the Dudhsagar Falls. He seemed to be following the road, headed back towards where we would have come from. When she called out his name, he stopped and looked at her but when she went towards him, he ran on. She mentioned that he had on a red collar. She also said that “woh bahut chhota ho gaya hai“, which we took to mean that he had lost a lot of weight.
This is the second amazing thing: later we found out that, in all the village — and indeed among most of the villages around — this girl’s house was the only one with a landline phone. Though many villagers have cellphones, there is no network connection for miles around. So she was the one best suited to make the call. Not only that, she had been sufficiently moved by the way Anjali had told the story of Hero at the time that he was lost that she had made it a point to hang on to the poster that Anjali passed around, the one that had our cellphone number on it. Hero being seen by her was another major factor in his being found, as she was the person in the village best suited to do something about it.
The conversation then veered to what we would do and what the girl should do. It ended with the girl saying she would get together some other people from the village and see if she could entice the dog with some food and grab it. Later, it struck us that that was perhaps not the way to go, as pursuing Hero in a gang was a surefire way to make him flee, while what we really wanted was for him to hang around the village. If he moved on from there, we would effectively be back to square one.
Anjali and I talked about what we should do. It was past 6.30 in the evening, and almost dark out. If we were to leave right away, we would still reach there only around 9.30-10. By then it would be pitch dark, and we would get nowhere with our search. We would almost ceretainly not even be able to find any villagers to help us at that time of night either.
On the other hand, if it was Hero and he was on the move, every minute counted. By morning, he could be anywhere. Eventually, though, we decided we’d leave early the next morning and hope for the best. Anjali called the girl back, and told her our plan. She informed us that she had managed to get a group of boys together to try and catch hold of Hero, but that he was no longer to be found.
The rest of our evening was spent in preparing for the trip. We weren’t sure what the condition of the ‘road’ to the village was going to be — it had been barely a track when we had been there before the rains, and we were pretty sure that large portions would have become intractable by now. At places, where we had to drive through rocky streams on the way, we might no longer be able to cross by car. That was going to mean long trudges through slushy and slippery terrain.
Anjali spoke to Sylvia Kerkar, who owns Off the Grid, the place where we’d been staying when our Hero misadventure happened. Sylvia was excited by the news of the sighting, but cautious just as we were. She told us that indeed there would be places that our car, not being a four-wheel drive, would no longer be able to take us. She told us that we would have to be prepared to walk long distances on difficult paths, and warned us to look out for leeches, which would be everywhere at this time of year.
Besides putting together whatever we could think of for Hero, we went to our friend Savio Figueiredo in Aldona and borrowed his gum boots. I thought those should serve as effective armour against the bloodsucking leeches.
At 4am on Wednesday morning, we set off. We wanted to get there by the time it was light, and the early start meant that for most of the way, the roads were empty. The only stretch where we ran into some traffic was around Dharbandora, where the mining trucks had begun their run. This stretch was quite dicey. It was still dark and a persistent light rain was falling. Mist mixed with the exhaust of the trucks wafted over the road. The headlights of oncoming trucks — most of them on high-beam — diffracted through the mist and the droplets on our windshield, making it difficult to see. To make matters worse, a serpentine line of trucks was parked along the right side of the road, requiring us to go onto the muddy and pothole-marked shoulder on our side to avoid traffic coming from the other side.
At one point, a truck ahead of us used his right indicator light to signal us to pass. Doing so, we found that the truck ahead was giving the same signal. As I could see headlights approaching from the other side, I accelerated in order to pass the second truck in time to return to our lane, when suddenly the truck started turning to the right. He hadn’t been signalling me to pass — he was indicating a right turn!
I stepped on the brakes, but the road was slippery with the rain, plus mud from some digging that had left the right shoulder of the road strewn with large rocks. We skidded for metres, our rear end slewing back and forth, and slammed into the back corner of the truck. Our Scorpio has completed 90,000km over six years, and traversed India from Himachal Pradesh to Kanyakumari — and this was the first time it had been in a collision.
You can click on the images to see them larger
We got out and surveyed the damage. The left headlight was smashed and the front end of the car had taken a little battering, but it wasn’t too bad. The truck driver, who had pulled over a few metres ahead, came over and it was clear that neither of us wanted to pursue this. It was a case of a misread signal, and we both understood that.
We started off again, but a little further ahead, we realised there was a hidden problem. When we tried to take a reasonably sharp right turn, the car reacted with a jarring vibration and a loud grating noise. Checking it out, we saw that the stanchion that holds the front bumper had bent back with the impact and was rubbing hard against the wheel when we tried to turn. For the rest of the trip, including on the winding dirt tracks that much of our driving was to be on, we would have to take our right turns in a wide arc. In several cases, we had to go halway through the curve, reverse in the other direction and then complete the turn.
The mishap made driving quite difficult on the ghat roads that soon followed, where there was little room for manoeuvrability, but the light traffic this early in the day allowed us to make it up without further incident. As we’d felt on our treks through the jungle on the previous trip, beauty lies so much in the mind of the beholder — usually, I love driving in the monsoon rain on the ghats, but there was so much to be bothered about on our way up that this time it was all lost on me. Looking back now, my memory of that stretch of road is entirely from our return trip, with Hero stretched full-length on the back seat.
When we got to the area we were heading for, we first went to Off the Grid to pick up Shankar, our cicerone from the time before. We knew his presence would be very helpful when we had to speak to the villagers, or negotiate tricky stretches of road. The jungle trail that leads to the house pitches up and down gullies, and eventually we came to one which, it was obvious, we would not be able to traverse in the car. Before the rains, we had driven all the way up to the house, but now the track was too treacherous in places.
We parked the car in a clearing, and went the rest of the way on foot. By the time we got to the house, our legs were festooned with leeches, which we spent some time — and salt — removing. Having taken the gum boots, I had forgotten to wear them, and cursed myself for not remembering.
Shankar, always ready to help, had sprung up as soon as he saw us and was prepared to leave the moment we told him what had happened. We hiked back to the car with him, did some more leech excision, and set off. All the way, a matter of some 10-12 kilometres, we kept honking. Hero knows the sound of the car and the horn very well, and at home would always run to the car when he heard it. Here in the wilderness, we knew that sound would carry far, and perhaps alert him wherever he was.
The village of Koishi, some 6 or 7 tortuous kilometres off the main road, is a loose collection of houses and animal sheds distributed around the fields that the villagers tend. We stopped in the core of the village where there are some five-six houses together, and asked a few kids gathered there if they knew anything about the lost dog. One of them, whose name we learnt later was Vinayak, came up and told us that it had been last seen near the temple, which was some hundred metres back the way we had come, in a lane to the right. Sunita had told us to come to Sitaram’s house which, we found out, was a kilometre or so further ahead from where we were.
We decided to follow up on the fresher lead, and headed back towards the temple. A young man came out of a house next to the temple to greet us.
“Aap kutte ko dhoondne aaye ho?” he asked us.
On being told that we had, he said that he had heard a whining in the trees close to his house at night. He had gone out and called for Hero — everyone in the village had been alerted to the situation by Sunita in the evening — but the whining had stopped. He felt that the dog had probably moved further into the trees. We asked him what lay beyond, and he told us there were open fields behind the immediate clumps and then hills.
We made our way through the thicket, and came out onto the fields where we split into three — Shankar and Vinayak heading across one side, me the other way and Anjali through the middle. We yelled Hero’s name as we peered into the trees that ringed the fields, but there was no answering yelp or bark.
This time around, I had remembered to wear the gum boots, but I found walking in them very painful. Soon, the futility of what we were doing got to me, and I started thinking of how Hero might have acted.
“Think like Hero,” I told myself.
It seemed likely to me that Hero, given his lifestime spent in inhabited area, would tend to stick to the road and stay close to the village, not wander back into the jungle once he had found his way out of it. I suggested to Anjali that we head back to the car, and drive down to find out what Sunita had to say.
When we got to her place, she and her parents were waiting at the gate. Word had obviously got to them that we had arrived, and they were eager to tell us their part of the story. There was not much more than what she had already told Anjali on the phone, so after hearing them out, we hung around for a while honking the horn and calling Hero’s name.
After a while, we felt we needed to move on — if Hero had been within earshot, he would certainly have appeared by now. As Sunita too had seen him heading back the way we had come, we decided to drive slowly back, taking every little path that we saw. As we left Koishi behind, we found a pretty wide rocky track that turned off to the right, away from the village. We drove on to this. I asked Shankar where the road led, but he was not sure. He mentioned the name of a village, but he said he thought it was a long way up the road, which was one he’d never been on.
After a little winding through the jungle, this road started climbing gradually at first and then very steeply. As the rain water probably rushes down this slope, it felt more like a gravelly river bed than a track to drive on. It also started narrowing, and there were broken branches of trees littering the sides now and then. I was concerned that we wouldn’t be able to turn around, and suggested we turn back, but Anjali wanted to keep going, so we did.
Eventually, we reached what looked like a high point in the road — up ahead, it narrowed at a place where the hill rose up on either side, and then the road dropped out of sight. Not knowing what lay beyond, I stopped the car at the last possible point where it would be even remotely possible to turn the car. Anjali and Shankar got off and walked on ahead to see what lay over the hump.
As they were walking up to the top, Anjali’s cellphone, which was kept near the glove compartment, started to ring. It gave me quite a shock. Nowhere in this entire area, not even on the main roads, had it ever connected to the network. This was the one location anywhere around where, perhaps due to its altitude, there was a signal. I responded to the call, and it was Sunita.
“Kahaan ho tum log?” she asked.
Unable to remember the name of the village Shankar had mentioned, I was at a loss to explain where we were. I was stuttering an incoherent response when she interrupted.
“Jaldi aao, woh abhi hamaare ghar ke sammne tha.”
I was electrified. Could it be that we were actually going to find Hero? Till that moment, I hadn’t imagined that it could happen. Even if yesterday’s sightings were real, I had been feeling, he had had 12 hours to go off in any direction he chose, and could be anywhere by now. But now, it looked like he was actually close at hand.
I pressed frantically on the horn to attract the attention of the others, but they had got used to the sound and must have assumed I was doing my bit for the search, for neither of them looked in my direction. But I kept at it until they did, and then gestured for them to come back down urgently. By the time they were back at the car, I had already done all the backing and filling required, and had us pointing down the slope.
We raced back to the village, where we met Sunita and a large gang of kids who had collected. They told us the dog had been seen again close to Sunita’s house, so we headed that way. When we got there, Sunita’s mother showed us small paw prints on the track, and said they were Hero’s. She pointed us in the direction he’d been seen heading — a smaller path that led back into the forest.
While Anjali waited in a central clearing, calling Hero’s name, I slid rather than drove down the narrow path, the branches squealing as they rubbed against the car on either side. But despite going as far as I felt safe doing on that path, there was no sign of our man. Finally, I stopped the car at the top of a steep slope which I knew I would not be able to reverse up (there was no way I could have turned the car around on this path), and ran and slid the rest of the way down the path. Eventually the path ended on the banks of a stream swollen by the rains. Still nothing. After calling his name for a while, I trudged back up to the car, and reversed back up the path to where Anjali and the others were.
For the next couple of hours, we kept at it. I would drive down one way, honking the horn, sometimes with some of the village boys in the car to help guide me back, while Anjali walked through the forest paths and peered into the jungle. Our feet and clothes had got caked with mud, our arms scratched by brambles and branches. We weren’t even bothering with taking off the leeches any more — instead they would become engorged with blood till, unable to sip any more, they would fall off on their own. The anti-clotting agent that they released would keep our blood flowing for a long while afterwards, making us look like walking wounded.
From time to time, one of the village kids would report a sighting and we would all rush off in that direction. After hours of this, I had begun to wonder whether they were playing some elaborate and sick joke on us — how was it that they saw him here, they saw him there, but we never caught even a glimpse of the elusive pimpernel?
Later, trying to analyse this, we came to feel that Hero was possibly close to the village for most of the time that we were there. The sound of the car and the horn must have triggered some response in his mind, and he felt he needed to go to it. But perhaps disoriented and scared by the strangeness of the past weeks, he was unwilling to clearly show himself.
Eventually, I returned from one of my honking detours to find the clearing bereft of all but one elderly man. To my querying gesture, he pointed down a path — the same one along which I had come to the water’s edge. I walked in there to find the kids in a state of suppressed excitement, distributed around one part of the forest.
Hero had been spotted in that area, and the kids had like beaters at a shikar surrounded the region. Anjali had told them all to keep quiet — before then, they had all been joining lustfully in our cries of “Hero, Hero” — so that the only voice heard would be hers.
She told me later that as she pushed through the thick brambly undergrowth, she saw Hero sitting cowering in one area, barely visible through the intervening foliage. She called out to him and finally he raised his head. As she stepped toward him, he crawled out of the thicket and — like he has done so many times before — leapt into her arms and started licking her. Usually, when he does so, Anjali staggers under his weight and has sometimes even been bowled over, but in his present condition, she carried him easily. (Once we were back at home home, we weighed him to find he has lost more than 5 kilos in the past three weeks.)
Though bent over to get through the undergrowth, she caried him out of there in her arms, and then handed him over to me. As he licked me desperately, I smelt a strong smell of shit on his breath. When we spoke of it afterwards, Anjali and I realised that — deprived of anything substantial to eat for days, he must have eaten shit to survive. That realisation was truly heart-breaking for us.
He was a bag of bones, so emaciated that he was unsteady on his feet. Only his head gave an inkling of the size of dog he was, and looked oddly out of proportion on his shrunken body. He had leeches all over him, and was streaked with blood as a result. Only when we got him home and washed him would we get to see that some of the blood was from more serious wounds, though none of them were very bad. There as even a fat leech in his nostril — the poor guy had no way to take even that one out.
We put him in the car, and he jumped into the back seat. He was still very nervous and anxious, growling and snapping at the kids who gathered around the window to look at him. But I gave him some of the dog biscuits we had brought with us, and all his attention was focussed on those, as he gulped them down.
We took some pictures of all the kids who had helped us, and then suggested to Sunita that we drive to her place to show the rescued Hero to her parents.
She responded, still a little hesitantly, “Mera naam Samita hai.”
I had heard her wrong when she had called the evening before, and we had been referring to her as Sunita the entire morning, and she hadn’t said a word till now.
We went to Samita’s house, where her mother was truly ecstatic to see Hero. She talked — largely in Marathi, which we didn’t understand — about his “naseeb“, which we did. She brought out a roti for him to eat, and a small bowl of milk. She then called us in and gave us each a glass of fresh cow’s milk. We hadn’t eaten since we’d left home at 4, and it was now about noon, so the milk — with some biscuits that we had brought — was very welcome.
On Samita’s mother’s request, Anjali left a coconut at the local temple before we headed back. Hero had fallen into a deep sleep within minutes of getting into the car — a secure sleep that he had probably not been able to achieve for the past three weeks. Even at home, he has been sleeping almost all the time since we got back.
We drove back towards Goa with him slumbering in the back, unable to believe what had happened. I still find it incomprehensible that he should have survived the way he had, and that we had managed to find him.
Now he’s back where he belongs. The other dogs were thrilled to see him. We had been apprehensive about how they would react when he walked in, so it was a delight to see the way they gathered around him, tails wagging madly as they sniffed every inch of his body. And he stood there in the middle of it all, as tall as he could make himself, his own tail stiffly moving from side to side, his ears in their typical aeroplane-wing position.
The pleasure of having him back — when we had more or less given up on ever seeing him again — is indescribable. Every time Anjali or I pass him as he sleeps, we can’t stop ourselves from running a hand over his head and body, a caress that flows like a wave over his protruding ribs and hip bones. And, still asleep, he stretches a little and lets out a little groan or a sigh. What a tale there must be wrapped up in that little exhalation of breath!
I had given up on finding him quite early in the search. Once we had to leave Dudhsagar on our first day, the scope of possibilities was so daunting that the logical side of my brain (which is more or less all of it, sadly) told me that there’s no way we would be able to find him.
But Anjali didn’t give up — and every thing that she did counted in the final say. She went back a second time and scoured the place, and got across to people that she wasn’t giving up, and neither should they. She established an emotional connect with the villagers, with people like Samita, which made the latter feel that she should make the call when she saw the dog she thought was Hero. Anjali distributed the poster I had made to everyone that she possibly could, going to a good deal of trouble to have the text translated into Marathi and Kannada. It’s because Samita kept the poster that she had our number.
This tale may be about our Hero, but there is no doubt that Anjali is as much its heroine.