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     Volume 5 Issue 97 | June 2, 2006 |

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The Dog of My Dreams

Kaiser Tamiz Amin

From the recesses of childhood memory, I vaguely remember a story I had heard from an elderly relative from the village about a ferocious breed of dog found in a place called Sarail (pronounced Shor-aisle). He said that the dog resembled a tiger. This had to have been in 1969 and I was seven years old then. I have always been a dog lover but the animals I had reared were of no particular pedigree. Even at that age I knew that there was something odd in the tiger idea, for surely a tiger was a feline and a dog a canine and ne'er the 'twain could meet. As I had never seen a Sarail, I conjured up all sorts of images. Could it be a Tasmanian Tiger like creature? Was it a hyaena-dog cross ? It was such questions that triggered my curiosity about the legendary Sarail. I asked my father if he knew anything about the breed, because he more than any person I know has a penchant for establishing the origins of just about anything you can think of. From what he told me, I stumbled upon an intriguing co-incidence. It turned out that my father's paternal line originated from Sarail, a village called Shahbazpur to be precise. Apparently, it was in that very village that the Sarail Hound was first bred. My father confirmed that while growing up in Mymensingh, he had gone on fox hunts on horseback accompanied by a Sarail called Bagha. The tiger analogy again. Noone, however, could tell me how to go about making the acquaintance of Bagha's relatives.

Azawakh of Mali

An unexpected opportunity revealed itself during a family drive around the Banani/Old DOHS area sometime in 1970. At the time, Banani was generally considered to be the boondocks by most Dhaka dwellers and sightings of jackals, civets, snakes and monitor lizards were a common phenomenon. My father had pulled the car over near a canal where there was a sandy embankment with wild rushes growing all over. We got off the car and to my delight there were some exotic looking snails crawling around in the moist sand. I picked a couple of these creatures up and curled my fingers around them so that they were completely concealed. Making sure that my mother was sufficiently distracted, I pretended to offer my kid sister her favourite sweets. She eagerly received the crawlies in her mouth and soon enough her facial features went through the desired evolutionary stages of contortion and the precious contents were quickly rejected. Had there not been an immediate distraction at hand, my fate that day might have turned out to be quite different. As luck would have it, my father had just struck up a conversation with a young man with two thin, strange looking dogs pulling away at the leash, which he held on to as tightly as he could. The animals were raring to go but did not make a sound. The young man said that the dogs belonged to General Osmany. This was my first encounter with the Sarail.

The late General Osmany had a passion for Sarails. Apart from the heroic tale of his dogs warning him of the Pakistani army's presence at his gate, there is a less-celebrated story of the same animals jumping the gate and shredding a neighbour's fluffy lap dog to pieces ! In defence of the Sarail, the poor dogs were simply being true to their nature, doing whatever several thousand years of selective breeding by humans had taught them to do. That is, seek and destroy anything that even remotely resembles a hare.

Thirty years would pass between my first and next encounter with the Sarail. Prompted by a friend who had seen an advertisement in the papers about Sarail Hounds, I got in touch with a Dr. Shahjahan Thakur, who professed to breed these rare dogs somewhere in the outskirts of Brahmanbaria town.

On the morning of March 23, 2001, Dr Thakur picked me up in his station wagon and we headed towards Brahmanbaria. He told me that he had set up a Sarail breeding project in the BSIC industrial area on a commercial basis. I bombarded him with as many questions as I could about the breed. He showed me clippings of several articles he had written in the papers where he had emphasised that the Sarail was a key part of our heritage, much in danger of losing out to apathy and lack of sponsorship. His knowledge of the history and traditions surrounding the Sarail was formidable, equaled only by his passion for the rare breed. Dr Thakur's passion was further ignited when he learned that I was a long lost Sarail myself, many times removed but still kicking. He said that there was a time when there was much interest in the dog in Sarail, with regular dog shows and naturally, the hunt. That of course was a thing of the past.

Saluki of Arabia

Sarails belong to that subset of the dog world known as sighthounds, as they rely on their keen eyesight, rather than smell, to chase down and despatch fast moving quarry such as hares, gazelles and foxes. The most famous members of this group are the English/American Greyhound, the Saluki of peninsular Arabia (a.k.a. the Sloughi in Morocco), the Afghan Hound, the Taigan of the Central Asian steppes, the Azawakh of Mali, the Hungarian Magyar Agar, the Anubis-like Ibizan and Pharaoh Hounds that can be traced back to Ancient Egypt and closer to home, the Rampur, Pashmi and Caravan Hounds of Northern/Central India. Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Medieval European history is replete with references to various types of sighthound. Sighthounds are therefore one of the earliest varieties of dog. In more contemporary times, if there is one factor that has been key to the success of these closely related breeds, it is ironically, the spread of Islam.

Although Muslims are known to be traditionally contemptuous of canines, sight hounds have not only escaped contempt but enjoyed patrician status in the Middle East throughout history. These special privileges have even extended to the tent, which many a Saluki has shared with his Bedouin master. In Arabic, Salukis are referred to as Al Hurr, or noble, thereby distinguishing themselves from the mongrel, considered unclean. The same holds true in Afghanistan where the Afghan Hound, or Tazi as he is known there, ranks high in the nomad's hierarchy of socialised animals. Suffice it to say that the sighthound made herself at home wherever her Muslim keeper chose to hang his coat.

It was itinerant middle eastern and central asian traders-turned-adventurers who imported their caravan-centric lifestyle and their prized hunting Salukis, Azawakhs and Tazis to India. Likewise, the British introduced their Greyhounds and a similar love of the hunt. It could very well be that the Sarail is a mixture of these sighthound types, although its origins have yet to be definitively established. Only proper genetic testing methods such as mitochondrial DNA analysis will reveal the truth. A Sarail legend has it that at the early stages of British rule in Bengal, a zamindar name Majlis Shahbaz, from whom the villages of Majlispur and Shahbazpur derive their names, exchanged two of his elephants for one female Saluki brought over by a Persian trader. During a subsequent hunting expedition, it is said that the female lost her way and returned a month later impregnated by a wolf. This is the popular tale of the origin of the Sarail. A more likely story is that a zamindar named Dewan Munawar Ali originally from North India, settled in Shahbazpur during the Raj and brought his "Indian" hounds along with him.

Daryush, at home

When we arrived at Dr Thakur's facility I did not know quite what to expect. We entered what looked like a foundry or factory building. Inside on both sides were enclosures separated by wire mesh fencing. My heart skipped a few beats and a faint numbness permeated my spine as I became aware of a dozen pair of eyes intensely checking me out without so much as a whimper. This was the beginning of a challenging orientation to the Sarail, for I knew that I would have to re-learn the rules of dog handling when it came to this breed. The intense staring continued for a while and I noticed dogs of various ages in a variety of colours. Some were white dappled with grey. Some were evenly fawn. There were a couple of Sarails there that were brindled tan undertone with black vertical stripes similar to a tiger's. Surely these dogs had to be Bagha's descendants. Whatever the different shades though, all of the dogs had the characteristic white blaze (forehead) and socks (paws) and the deep chest and narrow waistline of a sprinter par excellence. They had floppy semi-erect ears and whip-like tails with a white tip. There slender limbs were all sinew and muscle with not a hint of fat. All of these design features spelt lighting speed.

To my chagrin Dr Thakur released the dogs. I braced myself for the inevitable attack but none came. With regal disdain and a cursory over-the-shoulder glance, the dogs ignored me and walked out to the compound to feed. I was perplexed. Where was the barking and snarling that one would associate with aggressive dogs who have just encountered a stranger ? The dogs partook of their midday feast and lazed around in the compound. There was one particular male brindle pup, among a litter of six that kept eyeing me. The fellow took a couple of steps forward in my direction and sniffed me. Although I was initially confused about which pup to take, I knew that the brindle was the one for me. Dr Thakur showed me the little pup's parents who happened to be siblings. I suppose one could not get purer than that ! Without further ado I settled the deal with Dr. Thakur and we headed back towards Dhaka with my brindle Sarail in the back of the station wagon.

Daryush was six months old when I inherited him. This is the equivalent of three and a half human years. In the first month that he had been with me, I came home from a late night party and was surprised to be greeted by an un-puppy-like growl emanating from the verandah. Daryush stood there frozen, his gaze focused on one particular corner. This was completely at odds with his puppy status. Puzzled, I went over to inspect. Lo and behold, crouched on the outer balcony and separated from Daryush by a half height wall with wire netting and sturdy metal grills, were two young lads trembling with fear. When I questioned them, both rose to there feet simultaneously and for a moment I felt that I had put my life in jeopardy. The young men confessed to being drug addicts and profusely begged to be saved from the wrath of my canine friend. Strange, because common sense would tell them that there was no way that Daryush could physically get to them ! After supervising the young eager exit over the wall, I removed young Daryush to my bedroom.

It was thus that Daryush, son of Tiger and Laika, became a permanent feature of my life. Daryush has grown up to be whatever his kind is famed for. Feline aloofness, stealth, ferocity tempered with tenderness and total devotion to one master. Although Sarails are couch potatoes for most of the day, they spring into action at the slightest hint of a chase, be it in play or actual pursuit of rodents, lizards, birds or cats. The sprint of a Sarail is simply poetry in motion as it has been calculated that their feet touch the ground only 30% of the time during a chase. Sarails are aloof but crave human proximity. They dislike being left alone even for a minute. Again, this is perhaps the result of millennia of hanging out with humans. Unlike the Greyhound, the Sarail is equally suited to be a guard dog or a hunting companion. In common with all sighthounds, the Sarail's instinct to chase is so strong as to supersede all human commands.

Alas, Dr Thakur's project eventually failed to sustain itself and I later learned that he had had to give his dogs away. The future augurs ill for the coveted Sarail, as there does not seem to be any concerted interest in Bangladesh to continue the professional breeding of this unique sight hound breed, a tragic symbol of our withering heritage.

Whatever tomorrow might have in store, I thank serendipity for leading me to the dog of my dreams.

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