The Lady with the Mastiff

The construction of the ‘Tikkar Cottage,’ our dream home in the Morni hills, was finally coming to an end. We had not realized the challenges involved in undertaking construction in the hills and our time schedule and budget projections had gone completely haywire. The plan was to have a cute little hill cottage with a pretty sloping-roof, tucked away in the middle of a thick, green forest. The newly planted trees and shrubs had taken root and the forest around the cottage seemed well on its way. But the sloping-roof part of the dream had gone awry. The roof looked artistic enough when seen from the road overlooking our hill side, but it was not at all visible when viewed from the front. As one drove up the grassy drive to the landing at the foot of the pathway to our cottage, one was faced with a tall square block of brick. The sloping roof that had cost us a bomb, was completely eclipsed from view. ‘The roof looks like a chhoti-pagri on top of a tall, big man,’ complained my wife. Her imagery is vivid and we couldn’t help seeing this disturbing picture of a grotesque looking man superimposed on our dear cottage. We argued and quarrelled over what had gone wrong. The Scribe, our fall guy, was blamed as usual, for the design failure and for his opacity to ‘timely’ suggestions to introduce mid-course corrections. He has a one-thing-at-a-time philosophy and had rubbished the suggestions that the look was not quite coming out as we had planned and had asked us to be patient! Actually the design would have been perfect had the cottage been built on a level piece of land. But perched up high against a sharp slope, its front elevation changed completely from what it had appeared on the architect’s drawing board. We gradually got reconciled to the look and started looking for arty solutions to reduce the ‘boxy’ look.

We didn’t have the budget for the expensive modification of the ‘boring’ facade that was suggested by an architect friend. So we decided to look at the cottage-type houses in the vicinity for getting cost-effective, workable ideas to change the face and to dilute the starkness of the tall bare brick exterior. The cottage-type look is fairly common these days and virtually every second house that is being built in the Chandigarh-region, has a sloping roof and is fashioned after a European cottage. So began the hunt for the right look.

I had just been posted back to the town and the goons were giving me a busy time. A cop’s job, whatever the fancy nomenclature or the number of stars on the epaulette, essentially entails living on the road. Be it the scene-of-crime visits, VIP movement or the bandobast duties, one has to be reconciled to spending long hours on the road. When the monotony would get too much I would look out for innovative cottage exteriors. One such day, I finally spotted a cute, woody cottage, complete with grey-slate roof and a chimney. An open verandah ran around the large French-windows on the first floor. An inexpensive but stylish wooden railing ran along the verandah. Some antique looking lanterns were hung above the railing. Most of all there was that ‘wooden criss-cross’ that my wife wanted for our verandah but had thus far failed to explain the design of the jafri she had in mind. I also noticed an ornate metal fascia that ran all around the house under the slate roof overhang. I clicked some pictures with the phone camera to convince the Scribe and the ladies that a solution had been found and that we could actually borrow a couple of good ideas from that fairy-tale house.

The next day we all reached a cafe from our respective offices for a quick lunch. We then proceeded to check out my discovery. I had asked the beat-incharge to sound the owner that we would be coming to take a look from the outside. We found him standing at the gate with a Gorkha and he informed us that the owner was away and that only the caretaker was home. ‘We won’t take a peek inside but can always inspect the exteriors from the outside,’ I concluded. The beat incharge looked doubtful at my suggestion. Years of police work gives you a nose for sensing trouble. ‘Some of these people can get very fussy,’ he cautioned me. But I refused to catch the polite hint and asked the caretaker to allow us in.  The Gorkha was not too pleased with the intrusion but we were accompanied by our wives and were looking perfectly respectable, at least to my unprejudiced eye! We entered and stood in the driveway and I pointed to the wooden jafri and the beautiful fascia of painted tin sheet with carving on the end. Scribe was most uncomfortable. ‘It’s rude to enter when the owner is not home,’ he reminded me. ‘I’m sure he would have been flattered at our heart-felt appreciation of his good taste,’ I objected. ‘I would not be so sure,’ he countered. My wife saw an artistic iron and slate awning over the main door of the house and moved closer to note the design. I followed her ignoring the discouraging glares of the Scribe. She was peering intently at the awning when the door suddenly opened. A lady stormed out in a fit of rage and glowered at us with flashing eyes. She demanded to know who the hell we were. She informed us in unequivocal terms that we were trespassing and had no bloody-business invading her privacy. Scribe’s ears went beet-root red. He would have happily stepped into the hole that mother earth had opened for Sita, to make the quickest exit possible. To be buried deep in the hidden depths of the earth rather than suffer the ignominy of being publicly harangued. The shame was tempered only by the murderous thoughts for the one who had got him in that spot! Had he not been so taken aback he would have joined hands with the lady and launched himself on a long moral sermon on the need to respect other people’s rights. I was myself out of depth. If a lady decides to give it to you there is precious little one can do to save oneself in the situation. My wife was sheepish too but was the first to recover from the shock and started explaining our position. That we were not aware that she was home. That we had been allowed in by the servant. That she had a wonderful house so tastefully kept. I chipped in meekly by telling her that we were ourselves constructing a modest home and were fascinated by her beautiful home and were merely appreciating it. The storm having passed, she probably realized that she had overreacted and that we meant no harm. Our praise also mellowed her down and she thanked my wife for the compliment and invited us in. We were reluctant. Scribe wanted to be home, away from the scene, to recover from the embarrassment. But she insisted and was suddenly in good humour. We agreed if only to recover some of the lost prestige in the eyes of the beat incharge who stood outside the gate and had witnessed the tongue lashing. She ushered us into a nice, comfortable living room. We noticed the unusual yellowish stone with which the floors were done. ‘It’s Jaipuri stone. Is too soft and cracks. Avoid it,’ she advised. We sipped the iced orange drink as we waited for the ladies to finish the polite small talk when a muscular looking mastiff with jaundiced yellow eyes swaggered in.  My heart missed a beat. She introduced the ‘darling’ and I kept my eyes pinned on him as he moved and stood dangerously close. The Scribe has a way with animals. His family has always kept all sorts of pets- dogs of all breeds, cats, parrots, a horse, goats, cows etc. He sniggers when I act wary of wild monkeys and stray dogs and says I’m irrational. That no animal harms unless it feels threatened by your presence. That you should approach a big dog by offering your hand with your palm facing up rather than trying to pat him on the head, which is perceived as threatening. He decided to give a live demonstration of this pet theory of his and impress the ladies. He advanced his hand towards the brute with the palm upwards, offering it to be licked. The dog regarded his hand with the same, cold malevolent glare. He then opened his heavy jowls to reveal his nasty incisors. My heart came into my mouth as he clamped his jaw in a firm vice around Scribe’s bare forearm. One snap and the arm was gone. You have to grant this to the man that he has some misplaced guts. He did not panic or cry out in terror but just kept very still. The lady tried to get the arm released but the dog let out a deep warning growl accompanied by an angry tremor that travelled like Tsunami through its heavily muscled body. She backtracked and told us lamely that he was ill-behaved and was afraid only of the master of the house. She further expounded on his lack of obedience by narrating tales about how the dog decided the direction and pace of the evening walk as he effortlessly dragged the servant holding his leash behind him. There was no escape. We would have to wait for him to release the arm. The Scribe was still managing a half-grin but the cold sweat on the forehead indicated that he realized the terrible danger. He had once given a long talk on why Labrador is the best pet and how some of the other breeds are not so suitable. He had told us that the mastiff is banned in many countries of the world as there were instances of savage unprovoked attacks on owners. It was all coming back to us as we prayed for him. We pretended to be listening to the lady but all our attention was focussed on that ill-tempered villain. Finally the ordeal ended and it let go of his arm, gave us a contemptuous look and padded out through the kitchen door to the rear courtyard. We could have hugged him with relief but he had decided to pretend that it was all intended and part of his great love for that ugly canine.

The lady then proceeded to take us around her house. It was exquisite and the ultimate in taste and refinement. The sloping roof had an attic below it that was accessed through ladders travelling up from each bedroom. We liked the floor tiles in the verandah and instantly reached a consensus that we would use the design for our flooring. We finally moved out thanking the gracious lady for her hospitality. Before we left she explained the reason for her outburst. On seeing us enter and inspect the house in such detail she had concluded that we were people from the Income Tax department!  The khaki cap bobbing above the gate also convinced her that we meant trouble. By the time she had realized her mistake she had already given a panic call to her husband. So naturally, we had it coming when she stepped outside, like Rani-of-Jhansi, to confront us. I came back one evening with our carpenter and the iron-smith to take a surreptitious look at the designs we intended to replicate (this time from the outside!). The jafri, the fascia and the awnings were faithfully reproduced with some improvements and today occupy a place of pride in our hill home. The Scribe still remembers the episode as one of the most embarrassing moments of his life and uses it to shoot down all my rash proposals. I tease him about his failed theory about canine behaviour. I often wonder what our plight would have been if instead of the lady, her dog had emerged from the door, with equal rage!