Between Zelda, a mangy slumdog (before Danny Boyle made slumdogs fashionable), and Paul Chutkow, American reporter, brings forth an alchemy of deep adoration. The book is a warm account of an inter-species love affair between Zelda and her human.
Paul Chutkow, it turns out, has had a rather interesting life. His reporting career with the Associated Press took him to India, and subsequently to Paris. Not only does he have the élan of the foreign correspondent who can speak with familiarity of Jor Bagh in Delhi, and Mother Teresa in Calcutta, but he has stories of how he lost his heart in India.
Zelda’s frolicsome antics fill most of this light-hearted book, and surely there is something magical about the complete devotion of a dog to his master. The narrative is interesting enough—man meets dog, grudgingly falls in love, travels the world and watches dog turn into canine diva. Chutkow smiles indulgently even at Zelda’s most grievous misdeeds. Yes, Zelda is a biter, but how sweet she looks during, and penitent after having bitten, you can hear him say. Acts of celebrity self-destruction can make for a fascinating read, yet lacking access to sex, drugs, or rock and roll, Zelda restrains herself to despoiling the pristine Parisian sidewalks and biting various unsuspecting innocents. Yet far more interesting than issues of dog misbehavior is the description of the world that Zutkow inhabits. Two things became clear as I read the book.
One is that surely Zelda was Queen of Paris in simpler times. One yearns for those certainties, when the lines were clearly drawn between the good guys (us) and the bad guys (them).
Chutkow’s aversion to the Iron Curtain and his satisfaction at the end of the Cold War bears a certain historical authenticity. His convictions appear unclouded by any niggling doubts of the legitimacy of alternative viewpoints or competing ideologies. Communists were, quite simply, bad people who had to be destroyed, or at least wrong-headed zealots from whom the world had to be shielded. So devoid of nuance is his uncomplicated world-view that I found myself remembering the George W. Bush Presidency’s “axis of evil” with a terrifying nostalgia.
My second insight was that surely Zelda was Queen of Paris at a time when news gathering was a far more lucrative occupation. First class flights from Delhi to Paris? I was quite impressed by the glamor of a writer’s life in the 50s. And surely it is somewhat unseemly that Zelda feasts while other slumdogs eke out a miserable existence?
Chutkow does seem sensitive to the large inequalities that exist between him and his domestic staff in India. There is evidence of the benign paternalism that seems emblematic of U.S.-Indian relations at the time. Take pause to remember the geopolitical context of the time, especially the legacy that tied food aid that the United States had supplied to the humiliated India. Struggling to stay non-aligned in the cold war, and not yet having offered up its lucrative domestic market to global corporations, India’s foreign reserves were low and its self-esteem bruised.
Chutkow’s world reflects the geopolitical realities of its times. This was the mid-seventies, when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister of India. Chutkow’s references to the Emergency bring the realization that for many Indians living through this draconian period of Indian history, the international press was a more reliable source of credible news than the muzzled Indian press.
So one imagines that after what would have been considered a “hardship” assignment in Delhi, Chutkow embraces the familiar comforts of his Paris assignment with a discernible sigh of relief. Surely croissants and weekend seaside excursions hold greater promise of salubrious times, but the book lost some of its charm for me and became rather bland as Chutkow departed Delhi. I suppose I wanted more of India’s grittiness, and let me place some blame at the feet of Danny Boyle, who has made poverty porn a sub-genre of voyeuristic fetish. I was missing the mirch-masala.
Dogs, like children, have often been emblems of social status and denoters of privilege. Zelda’s slumdog status notwithstanding, she confers upon her owner the ability to recount tales of proximity to John Kenneth Galbraith, to Mother Teresa, Julia Childs, and Mariel Hemingway, among other notables. In the end, the book is about Paul Chutkow’s favorite, who, I must acknowledge, is rather less than a paragon of virtue.
It was, after all, Hemingway’s son who clearly saw this: Zelda was a bitch.
Geetika Pathania Jain is an educator and writer living in the SF Bay Area.