One misty morning a few years ago, at Jeeva Park, a stray dog decided to walk alongside me and my father. Jeeva Park is a crescent-shaped patch of green in the heart of India’s Chennai. One round of Jeeva Park is only a kilometer in length. Walkers march or amble for an hour to the sounds of the prayer bell by the Ganesha altar under the central peepal tree.
For a while that morning, the dog followed us and all the other walkers on the trail, tail between its legs, until it decided to sit and not stay still right in the middle of the daily yoga session happening on the raised platform in the middle of the park.
I’m not sure how much the mongrel knew about the term “yoga” but I wished I could have made the creature understand that the Sanskrit word, meaning “yoking,” alluded to a “Hindu discipline aimed at training the consciousness for a state of perfect spiritual insight and tranquility” and that, as such, bumming around yoga practitioners who were perfecting their downward dog could unleash pebbles as well as curses upon him.
During our next time around the walking track, Mr. Tail was back with us again, trotting elegantly past us, a twig between his teeth, as if he were Cruella de Vil bossing over a hundred dalmatians.
After some more rounds on the track, however, the dog’s mind seemed to attain an altered state of consciousness. Presently, he held an Adidas sneaker in his snout and we discovered, in minutes, that it belonged to one of the peaceful yogis on the platform.
If only Mr. Tail would have cared to listen, I’d have told him that yoga as exercise or alternative therapy had turned into an out-of-control modern phenomenon of the ancient Indian practice of hatha yoga that involved breathing, meditation, and a pantheon of bodily postures for health and relaxation. I’d have also told Mr. Tail that some time in the eighties, yoga got hijacked by the west, thus assuming an aggressive avatar that many yoga teachers in India didn’t even recommend anymore. I’d have also enlightened him on how the highest form was believed to be Raja yoga whose goal was spiritual purification and self-understanding leading to samadhi or union with the divine.
The way yoga was practiced at Jeeva Park’s platform—especially when Mr. Tail was walking around with a yogi’s sneaker—it was doubtful anyone would achieve union with the divine, especially while one of the yogis was reflecting and hoping for the union of his or her shoe with its reflected self, its mate.
If Mr. Tail could only read, I’d have told him to take in the Blackboard at the G. N. Chetty Road entrance to Jeeva Park where vegetable vendor, Poongodi, sold produce. I’d have told him to read the Blackboard every morning as he walked (and if he planned to continue walking with us, that is). I’d have told him how the Blackboard had a way of telling walkers something about how to live every day.
One morning, the Blackboard informed us that “anger is one letter short of danger.” Another day it told walkers to “Listen to your heart because even though it’s on your left, it’s always right.” On that particular morning, however, when Mr. Tail was wagging his tail while eating a walking shoe, he should have read this suggestion from the Blackboard: “If you want to swim in the river, befriend the crocodile.” For instance, if Mr. Tail wanted to hang with the humans, he needed to learn to leave their shoes alone. To be one of us, he would need to also elevate his tastes somewhat; he would certainly need to appreciate the seasons inside Jeeva Park.
One couldn’t miss them. All through January, Margazhi thingal, sung by Bombay Sisters, blasted from speakers, its refrains whorling into the rising mist of a new year that trickled into February. Clandestine Valentines sat a foot apart between bushes, on whose stems March always planted flower frocks: pink rangoon, gardenia, hibiscus, frangipani, moonbeam, bougainvillea. Crows cawed, bulbuls chirped, mynas clicked while April’s heat dropped mangoes from branches. Handkerchiefs alighted from pockets as May brought broil and sweat sprays. Gulmohar trees tossed crimson filigrees against dusty sky from which kapok cotton floated down in June, lining leaves, walkways and benches. Olive-yellow neem fruit squirted under sneakers while July laid beds of red-orange gulmohar from wind-lashed rain. Curry leaf flowers congealed into purple-black seeds just before thunder and lightning in August, when Lord Ganesha, the birthday god, sat under the peepal tree awash in sandalwood, turmeric, scented oil, fresh cow’s milk, holy ash, roses, mums and sacred Bermuda grass and by September, erect drumsticks, buxom papayas, wide thigh banana stems stood for sale at the park gate, just as October began to sparkle with Diwali season’s razzle-dazzle. Walkers prattled on about where-to-buy-what or how-to-make-what for Diwali. Soon, death sneaked in, a few weeks later as in November of the year I spent Diwali with my father, when the Blackboard regretted to announce the demise of so-and-so, a walker whose death was followed by the December season, Chennai’s smorgasbord of classical music and dance serving up mosquitoes on the side.
Little did Mr. Tail understand the universal truth that while the yoga students were doing the “bridge,” lifting haunches and limbs while breathing in and breathing out in the hope of fighting depression or incontinence, all of us, Mr. Tail included, were inching one day closer to their last day on earth.
On the morning Mr. Tail fled with the shoe, one of the yogis suddenly abandoned his yoga mat and his yoga pose and trooped over to where he had left his shoes and socks, figuring, perhaps, that while morning yoga was great and all, a good pair of sneakers was worth more than twelve blistering asanas and sixty sharp inhales of the cool morning air and he was not going to loose his sleep, his shoes and his peace of mind to a measly dog.
Mr. Tail, sadly, was nowhere to be seen. But we all suspected that somewhere on G.N Chetty Road or its environs, an Adidas sneaker waited, half-eaten, but very usable all the same.