My Teacher, My ‘Desi’: What ‘Cheeku’ Taught Me About Superstition

Happy Teachers’ Day to my desi dog, who inspires not only me but also PM Modi, for teaching me love & rationality.

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Happy Teacher’s Day Pic: My lost and found dog, my teacher.
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My desi dog, a feisty female called Cheeku, deserves this Teacher’s Day tribute. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi can dedicate his monthly address to the nation—Mann ki Baat—to the canine pride of India, I, too, can dedicate a column to my teacher of life and more.

I moved houses a week back with my human and canine brood and the experience, as expected, was overwhelming for all of us. Cheeku might have been baffled, since she knew nothing beyond our erstwhile apartment complex in Noida. She was born in one of the lawns there and spent her first week outdoors before choosing us as her forever family. Her presence in my life, as her brief absence, has been a life-altering, life-affirming experience for me. Her lost and found tale is one of its own kind.

What Cheeku has taught me could not be learnt elsewhere.

Baby Cheeku and I 
Baby Cheeku and I 
Photo: Nishtha Gautam

Why I Call Cheeku My Teacher

I did not grow up with a pet and have spent a considerable part of my life being mortally terrified of street dogs, much to the amusement of my hostel buddies. The first dog that I could truly feel close to was my friend—now husband—Praveen’s beagle, who accepted me as family from day one. Laddoo, however, became more of a companion than a ward. In our family hierarchy, he considers himself above our daughters—and for all the right reasons!

Laddoo with baby Cheeku
Laddoo with baby Cheeku
Photo: Nishtha Gautam
While Laddoo coached me how to be friends with dogs, Cheeku taught me how to care for them.

She came to our house as a baby, and with all the evils attached with babyhood. From toilet training to eating etiquette, she redefined patience for me. And whenever she fell sick, I cursed the moment I set my eyes on this furball. It is difficult to find a more love-seeking dog and it gets exhausting to humour her. No wonder, Laddoo went into a huge week-long sulk upon her arrival.

They became friends eventually, and this gentle pure-bred beagle accepted a desi Cheeku as his alpha. His acceptance was easy, ours was not. “Laddoo is her senior, she should respect him and not the other way round.”

How I Lost Cheeku...Almost

Cheeku slipped out of the new house exactly seven days ago. Busy unpacking the mountain of boxes in our living room, everyone assumed her to be in somebody else’s room when she was not. The moment we realised she was missing it was too late. We were informed by the building guard that she got chased away by the local pack of street dogs. Unlike Laddoo, who grew up in this neighbourhood, Cheeku is a newcomer and nobody recognised her then.

We combed the neighbourhood unsuccessfully for six hours till midnight. In the meantime my twitter post about missing Cheeku went viral. From friends to colleagues to strangers, everyone had tips to share and help to offer. If nothing else, people made it a point to say reassuring words.

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The next day, my daughters created a ‘missing’ poster and we printed a thousand coloured copies. We drove around and walked covering a radius of 10 kms from our house distributing and sticking these posters.

‘Missing’ poster for Cheeku 
‘Missing’ poster for Cheeku 
Photo: Nishtha Gautam

It was remarkable how each person we approached was outright helpful and compassionate. From addicts on the roadside to well-dressed morning walkers, from fruit vendors to store owners, from kirtan-doing aunties to headphoned teens, everyone chose to help us in different ways. People asked for extra posters to be given to them. Yes, the announcement of reward might be a factor but most of them did not even look at the poster before sharing kind words with us. Many rebuked us lovingly for even mentioning a reward.

By evening, my phone was inundated with calls and messages from complete strangers offering to help. It was as if the entire NCR had come together for a ‘Catch Chica’ game. Cheeku loves to be chased around the house—a game we initiate with the command “Catch Chica”.

A City Comes Together For a Dog

A middle-aged para vet drove down all the way from Saket.
An old lady from the neighbourhood alerted everyone in the area.
NGOs amplified our appeals for help.
People in our erstwhile neighbourhood stayed alert should Cheeku sniff her way to Noida.
Rickshaw drivers, vendors, guards told their respective networks about Cheeku.
People from other cities and countries activated their friends and family circles. I discovered a hitherto invisible network of people who care for dogs and other animals—guardian angels of non-human members of our society. For every person who throws a stone at a street dog, there seem to be 10 who will feed him.

Not only this, many people—strangers and friends—recommended dog whisperers. The rationalist in me revolted at the mere thought of consulting one but as my boss, a fellow sceptic told me, “a dog mommy gotta do what she gotta do”.

Yes, I consulted dog whisperers to find my lost Cheeku. Two of them. And I paid for these consultations, too.

My Tryst With Superstition and Irrationality

One dog whisperer charged in advance and asked for a lot of details. The other one took details and wanted to establish “contact” with Cheeku and persuade her to return. After more than 28 hours of no news, I agonised about my irrationality but decided to do everything the dog whisperers wanted me to do.

Paid money, shared personal details, chanted mantras, listened to their moral lectures, tried Reiki: basically, I was neck deep into the cesspool of superstition.

The family was aghast but extended full support. I wryly remarked on the third day that only animal sacrifice or graveyard visits remained to be tried. What would one not do out of despair?

Charlatans know this. They thrive on the fear and despair of people dealing with loss. One whisperer could not get on the “case” despite advance payment of a hefty sum. She assured late at night that she’d “talk to Cheeku” the next day to know her whereabouts; Cheeku was back early next morning, thanks to two alert young boys from our neighbourhood.

Gautam (L) and Deepanshu (R), the winners of ‘Catch Chica’ game, and a tearful me
Gautam (L) and Deepanshu (R), the winners of ‘Catch Chica’ game, and a tearful me
Photo: Nishtha Gautam

The other one got Cheeku’s gender wrong and shared that “he” has left willingly as “his time with this family is over”. A third one told me that she would have to see “reunion” in my destiny before “asking Cheeku to come back”.

The moment I found Cheeku early next morning, hiding in the neighbouring park, I texted all of them. The first one (who was too busy hitherto to work on the case) suddenly had many details to share about Cheeku’s whereabouts and experiences. The second one demanded payment for “energy transfer” and the third one, thankfully, responded only with “congrats, babe”.

My Teacher, My Lost-and-Found Dog

All of them either got the details wrong, or shared utterly banal things. Like, Cheeku had been scared, she wanted to come back but couldn't her way home, she hid under the cars, she “saw” dull-looking buildings and lots of greenery around...et al. No shit, Sherlock!

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Much self-loathing and many bank transfers later, I learnt an important lesson in humility: my rationalism could also be held hostage to despair. I willingly allowed myself to be conned.

I learnt one more thing: I can’t get away from dogs even if I wanted to. The dog at Patel Chest chowk at DU that refused to let me back inside the car, or the dogs at Bela Road sterilisation centre that began to cry as I approached them, wouldn’t let me.

I came across thousands of people during this search for Cheeku—mostly good but also some frauds—but I never spotted a hoodwinking dog.

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