‘Dawa, the Story of a Stray Dog in Bhutan’ by Kunzang Choden. Reviewed by Don Messerschmidt.
al·le·go·ry, noun. A story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one. (Oxford Dictionary)
Early in this fascinating dog story from Bhutan, after we are introduced to the scruffy yellow street mutt named Dawa, the author, Kunzang Choden, tells us that “there is nothing extraordinary about Dawa if you think of him as an old stray dog. But throw away all preconceptions and seize the privilege and honour of getting to know Dawa, the uncommon dog. If you look at Dawa as a personality, he is a unique dog who is blessed with a most incredible life. This is the story of Dawa…”
And the story of that “uncommon dog” goes (in brief) like this. He is a stray, one of thousands of stray dogs in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. He was born in Paro, a city in the western part of the mountainous country, but early in life he takes on certain leadership roles, especially as the head of the nighttime pack of howlers… After living and learning all there is of Paro, Dawa feels an itch for adventure, and a spot of mange, and sets off to travel the country, to expand his horizons and better himself. Most of the book is about his wanderings, and of the places and people, and other dogs, that he meets. Along the way he crosses many high passes, visits sacred sites of worship and pilgrimage, meditates in a cave (like a monk), and encounters the fascinating Bhutanese culture. Eventually, however, he returns west, to the capital city of Thimphu, where he opts to retire and live out his life in peace at the Buddhist temple (lakhang) called Chandgangkha, high on a hill overlooking the Thimphu valley. It’s where the Bhutanese elite live…
Early in the book it is clear that Dawa has unusual powers – of common sense, of right and wrong, and of a certain level of canine authority. He can understand human language (Dzongkha, the main language of Bhutan). And, of course, like the human elites around him, he has to learn the honorific form of the language so that he can understand and perform appropriately in his adopted social milieu. And, he feels compelled to invent a prestigious pedigree, a sign of high status. The one he comes up with links him directly to one of the noble lineages of Lhasa, Tibet.
Along the way, the author drops hints about her underlying intent. It becomes clear early on that Dawa’s story is allegorical in the sense that the dog’s life and feelings reflect the life styles and beliefs and social behaviors of upper class, elite Bhutanese. It shows up early on, for example, in passages like this (dressed up in dog’s garb, so to say):
“His magical howling was heard and recognized by the entire dog population, and they answered him from everywhere… Even the snootiest, over-groomed and overly well-fed pet dogs, in the comfort of their carpeted homes, let out involuntary yelps in answer and then sheepishly pretended that the sound was not from them….”
And at one point she writes even more openly that Dawa “was often amused by the analogies humans made to dogs,” much as she, with writer’s license, is amused by those very humans Dawa’s life appears to mirror.
Dawa’s place of residence (in retirement) is on the hill where so many upper class Bhutanese live, overlooking downtown Thimphu:
Dawa “is an old dog who spends most of his time outside Chandgangkha lhakhang. This ancient temple, built on a hillock overlooking Thimphu, is a historical landmark. And this is where Dawa has chosen to spend the rest of his life. It is an ideal place, for it provides the safety and tranquility an aged dog needs and at the same time offers an overview of the city he loves. He knows how to stay out of people’s way, and nobody seems to mind his presence there. He spends most of the days gazing over the city with a sense of contentment and belonging. It is his city. His choice of a retirement place in close proximity to the town allows him occasional visits to his old haunts without too much exertion. During these visits, he enjoys interacting with the younger dogs. He does not impost or intrude into others’ lives; he just socializes in the way dogs do. It is on such occasions that you might see Dawa in the town. If you see an old scruffy dog, look again, carefully. It just might be Dawa.”
This enjoyable little book (131 pp.) is both written and published by an established Bhutanese writer, in a limited edition by the author (2008, rev. ed.). It is available from Dejung Norbu Enterprise in Thimphu’s ‘Hongkong Market’. For international inquiries contact Tengin Dorji, prop., at email@example.com.
Read more about Kunzang Choden and her other books at: http://www.zubaanbooks.com/zubaan_author_details.asp?AuthorID=16.