Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
CITIES: AUGUST 12, 2001
Dog times - A BEASTLY PORTRAIT OF SOFIA
The writer is a Bulgarian-born German novelist, who now lives in Mumbai. This extract is taken from his book, Hundezeiten: Heimkehr in ein fremdes Land (Dog Times: Homecoming to a Foreign Land), 1999.
A Stalinesque complex houses the office of the Prime Minister and his cabinet. Ferocious-looking dogs stray between the arcades. While I marvel at this sight, I hear a pensioner with torn mittens and a wart on his chin mumble: Such a pity they don't eat ministers.
The end of the Cold War introduced the domestic dog to Sofia. Before that, there were dogs in the villages - dogs which had to perform particular tasks like guarding the sheep. But a lap-dog on the fauteuil was a bizarre concept for any Bulgarian. With the rising crime-rate, the citizens of Sofia felt insecure behind their weak doors. Rumours regarding brutal robberies went around; newspapers disturbed their readers with a daily potion of concentrated crime. The lonelier people became, the more they reached out to the dog, saviour of the young, comforter of the weak.
Besides, the people of Sofia were not above a certain snobbishness, caused by the craze for the West - for a TV-mirage-West, where every citizen not only delights in his snug home, his chic car and his glittering kitchenware, but also takes his dog out for a stroll, or is greeted with a hug by his pug after work. The imitation started with the dogs. Soon, the small socialist flats were filled with dogs large and small, with pedigree German shepherds as well as a large variety of mongrels. Conversation about dogs became a daily routine.
The initial years after the dismantling of the Iron Curtain were not happy ones for the people; but they were confident that, soon, everything would get better. People often talked about a new beginning beyond the valley, which had to be traversed, the slump, which had to be endured. Nobody expected the decline to last, no one thought that it could get worse. Suddenly, one could no longer afford the dog, not its grub, not the prescribed vaccinations, and not the regular visit to the vet. All this exceeded the financial abilities of those who pondered over every apple at the market before placing it in their basket. The dogs were driven out of the apartments; they were abandoned.
The homeless dogs teamed up with the wild dogs. In winter they shivered with protruding tongues in front of the heated shops. They rummaged in the garbage, they jumped into the massive dustbins, searching for something to eat. But there were no leftovers; humans had already gnawed off the bones.
The creatures howled, sometimes all through the night. Light sleepers knew no peace. The curs devoured one another, they were beaten to death, they attacked human beings, mauled and mangled them. One could read: 5,000 dogs live in the forests of Schumen, killing all the other wild animals. They attack the nearby villages in large packs. The villagers do not dare leave their houses after dark.
The homeless creatures in Sofia were thought to number about 1,00,000, against 60,000 "official" domestic dogs. In one year, the city hospitals registered 6,500 cases of dog bites, 1,000 children were seriously injured. Every week, newspapers carried reports about old people who had died of vicious attacks. According to animal doctors, castration was the most humane alternative to reducing the threatening number of dogs. And they urged the authorities to hasten, since a male dog's reproductive ability can potentially allow him to sire thousands of pups in less than ten years. But castration is costly, even for a dog: ten dollars, one third of the average monthly pension. Neither the town council nor the general public would waste such a fortune on stray dogs. So the barking and howling continues. But to this day, no minister has been eaten. Not even so much as bitten.
Like the rest of Eastern Europe, Bulgaria was released from the clutches of the Soviet Union in autumn 1989. The Communist elite, including the omnipotent State Security apparatus modelled after the KGB, became the entrepreneurs of a semi-liberal economy heavily manipulated by mafia-like forces. The living standard of the population fell; a mass exodus, mostly of young people, ensued. Although there have been signs of a slight improvement recently, Bulgaria remains one of Europe's least productive and advanced countries.
Sofia, not having been the historic capital of Bulgaria, has little to offer in terms of architectural heritage. A few fin-de-siecle buildings rub shoulders with massive post-World War II structures. The suburbs consist of cheaply constructed high-rises without community spaces, supplying the working masses with a roof but also isolating people from one another. The redeeming feature of Sofia is the often snow-clad mountain of Vitosha, which overlooks the city.
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