Slowing my bike to read the numbers on the letterboxes, I reached my destination: a large brick house on a quiet, inner-city street, slightly shabbier than its neighbours. As I locked up the bike, my stomach sank. Strewn across the front lawn were sun-mottled toys, synthetic stuffing poking through holes that had been ripped in the threadbare fur. When the door opened, my fears were confirmed. Wet noses prodded excitedly past the legs of my welcomer. My new tutoring student's family were dog owners.
I laughed uncomfortably, trying to seem cool and chilled out while alerting them to one of my most visceral anxieties. As I did, I was acutely attuned to the location and movement of the dogs. I stood abnormally still and my breathing became more conscious, as if this affected stillness might prevent them from noticing me.
I know from experience that fear of dogs (cynophobia) is often taken as a personal insult to an owner’s 'family', apparently as ridiculous to them as the fantasy that the owner themselves might lean over and bite me. The dogs were ushered outside, their low whimpers audible through the windows, injecting moments of palpable awkwardness into my lesson on fractions.
I have not always been afraid of dogs. Indeed, for the first few years of my life I was unusually calm around dogs, having spent many days in the house of a babysitter who bred German Shepherds. Thinking about it now makes me feel claustrophobic, but at the time I loved them, would happily watch Power Rangers as they ran around and rubbed up against me.
In Australia, my phobia is unusual, largely regarded as inexplicable and irritating. In India and Pakistan, where it developed, my fear is more of a norm. There, the relationship with animals was more immediate; as a visitor, it both entranced and perturbed me. Monkeys, meat and domestic animals were cast from their usual categories, all to be found on the streets of major cities.
The first and only time I visited the subcontinent was in the months surrounding my eighth birthday. The trip was part fieldwork for my mother's PhD, part an excuse to visit family.
Given the pale skin inherited from my father, Australians are often surprised to learn of my Pakistani heritage; when I was a child my mother would often be mistaken for my nanny. But in Pakistan, the idea of what a Pakistani looks like is more generous. There are areas with entire populations of pale skinned, blue- or green-eyed Pakistanis. In Pakistan, I chatted away in my broad Australian accent and people asked my mother where she sent me to school, complimenting my excellent English.
Prior to our visit, I had nurtured a yearning for some kind of Enid Blyton–style companionship with a monkey that I was sure I would befriend in India and bring home with me. My mother had told me about the monkeys inhabiting the streets and parks of Delhi and the idea thrilled me. My cute friend would be human enough to communicate and understand my emotions, but animal enough to be entirely devoted to 1) light-hearted mischief and 2) me. Upon arrival in Delhi, I learnt why monkeys are not generally pets. The monkeys on the streets were not the soft, sweet creatures from cartoons but wild—their eyes were dark and shrewd, their teeth sharp, their movements fast and unpredictable, and their bodies possibly coursing with rabies. Through my open window, I watched the monkeys scamper across the grass outside, at once hopeful and terrified they might approach.
Similarly, the distance between animal and animal product was lessened. Because many of the areas we travelled to were without reliable electricity or refrigeration, meat seemed rarely to be found as the neat shapes pressed between cling wrap and styrofoam that I was used to picking up from Woolies. Under these conditions, it was often more practical for my family and the staff of the many hotels we stayed in to simply purchase the animal live.
In her memoir on growing up in Pakistan, Meatless Days (1989), Sara Sulari describes a scene of her sister buying chicken for their dinner.
Nuz stood at the door, ordered her birds, paid for them, and then suddenly remembered her housewifely duty. "Are they fresh?" she squawked, clutching at them, "Can you promise me they're fresh?" The chicken-monger looked at her with some perplexity. "But Begum Sahib," he said gently, "they're alive."
My mother would recount the excerpt to me when I was young to gales of laughter—her arms flapping about as she repeated “Are they fresh? Are they fresh?”, and her eyes widening at “they're alive.”
Reading the book now, nearly two decades after my mother would act it out for me, I find the passage a little darker. Sulari concludes that a fresh chicken is in fact a dead chicken, or rather, a not too dead chicken. The word ‘fresh’ hides in its lively connotations the slaughter that it implies. Travelling in cities where power outages were common, my mother tried to avoid the parts of the markets where these animals were sold when I was with her. Although the story had amused me in Australia, I was deeply unsettled to see these animals in real life—shelves of caged chickens and goats tied to posts—as though they were at once alive and dead.
This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #35. Get your copy here.
Adalya Nash Hussein is a writer and editor, named as a 'Big Best Thing' by the Wheeler Centre, and 'Most Likely to be PM' by her Year 12 teachers.