Sunday, October 23, 2005
In conversation with a dog
A short story by SUNIL K POOLANI
She saw me from a distance. I had just stepped out of my two-room apartment in uptown Bombay – where four paying guests from four parts of the country sleep – on a Sunday morning to buy a tube of 50 gm Colgate. Clad in a white dhoti and a torn khadar kurta, I was feeling ill at ease since I hadn’t taken my morning cup of tea; there was not a drop of kerosene in the stove, and there was no chance of getting even an ounce for another week. Woes of a Bombay bachelor.
My appearance didn’t dissuade her spirit and enthusiasm. She came running to me and as she approached, she raised her limbs and placed them on my thighs. Billions of blue, boiled, blistering barnacles! What was she assigned to?
Wait a second, dear reader, please don’t get any false impression about her and me – she is no human being, but a dog aged three. I have always had a place reserved for dogs (and human beings who resemble them) deep in my heart. I never got scared of them, though twice – once in my village in Kerala and next time in Delhi – they tested the sharpness of their teeth on my legs.
Whenever I get a chance, I pat them, mock them, feed them… moreover, I was a humble battler for stray dogs’ rights – nonetheless, I never sought publicity like many an organisation which mint money in the name of canines. And, yes, I love only Indian strays, not the foreign stuff: French Poodle, Great Dane, Pomeranian, Brittany Spaniel, German Shepherd, Doberman, Labrador Retriever, Old English Sheepdog…
‘Hi!’ she greeted me and gleefully queried: ‘Where do you go?’
I happily responded: ‘To the grocery shop down the street. Wanna come?’
She nodded approvingly and followed me. And I got a chance to talk to her about her life and work in Bombay where she migrated just before the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party government came to power. I was so enthralled by the profundity of her talk that I forgot about my chore. I squatted on the pavement and she stood, then sat, then lay down. My ears were attentive, her speech vivid and perceptive.
Excerpts from a two-hour-long, freewheeling tete-a-tete:
(Just in case anyone thinks what is this all about, let me tell you that the following interview is not purely a writer’s imagination. I really talk to domestic animals – cats, goats and cows, and dogs, of course. Hence, the following conversation is fifty per cent real talk; twenty-five per cent fiction and the remaining twenty-five per cent based on circumstantial evidence).
What is you good name?
Back in my hamlet (somewhere in Thane district of Maharashtra) human beings like you used to call me Vaishali. You may be aware, we dogs don’t call our offspring by name – we use gestures. Here in Bombay, the people in your neighbourhood call me Tutu.
You said you have a rural background, but how come you landed in this city of (mis)fortunes? You like city life? City lights?
I was born into a royal family. Er… what I’m trying to say is, my mother gave birth to me and six other siblings in the house of rich zamindar. When three of the newborns perished within a week, four servants took the remaining four dogs (including me) to their respective households. I lived in my new master’s hutment in the periphery of the zamindar’s bungalow. My dog god! Those were the days! I enjoyed playing with the two kids of my master. They also derived great satisfaction and happiness as they fed me, dressed me and played with me.
Your story resembles an art film in Marathi: no fireworks, no masala…
Wait dear, you will later think it is nothing less than a proper Hollywood blockbuster.
I was intelligent enough to understand that my master had a problem with the zamindar. What exactly the bone of contention was I do not know. The situation got worse and I suffered in this mess. No one bothered to feed me, play with me or care for me. Even today, I recall the day when my master’s family was asked to leave the village. I was, in the whole melee, abandoned. Nobody in the village pitied me enough to pick me up and I was left to fend for myself. There was no option other than to leave the village and go to the city where I would manage to fill my small belly, somehow.
So how did you come to the city…? I mean you walked all the way?
How else do you think I came here? In a chartered flight? Give me a break! I thought you were an intelligent and educated chap. There is a wise canine proverb which is handed down the generations: ‘A dog’s life and a whirlwind are the same by nature; they have no destination, whatsoever.’ So, for days, I did the wandering act, seeking to come to any city, to be part of it. Shouldn’t I survive too? In fact, I never thought of coming to Bombay; first I came to Thane where I spent two weeks in the vicinity of a Mangalorean bar-cum-restaurant. The leftover food was more than adequate to keep myself alive. But I was often treated shabbily; the boys working in the hotel spilled hot water on my back (see the scar?) and kicked me on my butt and stomach so many times.
One lesson I learnt soon was that city people lack decency and humanitarianism. But what else can one do? I did think of returning to my native place or to some rural area. But even people in rural areas live in abject poverty, so there is no guarantee that I, a dog, would last out any longer there.
But should I live minus my self-esteem? Should I traumatise my body and soul for a couple of chicken bones? Such thoughts lingered for days and I came to the conclusion that I should give up leading a dog’s life. But Jimmy’s entry into my heart changed my decision – and the course of my life.
Jimmy was the cutest and noblest dog I had ever come across in my life. Don’t you human beings have a phrase in English that goes ‘love at first sight’? Exactly that happened in my case too. It was mutual.
Jimmy once met me near a hotel as I stood around there. I vividly remember the first thing he asked: ‘Hi browny beauty! What are you doing tonight? Wanna join me for a stroll in the nearby mountains?’ How can the flirt talk of a stranger carry a respectable lady from a respectable background away? So I rejected his offer outright. Yet, Jimmy’s slow but stern wheedling and cajoling was something I couldn’t ignore – and guess what, I fell in love with him.
I, of course, did accompany him for a stroll. Then (giggles) it happened. How can I tell you in detail (blushes)? But I can only tell you that it was my first experience. Though it was painful (more giggles), I enjoyed it very much.
Our companionship was great. Together, Jimmy and I began to weave sweet dreams around the future. We decided to stay in one safe corner where we would not be harassed by human beings or other dogs, and raise children. Jimmy said he would not be a careless father like most other dogs were. He would play an equal part in rearing our children and help them become good denizens of the country.
Life was so lovely then. We decided we would leave Thane and come to Mulund, an adjacent borough. Mulund, I had heard, was not as crowded and congested as Thane was. Jimmy hailed from Mulund and he informed me that the people there were very nice (to dogs). So, on a fine December morning, we came to the western side of Mulund and began hanging around the tastefully-built apartments and a posh restaurant named Hot Plate near the Johnson & Johnson gardens.
So happy days are here again. By the way, where is Jimmy? I have not had the good fortune to meet him.
Don’t jump into conclusions. How do you know that we had happy time after coming to Mulund (begins weeping)? You know, I lost my Jimmy last summer.
(Sighs and goes on). That was just before I met with an accident. See the limb (shows her right foreleg)? It is more or less paralysed because of a reckless driver. I was feeding my babies (yes, I forgot to tell you; I was a mother of four by then) and Jimmy was admiring me from across the road – when two Maruti cars zoomed past, trying to outdo each other. One driver wouldn’t give right of way to the other and his rival tried to overtake him.
The wheel of the second car ran over my children and me as we lay by the kerb. My leg was wounded badly, but… (bursts into tears) two of my puppies died instantly. Jimmy bounded across to me, then barked and chased the car to a distance. But in vain. On his return, he saw the bleeding bodies of our puppies and broke down.
A nice girl from the area happened to witness the accident. I say nice because, as I found out later, she was a dog lover and a member of an activist group that fought for the cause of stray dogs. This girl brought two friends and buried my dead babies in her building compound.
Then she hired an autorickshaw and took me to a veterinary doctor. I was given an injection and my limb was bandaged. Later, she took me back home where Jimmy and my two pups waited anxiously for me.
But that was not all. The girl took us all, save Jimmy, to her home. She took good care of me for a week, fed my pups, played with me and even bathed us with Pears soap.
Though my benefactor loved animals, she couldn’t understand doggy language. Despite having all the physical comforts we could ask for, we pined for Jimmy. I couldn’t inform the girl that Jimmy was my companion and the father of my children and we desperately wanted to meet him. I know it was not my mistress’ fault. Poor thing! How can anyone blame her for not being able to read my mind?
My Jimmy was ignored until I was able to limp around and look for him myself. As soon as I was able to, I went out in search of him. But I couldn’t find him anywhere. I searched for hours, days, weeks… Then something I heard made the ground under my paws seems to sink.
Alter, a friend of Jimmy, was the witness. He informed me that a dog-catching squad had come to the area in my absence and had targeted stray dogs. These people believe we are a nuisance to the city and are responsible for the spread of rabies.
Earlier, all they used to do was catch dogs and rehabilitate them in and around the city. But after receiving complaints that the so-called champions for dogs’ rights were misusing the money meant for us, the municipal corporation opted for another way out – they decided to electrocute stray dogs.
It is nothing to most people. So what? They are dogs after all, why does this ‘nuisance’ deserve a better deal?
But what it did to me that day! My Jimmy had fallen prey to this cruelty. Alter grimly informed me that my consort, my life companion, had been ruthlessly done to death. I cried for days. I have never loved anyone like I did Jimmy, and I never can.
(Slowly). True, but one has to cope. Sorrow is part of life. One has to live with it.
Yes, I know (pulls herself up and shakes vigorously). Sorry, I must have depressed you too much. I have wasted enough of your precious time.
The pleasure is mine. I enjoyed talking to you. Tell me, what of the future?
It’s been a dog’s life, I admit. But I am in peace today. My children are happy too. Of course, I miss Jimmy terribly. There are sorrows that one has to face gallantly, but I am learning to do so. Don’t people often say: ‘Every dog has his own day’?