A tailor houses his shop opposite my apartment building on a busy residential road. What makes the road busy? Well, the usual menagerie of four-legged, non-domesticated pets: mongrels, kittens and bovine-smelling buffaloes; children peddling their cycles in a zig-zag fashion – as if toeing a straight path on the road is antithetical to their play; hawkers selling plastic buckets, plastic combs, plastic sieves and plastic bats; the ice-cream van dipping a finger into my tempted-tongue with his insistent bell.
And more. Others on the street, burning rubber with speed, leaving tracks and cigarette butts and wilting flowers and chocolate wrappers and spit. Eyes shut and lips sneer. Spit, phlegm, bloody betel nut outpourings. So rather risk creating new wrinkles formed out of sneers and disgust, I keep myself within the bounds of the living room. Can’t expose these Superwoman T-shirt clad biceps to those distantly knowing eyes.
The kitchen door and kitchen balcony through which I infrequently observe the busy tailor on our busy road is my vantage point. I prefer to believe that my occasional outings beyond the kitchen door go unnoticed by the roadside regulars – the watchman and his cronies; the school kids who take the same route every evening at 4; the illustrious tailor himself, who doubles up as a tuition teacher to two girls and two boys. Don’t want the young mother in her small independent house next to the tailor thinking I make it a habit leaning against balcony rails in a bid to be noticed. I don’t. I don’t want to be.
He opens shutter late by usual business standards, 11.30 am, when noon is straining at its leash to burn our black-haired head. To be fair, he and his sidekick – a thin, dark, sibilant-footed boy of 16 – stay up till 1 am, sometimes 3 the previous night, to stitch up the colored expanses of clothing into tunics and blouses. Must be a sleep cycle carried forward from childhood? It intrigues me, their nocturnal outtakes and mysterious disappearances for better part of the day. I know for a fact that they don’t carry their lunch boxes with them. So, open at 11.30, out again by 1, return by 2, stitch-teach-feed mongrels-play radio-teach-stitch-disappear at 8 again – that’s the routine I have pinned down.
One morning I woke up, not to the sounds of the garbage truck, but to the yelps and yips of a dog. It was 6.30. A good two hours for my sleep cycle to round up. But the whines were incessant. And I knew that this wasn’t just another roadside pup, but a very specific one.
This is when I launch into an epic saga of my distant past, particularly as it is quite relevant to the present tale I narrate. This is so you can make up your mind about the actions that followed that yipping morning.
Back in the wee old years of the 80s, when the World Was Not a Flat Place, but rather a global village disconnected at borders, we shifted from the bustling city of Mumbai to the sleepy beach town of Goa, both on the western coast of India. It was there that I met Bonny < Cue Music, Hit it! > Bring Back, Oh, Bring Back, Oh, Bring Back My Bonny to Me, to Meee! Did you or did you not at some point of your kindergarten life hum this song along with your best friend and better yet, serenaded your pup with “Bring Back, oh Bring Back, oh Bring back my ______ (insert pet name here, Princess, Tiger, Lolo, Cashew, Tommy, Cookie, Tom) to meee!’.
The first pet dog I got to interact with was Bonny, a Russian Dachshund, golden brown and long and small, that belonged to my bestest friend in the city. Bonny was fun, tame, caring, adorable and a male – perfect to make little girls feel loved, wanted and protected from spiders, the darkness after dusk, and for giving us a good chase. While my first encounter with him almost led him to nip my small, white palm, I managed to bond with him in due time. Mutton bones, pieces of chicken, biscuits and milk were always being carried by me, from my kitchen to his in-house kennel. To me, dogs were softness-non-threatening-precious.
After three years, when I moved back to my home city, I met another dog in my building, a white long-haired, fluffy something something. Didn’t get friendly with him, but liked him, and was passively sending him affection. I remember my father’s disgusted face when the dog licked his palm one evening as he paid a visit to the dog’s owner. The disgust. Such a palpable emotion on his thin-skinned face, contorting his lower jaw and the ridge of his eyebrows into a malefic horror visage.
Although we never explicitly discussed pets, I knew that my parents weren’t in favour of pets at home, pets in the building or pets in the vicinity of their civic life. Animals were never spoken of with affection or fondness, rather I heard stories of their childhood in our ancestral village, where they conquered frogs, snakes, scorpions, spiders and dragon flies. Conquest of creatures was the leitmotif, rather than adoption and domestication. So I let it bee, not thinking much about a loss since I never really experienced a significant gain by housing a pet. The issue was null and void.
It was in my teenage years that I learnt that Islam doesn’t permit co-mingling with the canines. Dogs were perceived as the companions of the devil, the harbingers of death, the fiends from hell? I don’t really remember, but the popular imagery from soundbytes received via my religious teacher, religious neighbors and traditional parents, gave me the impression that dogs were unwelcome at home.
Somehow, the impact of a NO in your teenage is more keenly felt than in childhood. I had grown to love dogs, cats, dolphins, horses, elephants, and other ‘cute in pop-culture’s imagination’ varieties of animals. Walking back home from school, college, an outing, walking back home with street dogs lolling around, underneath street lamps or simply following me, sniffing my bag, didn’t alarm me or incite me into running or shooing them away. I would smile at them.Perhaps I romanticized their eyes. You can’t escape a literary reference to pets, without reading about the soulful eyes of a dog, or the silky fur of a cat – and its independence – or the smile of a dolphin, or the gentleness inherent in an elephant…you romanticize and anthropomorphize these attributes.
I spun dreams of owning a house big enough for two big Golden Retrievers. But conveniently avoided thinking about the practical realities of ‘owning’ pets, of being responsible for two additional lives, of caring for their food, cleanliness and safety. Of being their emotional companion and playmate as much as they would be mine. The fantasy stopped at me being in the vicinity of two Retrievers without the familial – religio – societal stigma of being a dog lady.
Back to the present. To the view from the balcony. To the tailor and his little shop and the sibilant young boy who picked up mongrels from the street and fed them whatever his meagre salary would allow him to buy: a tiny packet of milk, a pack of biscuits. Sorry, no bones for the puppies. The tailor’s sidekick had picked up a cream-colored puppy from the streets and tied it to his shop’s wooden post. The pup would be let loose after the boy came in to work at noon, and locked up inside the shop during the night. It would wake at 6, start yelping – to be let out I assume so it could relieve itself in its fashion and water a thirst plant or car tyre with concentrated nitric acid. Following that? Food of course. Dogs don’t follow human sleep cycles as far I know. Between 6 am to 12 noon the pup would yelp, whine and bark continuously. The other day, the boy – following a word from my husband and several neighbors – decided to leave the dog tied outside through the night.
Now I know that I am not alone in valuing my precious sleep. I also know that if it comes to choosing between sleep and a yelping dog, most of us would choose the former, after all, we don’t understand canine lingo and will be helpless to provide any assistance to its conversation! But two mornings and two nights of continuous puppy-whinings was all I was ready to bear. I admit, the previous day as i woke up at 8 and caught the pup trying to cut through the rope around its neck, I cried. I just broke down. I cursed the tailor. I cursed his side-kick for being such a juvenile, for being so selfish as to tie up a pup in the wintery cold of night and the gnawing wait for food till mid-morning. I sobbed and cooked. Sobbed and had breakfast. Sobbed and vowed to do something.
The pup kept waiting for someone to rescue it. It kept whining when any passerby crossed it – on a bike, in a car, school kids on foot, the construction laborers rushing to work, the flower man delivering on his cycle. Many ignored, many didn’t even notice its existence, some stopped, one man went near it only to pick up a stone and aim at its head. Sick Bastard. That day passed by. I didn’t do anything for the sorry pup. I asked myself, what could I possibly do? It’s a street dog, do I have a right to interfere in its nomadic existence?
The morning of the incident – when the yelping woke me at 6.30, I decided that enough is enough. Not-withstanding the daily packet of milk the sidekick was feeding it, and the scraps of food, I would rather it learn the life of a street dog and what that entails than be chained as a slave for food with a boy as an owner who had no affections or sensitivity for his pet’s care (ok, he did love the pet beyond imagination, but this was no way to treat a kid canine!). Wearing a thick jacket and plucking a pair of scissors from the kitchen standd, I donned sports shoes – the gear was a latent reaction to fear, in case the pup bit me or attempted to harm me. I sneakily opened the main door – didn’t want to disturb the partner – trundled down the steps, yanked open the building’s gate, crossed the road with 6 long strides, and stood right in front of the yipping pup.
The pup bared its two canines, it somehow didn’t have all its teeth. I was the last person to know anything about teething or canine biology, so forgive my incomplete description. I went down on my haunches, removed the scissors from my jacket pocket, and turned to the pup, speaking all the time, ‘Don’t worry, I will free you. Shh, quiet down, sit still”. Man, speaking to a street pup in English? But I believed it understood my intentions because it lay down on its back, exposing its tummy and as I reached towards the rope around its neck, it kept struggling and straining. The pup’s mother came right behind me then! I knew it was the mother as I have seen it nursing the pup several times. But surprisingly, the “mother dog” didn’t react, didn’t bare its teeth, no growls. She was quiet, tongue hanging out, wagging tail. Isn’t that a good, friendly gesture?
And then, the rope around the pup’s neck was cut! It was free! The pup got up and rounded around itself, you know, trying to touch its tail. The mother licked its face. The pup licked her and well, they trotted away! Achievement? Accomplishment? A sense of righteousness? Yes, all of these and more. Pure joy at having done something. Elation at taking a step. A cuddly feeling inside for having caressed a dog after ages. Through the day, I kept watch, waiting to see if the pup would return, and I was secretly waiting for the moment when the tailor’s sidekick would return and find his street-pup GONE!
Sadly, the pup did return, in less than an hour for gods sake! and settled down in the very place from where I rescued it. I wanted to curse, shout at it to go away, to will it to realize its blunder. But no, head to paws, it went to sleep, giving the sidekick a good opportunity to re-tie it to the wooden post outside the shop when he returned at 12 noon to open shop.
Next day, early morning, I woke up to the sounds of yelping and barking. Again. My eyes opened and my brain reacted as if a jug of water had been poured on my face. How could this be? And then I remembered, yes, the silly pup had asked for it. But instead of just ignoring it and leaving it to its fate, I decided to get up and see if I could feed it some milk. A good 15 minutes of indecision followed. I didn’t want it to get used to my food or my favors. I wanted it to learn to fend for itself on the mean streets of the city. The decision was taken out of my worthless hands as the sidekick, clad in sports shoes, jeans and an old work shirt, popped up at 7 am with a small packet of milk. My sense of righteousness, however, didn’t allow me to praise him for his act. Rather, I dismissed it by saying, ‘Oh, that’s the least you can do loser!”. Juvenile? Perhaps. Emotional? Yes.
That night, the sidekick decided to free the pup. He didn’t let it go, but neither did he tie it. He placed it on several layers of cloth (remains from all the blouses and tunics and nighties) and set it there to rest. The pup followed him for a couple of minutes and then returned to sniffing under a nearby car, wagging its tail for grub.
That’s when I realized. May be it wasn’t about me playing savior and rescuing the little pup. It wasn’t about pointing out to the sidekick about its inabilities to care for a pup. The dog had its fate, leashed to the rope and while it was set free, it waited to return to bondage. Perhaps it wasn’t bondage, but security. Human playmates, morning milk and a cozy place to rest irrespective of the time of day.
But I also think that the incident taught me a lesson. It was about this thing called letting go. You cannot hold things so close to heart, uphold everything in life as precious and treat them as fragile. Like I do. Like I have the propensity to. Letting go of control, letting go of events that don’t go your way, of missed opportunities that you always regret over. Spilt milk that you keep crying over. I believe in karma. Not the swift retribution doled out by religious texts but of the kind where everything in this universe is measured and reactive. Perhaps, long time ago in a birth that I don’t have any recollections of, I must have been cruel to some animal, and now, I experience immense pain at seeing a tiny creature bound? I don’t know. I can’t make sense of it. Out of all the hundreds of people living in this area, why did I happen to be the one to feel for the pup?
It isn’t enough to feel
Tears are so much sodium chloride
Wasted in H2O.
Curling fingers into palm
when an injustice plays out
in front of your eyes.
…. …. … … …. …. …
and a restless heartbeat.
Why this chagrined expression,
this snarling teeth. Cut it out.
You want to do something?
then walk down those stairs,
scissors in hand.
Else, go back to sleep.