Dollar lives on
It was a dry, arid Indian summer in Hyderabad. Time was passing by and with it, my summer vacation was too. It was the fag-end of April and the merrymaking of a gala summer vacation was giving way to boredom.
My swimming programme had ended too and I was looking forward to going back to school.
One scorching summer noon, as I sat on the swing in my balcony, thoughts of notebooks with pages smelling of nascent, musty wood and the rustle of crisp school uniform occupied my mind.
I was to start using notebooks with sparkling white pages and do away with the ruled ones. As I was graduating from the seventh to the eighth grade that year, teachers thought I was to carry a sense of “space and line”. I felt amused and chuckled to myself. It was only much later on in life that I got to know that one must play by the rules initially to go beyond them later on. This is akin to a dancer first following a grammar of a particular dance form and later, going on to experiment with newer forms once there is enough grip on the technique and control on her body. Anyway.
I heard my aunty, aunt Reeni, who was on a visit to our home, say something from the adjoining bedroom. I stopped swinging wildly on the swing and gradually came to a halt. I strained to listen. She said something about me being a single child and needing some company. I had a gut-feeling that I was about to be indulged like never before. I ran indoors and sat on the arm of the sofa to heed what was happening.
Apparently, she was tossing the idea of adopting a pet to mom and dad. Before I could realize what was happening, I was on my way to a breeder’s parlour.
Whenever I visited aunt Reeni’s palatial bungalow in Allahabad, on vacations, I would spend hours with her two Pomeranians – Raaka and Jazzy. Raaka was a plump brown Pomeranian, a foodie. He was rather smug-looking and self-assured in his manner – it went with his plumpness very well. Once, as my aunty was making laddus in the kitchen, keenly involved in ensuring they came out perfectly round, Raaka slowly wriggled out from under the bed in the room beside. He stood at the kitchen door with his nose twitching, smelling the delicacy. Aunt Reeni was busy working her dexterous hands on the flour balls and my mother busy watching her, taking notes. I peered at him sitting at the door, with his ears erect. I, at once, knew what he wanted. I picked up a laddu from the kitchen table. My mom, distracted for a moment, beamed at my enthusiasm – I was a poor eater, as a child. I was glad that my aunty was still focusing intensely. Then, I picked up another one and yet another!
I took all the stolen laddus to the terrace, one by one from the kitchen, and started to indulge Raaka there, away from my aunty’s sight. I knew better than to feed him in her purview – he, an idiot, would gobble the sweetmeats without a moment of rational fear. As for me, I didn’t want my ear twisted or receive a yelling. I was to be more careful, I ‘maturely’ resolved. But soon enough, aunty smelt something fishy and, for a change, to my surprise, it was Raaka who got a spank with a rolled up edition of The Hindu. He scurried to the bedroom!
Raaka never dared growl at her. With the others around the house, one of his canine teeth always jutted out whenever he growled. He made a similar display when he felt insanely pampered – it took me a while to figure how he felt whenever he made this exhibit. Give it away to subtlety in canine emotions! My aunt called it the Colgate Smile.
The other one, Jazzy, was a perpetual white-furred wriggler – she never sat still at one place. How I would initiate her into yoga, had she been around now! I still remember how Jazzy bounced up and down on her hind legs, bringing up her forelegs together as if saying ‘Namaste’. She did this untiringly every time guests came home. Aunty had a tough time convincing them that she never trained her at the stellar act – it was all improvised.
These eccentric canines were the first exposure I had to animals. Of course, the cat, Loafer, was a reluctant guest. Everytime she dropped in for a bowl of piping hot milk, there would be a riot at home. And if I happen to pet her then it would only get worse! Raaka, was especially intolerant of her and would bark incessantly at the sight of her purring away to my touch. Even with all the anxiety and tension she felt at the barking, she always made sure she finished her job with the household before saying bye for the day. She lapped up her milk till the last drop.
Not only were these two dogs my introduction to the world of pets but my aunty also sensitized me, in a way, to how animals felt at being troubled. Every time I hugged Jazzy, a rather defenseless creature, roughly, squeezing her, my lanky aunty would squeeze my shoulders playfully with her bony hands and ask, “How do you feel now? Does it choke you? That’s exactly how she feels too.”
I was not to trap butterflies in her cozy garden between my two fingers, to feel their texture. Butterflies must be admired alive. This would have been a fitting lesson for school children, especially now that they are increasingly losing in touch with nature, with the fauna and floral around them.
That summer day, I was all set to bring home a pup to be reared and cuddled. I can, finally, play as roughly as I wanted with my dog. We drove down to the breeder’s store a few kilometers away from where we lived. The store was an unassuming room with a dog with a bulged stomach stuffed in a cage. My aunty retorted at the sight of it, “Look sir, this is animal cruelty! How can you put the animal in such a small cage? Besides, he looks like he has a liver problem. Look at his stomach?”
The breeder said with his eyes widening a little with the sudden defensiveness he had to garner, “Nahin madam! This dog just ate stomach full of food.” My aunty, feeling miserable, turned around. Little did I know then that that sight will stay ingrained in my memory forever.
We finally bought a white ball of fur home – it was a Pomeranian pup. We lived in a flat and thought it most suitable to go with a smaller breed. We innocuously named the puppy Dollar. On the first day, he slept peacefully on my lap as I patted him ruffling his fur in a way that it shone in the sunshine of the sunny evening. He struggled to drink his milk from the bowl. With a squeak, he strangely insisted that milk be poured on the floor in little puddles. It never struck us that perhaps a feeding bottle is a better idea considering that he was just a two-week old puppy.
Aunt Reeni and I almost idolized our adorable furry friend. We were at it all the time speaking to him in lovingly gibberish. For my mother, it was a surprise gift – she never wished for a pet. For my father, it was all about taking aunty’s advice to heart and watching me be happier. After about a week from then, aunty was off to Allahabad and I bade her bye shaking my dog-smelling hands with her.
As the next week passed, we were gradually discovering that we haven’t bought a baby home but a family member with special habits. Door-darting was Dollar’s first taste at adventure. Then, he developed a peculiar affinity to tugging at my skirt and not letting it go. One of the days, he scratched my face as I screamed at him for biting my pillow on the bed. He would do all this and more. Later, he enjoyed licking our faces as if nothing had happened. We tried using the command phrases the vet suggested so we could socialize him with us but all in vain. It never struck us that, in time, we can employ an experienced trainer for Dollar.
Two months passed by, Dollar growled whenever I patted him at the wrong time showing his newly grown teeth. He was growing more stubborn by the day. We grew uncomfortable every time he growled. I realized much later on in life that dog-owners can’t afford to panic thus – dogs are pack animals that recognize inferiors and superiors in a pack. If we cringe at their aggression then they see us as submissive pack mates.
I, on one hand, was growing more attached to him and on the other, there was pressure from mom and dad to give him away at where we got him from – at the breeder’s. One day, he ran down to the garage seeing the door wide open. We feared for him. The municipality was digging up the perimeter of our street to lay a pipeline and that was happening right in front of our gate too. I pursued him down our lane desperately and finally, picked him up as he wriggled making an effort to bite my fingers - I didn’t give in. It was a clumsy effort but it worked.
Once Dollar was home, dad said somberly, “Let’s be objective and wise. A home has just bought a puppy. Can the household really manage it? I know we are attached to him. But, why don’t we see it in a more positive note? We had a puppy for two months, we had a great time with him and now, we are giving him back, safe and sound, to where we bought him from.”
I sat stiff all ready to oppose him. My mother patted me, “We are not abandoning him on the streets. He will be taken by another family and will live there happily. He may get a better chance there.” That very day, we went in an autorickshaw with Dollar on dad’s lap. Dad sat right at the center, sandwiched between mom and me. I hugged Dollar throughout the commute. At dusk, we gave away Dollar at the store. The vet there shrugged, “It’s your call, sir!”
As the vet pressed Dollar’s leash under his foot, he tried to run to us back again.
I ran out from the vet’s room at once, at the store, with tears. Mom came home to sob heavily. Dollar’s absence hit us like a bolt once we were home that day.
That day, we sat down at the dinner table, bantering and trying to play happy. Then, it struck dad that we can well build iron grills in front of our entrance door so that we don’t have to open the single door every time the postman rung the bell or the maid came from an errand to deliver her purchases for us. Dollar’s other antics can be dealt with, we thought, as long as door-darting was taken care of.
My dad hurriedly called the store the next day, “My wife has been crying and my daughter is missing the pup. Can we get him back? Well, we never asked for a refund…”
My dad put the man on the other end on the speaker phone. A voice spoke hesitantly, “A bank manager dropped in with his family and bought him in the morning. They were smitten by him, your Dollar wagged his tail the moment he saw them. They opted for Dollar over a younger, equally healthy male puppy we have. That’s uncommon for someone to do, saab.”
“They were keen that the puppy be vaccinated again. They weren’t satisfied when we told them that we already gave him the shots weeks ago. You see, you didn’t leave the records with us. They are a good family.”
My father said placating, “We would still want him back.”
“You can speak to the family directly. I’ll give you their number.”
Dad groped for a pen and pad on the table and scribbled the digits with a heavy heart. The grills were in place. But, soon enough, ‘wise’ was the word again. Given my parents’ second thoughts, the phone call was made alright but only to check on Dollar’s wellbeing. It was decided that he was not to be asked back. We also visited Dollar’s new home and saw him lapping up puppy food. We visited thrice. That was all. His new family seemed genuine, loving.
I never realized the effect the incident had on me. It was as subliminal on me as it was blatantly, although momentarily, painful for my parents. They got over their agony with he-will-be-happy-where-he-is or we-didn’t-abandon-him-afterall.
But the gnawing pangs of separation were to live on in me, in the remote corners of my heart. From then on, for a few months to come, a thought kept echoing in my mind - "We were inexperienced, first-time, pet parents and gave away the puppy for being a puppy!"
Today, many years later, whenever I look into an animal’s eyes, it’s love on the rebound. I see ‘Dollars’ everywhere, ironical as it may sound. I see them in the loving homes of my neighbours, on the streets as they endure the ruthless chill of winter nights sleeping curled up and at animal shelters in the city where they are rehabilitated only to wait endlessly for a loving home. I also see them at pet adoption camps where they come looking all set to begin their new lives and in the hungry faces of the fur friends I feed in my locality every other day.
Many of my friends are habitually even beaten up by owners who don’t deserve to have them. In the past few years, I rescued quite a few puppies and dogs hit by road accidents - a few of them were hit by speeding vehicles in broad daylight! The others were motherless puppies wandering about oblivious of the dangers the streets with heavy traffic posed.
I don’t think I’ll ever have a pet in the conventional sense of the term ever again. Everywhere I only see animals in need of love and attention while there are no animals that are meant to be owned.
If I, in the future, welcome animals into my personal living space then I would wish to call it a shelter rather than my home. I got over my urge to own them as pets because they are all mine anyway. I serve them as much as my tiny hands can. At the end of the day, either of all them are mine or none of them are mine.
I pledge to do more. Dollar, who must have crossed the rainbow bridge by now, I am sure, watches me from somewhere. I have a feeling Reeni aunty and her dogs are in the same realm with him.