Life in The Limbo
It was a hot day in May. A magical afternoon. Air shimmered, leaves floated in the air eddies as the sun beat down on the dusty streets of my village. I was free like a dog: a dog with no mistress and no chain. I sniffed. I snuffled. My nose turned again to that house, which is just before the big hospital gate. Yes, the old house with an Ivy creeper covering a creaky little gate, walls with flaking paint – and the reclusive couple. I keep returning to this house, don’t know why…
Everything was locked up. But I sailed through the walls and was in the front room in a leap without a rustle. An old man- I call him Nuisance – was sitting on his bed holding his head, instead of sleeping quietly on this lazy afternoon. He couldn’t see me but I could see him. This has been a big change since I died. By the way, while I was alive, he was a big nuisance in my little life – maybe with good intentions, but all the same. This is why I call him Nuisance. There was no sign of my mistress. Understandably so. But still, I half expected to run into her.
I keep returning to this house even though now I am free to run all over this quaint village in the foothills of the Himalayas. It is just that this dilapidated house has a small garden, surrounded by other houses and in one corner, under a shady mango tree, my body was buried, many moons ago. Six years, to be exact. Encumbered no more with a physical body and a possessive mistress, I run around freely now – a true free spirit.
The village has not changed much but of course, many old dogs I loved barking at, from behind my gate, are no more around, alas! New faces have arrived instead. Some quite funny- like that lean starved pit bull, whose master takes him for a walk every evening to the tea-garden. Since now I am a whiff of energy without a form, I love to spook the pit-bull whenever it starts smelling the bushes along the trail. As a dog, I always knew how to spook other dogs, even the bigger ones.
I dont know what death is all about. But birth, yes! I know that so well. I guess, because it was a time of intense pain and fear for me. I was part of a big litter- six or seven pups, I think; my mother was not owned by anyone in particular. She was a free spirit- like me now- which is considered a very respectable lifestyle among us. It is not a dog’s destiny to be led on a chain. If he is worth his salt, he should be free and ahead of his master- defending him to the hilt.
Such free spirited dogs, like my mother, are no one’s responsibility. Everyone assumes that someone must have thrown some stale bread to them. Some families in this neighborhood did throw some food to us with surprising regularity, in exchange for the guard duties my mother offered in general, especially at night. She had chased away many thieves and stray animals – not to talk of drunk husbands returning late!
And there was this nosy woman. I did not know her then as such but now I think that may be the length of her nose did save my life eventually. She lived with “Mr Nuisance”, a stone’s throw from the garbage heap, which was my nursery, my playground in those early days. She would often pester the families to feed us. Many a mornings, I heard her saying loudly, arms akimbo, to no one in particular- “In this wretched country no one knows how to treat a dog yet everyone must have one!”.
But my mother belonged neither to this nosy woman nor to any other family in the neighborhood. She was a self-respecting working woman. No, I dont like using that bad word- bit*h. Men have this funny habit of projecting their obnoxious ideas on to us- the canines. Ours is a very fair and gender just society. We respect our women, never attack them.
So, as it happened that hazy winter long ago, my mother was feeding us as best as she could- and constantly shifting us from one hide out to the next. She was worried that someone might steal or attack us. On a brighter note, some starry eyed child once in a while, would come and pick one of us- and look at his mother with wistful eyes: Can I take him home, please?
This is how all my brother and sisters got adopted and vanished from my life one by one. I was sickly – and to make things worse, I whined all the time. My whining often gave away my hideout and some one will chase me out. That is how one day, I found myself thrown out, back at the rubbish dump unceremoniously. There was no sign of mother. She had gone for two days looking for food, maybe across the road. Everytime I heard a screech, I would brace myself: will she ever return? I trembled.
It was a cold night. I kept moaning with the wind. A window opened somewhere and a woman shouted: Just look at these spiritual people! How can they leave a dog starving like this? I cant even sleep… She sounded like the nosy woman. She was very sensitive to high pitch whine. I was doing exactly that: a whine, meant to nag, scrape and scratch at any conscience worth its salt…
Couple of hours passed. Wind picked up. In the dark, rats were jumping all over me.
Again some windows opened and a debate began between two women, about the ethics of caring for the dogs:
“When this dog guards your house, why dont you take its pup in and feed it?” That was the woman with the long nose, I was sure.
“What is that to you, madam ji?” This was the chubby woman next door.
“Look, I cant sleep as long as this pup keeps whining. Either feed it or put him under the water. Where is Goldy, its mother?”
“How do I know? You do what you want…” The window closed with a bang. The chubby woman had had enough of her nosy neighbor.
There was no sign of my mother. I knew vaguely what putting a pup underwater meant. I shuddered with sudden fear and whined a little louder. Everything was quiet for sometime. Then again, windows opened and an argument began about ethics, economics and animal rights. The nosy woman was threatening to call SPCA, Police, PETA… everyone.
“I am telling you, I will pick up this wretched pup and put it under water myself. Dont blame me afterwards.” The nosy woman sounded angry and desperate.
I trembled and tried to keep quiet.
Another hour passed and I snuggled into the warm dung heap; My whine converted into a little rhythmic moan. Then, early in the morning, I suddenly felt the tentative fingers and a hand around my warm and filthy body.
The woman lifted me firmly out of the dung heap and took me to her home, mumbling under her breath something about the wretched people and the uncaring system. There was a bucket of water in a corner. I intuitively knew what was coming next. I closed my eyes, took a long breath and got ready for the last battle…
“Poor wretch, open your eyes..”
I did open my eyes, when nothing happened- except a little washing and cleaning with warm water. She kept on blasting her neighbors and continued to clean me. My hairs were all tangled with dried cow dung and the water was not helping.
“Here, Tim, this brush will do the trick..”. She mumbled as she took some moisturiser and began to apply it with a toothbrush to my coat. This helped the dry dirt to come off my coat. That little rub was so helpful. I felt alive after so many days. She had quickly named me Tim. After some Tim Sebastian, I guess…
Suddenly the door opened and I saw Mr Nuisance for the first time. He was wearing a monkey cap – like a bugaboo. He looked very concerned- not for me, but for the woman.
“Listen Chick, you are not well. Why do you have to do this? Alright, give it some milk and leave him out. Why do you have to bring him in? Suppose, its mother comes looking for it.. then?”
This is why I call him Nuisance: what need was there for him to barge into the bathroom and give this unsolicited advice? And why did he call my mistress, “Chick”? My mistress was no chicken. She had the heart of a Mastiff.
But my mother never returned.
A strange Couple
“Chick, where is salad?”
Nuisance went about like a forgetful old dog, looking for his lunch in the kitchen. He worked late, got up late and then behaved like a guest in his own home.
“In the fridge. I kept calling you out. How long shall I wait?”
It was well past the lunch hour. Chick had finished hers. Oh yes, I had discovered that Chick was just a term of endearment. Nuisance was not very demonstrative, except sometimes, when he will call her “Chick-a-boo” in a mischievous low tone. Those were the times when I had to barge in. If two are company, then three are definitely a family and so much fun.
Presently, Chick picked up her big transistor and got up to go.
“I am going to sit in the garden and listen to Hardtalk. Dont forget to finish the salad and the pudding. Both are in the fridge..”
Over the next few years, I got used to this strange family: these two creatures living their own lives with no reference to society or to God! Chick was fond of her Transistor and Nuisance was always stuck with his nose into his computer.
My mistress listened to a popular program everyday without fail, HardTalk on BBC – and that is how I got my name. Tim Sebastain was the hard hitting host, who interviewed Presidents, tyrants, generals and pretenders mercilessly. He tore into them and their shenanigans without fuss. I was supposed to be like Tim – never awed by your size or your bark. And your pedigree? that bothered me the least. As long as I could feel her eyes on my back, I was ready to take on any one – or thing.
And did I not give a good account of myself on so many occasions? Like the time when I chased a viper out of our bedroom, while Chick sat on the bed totally fascinated with the slick intruder and Nuisance recited Shiv-Stotra from a safe distance?
Ha- , just imagine!
This happened some years later, when I was still a young dog; I must have been about 5 years. And in my little world, it would always be a sacred memory. So much so that even after death, I can recall that sad afternoon so clearly, when they both sat at the bed and I peered at their dangling legs, from under the bed.
I had snuck under the bed- to the darkest corner. I had started doing this for a few days. I no longer wanted to go for a walk; I would not chase the birds in the garden. I would just crawl to this dark corner under the bed – and lie on my left; as if pressing down a throbbing ball in my flanks. Yes, it was hurting. I had passed dark blood many times. Once a day, Chick or Nuisance, will push down my bowl with some food. I had gone off bones. A dried chapati and some water, was all that I was able to manage. For many days.
We, the dogs, have inherited from our wolf ancestors a special intuition. We know when our end is near. Instead of fighting it off, we cooperate by giving up food and withdrawing to a dark corner. I did not know then, but this is what I was doing. I had already licked their hands and said Goodbye. As I was waiting for the death to come to my dark corner, I could not help but listen to them as they sat on the bed and talked in hushed tones.
“I have phoned Dr Negi. He is waiting for our answer…” Chick spoke in low tones, waited, and then added tentatively- “You think we can afford it?”
Nuisance’s legs became very still, before he spoke:
“I had had no work for the last six months… but I do have some money saved for you… in case you fall sick- God forbid! I don’t want to borrow from your family or mine, like last time..”
There was a silence. I knew they were looking at each other, the way only they could! When Chick spoke, she spoke just like a mother:
“I tell you: if something happens to my Tim, I will not live. What good will the money be then? Let us use it now and get this surgery done on Tim… Dont worry about me. I will live to a hundred!”
Tricks doctors play
A neighbor drove all three of us in his Ambassador, thirty five kilometers to Dr Negi. While Chick and Nuisance hugged me, Negi injected me with some drug. I stood for sometime, then my legs buckled under me and I passed out. But our sense of hearing rarely passes out. As I lay on the makeshift operation table, I heard Dr Negi congratulating himself :
“Never heard anyone else removing such a big tumour! Now everything depends on how well they take care of him…”
When I came around, I wanted to nibble at the stitch, running across my pink belly. Nuisance looked up at his computer and came up with a strange solution I had never seen! They designed a lamp-shade and put it round my neck. I looked silly – somewhat like a Elizabethan lady wearing ruffs! But just because of this silly thing, I was not able to open my own stitches before time. That was good eventually. I was feeling lighter, with that lump in my flank gone.
In a few weeks time, I was back to my routine: chasing birds and squirrels, barking during Hard Talk (“Oh shut up, you damn dog!” Chick would shout out!), licking my plate clean so that no left overs could be given to the street dogs! And yes, chewing at the laptop cable and generally harassing Nuisance – I loved that.
Some months passed and then, I had to get ready for the next debacle in my little life. It was much bigger than my big tumour: My mistress was not well!
She had stopped sitting out in the garden. She could not care about the BBC any more. “Let’s go and buy…” – even that ruse from Nuisance did not evince a spark in her. She would simply lie in her bed, staring at the ceiling. I would come to her bed, growl, bark, cry, moan, yodel – jump up and down- howl… Nothing worked. As if she had lost her will to love and live. As if she had made up her mind to go away. Where? God knows!
Nuisance was spending most of his time in the bedroom, watching over Chick. Suddenly everything had changed. I was left to figure out everything on my own. I had no clue, except a feeling of heaviness in my heart. I would put my head on floor, and watch squirrels eating my food away.
Where do people go?
One morning, Nuisance tied me in the garden. Normally, I had the run of the entire house. But something was different today. Three weeks had passed since Chick had not eaten anything. I had heard an owl hoot in the garden the night before.
Suddenly the whole house was full of people. My mistress, who had an argument with almost everyone, was being visited by all the neighbors – women, children, men and even some stray dogs had entered the house, as if to say goodbye to her! In death she looked so calm and beautiful, her nose looked even longer; I got a glimpse of her lying still on her bed, as I was being dragged out to the garden.
Couple of hours later, she was taken to the cremation ground. I sat listlessly, my head resting on my paws under the same mango tree which she had nurtured over the last two decades. In the evening, little Tinku came with a chapati for me. Neighbors had not forgotten me – Thanks God! Nuisance? There was no sign of him.
I don’t like to play tricks on anybody, much less on little kids like Tinku. But that was my only hope, to get rid of the chain. As I took a bite of the chapatti, I choked, made the horriblest gurgling sounds- and threw my legs up. Tinku trembled and thought that he had killed me. He opened my collar at once.
And I was off before he could say “Tim Sebastian”.
The trail of my mistress’ bier was still fresh in the street; as I fell into an easy lope, I stopped a few times at the crossings, to lower my nose to the ground and pick up the trail. Soon I was at the cremation ground on the banks of Yamuna but I hid behind the bushes. There were too many people. I waited for the night. Embers were still glowing and the heat from the pyre came all the way to the bushes, thirty feet away, where I gave occasional howls.
Moon arose. I wondered: Should I go home? Where is my home now? Where can I go leaving her here? I felt disoriented. For a week, I just wandered around, eating whatever people tossed at me. Then one day, I was sleeping on the culvert, when I heard a scooter groaning and spluttering in the distance. An elderly man was driving it carefully. A young lad sat on the pillion. The driver became nervous when he saw me. He thought I would snap at his heels. But what could I care about?
He slowed down as he approached the culvert and suddenly I heard Tinku’s voice : There is Tim! Uncle is so worried about him and he is hiding here! Just look…
I had no strength to run. I lowered my head, avoiding their eyes and clambered up the foot rest of the scooter and took a ride home.
Nuisance had at least me to worry about now. He would get up in the morning, give me my handful of pedigree in my bowl; change the water. Then he would take me out for a walk. He had phoned the local vet, to give me my annual shots. He had bought new supplies of dog shampoo. I was surprised at this sea-change in his character. He was no more the Nuisance, I knew all these years.
But I myself had lost all interest- in squirrels, in birds, cats and other dogs. Food also seemed so insipid. Couple of times, when the cats jumped over me and I did absolutely nothing, Nuisance looked worried. Dr Negi drove by a few days later and stopped to look at me. He gave me a tonic.
But nothing helped.
I often felt her presence but could not find her. This was the biggest paradox. I would enter the bedroom, smell her there- but could not see her: behind the table, under the bed, across the curtains… I will sit under the mango tree; feel the moist mud underneath but could not see her watering the plants. How can someone leave like this? With no trace at all?
One spring morning, I had a premonition: I will soon be following my mistress, wherever she has gone. I had not eaten for days. I tottered out of the house, towards the garden. Nuisance was working on his computer.
Out of sheer weakness, I fell a few times but was able to drag myself to the mango tree. I lay down underneath. I took a couple of deep breaths and then went still. Few moments later, which seemed like eternity, my eyes opened to this side of Existence. Earlier I thought there is Life and Death. Now, I know there is Life and Life and more Life.
Now in the afterlife, I just like to loaf in the village and turn to that house with a closed wicket gate. I walk through it and sit under the mango tree, my old haunt.
Nuisance is often seen sitting in the garden, looking in the mid distance- and listening to the Beethoven’s ninth symphony – Chick’s favorite piece towards the end. A cold cup of coffee, sitting next to him. Has he stopped changing? I saw him in the same clothes quite a few times!
I take a stroll through the kitchen. My bowl and my old toys are still lying around. But no sign of cooking. He seems to be living on snacks! Trash can was full of food packets. And his laptop- there was a thick layer of dust on it.
I dont like what I have seen. But my barking at him has not helped. Alas, he can not hear me.
But I did hear that faint moan in the street next morning. I turned around a few times, as if I was trying to chase my own tail. Well, the sound was coming from the drain in front of the wicket gate. Was it a puppy? I peered down the deep dark drain. I could see two shiny points reflecting the sky. Maybe its mother had gone looking for food, while this little mite fell in this drain? Powerful memories of a garbage heap on a wintry night came to me, unbidden.
I tried to soothe the little fellow but to no avail. The problem was – the drain was deep and the sides were steep. The puppy had fallen back many times and was tired now, hardly breathing. Night came. I hoped that someone would hear its weak cries. But men are good at turning on their side and going to sleep again, especially on winter nights…
Finally, I heard the wicket gate open late in the night. Nuisance shuffled out with a torch. First he kept looking for the sound all over the street. Then, he inched his way towards the drain and mumbled:
“Couldn’t you find a better place for skinny dipping? You mousy?”
Then, he lowered his hand:
“If only I could catch you by the scruff of your neck, I will wring it.. Don’t wriggle.. DON’T YOU DARE TO SLIP OFF..”
Next moment, Nuisance was lying flat on the street, with his right arm all the way down in the drain:
“OK now.. Lie still. I won’t hurt you baby. Ha- here is the rascal..”
He pulled the pup out in one clean movement.
“Well, it is a she. It is Mousy..” Nuisance mumbled to himself as he carried off the catch.
Next day, I came to check on them.
Mousy was lying in an old shoe box in the sun. Yes, she was small like a mouse but alive and kicking, in spite of the debacle last night. Nuisance had cleaned her. Yes, with a toothbrush and some moisturiser! More memories!
A nice smell was coming from the kitchen. Nuisance had made a huge omelette for himself. He had given a small piece to Mousy. She was nibbling at it. He had brought out his computer into the sunny verandah, so that he could work as well as keep an eye on Mousy. I guess he was searching on the internet things like – suitable diet for a month old puppy! Maybe not. Maybe he was back into his online business consisting of numbers…
It was time for me to move on. I knew everything would be fine now, because a man with a dog to love- can overcome anything. Yes, anything. Nuisance would be fine now- I knew it in my heart, as I loped over the low wicket gate, turned towards the tea gardens; the Himalayas flickered in the distance, in the morning haze.
I was finally free.
(A story by sachin: Jan- March 2020)