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The man and his dog

A prick of the lethal syringe, and the dog breathed its last... A heart-rending tribute to a `best friend.'

ALTHOUGH HE lived alone in a spacious bungalow — with a vast backyard of mango, guava, papaya and pomegranate trees — he never felt lonesome. His pet, a German Shepherd, was company enough for him. Very appropriately, he had named him Shadow, for he followed him everywhere inside the house, from room to room, from porch to hallway. And he wouldn't let the man drive out alone. The moment he turned on his car's ignition, the dog would jump on to the front seat beside his master. But it was always a brief ride around the Central Park of his colony because, at 78 and with feeble eyesight, he had been cautioned against driving deep into town.

Stretched on the carpet beside the man in his study, Shadow would keep him company all day long, his eyes riveted on his face. Whenever he seemed to be somewhat unoccupied, just swinging in his swivel chair, the dog would cuddle up to him for a lick of his hands, expecting his master to respond with a caress of the nape of his neck. As his fingers rippled along Shadow's glossy, ebony back, all the way down from his forehead to the tip of his muzzle, Shadow would close his eyes as if he was drinking it all in. As he took off his hand, the dog's eyes would come alive — eyes that looked like two jamuns or a pair of black berries. On his right front paw, Shadow had a tawny ring as though he wore an Omega wristwatch. Indeed, he had an extraordinary sense of time. If at daybreak he licked his master's hand to remind him about their morning stroll, sunset was the time to play ball on the front lawn.

The cook had specific instructions to serve them both food at the same time. Although a German Shepherd is known for his insatiable appetite, Shadow never leapt to his bowl of mutton, or milk with two mashed eggs in it. No, he must be coaxed into eating. Shadow would wait for his master's voice: `Won't you eat, my dear?' Then would the animal leisurely gather himself up as if he preferred the food of love to a bowl of mutton or eggs.

Being an insomniac, the man spent most of the night on the terrace of his bungalow, looking at the stars, or just pacing up and down. But Shadow never let his master go up alone; he followed him up the stairs, though always two steps behind, as if saying `apre vous, master!' Often, the man felt tempted to kiss his pet. Lick for lick, he said to himself. But that, he knew, was the surest way to contract the deadly rabies.

What hurt him most was human callousness towards dogs. Why are they not allowed into parks, clubs, hospitals, banks, music concerts, or wedding parties? Well, if a trained dog could sit quietly beside his master in a public place, why should he be treated like a pariah?

The man was something of an agnostic; but he idolised those who loved dogs — Dharmaraj Yudhister, who turned away from the portals of swarga because he wasn't allowed in with his pet; the sage Laila, Laila's dog, who was also loved by Majnu — may be to please his beloved: `Love me, love my dog!' Or even a politician like Bill Clinton who was salvaged by his Labrador from total alienation from the world when the great sex scandal almost demolished him. Sometimes, the man felt like improvising upon Shakespeare's famous lines, substituting `dog' for `music', and say that `a man who hath no dog as his companion is fit for stratagems and spoils... Mark him, he is not to be trusted!'

As the man grew older, year-by-year, his vast open backyard became a source of perennial irritation for him. Week after week came builders, like flies swarming round a meatball — with their sumptuous offers for sale. But he swiped them away saying he needed the backyard for his Shadow to chase the monkeys from tree to tree, or play ball with him all over the place. `He is gone senile' they'd say and walk away.

Did he ever care to visit his two sons in the States? But who'd look after his Shadow during his absence? And, in any case, how could he stay with his sons who lived in apartments, mortgaged to their American wives, mimicking their life-style — lobster dinners at posh restaurants, cocktail parties over the weekends, and barbecues on the beaches? And no dogs in their life!

And then, one evening, his secure little world fell apart as if the centre could no longer hold. Of course, he was himself to blame for the catastrophe. As he was driving his Toyota around the Central Park, his left hand began caressing Shadow's neck, while his right hand was still at the steering wheel. Suddenly, the car crashed into a street lamp post. He was catapulted out on the pavement, and for a moment he lost all consciousness. When he came to, he saw a resident of his colony kneeling over him. He now realised that while he had a minor injury on his left arm, Shadow had fractured his right leg, and his paw was bleeding profusely. `Oh God!' he muttered to himself. The passer-by was a great help. He not only sent for his cook but also arranged to have him taxied off to a nearby nursing home. But before leaving, the man directed his cook to take Shadow to the vet who always treated him. At the nursing home, he kept thinking about his pet — how was he faring, he wondered. When he saw a bed next to him unoccupied, he wished Shadow had been there beside him. Wasn't he too a human?

When the man was discharged, he went straight to the vet, only to learn that Shadow's leg had gone septic, beyond cure. The dog must be put to sleep, as any further treatment would only prolong his agony. It was heartbreak for the man. Most reluctantly, he gave in to the doctor's advice. A prick of the lethal syringe, and the man visualised death creeping through Shadow's body — his intestines and finally his jamun black eyes. For a moment, the dog shot a feeble glance at him as if to say: `Master, would you take me again if I am reborn a puppy?' He felt the dams behind his eye-sockets burst, and he covered his eyes with both hands. He had cried only once before in his life when he lost his wife, 10 years ago.

At the burial, the man felt as though he was sinking into hallucination. He imagined presences around him — of monkeys, goats, cats and dogs from the neighbourhood. When their wail spiralled up to the sky, he imagined the earth snap at the seams, like a frazzled bedspread. It was the end of a dream. Now the loneliness, dark shadows — and a terrace without moon and stars.


(The writer is poet, novelist, short-story writer, playwright and translator, and has been awarded Padma Bhushan for Literature.)

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