Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Short Story Mrs Blarsingdale - Gouri Dange (first published in Stories Around the Coffee Table, Caferrati

Mrs Blarsingdale

From seven floors up, all Anandi Joshi could see was the young woman’s straight black hair, ‘ape cut’ in the style of 1970s Singapore. Pale shoulders showed from a halter necked t-shirt. Neat ivory coloured legs emerged from under the shortest of shorts – hot pants, they were called, then. And with her, always, there were two Pekinese dogs on red and green leashes - their silky blonde coats groomed in the same ape-cut style. 
     It was the dogs that 12-yr-old Anandi, seven stories up in Taman Sarasi Apartments, wanted to make friends with. She’d been watching the threesome for over a month now, but her gawky adolescent Indian looks and frizzy hair - which she hated even more, now that she was in this land of nifty figures, translucent skin and unreal hair - stopped her. And then there was her Indian convent school accent that no one seemed to understand here, except the Mehra kids upstairs on the 11th floor.
    Anandi begged her mother to come downstairs with her, to help her make friends. “But this is a good opportunity to learn how to deal with total strangers in a new country,” Aai had said, nudging her to go and just introduce herself, ask the young woman her name, play with her dogs.
    The dogs were named Chok (bamboo flower) and Bo (precious). And she was Mrs Blarsingdale. A very western name on a very oriental person. She lived in the other wing on the 9th floor. They talked very little at first, Anandi and Mrs Blarsingdale, mainly about dogs. But they fell into an easy rhythm, meeting every day around 5 in the evening. Chok and Bo walked ahead of them,  waddling grandly at an imperial pace even when off their leash.
     In a few weeks, Anandi was calling her by her Chinese name – Lien, which meant lotus. Aai had suggested she should call her Lien Didi – but Anandi had vetoed it as odd-sounding - and anyway she’s not my Didi (older sister) she’s my Friend, she said firmly to her Aai.
     On their walks, Anandi would talk a lot and Mrs Blarsingdale would listen much, smiling, nodding, asking her briefly worded questions in her chopped-up Singapore English: “why for say that?” or the slightly breathless: “andthen?”  Anandi would fill her in about the Singapore American School that she went to, in which, confusingly, even the Singaporeans spoke like Americans and she could spend an entire school day without having understood a single thing that she heard and saw. Not words, not tones, not expressions, not even gestures. The school counselor had wondered, in a report to her parents, if she was Slow. Mrs Blarsingdale had doubled over and laughed at that, like a little girl. Anandi had then asked her age. She was 25.
    She was the prettiest, best dressed person Anandi had ever met in India or in Singapore. Shorts, leather skirts, belts, enormous watches, boots, flipflops with big flowers on them, rectangular hoop earrings, square bangles – funky stuff (but that word didn’t exist then – it was called ‘go-go’ or ‘psychadelic’, back in ‘seventies Singapore).  Anything she wore looked terrific on Lien; Anandi marveled at this silently. “Did your mother always let you wear these things? Does your husband like them?” Anandi had asked, and Mrs Blarsingdale had smiled and asked her what kind of dogs they had back in India.
     Anandi’s mother was pleased with this new big sister friend she’d made. And on the day that Mrs Blarsingdale invited Anandi to go see her apartment and her clothes, her mother nodded yes from the balcony, seven stories up, when Anandi had shouted up in delight asking if she could go.
     The apartment smelt of incense and dogs, with an undertone of cigarette smoke. “Does Mr Blarsingdale smoke?” Anandi asked. No, she had nodded vaguely. “Do you smoke, then?” – and Mrs Blarsingdale had said with a solemn face – “I tell you secret -  Chok and Bo smoke. Chain smokers they are.” The image was so funny that they’d laughed hard enough for the dogs to bark in alarm. 
     One wall of the living room was fully covered, ceiling to floor,  with a blow-up of her Lien’s face in black and white. That was the first thing that you saw when you entered. The next thing you saw was the TV cabinet, which was in black and white checks that became small and big, big and small - making your eyes feel all wheely – Anandi had later told her mother. The transistor radio could be worn like an enormous pink bangle around your arm. And the telephone – she’d only ever seen black ones, and maybe a red one and a white one once in India – was a fluorescent green, with pink flower-power stickers all over it.
     The bedroom had red and pink satin throw cushions everywhere. There was a mirror on the ceiling and no furniture except an enormous bed, on which Mrs Blarsingdale invited her to sit. Anandi politely declined, but she insisted. When Anandi did sit on it, she was immediately engulfed by the mattress and gently tossed about. It was the first time she’d ever seen or even heard of a waterbed. The more she struggled to sit up on it, the more the bed bounced her around. With a straight face, Mrs Blarsingdale asked pretend-severely: “Come on, sit up, sit down like a lady, why are you rolling about like this?” Then, with a grin, she gave Anandi a hand to help her get out of the clutches of the waterbed.
     The second bedroom was not a bedroom at all. It was a walk-in closet of huge proportions. Dresses, suits, pants, hung pressed up against each other in long queues along the walls on hangers. A rotating thing, like the one you saw in clothes stores, held belts and watches. Jewellery hung on a panel of tiny hooks and overflowed from baskets on a dresser. Rows of footwear sat neatly in the longest sloping shoe-shelf that Anandi had seen anywhere outside a shoe shop. A big Chinese lacquered vanity case, the only old thing in the house, stood propped open by its mirror. It held several paintboxes of make-up. Anandi took it all in with a slow 360 degree turn. Mrs Blarsingdale giggled and held a soft white hand under Anandi’s chin – “Close your mouth, or fly go in.”
     Every time that she visited, Lien would urge Anandi to try on her clothes, her belts, her shoes…but Anandi just couldn’t. Her mother had told her not to overstep her welcome; and she herself, once she’d held a few clothes and trinkets against herself, had decided that they looked yukky on her. Only Mrs Blarsingdale could wear them.
    The kitchen door was pasted over with a poster of Snoopy dancing, and the words ‘Feeling Groovy’ above his head. The lettering glowed in the dark, and Anandi waited for when she would be invited to see this and all of the other wonders of this apartment at night. They would drink tea in Mrs Blarsingdale’s little kitchen balcony, taking turns to sit either in the swing chair that looked like a giant American football, or in the turquoise blue bean bag.
     Chok and Bo, the two potentates, sat on their own tasseled  cushions in this balcony.  With the Beejees or the Eagles playing on the small cassette player in the kitchen, they’d watch the world go by below. They would see the fat Malaysian taxi driver with his too-tiny prayer cap, the Chinese grocer and his wife unloading their little truck, beefy white people, forever going in or out of the swimming pool, Indians coming home loaded with shopping bags from Mustafa’s.
     On Wednesdays they would turn up the music loud, to drown out the intermittent, muffled gunshots from the Botanical Gardens nearby. Wednesday was the day for ‘monkey population control’ as the Singapore government called it. 
     Sometimes, Anandi wouldn’t see Mrs Blarsingdale and the dogs downstairs for a few days. She’d fret about the house, and Aai would say “You know her well enough now, go upstairs and find out where she is – ask her if she’s unwell.” But when Anandi did ring her doorbell, sometimes there’d be no answer and sometimes she’d open the door a crack and say “I’m little busy, Mr Blarsingdale is here.” Maybe she has her Period, Anandi told her mother, a condition that she had only recently learnt about.
     A few days later, Anandi would see her and the dogs in the garden again. They’d walk together and Anandi would fill her in on the latest crimes of her tormentor in school, one Matt Danielson; she had begun to understand the American accent well-enough to know when she was being called names. As for baseball, she’d set a record of sorts, never having connected her bat with the ball in school even once. At that, Mrs Blarsingdale had said, with unusual vehemence, “What so great about hitting ball with round bat. All this Matt Danielson type American boys, baseball hit them in head when little – so they become mean and stupid.”
     Whenever they met after one of these gaps, Mrs Blarsingdale would have something new to show her. She’d invite her up to see new clothes or a tiny new 9-inch counter-top TV for the kitchen, or abalone earrings from Australia. And when they settled down with their tea in the balcony, Anandi would realize how much she missed this when Mrs Blarsingdale was busy. But she didn’t have the words to tell her. 
     On one such afternoon on the balcony, Anandi looked below to see her mother’s Indian friend and neighbour who lived on the 11th floor, Chandra Aunty, gesturing urgently to her. She was also shouting something that Anandi couldn’t hear up on the 9th floor. She said a quick bye to Mrs Blarsingdale and hurried down, where Chandra Aunty was waiting near the lift. Pushing her back into the lift, she asked rapidly “Why were you in that appartment? How do you know her? Does your mother know you were there,” as the lift rose 7  stories up. When Anandi’s mother opened the door, Chandra Aunty pushed importantly past, settled into a chair, signaled the Tamil maid to get her water quickly, and asked Anandi to go to her room, as they wanted to talk about Something.
     From her room, Anandi caught parts of a sentence: “God knows how many Mr Blarsingdales…” And then a brittle sounding word: “Call-girl.”  She thought she must look it up in her dictionary. When Chandra Aunty left, her mother told her what it meant, trying hard to explain why it also meant that she couldn’t be friends with Mrs Blarsingdale anymore; but that Mrs Blarsingdale wasn’t an evil person either. It was a facts-of-life conversation in which nothing made sense.
     From then on, for the next few weeks, she simply avoided going into the balcony during Chok and Bo’s walk time. She would now be careful not to go to the lift in the other wing, taking the stairs when she had to go to a birthday party on the 6th floor there.  Once she’d seen them from 7 stories up and waved her book at Mrs Blarsingdale, miming ‘I-have-to-study’, pulling a fake regretful face…and had felt sick to the stomach.
     Months passed, the smell of incense, dogs and cigarettes almost forgotten. She heard the Wednesday garden gunshots clearly now, unmuffled by the Beegees. Her stories of Matt Danielsen’s fresh crimes and, most importantly, how she now had Periods, remained untold. Mrs Blarsingdale was now just someone Anandi didn’t speak about and had to avoid. 
     Till the day that she read the notice at the Chinese grocer’s:  Missing: Grey Pekinese, answering to the name of Chok. Finder will be rewarded. Contact Mrs Blarsingdale, 9th flr, Wing B.     
    Anandi had run home, cheeks aching with unshed tears, heart pounding as she jumped into the lift. She could almost hear her mother saying a firm No even before she asked if she could go see Mrs Blarsingdale.
     But Aai had stood very still for a few seconds after Anandi had sobbed out the news of the missing Chok. She had then picked up the house keys and gone with Anandi up to the 9th floor. Mrs Blarsingdale opened the door, eyes swollen, a tissue held to her nose, car keys in one hand. “I look for Chok in Bukit Timah Road today,” she said briefly, as they headed out. They got into her little green Datsun, the lone Pekinese Bo getting in quietly besides her in the front, Anandi and Aai getting in at the back.
    She drove slowly down the thickly wooded road and parked where the road forked into three. Without a word to one another, they fanned out into the paths. And above the persistent whine of the Singapore palm-beetle, they raised their voices together, the three women calling: Chokkkk, Chokky, good boy, Chokk-Chokk, Chokku, come home, come home, come to Mamma. Anandi’s voice shrill and urgent, Mrs Blarsingdale’s now hoarse from the crying, and Aai calling out, clear and reassuring, “Don’t worry Lien, we’ll find him soon…he’ll come home.” 


Gouri Dange (Caferatti – Stories at the Coffee Table)

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Chapter 20 and Epilogue

The Man in the Moon
Yoyo’s dominions had spread across four generations – my father, me, my siblings, my daughter and nieces, nephews, and then he rapidly became a favourite with my granddaughters – they intersected with him over about 5 years, from their babyhood to when they were about 4 and 6. Yoyo was now slower and very gentle with them, never snapping or being unpredictable around them. They too had watched and understood the pattern of Yoyo’s imperious demands – for massages, petting, brushing, walking, feeding exclusively from Tatsat, and Tatsat’s ready willingness to comply. Between the two girls, there was a game. One would say to the other, “You be Tatsat-kaka and I will be Yoyo.” At this point, the child who played Tatsat, would pet the child who played Yoyo. When the petting stopped, the Yoyo-character would turn around with a sharp look and bark a short commanding-demanding Wafff at the Tatsat-character. And the petting had to continue. The Tatsat-Yoyo relationship was going into the realm of legend and song!

Even today, they look at a full moon and point to the furry fuzzy outlined patch on it, and firmly believe that it isn’t a man or a rabbit, but a picture of Yoyo in profile up there. A rather fitting belief, about a confirmed loony. 
When I returned to a home without Yoyo, for a while nothing seemed very different – we had got used to his being asleep in some corner for long hours, and not being in our midst. But then slowly, the previous 14 years, from the time that I set eyes on him in the neighbour’s home, to the moment that I said goodbye to him while leaving for my Goa trip, began to decant themselves back into our lives in bits and pieces, vignettes of the beauty, the love, the absurdities, the unique forms of madness, his eyes, the feel of him sitting proprietorially against you… and that horrible recognition that it was now out of reach.
Where we buried him, I placed an old cane chair, which listed sideways slightly, reminding us of his side-winder walk and his all-askew, ‘saraklela’, personality. On it I placed pots with mixed plants, like the varied textures of his body; two orangeish dried palm fronds, one upright and one folded, like his ears had become in later years; four coloured glass jars with candles hung from above…and all of this grew slowly into a lopsided memorial to a dog who was anything but straight or symmetrical in demeanour or disposition.
A sarakleli samaadhi to a saraklela Yoyo. Appropriately disorderly.
Part of this memorial, is a square metal basket in which I used to put in fur from the dogs’ brushes and combs and fur-trimming sessions over the years. Small birds of all kinds, tailors, sunbirds, prinias, sparrows, white-eyes, would come and take this fur to line their nests. Just a week before he passed away, I trimmed Yoyo’s fur as it was looking matted, dull. Some of that fur, so many months later, still sits in the box, and white-eyes, prinias, sparrows, tailorbirds and sunbirds come and pick at it. To think of his fur providing warmth and nurture to baby birds, is at once a very touching thought as well as a really hilarious one, given Yoyo’s general curmudgeonliness.
My writing desk faces this tableau – of the higgledy-piggledy chair memorial, the birds darting in and out with mouthfuls of fur, the four coloured glass candle holders hanging at different lengths throwing colourful light on the highly colourful creature who lies there, below the earth.
Next to this is a tall Indian Cork tree, under which Snoopy lies, gone some years before Yoyo. The fragrant ivory flowers drop gently on Yoyo’s spot. Much as Snoopy ignored him through his life, and gave him just about a frosty nod, once in a while, in death, they seem to have made friends. We have not dared to plant anything over Yoyo’s grave – unlike the stately Snoopy tree that softly drops fragrant flowers, we might just get a tree that sprouts a hundred Yoyos. And then what will happen to us all?

The little envelopes with the words ‘Yoyo SOS meds’ that I had in my wallet and in quickly-accessible places in the house and car, I simply did not have the heart to throw away. How we hang on to little points of continuity with a departed person. There is no Yoyo and there is going to be no SOS situation, I told myself, only the other day, and threw the packet away. More than a year after his passing.
As the gentle giant Jugnu now shows signs of ageing, with a weakened hind leg, that unmistakable slowing down of movements, the reluctance to run too much, that worrisome panting on a little exertion, we tell ourselves firmly, no more dogs. We are ageing too, and it’s time to be practical. And yet, as we speak, some dog somewhere, no doubt, has other plans for us.  However much you decide that your dog days are over and that that door has to be now firmly shut…someone’s got a paw in the door, holding it firmly ajar. 
Objects in the Mirror

This picture now hangs on my wall, taken off my FB page a few days after his passing, and enlarged and framed for me by Pallavi, a neighbour and one of Yoyo’s drop-in pals. The picture was taken on one of those beautiful rainy picnic driving days, now made poignant by the fact that we did not have many more of these left, we didn’t know then.
 I had uploaded it the next day after the picnic, on my Facebook page and captioned it: “To paradise and back. Under 100 km and Rs 500 tops. Swirling clouds, suddenly revealing mountains and gorges, suddenly hiding them, hundreds of waterfalls huge and far away, or close and gurgling with clean-clean water. Soft green grass and ferns everywhere, and three godsend men out-of-nowhere, who stopped their car and got us out of a slush-rut on the side of the road and then vanished in the mist. Dogs gamboling in lush meadows and up cliff surfaces, down into streams, plonking in puddles. Everywhere, the sound of water trickling or gurgling or gushing or the sight of wind rippling water over the lake...electric green rice fields.”
Pallavi took this picture off my FB page, got it printed and mounted and brought it to us a few weeks after Yoyo was gone. I was in that stage of inward grief in which it hits you anew - how far he had gone from us, to some unreachable place. And then I looked closely at the bottom of the mirror in the picture at the just-discernible writing. It said: OBJECTS IN THE MIRROR ARE MUCH CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR TO BE.
I stepped back in shock at the significance of that lightly etched message. I could almost see Yoyo’s eyes, somewhere in the ether, shining with mad affection and amusement at the electric flip-flop thrum that went through my heart as I read and re-read the words. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Yoyo-nama Chapter 19 Two Long Breaths

Two Long Breaths

In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, there are some descriptions about the outer signs of the inner journey that has begun, when a person is dying. I had not read the book then, but later I could see how Yoyo began to display so many of those signs…he became inward, detached from us, apparently staring vacantly, looking at you, and through you. Sometimes he wanted to simply disappear, by trying to find a place where we would not see him – this was not one of his old tricks of vanishing justforfun and waiting for us to find him. This was a quiet, determined, exit strategy.
One day he managed to scramble and scrape himself slowly into the small space between the back of the fridge and the wall, pulling wires, sitting frighteningly close to the exposed parts of the electric arrangements of the back of the fridge. I found myself much less patient than Tatsat, with this. In a bid to tell myself that this was the usual crazy-Yoyo behaviour, I would uselessly shout (he was totally deaf by now) at him to stop it, and try to pull him out, because it seemed like a dangerous place to go, what with possible sparking, wires, heat from the fridge. Tatsat would also be worried about this, but would move the entire fridge and give him space, rather than pull him out of there.
Yoyo now began to eat less and less, living on virtually nothing for some weeks. We had decided firmly not to involve saline and other such feeds. We would just put water in his mouth with a dropper, which he would simply not swallow – it would trickle out of the other side of his mouth. But he would sit up and take himself down the three steps to the yard when he needed to pee. Then he took to remaining in the yard in a patch of sun. We had always loved his ‘basmati chawal’ fur smell when he was young and healthy. Now his mouth and body began to let off what anyone would call a bad smell, but which to us became precious in itself, his smell, he-is-still-alive smell.
Almost all of Yoyo’s fans and victims dropped by, through this time, to say hi to him and to silently say goodbye in their minds. Mathangi’s last moment with him, days before he passed away and she was visiting Pune, is etched in my mind. She had said her goodbyes to him, but as she wheeled her bag away down the walkway outside my gate, she turned around and came back in, to sit by him, prone in the sun in the yard. He registered it all, with his eyes and all of his now frail self. He had stopped wagging his tail or doing that imperious bark and sharp eyed look to make his slaves and staff like Tatsat and Mathangi keep petting him; his body was now over sensitive to touch, and Mathangi’s hand hovered lightly over him for what would be their last communion with each other.
Then suddenly one day, miraculously, he began to eat, walk about, the smell receded, he came upstairs to the bedrooms and sprang on to the highish bed, and even gave us a little display of his yappy-happy days. He had not pooped for over ten days, as he had eaten nothing. Now he marched out and took a nice dump. Tatsat, the staunch atheist, had apparently told himself that he would believe there is a god if Yoyo got better. For a month after that, it did seem like Yoyo was simply back, almost in full form, albeit a slightly ratty-tatty version of himself. He even produced some new vocalizations, surprising us with some kind of caw-caw and cluck-cluck that we had never heard before, when he rolled on the bed in sheer mischief like in the old days.
Friends who enquired after him, were surprised at this turn of events. As Yashoda put it, “Ok! So he is really that kind of ‘ghatta ajoba’ who has plenty of life left in him even when everyone thinks he is on his way out.” ‘Ghatta ajoba’! It means a tightly-knit grandfather! One that does not unravel easily, who ticks on to a ripe old age. We loved the idea, and saw it as a sign that we were going to have more time with Yoyo.
But his brief revival and revitalization that we were witnessing, was the proverbial last brightening of the flame before it went out.
During this time, I went to Goa to visit a friend and explore some possible work. It was September and raining. I was sitting with my friends David and Charmayne in a small porch of the unassuming press club of Aldona. With three other friends of theirs who I had never met before. There was a call from Tatsat. I stepped out into the shabby yet comforting porch of the structure. Yoyo had passed away right in Tatsat’s lap. He had been quiet and feeble during the day, and had just taken two large breaths and let go of his life at night fall. Tatsat was having him buried in our backyard – ‘deep deep down in the earth so I can just forget him, never think of him again, never miss him,’ he said in utter and abject grief. Sitting among friends and new acquaintances, far away, it was comforting to not feel the searing pain that Tatsat was experiencing. Just the empty feeling of a door clanging shut somewhere between Yoyo and this world.
It is surely a measure of Yoyo’s place in many lives, that our neighbours sent food for Tatsat on the day that Yoyo passed away and for the next day, just like we do when a human family member dies, and it is expected and understood that you will be too distraught to cook and feed yourself.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Yoyo-nama Chapter 18

“Rage, rage, against the dying of the light”

That yelp when you rough-housed with his fore-legs - it was a sure sign that Yoyo was now heading towards that place called ageing. He also now refused to be carried, even for fun. Something hurt – either his ribcage, or shoulder. There was nothing wrong as such...he was just displaying some early signs. Another sign was that he began to take medications calmly. Some vitamins and sometimes some tummy meds, or calcium, or his deworming. Elaborate ruses like pedhas, and hollow kababs filled with the meds, or crushed tablets mixed in honey and quickly smeared on to his gums...all those constantly reinvented stratagems that we had come up with over the years, were not needed anymore. It was a mellowing that had the ring of slowing-down. While this made life a whole lot easier,  it was one more of those early intimations of his getting old and of course of his mortality, that you had allowed to enter your mind only for a few seconds and then dismissed as preposterous – Yoyo, old? Ha!
He would now enjoy much less boisterous massages, objecting if you pressed too hard, and would be happiest when Tatsat would softly massage his paws. If I tried it, he would grab his hand away with a ‘You don’t know how’ expression. Or it was also out of my old habit of checking his paws for ticks, which he didn’t like me doing. (Our joke was that the ticks were pets that he kept, and probably had pet-names for them too. He would be that reluctant to let you take them out. However, once in a while, he would mysteriously leave a bloated tick in the middle of a room, with his spit and teeth marks on it. You could have felt him all over for ticks and never felt this large one; and yet there it was, clearly pulled out by him when he felt he wanted to rid himself of it.) Overall, I was always the bad cop, so he had less faith in my intentions than he had in Tatsat’s intentions.  When Tatsat picked up a paw to massage, he would flatten out with a sigh, and let him press the pads of his feet. Somehow, Tatsat knew that this is what he needed, and how best to do it.
Another sign that he was ageing, and we were getting tuned to this, was that we kept a tiny envelope in a small drawer of a little cabinet, on which my motley collection of icons gifted to me by various friends, was kept - Ganesh, Datta (him with the four dogs and a cow), Laxmi, Haji Malang, and Our Lady of Lourdes and St Francis of Assisi (the patron saint of animals). The envelope said ‘Yoyo SOS med’. An identical envelope sat in my wallet, and one in the glove compartment of the car. This was because the vet one day (after managing to muzzle him and do an x-ray and examine him) declared that he had a slightly enlarged heart, now. Part of the ageing process, he said.
That word again...that tended to bounce away from us, as it didn’t seem to apply to Yoyo at all. What made us take him in to the vet to be looked at, is that we had been on one of our picnics - where too, he had waded around in the water of a lake, scrambled atop and sat on a large rock like a mermaid (albeit a hairy one), and as usual, marched off on to the main road well above us, one fine moment when he decided it was time to go home.
However, he had suddenly laid down, on the edge of the road, and his tongue looked bluish. A few other picnickers who had come to say hello to him, asked us if he was a very old dog, and us, in full denial mode, had laughed and said nooo, he must be just about....eight...To which they said, hmm, ageing dog. We realised we were taking Yoyo’s robust health too much for granted, and had gone to the vet the next day.
Now the SOS meds (sorbitrate) were shown to all the stakeholders in the Yoyo Enterprise: maids, walkers, sitters, relatives, neighbours, drop-in friends, for when we may be away and he may display the same symptoms. However, we never had to use them, his tongue never appeared blue again, and he lived on for a good 5 years after this. And did not die of an enlarged heart. 

Yoyo began to fade so imperceptibly. First we noticed how his coat, always a thick double or triple layered thing, which needed trimming and thinning in the summers, began to thin out. His pink skin began to show from the thick, short, soft first coat, nearest the skin. The second layer of longer hair became more scattered. The outer longer coat of waves and curls was now thinning out too. His super-long eyelashes, which were intriguingly like the end of a silk sari – with the first part thick, then thin connecting strands and a whole other long set of lashes, was now down to only the usual short ones. The thick silky fringe from his forehead (meant to keep out the snow, in his native West Highland) hardly grew out anymore. His paw and leg fur, which gave his legs the thick rectangular non-tapering look, much like a polar bear cub, was now scantier. 
Always a grooming enthusiast, he now didn’t enjoy it so much; perhaps the combs and brushes felt too harsh on his skin. We used the rubber-glove with the short little bumps on it, which worked to groom and massage him a little. It was easier to comb him with a very broad toothed rounded off wooden comb now. However, he would stalk off soon, when he had had enough. He had stopped climbing on to the bed or even the low divan.
For years I had cussed and cribbed about how I could NEVER have pretty divan, bolster and cushion covers because my dogs would simply colonize them. Once in a while, I would get hassled enough with this to keep a separate brand new beautiful set that I would put on when expecting guests. For a few turns I would remember to take them off as soon as people left, but all this efficiency and house-proudness would fall by the wayside soon, and that set too would get Yoyofied. Woven sheets from Sikkim, Indigo from Kutch, Jaipur prints…all of them went that way. During the last few months of his life, I had got myself a vibrant thick cotton sheet with giant Dahlias on it, from a place called Sundari Silks, in Chennai. I loved that sheet and would not let the dogs anywhere near it. And yet, somehow, sometime, it became Yoyo’s. Here it is, faded and much-washed, and covering him during his last weeks.

Box, to be laid out as a separate inset in this chapter layout.
When Yoyo became Skin Horse
 From The Velveteen Rabbit

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” 

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Chapter 17

Chapter 17

Yoyo? Old? Comeon!

Tatsat had met Yoyo when he was full-grown. Yoyo was still quite territorial about the gate, and when Tatsat first visited, I cautioned him not to initiate anything, not to call out to Yoyo or put his hand out towards him. Yoyo had to, simply had to be the one to make the first move. But they took to each other instantly and formed a mutual-admiration society that admitted no other member, and would force me into bad-cop mode forevermore. Yoyo learnt to wrap him around his little finger, and would sit proprietorially on his lap, on his newspaper, on his bed. He would look archly at him and not eat his food, sending Tatsat into a flurry of offering Yoyo all kinds of options as add-on side-serves to his food. This was a dog who ate solidly and without fuss up until then. Now the food began to take on cheffy plated food overtones, till one day I warned Tatsat that this was getting all too much, and beyond a joke and an indulgence. And ultimately just bad for us and bad for Yoyo.
I had to train Yoyo back into ‘Eat what there is, or as Caesar Milan shows us on TV, your plate will be removed from there till the next meal time.’ We came back to a no-fuss menu after some weeks of untraining and retraining both Yoyo and Tatsat. Throughout his life with Tatsat, however, Yoyo knew that here was a soft touch, someone who would never lose his patience and shout and cuff and yank. Towards the end of his days, as he grew deaf and feeble, disoriented and of course peculiar and difficult in a way that only Yoyo could think of, Tatsat offered him steady, untired, unquestioned devotion.
While I, over the years of being the bad cop, would sometimes forget that Yoyo was now in a space where none of his odd behaviour was to do with his messing with you…he was just exiting this earth, and the manifestations of that long goodbye were, of course, unique to Yoyo. Little things – he took to sleeping bang across the fridge door, barricading it from use. My reaction, in the midst of wanting to get on with cooking, working and other chores for the day, would be extreme exasperation. This is a cussed dog, and his cussedness is getting exponentially worse, was my feeling. I would shout at him and then feel tired and sorry for myself and sorry too, all mixed up in one.  Perhaps, and this I have thought about many times, as a kinder explanation of my behaviour: like my father used to, I tend to couch and express my fear and sadness at the impending inevitable first by getting angry and overpractical, to keep the panic of the approaching loss at bay.
Or perhaps I was just being plain old mean and disconnected from my old Yoyo, who knows. Perhaps having Tatsat now firmly in his life, I felt almost like I had outsourced the kindness and goodness and kept for myself the fatigue and peevishness. I am still trying to compute and process what happened in those last few months between him and me. If you were told the end-date of a relationship that begins to be very hard work for you, with an old animal, a dying parent or other loved one, with whom the fear of loss and the fatigue of their illness has made you impatient and only dutiful…you would perhaps, knowing the end-date, behave in ways that you did not later regret.
Tatsat had the love and grace in him to simply be there for Yoyo in his declining months, in devotee mode. If he found him sleeping right across the fridge door, he would move him gently away from the area, or would simply do without opening the fridge at all, if Yoyo was fast asleep there. Ok, no eggs, no milk, no veggies, he would let it all go and make do without. Or access them only when Yoyo was not barricading the door! Tatsat was also, less worn down by not having to be the bad cop for 14 years, having come into the equation later. Even after he had come into Yoyo’s life, he steadfastly refused or couldn’t engage with the tasks of chastising or straightening out Yoyo ever!
When Yoyo lost his hearing fully is not clear. For the longest time, whenever I did suspect he couldn’t hear, I would apply the cheese test. You would call out to him, tell him to come, and he would simply not bother. I first put it to his choosing not to listen, but if you said in the softest near-inaudible voice, “Cheese khaanarka?” Want some cheese? he would look sharply at you and come. For some years the cheese test always proved that he could hear perfectly well, but was choosing not to respond.
In his last year, after a persistent haematoma for which his ear flap was operated, he suddenly lost hearing completely, in both ears. The operation does not involve the hearing mechanism, as far as I know, and so we were surprised and shocked when it dawned on us that he actually couldn’t hear and was not treating us to a larger than usual serving of Yoyo-attitude, when he would simply not look at you or come when called. He managed quite well and did not look disoriented at all, which was really something. But then again, being cool was very important to him, so he took this deafness too with some kind of outer show of nonchalance, maybe.
With his going deaf, my using a big voice, counting to five, and other such arrows in my quiver were rendered useless. But, incredibly, I once crouched where he could see me from under the bed, and mouthed Imcountingfive and stuck out my fingers one by one as I counted. He actually came out at 3, and this worked each time now. Was he lip-reading or sign-language recognizing, who knows!
Dogs grow old so imperceptibly, and you think of them as kids for a largish part of their lives, so their ageing doesn’t so much hit you, as it slowly creeps up on you. Dark coloured dogs begin to show some white around their otherwise dark areas – more whitening of snouts, or around the eyes, or in the coat. With a white dog, it is less obvious. Also, a smallish dog doesn’t begin to go stiff and slow in any particularly noticeable way...or perhaps this is all a form of denial on our part, to accept that the painfully finite 13 or 15 or so years that you have with each other, are being simply used up, inexorably.
When he was little, and later too, one of my and Yoyo’s games, a joke of sorts, was I would hold him by just one forepaw, and he would walk along on two legs with the other forepaw dangling as if he was carrying a bag. Like a toddler being led by one stretched-up hand, by the parent. He would walk along solemnly for a few yards, walking on his hind legs, looking a bit like a performing bear. And this was our ‘Yoyo is off to school’ walk. ‘Chall shaalayla jaychana?’ I would ask, and he would allow this silly, silly, little routine, while the neighbours looked on and laughed appreciatively.

One fine day, he let out a yelp, and simply did not allow that go-to-school walk or that wheely-bag joke anymore. Just like that, the game was over; he was clearly not up for it. Suddenly, it seemed. But it had been some years now, since we had started this game, and we had simply not noticed, or refused to register, the passing of time.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Yoyo-nama Chapter 16 - Catch Me If You Can

Chapter 16
Yoyo was ridiculously overconfident about roads. Off leash, his thing was to walk bang in the middle of any road, even in the colony we lived in, with the fearlessness and determination of an armoured tank. You could scream yourself blue in the face for him to move, if a car or larger vehicle approached. He would just keep walking, and the vehicle driver would either with an understanding smile or an irritated frown, drive the vehicle partially on the verge, almost in the gutter, to pass Yoyo. 
When we took him out to forested areas a few miles from home, he would have plenty of fun exploring, and in the early years would shadow the older Snoopy, walking as if they were both tethered together like a pair of horses, much to Snoopy’s irritation. But once puberty and independence blossomed in full technicolour in Yoyo’s mind and body, these outings meant that if it got too hot, or he unilaterally felt that the picnic/exploration was over, he would simply start walking in the middle of the road and find his way, over quite a distance, unwaveringly to where the car was parked. These were country roads, but the occasional rattling ST bus would thunder down them, or a gang of speeding motorcyclists could have easily flattened him. His huge enjoyment of the car ride as well as the wide open spaces or a water body was what made us go on these trips, in spite of this dangerous pig-headedness of his that would spring up towards the end of the outing. 

On one particular outing, he played the opposite trick. The cool cloudy day on which we had set out, had gotten suddenly very sunny and hot, and we decided to return home. He as well as Jugnu had had a great time in a shallow flowing stream, and he was in no mood to end the day out so abruptly. Jugnu reluctantly but obediently came out, stood near the car, let himself be dried off, and jumped into the car.

When we had picked up our things and headed to the car, Yoyo disappeared. We called, we hid and hoped he would emerge, we whacked the bushes to flush him out like they do on fox hunts. Simply no sign of him. I tried the Imcountingtillfive thing; still nothing.
I even wondered briefly and absurdly whether he had got back into the water, gone under, and was holding his breath, just to mess with us. Finally, we had to start the car and pretend to leave, slowly, when he appeared out of nowhere. Obviously the little rat had been watching us, hiding somewhere, all the while. The minute we stopped the car and opened the door, he crawled deep under the car, and sat there, completely inaccessible. As we stood under the blazing overhead sun, he simply made himself comfortable under the shade of the car, and would not come out from underneath. We pleaded. We commanded. We issued warnings. At one point, we lay flat on the ground like a pair of mechanics, begging, cajoling, threatening him to come on out from there.
He simply lay there watching us, and if I remember right, even fell into a light refreshing doze as we hyperventilated there trying to get him out. At one point, we cut down a long stout stick from a tree, and jabbed at him.  To this his response was to give the stick a good hard bite. Thinking quickly, I tried to pull the stick out with him attached to it, but when he felt the drag, he simply let go, and I fell backwards from my haunch-sitting position, in a classical Tom-and-Jerry way. 
Finally we decided to try to call his bluff by getting into the car, closing the doors, calling out 'bye Yoyo'. It didn’t work. We then turned on the engine, quite sure that this would flush him out. But we were dealing with a past master of Who-blinks-first, and Yoyo simply stayed put. I then got off, and guided Tatsat to start to drive forward a few inches verrrry slowly…hoping this would scare Yoyo out. He actually rolled over under it; we had to stop at once.
Cruel you say? But we were now desperate, as we had been out there for over half hour in the come-on-out-please mode under a blazing sky. As the car moved slowly, he actually got sort of rolled a little, under the car, but he still did not budge. 
However, as the car had now moved forward about 8 inches, I could get hold of Yoyo’s tail and pull him out. (Strangely, for such an uppity character, Yoyo never minded his tail being grabbed, and would sometimes find it extremely funny and urge you to pull his tail.) I gave him two very solid whacks on his rump, put the leash around him and almost hurled him into the car with frustration, fatigue and fury. While at most times his cartloads of personality was something we not only lived with, but quite cherished, on some days, on-the-ground, it was exhausting.
Once inside the car, he took his seat (after the usual wrestle with me for the front passenger seat) with a grin splitting his face, and glanced at us impatiently, as we staggered back inside the car, as if to say: “Comeon, what’s keeping you, let’s go.”

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Yoyo-nama Chapter 15

Alliances – Easy and Uneasy
It is amazing, though, that none of Yoyo’s fan-victims took a dislike to him. They referred to him with all kinds of names, like Chakram, Paagal, Werewolf, Holy Terror, Sannki, Crackpot…and Vijaya’s favourite name for him: Chyappterr - all of which reflected in some way the unpredictability of him, as well as the effect that his towering personality had on them. Even their friends’ friends’ friends heard of his many shenanigans. They would, gleefully or with awe, recall and report all the newly minted and absurd atrocities that he heaped on them. These stories became part of the folklore that formed itself around Yoyo, with much, much affection. For them too, after he passed away, some of the delicious arbitrary madness suddenly disappeared from their lives.
My friends Ira and Vaishali entered the Yoyo equation later, and were quickly recruited by him as part of his retinue. He adored them quite unabashedly, having mellowed now into a dog who did not have to show attitude at first and then let people in slowly. He simply made them his own on the very first day that he met them, sitting with his ownership arm on them or turning into that silly puddle, all paws in the air, for a belly rub.
There was another whole bunch of people, who simply did not like dogs and steered clear of them. Yoyo managed to insinuate himself into their consciousness too. He would come sit next to them and place one side of his entire face along their thigh and nudge them with it. Sometimes he would even sit alongside on the divan and place an elbow firmly on their lap, in a most proprietorial way, and push his weight against them. After initially saying ‘Ay go ya Yoyo,’ or asking me nervously if he was trying to shove them off the divan, they soon got quite used to him and began to consider it quite a privilege that Yoyo chose to come to them.
Many of them would bemusedly tell their other friends: ‘I don’t know why, but because of Yoyo, I am not scared of dogs.’ Or my friends David and Charmayne, not pet people as such, became tuned in to the specialness of Yoyo. And would make a stopover at my home on their way from Mumbai to Goa, as much to meet Yoyo as to meet us. Once a month, the taciturn and busy electricity meter reading man would always ask Yoyo’s permission to be let in near the meter box. He would call out the question in deference, with a half-smile, ‘Yeu ka rey baba?’ Yoyo would watch him without barking and would get a small pat on the head from outside the gate.
My friend and guru in counselling, psychotherapist Minnu, not a dog-person, became one of his admirers, and had a special place in her heart for him. Yoyo would return the compliment by stretching out behind and alongside her like a bolster, with a contented sigh when she visited and sat on the divan. She knew me just a little before Yoyo came into my life, and while I was training with her in counselling. She later had no doubt in her mind that Yoyo was a soul mate, who came along just when he and I both needed each other. Minnu understood Yoyo’s special comet-like appearance in my life from the first time that she met him, to the very last visit, when she said her farewells
My father and Yoyo, was an uneasy alliance as flat-mates, when he came to stay for a few months at a time, dividing his time between my home and my sister’s. Never a dog lover, he had willy-nilly been co-habiting with dogs since we were kids, and he was in a minority of 1 – the majority rule included my mother and 3 of us siblings and various dog-loving house help. So some manner of dog was always around, and my father tried to be okay with it all. Now, however, he was in his late eighties. He was afraid of falling, and there was Yoyo and Jugnu, streaking across at the sound of a cat outside, or simply just sitting in the way, all sprawled out. I kept them out in the yard as much as possible when he was with me, but there were strange little interactions that were unavoidable.
For instance, my dad would pace inside the house after his lunch, what in Marathi is called Shatapauli or a post-parandial 100 steps before lying down for a nap. At this time, if Yoyo was indoors, he would have some esoteric problem in his head with the swishing of my dad’s white pyjama legs as he walked. Yoyo would suddenly, without a sound, get up and follow him in a kind of stalking crouch, taking mock snaps at the flapping material. Luckily my father would simply not notice the runt snapping at his heels silently. And one of us would quickly head Yoyo off.
During this time, Yoyo had briefly become a fussy non-commital eater. He would go to his food, sniff it, and sit back, watching you archly, or he would simply abandon it and go off. My father, ever the fussy nurturer when it came to anyone’s eating habits, would come and report to me: “That dog hasn’t eaten.” I would say “Ignore him, he’ll eat if he’s hungry. I will leave it there for 10 minutes and then put it away.”
I was not going to be played by Yoyo over food, I had decided, and I also did think that perhaps as he was now firmly in middle age, maybe his appetite was getting smaller. Yet he would wait outside the kitchen for his food, so we would have to serve it, in case he did eat. Someone would have to stand guard to see that Jugnu, now a strapping young dog, didn’t help himself to a second round of lunch. To this elaborate square-dance, got added my father’s step. He would pace anxiously past the full food bowl every couple of minutes, and take peeks to see if Yoyo had eaten yet. Now Yoyo, who was (surprisingly) always very easy-going about who approached him while he was eating or touched his food, would get a bit suspicious of my father’s motives, and rush possessively to his plate, but then sit there and not eat it. This would almost trip my father, who would let out a choice gaali, like Ay saalya, or the milder muttering, dambiss ahay, or badmaash ahay (something like a rogue, a rascal).
One day, I firmly firmly told my dad to simply stop obsessing on whether Yoyo had eaten or not. He would offer some technical explanation about his concern: ‘flies will come’ or ‘it is meat, it will deteriorate and then if one of them eats it they will fall sick’ etc. (My mother called him ‘health inspector’ because of his habit of playing food detective in the house after he retired. He would check out the state of leftovers in the fridge, check if the milk and dahi were covered properly, throw out old biscuits from tins, and would trot out words like ptomaine poisoning, about which he would read up in The Lancet, which he would read cover to cover in the British Library, though he was not a medical field person at all!) But under all this, he was a worry-wart who wanted everyone to eat well and on time and poop on schedule – his wife first, then his kids, then his grandkids, and now even a dog who he didn’t even particularly like.
So I began to place Yoyo’s food on the half-landing of a small flight of stairs to my bedrooms upstairs. This way, my dad couldn’t pace past it and examine it, and Yoyo could play whatever yes-no-yes-maybe games he needed to play with his food. One day, I saw my dad, sneaking, literally sneaking to that spot, not by climbing the stairs, but by standing at a spot on the ground floor from where he could reach out and check the contents of Yoyo’s dish. I found myself exasperatedly saying, “Whyy do you need to check…let it BE. What if Yoyo comes rushing at your hand? Or what if the food tips over on to your head, when you’re checking from such a precarious spot?” We both ended up laughing at that image, and he promised to let it be.
However, I soon found that he would then secretly introduce a tiny piece of sausage or salami that he had reserved from his breakfast, into Yoyo’s abandoned meal, though there was already chicken mince in the food. This was utterly to Yoyo’s satisfaction, as he had achieved a) Bringing some esoteric element to his food ritual – the adding of ‘saamthing extra’ to induce him to eat. b) Recruiting yet another baffled person into his valet-staff retinue, this time my father, who wasn’t even remotely a fan!
Jugnu too, would gamely take Yoyo's frosty attitude to him and give him a wide berth. On some occasions, they would have to sit close in the car, which would make Jugnu quite happy, like a fan forced into a small space with a celeb.
It was Jaya who discovered, that Yoyo, for all his esoteric rules of engagement that we had all learnt to respect, surprisingly did not mind you passing close to his food, or even moving his plate while he was eating. When he ate, he ate slowly, ruminatively, with a faraway look in his eyes. It reminded me of the way physically hard-working men and women eat when they break from work – concentrating on the job in a single-minded way, to the exclusion of all other distractions; but not eating greedily or with gusto. There is a certain understated satisfaction rather than enjoyment in the act, never interrupted by the more urban and urbane chatting, looking around, smiling…not at all a social or sociable action; a more purposeful thing, without any social niceties. In a quiet bubble, of well-earned food intake. When he ate rusk or the dog biscuits that I made him, he would eat with that ‘khraau, khraau, khraau’ sound as he munched – a sound that I simply love in any dog. Like Lord Emsworth enjoying the sound of his sow, the Empress of Blandings, eating noisily at her food trough, for me too, this sound has always been music to the ears.