Diwali was always the worst day of the year for Chipku. It is for so many strays, especially in and around Delhi, where the festival of lights has been transformed into one long, continuous barrage of sound. Chipku’s first experience of the day was on the mean streets outside our first home in NOIDA, which we moved to in 2001.
She was a sweet, gentle, undemanding puppy, whose only living sibling died of distemper a few months into his first year, leaving her without a pack, in a territory fought over by several gangs of marauding mongrels. Her protection from these was our yellow Alto, which she would squirm under at the first hint of trouble.
Along with one other household down the street, we would feed her, and when we could, shoo away harassing canines. There is one image that has consistently flashed before my mind’s eye throughout her life, and never failed to move me with its poignancy. It is of her sitting outside the neighbour’s gate around 11pm, staring in hope and anticipation towards our house, waiting for Anjali or me to come out post our dinner with a bowl of bread and milk, and on some days, leftover bones, for her. Then she would dart excitedly over to us, her ungainly flailing-limbs run reminding me of Big Ethel from the Archie comics.
When the first cruel Delhi winter set in, she started trying to worm her way into our place at night. We put up some resistance from time to time, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave her out on the coldest, foggiest nights. Her forays into the compound and the house grew more pronounced once we brought Bhaloo home from a shelter the following summer.
Chipku had a pronounced maternal instinct — one that shone through later with Hero and then our Goan pups Sungta and Soulkadi. Bhaloo, who was a couple of months old when we got her, found a great surrogate mother in her, and played with her just like she would have with her own parent. Chipku, on her part, was supremely indulgent and unperturbed by the worst atrocities that the little puppy inflicted on her.
Our landlords, a Sardar family, were however not impressed by the course of events. While they tolerated the idea that we had brought in Bhaloo (fat and furry, she probably seemed like some achchhe khandaan ki kutiya to them), the periodic incursions of a street dog into the compound were to them not desirable in the least. On several occasions, they asked us why we couldn’t keep the “sadiyal kutta” outside the gate.
Eventually, they decided that enough is enough and gave us notice. We were faced with the question of what to do about Chipku. By then, Jaya had also joined the household. However, it wasn’t a question that we mulled over for very long. I guess it seemed to us that if we could have two, then why not three? So when we moved to another sector in NOIDA, Chipku moved with us, now very much an insider.
The year-and-a-half that she spent on the street influenced many aspects of her personality. For one thing, she was quite the escape artist. In every house that we moved to, no matter how imposing the compound walls, she always found some way to get out, so she could roam the neighbourhood and satisfy her wanderlust.
In the second house we moved to in NOIDA, we knew the walls were impossibly high for her to get over. And yet, one day, we found her sitting patiently outside the gate to be let in. This became a daily feature. Despite all our efforts, we could find no clue to how she had started getting out.
Then one day, purely by chance, I happened to see her make her getaway. The house next door was under construction and, like most buildings in Delhi, was built up to the edge of the property, its side wall abutting ours. Ours was a single-storey house, with a large terrace. Chipku would go up to the terrace, jump up on its six-inch-wide parapet, from there cross over to an even narrower ledge on the first floor of the house next door, walk along that and jump in through the space left for a window in one of its rooms. She would then use the partly-built staircase to descend into the compound of that lot and go out that way!
Another element of the stray in her was her ability to ‘adjusht’. She was always very coy and something of a love glutton with human beings. As a result, almost everywhere we’ve lived, we’ve learnt from specific neighbours — the ones with a soft corner for dogs — that she would spend time at their place, even have a ritual slice of bread or a couple of biscuits every day with them.
To most of them — and to a certain extent to us as well — it therefore was quite shocking to see how she transformed when fighting other dogs. Her street smarts gave her the ability to perfectly gauge which dogs to kowtow to and which to terrorise. When she came across one of the latter, she could be the most dangerous of our dogs. Even with Jaya, with whom she would have bloody scraps from time to time, she was unrelenting in her ferocity. Once she sank her teeth into Jaya’s flesh, she was as tenacious as a terrier, hanging on and periodically shaking so hard it seemed like she might rip a chunk of flesh off her opponent.
Cats, too, were a mortal enemy. We know of at least three that she has killed. Anjali once said to me that we should have called her Curiosity. On seeing my blank expression, she explained, “You know, killed the cat…”
That wasn’t our only nickname for her. Not having travelled in a motor vehicle for the first eighteen months of her life, her initial rides would inevitably be punctuated with her throwing up on the back seat, which was her favoured place. As a result, we gave her the nom de travel of Pichku.
Over time, though, she grew used to it and would spend the journey lying on the back seat, on the thick cushions we placed there to reduce the vibration (this simple expedient helps a lot for dogs with nausea), her head resting on the edge of the window, her snout outside.
Her last trip was the one we took just the week before we died. I’m so glad that we did make that trip, which was something of an impromptu decision. It gave her a last, lovely time, almost like a farewell gift from us. The last day of the trip, especially, in Amboli in the Western Ghats and on the way back from there were spent in some of the kinds of locations she always loved. Grass-filled meadows, rocky streams, dense woods replete with interesting scents. Which dog wouldn’t enjoy these places?
We returned from that trip on a Friday. The following Tuesday was Diwali, and we were apprehensive as we always are on days that mean explosions in the vicinity. The day started in a routine way. Chipku had her morning milk and went out for her jaunt as always, coming back home after rebuffing a suitor who had been on her case for some time.
A couple of hours later, as Anjali was leaving for a friend’s, she commented on how tired Chipku looked. It was true, but it wasn’t new. Over the last some months, despite continuing to eat as heartily as she always has, she’s been losing weight and getting rather lethargic. It’s been so reminiscent of my father’s final year that Anjali and I have spoken of how Chipku perhaps had not much time left to her.
Nevertheless, what happened over the next hour was completely out of the blue, shockingly unexpected. Some time after Anjali left, I had left my workplace to get something when I noticed her lying in the dining room, looking like she was in a stupor. She could have been sleeping, but I was worried that I couldn’t see her chest rising and falling from her breathing.
I sat down next to her, and she looked up. Her tail twitched but it was as if it was too much of an effort to wag it. I put my hand on her chest. and found that her breathing was very shallow. I had to dig my fingers in between her ribs to feel a heartbeat.
I quickly called Anjali and told her to find out what vet’s clinic was open, and then to come back home as quickly as possible. After I got back to Chipku, I put her head on my lap. A few minutes passed, and then she took a few deep gasps, like somebody dry retching. Then her head fell away, and I knew she was gone.
The suddenness of it stupefied me, and I was sitting there dumbfounded when Anjali called back. She had located a vet in Saligao who had agreed to see Chipku, but I told her to forget it and just come home. Then I picked Chipku up, her head and limbs flopping lifelessly in my arms, and put her on our bed, where she had slept for the last 12 years.
After Anjali returned, we dug a grave for Chipku in the yard. The physical exertion of it, and the presence of Anjali, served to absorb the grief that I felt and by the time we were done, I felt physically drained but mentally back on an even keel.
Warren, our next door neighbour, who was one of Chipku’s local loves, came over with his son, as did his mother Dorothy. Later, other neighbours who were familiar with Chipku also came and had one last look at her.
In the afternoon, Salil and Monika, who have been our dogs’ foster parents on many occasions, came and helped us bury Chipku. We then sat and spoke of love and life, dogs and death. What else can one do?
If you would like to see a photo chronicle of Chipku’s life and journeys, click here.