I tend to sleep on my side, my body forming the shape of a question mark or its mirror image. For the last ten-odd years, the space created by the curve of my upper torso has been occupied by the brown, furry body of Bhaloo, the first dog that Anjali and I got as a couple. It’s been close to a week now that it’s been empty, and every day and every night that emptiness extends into me.
Bhaloo died suddenly last Saturday night, after five days of struggling with a leptospira infection which shut down her renal and liver systems. Our household has seen its share of death in the last couple of years, but Bhaloo’s has been the most difficult to take. It’s one thing when you see the dark shadow approaching from afar, and know that it will soon envelope someone you love. The inevitability of it prepares you, and it’s easy to let them go.
With Bhaloo, it’s been different. One Sunday, she was her usual self – charming Ma for some lunchtime snacks, bullying the younger dogs, sunning herself in the backyard at midday – and the next she was gone from our lives. How does one get used to that? We miss her every moment of the day.
Bhaloo the first
Bhaloo came to us from the Circle of Animal Lovers hospital shelter in Delhi. A puppy on the street outside where we lived had contracted distemper and we had taken him to the hospital for treatment. The infection was too severe, and the puppy without sufficient defences to fight it, so he had to be put down. But during the couple of times that we were at the shelter, this little brown puppy would excitedly rush to greet us, wagging her little stringy tail like a castaway on a desert island might wave a flag at a passing ship. We had had no plans to keep a dog, but suddenly there we were one day, bringing her home much to Ma’s surprise (and prophecies of doom).
Bhaloo was the first dog Anjali and I had at home (at the time, Chipku was still on the street outside out place, though we used to feed her). As a little puppy, she demanded so much of our time and attention, though that it wasn’t long before we brought home Jaya from a friend to keep her company. Watching them interact was a wonder — Jaya was already a year old, but having grown up on the mean streets, had not known a good time. I’ll never forget watching one evening as Bhaloo taught Jaya how to play with a ball, tossing it back and forth in front of her the way we would throw it for her to chase, until Jaya figured out what she was supposed to do.
Bhaloo the bright
Bhaloo was easily the most intelligent and communicative of our dogs. The phrase, ‘samajhdaaron ke liye ishaara hi kaafi hota hai‘ could have been written for her. Literally bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, she had a way of looking at us when we spoke to her as if she was trying hard to glean some meaning from the sounds that were otherwise unintelligible to her. And often she would catch a word or the other that she recognised and piece something together. Say ‘indur‘ (Bengali for ‘mouse’) and she would be off to the kitchen to see if there was an intruder at large.
One time that she surprised me was when I had put out her food bowl, but she was dilly-dallying in the yard. I said to her, ‘Hero tera khaana kha raha hai‘ and was astonished when she rushed in to check if that was true. After that, it became a game with us to tell her that and watch her reaction to it. Most of the time, it was the only surefire way to get her to eat her food.
Bhaloo the nakhrewali
Fussing about her food was a lifelong trait. While the other dogs attack their meal as soon as the bowl hits the floor, Bhaloo would either jump up on the bed or zip under it the moment lunch or dinner arrived. There would then have to be a complicated ritual of ‘inviting’ her to her bowl. If she was on the bed, she would turn upside down and we would have to tug at her with interjections of ‘Bhaloo, khaana kha lo‘, even blow razzberries on her stomach as one might with young babies, before picking her up and carrying her to the bowl. Then and only then would she deign to consider eating it, and that too not always. Sometimes we’d return from other chores to find that she had yanked out the newspaper ‘mat’ from under the bowl, crunched it up and dumped it on the food, effectively ‘burying’ it for future excavation.
To prevent Hero from eating Bhaloo’s food when she was refusing to touch it, Anjali once turned a cane wastebasket over her bowl. Some days later, we’d left Bhaloo to eat her food and came into the room later to find that she’d done the same thing! Only this time the wastebasket hadn’t been emptied beforehand, so there was shredded paper, strands of hair and other muck in her food. After that, we had to keep the wastebasket somewhere else entirely.
Bhaloo the nanny
In my opinion, one of the reasons Bhaloo was so fussy about her food was that she always thought of herself more closely connected to Anjali and me than to the other dogs. So the dog food wasn’t quite up to scratch, as far as she was concerned. She needed to be fed what we were eating, not this unappetising gruel. One of the ways of getting her to eat her food was to take some small morsel from our plates and put it on hers.
This ‘I’m with you guys’ aspect of her extended into aspects of maintaining discipline. Jaya and Chipku came into the household grown up, while Bhaloo was still a pup. Nevertheless, by dint of having been there first, she never let their larger size or age daunt her from launching into them when she felt they were at fault. Why just them, she even bullied Dingo, my brother’s Rottweiler mix, who was literally thrice her size (30+ kilos to her 10). Dingo would stay over on occasion, and she would try and enforce her brand of discipline on him, growling up at him from several inches below his jowls. And he, dog of the sweetest disposition that he was, would stare befuddled at her and wag his tail gently, even though if he opened his jaws he could have easily put her whole head inside his maw.
Bhaloo’s ‘moral policing’ was of great benefit to us when Hero arrived, and later Sungta and Soulkadi. Where we had had to spend ample time and effort in teaching the older dogs the dos and don’t around the house, with the new arrivals, we found that Bhaloo took over our role to a great extent. As a pup, if Hero started chewing on a sofa cushion or otherwise indulged in some verboten activity, Bhaloo would be on the spot to admonish him and put him in his place. We hardly had to teach them much ourselves.
Her assured perception of her superior position ensured that even after Hero and the other pups had grown much larger than her, they continued to kowtow to her till the day she fell sick.
She had five days of intense suffering at the end of her life, but she had more than ten years full of love, pleasure and excitement before that. That’s the only thought that helps us deal with her absence. That, and a lesson I’m trying to take from the other dogs. They were out of sorts and morose for a day or two — probably from a combination of circumstances like the disruption in schedules and accustomed behaviour, our own sadness that would have got through to them, and perhaps the gap in the pack caused by her disappearance. But after that it was back to life as usual. All things must pass — that’s an acceptance that comes easier when you have animals to show you the way.