Until One has Loved an Animal, a Part of One’s Soul remains Un-awakened – Anatole France.
It has never been the same again. The memory of Sheru lying on the grass with eyes wide open as though he was staring at all of us though we had conspired to do the most awful, heinous act to put him down has stayed with me all these days, springing to mind ever so often as I walked around the house and reminding me of those small things that till the other day made up our everyday ordinary life. Every little place that I crossed or sat on held memories – memories of the sweet innocent dog who was a constant presence the past eleven years and more – that will be hard to efface.
The house felt a big vacuum. It had never been like this before. When I sat in the living room on my assigned sofa before the TV, my legs resting on the pouf and busy multitasking with the laptop, I sensed there was something ineffable that was quietly missing from my little world. Every time I sat on the sofa Sheru would invariably unobtrusively come over from wherever he was and plonk himself on the floor next to the pouf and lie down, barely a foot away from me. If I lifted myself and moved over to lie down on the divan to watch TV, he would without wasting any further time move over, just as gently, pushing himself to the side of the divan to be closer me. Even in his last few days when he was in pain he never missed out on this – his little pleasures of life.
Now when I got back to the same seat after his burial and sat down, teary-eyed, on the sofa, his absence hit me like a tracer bullet as though telling me I was living in a tornado-filled world all of my own. My mind refused to accept that Sheru was no more and that he wouldn’t ever circle around my feet as I went about my daily chores at home. Priyanka had joined me and was sitting on the divan, tears streaming down her eyes. Inevitably our conversation veered around Sheru.
I pulled the laptop lying on the other divan towards me and involuntarily my fingers went on to design a new page on Microsoft word. I tapped out equally involuntarily – Sheru: Story of a Loving Dog. And little below on the same page, my fingers tapped the following words in single individual lines: By Priyanka Mohanty, Prayag Mohanty, Shukla Mohanty, Sudhansu Mohanty. Yes, that was the cover page. I tossed the laptop over to Priyanka. She read it and her face lit up, throwing all the pain and sorrow off her mind. She knew instantly. Soon the family assembled in the living room and took a look at what I had written out – quite unbidden. Instantly, we knew the family would like to do a book on Sheru. And maybe very soon – before time and every one’s busy schedule relegated Sheru only into a fond, distant, loving memory. We knew that was going to be our loving way to remember him by.
It wasn’t that Sheru was the only dog any family had ever had. Nor were there no such other Sherus who lived or were still around. Every pet is special to his or her adoptive family. So was Sheru to us. But of all the dogs we had known over the years, either from close quarter or from the sidelines, what struck us about Sheru was that he was the closest approximation of a canine to a human being. Or so we felt every time he came into the scene, which was nearly always whenever we were at home. Always mature and proper, in the last few years he had matured and grown more human-like. He responded as though he was a human, even his responses were calibrated to understand our emotions and moods. His behaviour mimicked human emotions and responses.
It was never his habit to wake up anyone if he had to go out to answer nature’s call. Patient as always, he waited for Shukla or Priyanka to see him, resting his snout on the mattress, eagerly waiting to convey that it was rather late morning, well past his usual hours, and he had better go out. The same went for his food. When hungry he would quietly sit and rest at his “dining table”, his eyes travelling the distance, all the way to the kitchen, where Shukla pottered around preparing meals. Only when extremely hungry and he found us all busy chatting with guests well past his dinner time he would softly nudge Shukla with his paw. It was his polite way to tell her that he was hungry and he wanted his dinner be served.
We missed all this. In fact, we missed him being around us – always. When I got back for lunch there was the unmistakable whining and whimpering that was missing. It felt unreal. Because the tinnitus of whimper and whine was in my ears and refused to go away. My hands that in the past always lay buried on his neck and face petting him to my heart’s content, felt awkward. If I sat down he would promptly sidle up to me and rest his head on my lap. Same when I got back home in the evening. Now every homecoming for me was a grim reminder that loving Sheru was gone. And for good. I’ll never pet him again.
Even at home doing any chore was a constant reminder of the loss. At daybreak he would get up from the end of my bed where he set up camp wagging his tail as though wishing me a cheery “Good Morning”. It was invariably my job to take him out, throw in the leash around his fluffy neck and hand him over to someone around for his ritual ‘morning walk’. Minutes later he would be back after his morning ablution feeling light and frisky and telling me with his shiny expressive eyes and fluid grace and movements that he was ready for the day. The tail never stopped wagging as he would barrel to me wanting to be petted for a job well done. I would invariably be reading the newspapers in the sit-out. Once I took the leash out off his neck and he had had his fill of petting he would settle down on the edge of the sit-out with his biscuits, his paws spread out in front and his ears cocked and his attention riveted to the lawn and the compound wall beyond watching intently the toing and froing of squirrels. Them he didn’t mind. But if a rat (more a gutter rat) wheezed past within his eyeshot, he would quickly take to his feet and race across the lawn and vanish into the bush beyond, and minutes later come back empty-mouthed yet triumphant, though – to be fair to him – only after satisfying himself that our home was well beyond the interloper’s grasp. He chased crows with the same verve and devotion and would do his best to catch them as they perched themselves on the ground, perhaps hoping that one day he would get to them before they had the chance to fly away.
If I was late with my yoga and wasn’t through it yet, which I did on the carpet in the living room, he would get back and plant himself on one corner at the end of the carpet as to not come in my arm’s way. He would sit there patiently, head-on-paw, leash gracing his neck (which he didn’t like one bit at home), waiting for me to complete my asanas, get up, pet him and take the leash off him and give him his morning munch of biscuits.
Our house felt empty – very empty. The walls felt bereft without Sheru who adroitly hogged the walls in kinship and slept – all his paws often raised to high heavens. His “dining table” looked deserted, his utensil empty of bones and remnants of food, and his water bowl dry. After a decent interval Shukla removed his dining utensils and replaced them with a potted palm. But the heart gnawed. Every time I walked past the spot – and this was often – during the course of the day, there was the unmistakable stab of pain and feeling of loss.
While we missed him our every waking moment, what refused to leave my mind was Sheru’s last days when he had taken ill – his terminal illness – and especially his last few days when we desperately tried to get him around. What haunted me was his beseeching look when he was in obvious pain as though wanting to say something in a language I wish we could understand but couldn’t – the last few days before he was put down. I wondered what were his contours of thought when we nursed him day and night yet when we knew it was beyond human intervention to save him and thought it best to put him out of misery, what could have crossed his mind? Wasn’t our act awful, even heinous – though in genteel parlance we mouthed mercy killing – and, if Sheru realized, what we were planning, did he approve? Or did he feel let down, terribly let down, by the same family he had adopted as his very own and given his all – selfless love and undying loyalty – for our happiness and wellbeing and, most importantly, reposed blind faith in? Did he in his dying moment – after being injected with the sedative when he rushed out of the house to throw up in the lawn – realize for a trice before the vet pushed in the lethal shot that we were the perpetrators of his sudden end, much before his destined exit from this world? And if he indeed did, wasn’t it a classic case of betrayal of the blind trust he placed on us?
I never could find the answer, and surely never would. As days went over, we spoke about it in a tone of contrition and injured guilt, this betrayal – this very act of putting him to sleep; every time we spoke we consoled ourselves that what we had done was ultimately for his good; the world does it; all pet owners do it; euthanasia for pets was, in any case, legal, if for no other reason than that the pet’s consent isn’t necessary (and cannot be obtained) and that human beings haven’t condescended yet to battle over and join issue among themselves on aspects of animal ethics. I wasn’t overly bothered about what we thought and did, or the right or wrong of our action, or what the world thought and did. I was bothered only about what Sheru thought – even for those nano-seconds as he lay helpless, his mouth gagged, and his body and mind were snuffed out artificially through our design and machinations.
We humans, intelligent, cerebral, and cognitive that we pretend to be, place too much on our intelligence and emotion, and too little on other animates’ intelligence and feelings and emotions. For all our claims on animal research we refuse to admit that animals’ tears are connected to their emotion and pain. Tears for animals, our scientists say, are meant to keep their eyes clean and fresh and there is no connect between a dog crying tears and his pain and dismay. All bunkum this. I saw Sheru shed copious tears in his last days when he was in obvious pain. I refuse to believe that the streaks of tear lines below his two beautiful eyes were unrelated to his pain or even the realization that his days with us were numbered. And that was precisely the reason I wished to know if Sheru felt let down by us in his dying moments.
Within days of Sheru’s demise, I had left on an official tour to Pune half-hoping that the change would lift the blues off me and also give me a chance to revisit the very place where Sheru had lived in younger days and where he adopted us as his family. When I reached Mohan’s house in the evening, adjacent to the one we occupied memories rushed past my eyes in a collage in technicolour. My mind cast back rustling up memories, to the days when Sheru was a little pup – naughty, always prancing and dancing about – who rushed to the very car I was travelling in now, circling and jumping around till I alighted from the car and then leaped to me in uncontrolled glee to lick me and be petted and in the process dirtying my clothes with his muddied paws. By the time I entered Sukhi’s house that was ours and Sheru’s not too long ago (so it felt), my mind was flush with memories. I had no time to travel back in time awash with Sheru’s memories as we got chatting about this and that. The memories of a pet are so private and personal and it is hard for us humans to bring it to the fore in genteel conversation with people who hadn’t partaken ever their share of his joy. But at the back of my mind memories held firm and I sent out a silent prayer in Sheru’s memory.
When I got back home from Pune, after a couple of days – the first time after Sheru was gone – I was on the verge of whistling instinctively as I crossed the front window to enter the house, when it struck me it wasn’t necessary any more. Though Shukla and Priyanka were at home to welcome me back, there was something ineluctable that was missing. The bounding Sheru, grinning and smiling his way to me his own archetypal way, wagging his tail ceaselessly accompanied with the whine and whimper (the decibel higher and the whine longer and persistent when he found me heading back home after a few unconscionable, inexplicable days out in the boondocks! or so he would have thought) and brushing against me and accompanying me to my seat, was not there. It felt strange, almost surreal – this ineffable charm that always filled my heart and had made homecoming a sheer pleasure for me to look forward to and given me immense joy the last dozen years. I plopped into my seat, a vacuum battling in my mind and refusing to leave me. But I didn’t speak my mind out of choice. Silence, I thought was better; we needed to get used to life without Sheru, and it was rather we got on with real life. But was it?
Memory has this peculiar way of sneaking up from nowhere, often unannounced, and without provocation. Within a fortnight of Sheru’s passing, I was getting ready to catch a morning flight to Delhi. It was a short trip and I quickly packed my overnighter throwing in a few clothes and headed for the dining room to sip a cup of tea when I saw Priyanka sitting on one of the chairs and crying inconsolably. I knew it was Sheru’s memory that was making her cry. I sat down quietly looking at her from the corner of my eyes when she burst forth. “Was Sheru just a piece of furniture that can be replaced?” she demanded to know. And still sobbing, she told me how one of our relations had asked Shukla the night before if we had found a “replacement” for Sheru. She had learnt about it minutes before from a tearful Shukla and had immediately broken down and was now livid with shock and rage. “How insensitive can people be?” she continued. “They never can appreciate that a pet is not merely a pet, he’s much more than a pet – every inch a family member! Just because he cannot talk in a language we understand no way diminishes the role he plays.” She kept crying.
I didn’t have the heart to say anything to her. But I felt a stab of pain and hurt, though I fast realized that that was the way we humans mostly viewed pets as: as stress-busters and as objects of joy, a plaything to gambol with. How often a pet is replaced by another young number when the elder one dies and the home feels empty and doesn’t feel any more like a home? The “replaced” quickly makes way for the “replacement”. Within a few days the “replaced” becomes a part of history. As I sat in the car and drove away to the airport, my mind was abuzz wondering if pets are not kept for providing humans the comforts and conveniences of life, to be used and discarded, as though they were nothing better than pieces of furniture, and as though they had no feelings of their own beyond the ones shared with us for our own comfort and pleasuring.
The next time I went out on tour to Goa a month later I came back to an empty house. My flight was delayed and it was well past midnight when I reached home. Shukla and Priyanka had gone out to Pune to attend a friend’s daughter’s wedding. I fumbled to open the lock of the door in the tousled darkness and walked in. The silence was deafening. Emptiness assailed me, only this time accentuated by the eerie hum of midnight silence that rose to a crescendo in my mind, and the knowledge of absence of any one at home. The hurrying midnight traffic on either side of my house appeared a distant hubbub. I freshened up and changed into my night clothes, and turned in – in silence. But I couldn’t sleep. I kept tossing and turning in bed trying to stitch a sleep. Sleep eluded me. I sensed I was missing Sheru’s ubiquitous presence, his whines and whimpers and his many questions that gurgled out from his mouth in his argot every time I got back home from tour. To make matters worse, now he wasn’t there, lying, pressed against my bed.
Disconsolate, I came back to the living room to scotch the ennui gripping my mind like a vice, and thoughtlessly logged on to the net to catch up with my mail. I found a mail in my inbox from Anjali Ellis Shankar, my young colleague, titled A Pet's Ten Commandments. I clicked on it with bated breath. It went thus:
1. My life is likely to last 10-15 years. Any separation from you is likely to be painful.
2. Give me time to understand what you want of me.
3. Place your trust in me. It is crucial for my well-being.
4. Don't be angry with me for long and don't lock me up as punishment. You have your work, your friends, your entertainment, but I have only you.
5. Talk to me. Even if I don't understand your words, I do understand your voice when speaking to me.
6. Be aware that no matter how you treat me, I will never forget it.
7. Before you hit me, before you strike me, remember that I could hurt you, and yet, I choose not to bite you.
8. Before you scold me for being lazy or uncooperative, ask yourself if something might be bothering me. Perhaps I'm not getting the right food, I have been in the sun too long, or my heart might be getting old or weak.
9. Please take care of me when I grow old. You too, will grow old.
10. On the ultimate difficult journey, go with me please. Never say you can't bear to watch. Don't make me face this alone. Everything is easier for me if you are there, because I love you so.
I ran all the commandments in my mind, ticking off the ones that I or rather we had followed without a shadow of doubt. Yes, he was pushing 12 and just as the commandment says. We had given him time to understand him and him us. We had complete trust in him and he reposed full faith on us. We never had neglected him; maybe just kept him away in a room for a few hours so that the visiting tiny tots were not scared of his hulk. I couldn’t recall a single incident when we were angry with him, unless it was mock anger. And we spoke to him as often as we could. He was always a part of us, right in our midst when we sat down or busied ourselves with our daily chores or when people visited us. He was too well-behaved to need any reproach when food was served for guests and placed on the centre or peg tables – he never touched even when no one was around or looking. We treated him not like a pet, a dog, but as a family member. We kept telling the world that Shukla and I had two sons and a daughter, Prayag and Priyanka and Sheru. When on tour I spoke long distance to anyone at home no conversation was over till I had asked after Sheru. “What’s Sheru up to?” was my usual line. “Sitting here with us” would be the standard answer followed by something special of the day. “Relished his share of biryani or cream biscuit or performed his catching practice flawlessly with Prayag with the bones,” could be the addendum. I full well knew the answers but I wanted to hear all that. It made me feel happy and smug – to realize that everything was ticketyboo back home. He was every bit a family member. And he was always given his share of time and concern and importance.
True he had slowed down lately and he preferred to snooze often. A month before he became terminally ill he wasn’t keen on waking up and going out on his “morning walks” he loved. Sometimes Priyanka would cajole him and take him out. He went, more not to disappoint Priyanka than as something he looked forward to. For all our concern for him, I still can’t imagine why it never crossed our mind that he could be ailing. In retrospect, we now realize maybe it was the renal problem that was slowly taking its toll, inchmeal. But we in our naivety put it down to plain old age without thinking that his organs could be failing him. Always a small eater for his size, and always a gourmet he ate whatever he liked and never complained about anything.
As I ran down the list of commandments, I quickly realized that there was one commandment I hadn’t followed: the very last. Priyanka and I were too distraught to be by his side when he undertook his last journey. True Shukla and Prayag were by his side, but we were missing – by design. Now it made me disconsolate. I came back to bed, my mind whirring with a sense of guilt. Was it the right thing for us to do? Did he miss us? Was his fear aggravated by our absence? Wouldn’t he have felt better if Priyanka and I too had been by his side along with Shukla and Prayag in his final moments? He was always apprehensive of strangers and even in the best of times never liked to be petted by dog-loving people who saw him the first time and itched to touch him. Whenever he had his shots he would always like me to be around and would behave himself admirably, fully trusting me as though he were leaving all his worries with me. Whenever I wasn’t around when he was taken to the vet, no sooner he saw me he would keep whining endlessly telling me in his doggy language all the hardship his Mama had put him through when I wasn’t there. He made me feel as though I was a linguist enough to fully understand his complaints spoken in a tongue that I not only understood but could also decipher the inflection and nuances of his voice. But, in reality, I understood his many “accusations”. I would speak to him lovingly at great length and pet him hugely and slowly after considerable time, still being petted, he would be himself.
I felt guiltier than ever before. Perhaps we should have been at his side, no matter the hurt and the wrenching pain it caused us. Because Sheru would have liked it that way and it would have made his parting from us less painful for him and made his last journey perhaps more bearable, the memory staying with him. He would have been at greater ease, maybe more comfortable, certainly more sure about his surrounds and confident to face the harsh, cruel world that believed in time, death and mutability, with the little time left for him, ticking away rapidly. Did it hurt him, our very absence, away from him in his most crucial moment that would be firmly etched in his memory? I had no answer. I wouldn’t know. Nor would I ever know. Life has already left him days ago and there is no Sheru to ever tell me as he always did – through his whimpers and whines – what he felt, more when he was put through the wringer and was in clear dismay. If only we knew…
Many a time when we remembered Sheru, Shukla would often wistfully recall Sheru’s admirable behaviour a day before he was put down. In intense pain, his face twitched, his body convulsing over from spasm that thwacked him from inside, he slept in my bedroom, his pinched face and tucked under the table, away from our vision so that we did not see him in distress. He didn’t want us to see his suffering, maybe because he thought that was only going to cause us much anguish, and he did not want us to be miserable. “Even human beings won’t behave so,” Shukla would say, her eyes moisting over with Sheru’s memory. Who said animals lack feelings unlike humans? Only because they do not speak our language or we fail to understand theirs, doesn’t make them any less sentient, any less emotional, than us.
Now every time I sit in my assigned seat of the sofa and pick up my laptop lying on the divan to string my ideas together to write about him, I miss something that had been a constant, a part of my life that was so inextricably intertwined the past dozen years with this near-human being. The first time I did, I was beside myself with emotion and quickly put the laptop right back. I knew it was futile to make an attempt. I allowed time to go over, hoping that the passage of time will put distance on Sheru’s memory and make it a lot more bearable for me. Once when I had steeled myself to hammer out my thoughts, the telephone jangled. It was Dipika, my eldest sister. “What’s up?” she asked, by way of introduction. “Jotting down my thoughts on Sherubaba!” I said. It was perhaps just a week after Sheru’s passing. “Oh, no!” muttered Dipika, her voice tinged with emotion and choking. “I feel so bereft. I really do. I just can’t believe that he’s no more,” she added tearfully. It dawned on me how many hearts Sheru had won with his grace and sangfroid.
Sheru loved Dipika immensely. She worked in Mumbai when we lived in Pune and had seen Sheru grow up during her frequent visits. After we shifted to Bangalore she visited us often enough on sundry professional assignments and had seen Sheru mature and age over the years. Sheru, in turn, was incredibly happy to receive her every time she visited us, demanding to be petted and spoken to, his snout resting on her lap and refusing to leave her. I wasn’t surprised she felt Sheru’s loss as much as we did.
Last evening my sister Gitika called to enquire after our wellbeing. Inevitably the conversation turned to Sheru. I told her I’ve got started on the book about Sheru that we had planned. She too was very fond of Sheru much as Sheru was of her. “I’m gathering my thoughts to do a piece on Sheru as well,” she told me. It was poultice for my soul.