I did not have pets. I did not want any either. I had never felt any true emotional attachment with animals, especially the ones you keep as pets and tend and nurse so prudently. I had always thought that it was simply a dumb showcase of internal love because they couldn’t possibly say that they loved them too, could they? That was my belief until a few months ago. Things have changed now.
One of the most terrible things I had to encounter on my way to school was passing a house on the roadside. Through the way I am describing it, I don’t want you to misunderstand that it is haunted or dominated by evil spirits. It is just that there is a very unwelcome guardian over there with thick brown skin and vulgar red eyes, tongue hanging out, upper canines and what not! He would make my heart thud loudly every time I would see him that I felt close to fainting.
Every time we were ten feet within reach of that house, I would clutch my grandfather’s hand tightly.
‘Appu…’ I would say. ‘I don’t think I will be able to make it this time.’
‘Come on, Ponnu! Don’t be so silly. It is trapped behind the gate. It couldn’t possibly jump over and bite you!’
‘Appu…. Please don’t take his side! I can’t take another step. My feet have gone numb. I just can not!’
‘I am not taking anybody’s side. After all, it is just a dog, Ponnu… It won’t kill you.’
Just a dog! How well said, I thought sarcastically. But I dared not tell Appu.
‘How do you know it will do no harm? Did it say so to you?’ I replied instead.
‘I am a veterinarian, Ponnu. I know animal psychology.’
I did not know whether he spoke the truth or not about knowing animal psychology as I failed to notice the childish twinkle in his eyes, but he had caught me there. He really was a veterinarian and my innocent mind was forced to believe him. The incredulous ways in which our elders fool us, innocent stupid kids…or was it just me?
He took hold of my arm and started walking. Now and then, I pulled him back, an expression of cowardice and fear overcoming my face, but he clutched on with power, lest I run away.
I saw him near the gate of the house (on the other side, to my subtle relief), which bore intricate carvings, the sculpture of lions and two gargoyles. One could not be blamed if one believed that it really was a haunted house!
He knew I was there. He knew the smell of the person who was most terrified of him, of the person who even shut her eyes and chanted mantras while she passed him to prevent herself from falling unconscious. He took a deep sniff and spat out his tongue. Yeah…he knew I had come.
There was silence all around. I was looking into his eyes and he into mine through the railed gates of the house. Nobody moved. Nobody spoke. The only sound to be heard was the dog’s heavy breathing (and perhaps, my rapid, overlapping, unusually loud heartbeats).
Abruptly, my grandfather gave me a pinch and gestured me to move. Paralysed by fear, the sudden revival to the present world by my grandfather’s pinch made me yelp.
No sooner did I open my mouth to let out what seemed like an unfathomable scream, the dog did the same. It began to bark and growl.
That was too much for me. I freed myself from Appu’s clutch and ran. I ran as if the world knew no bounds. I ran until the end of the world, till the end of time and the end of my weird imagination, screaming all the way, while poor old Appu stood there, his palm on his head, fed up of his little girl and her indecipherable tantrums.
This was the reason I hated pets, especially dogs! Amma used to talk about a dog she had in her ancestral home when she was a kid and the love they shared. I would see her eyes well up with tears as she drowned in the painful reminiscence of her loving dog. But I had never understood any of it, nor had I been able to feel the love she felt.
One day, my parents were going to visit that house–that scary looking, enormous house with its wide gates protecting an even more enormous and intimidating being–for a leisurely house visit. It had been a long time since they had gotten together and thought it only reasonable to call on them.
They called me but I said that I wouldn’t go as I was afraid of their dog. But they cajoled me stating that ‘it is just a dog’, ‘it can cause no harm’ and so on just like Appu did until, at last, I could take it no longer and decided to go and courageously confront my destiny, no matter the outcome. So, I set out like a brave soldier willing to risk her own life to uphold the name of her tribe, to fight face-to-face with her formidable enemy.
It was in the afternoon that we went. The dog was not out of his kennel, much to my unexpected pleasure. Before stepping in, I glared at the kennel with the look of a winner who had ruthlessly defeated his enemy and embraced victory. I saw the dog looking back at me with his ferocious red eyes and growl. I put on a heroic grin and walked away, completely sure that I was at a safe distance.
The family took us into their cosy living room and served us hot tea and snacks. I also got to see my old friend, little Ammu over there. She was now in the sixth standard and had been a great playmate when I was young.
‘Ponnu chechi!’ she called out to me. ‘Would you like to see Tim? I know that you would surely love him.’
‘Of course! She loves him a lot,’ my mother forestalled me. ‘She talks a great deal about him at home and the sweet way he greets her every morning with a friendly bark. Isn’t it, Ponnu?’
‘“Friendly bark!” I think Amma doesn’t know what “friendly” means.’
‘Oh, is it? Just wait, Ponnu chechi. I will bring him in.’
Without waiting for my reply, Ammu ran out, excited about the whole business.
My heart began to pound. My hands grew cold. I didn’t know what to do. I was overcome by an unusual sensation. I wanted to run away from there as soon as possible. At the same time, another invisible force glued me to the chair. Oh! What will I do? I wished that a veil of invisibility could fall over me and shield me from the sight of everyone and most importantly from my greatest enemy, the intimidating Dog! The only emotion in my mind was fathomless hatred towards Amma. How could she do this to her lovely little girl? I did not expect this from you, Amma, I never did! You don’t know how disappointed I am in you, Amma. You can never imagine how much.
I looked at her. She was smiling ingratiatingly and sweeter than ever. That smile could not soften my furious heart. It could not; it never could.
I heard the dog growling.
I looked back startled, my heart beating at its fastest rate ever (at that moment it could have entered the Guinness Book of Records. But there were other more important things to be looked at, at that precise moment.)
There he was–in the same monstrous outlook–coming to scare me.
Nervously, I said, ‘Hi…’
‘Come on, Tommy, my boy. See who has come to meet you,’ said Ammu and brought him close to me. I felt something rise through my heels and up further through my nerves. The dog smelt it and grasped at his opportunity to growl.
I, of course, screamed in return.
Everyone in the room laughed at me. ‘Oh, come on, my boy. You wouldn’t growl at your dearest playmate, would you? Come on, say hello to Ponnu chechi! Come on.’
The dog looked sharp into my eyes. I hated this look. It warned that something bad was going to happen. I smiled nervously.
There was silence again. I was expecting a tremendously loud bark any minute. I was preparing my well-awaited scream which would succeed the bark.
‘Come on, open your mouth and produce your most popular roar!’ I chanted in my nervous mind.
But his unprecedented gesture surprised me. Instead of barking at me, he gave a little whine and wagged his tail.
‘Oh look at that! He says he loves you,’ said Ammu.
I was pretty sure that he did not mean that, but I decided not to retort and spoil that wonderful moment.
But I knew deep in my mind that Tim meant something good. Perhaps, he had put forth a hand of friendship. Perhaps he realized that I was an opponent too formidable to defeat when he had heard my earth-shaking scream! Peace is always better than war. Keeping that in mind, I decided to return his gesture of friendship.
I patted his head and smiled. He continued wagging his tail.
‘He wants you to hug him,’ said Ammu excitedly.
Peace may in every way be better than war. But that peace where I had to dangerously touch and specifically hug my new friend did not seem appealing. Moreover, I didn’t know how my friend would respond to it. Thus, it was better to remain at a safe distance. Therefore, I wistfully warded off the proposal with a disguised smile and a veiled twinkle of the eye.
From then on, I began crossing their house without that usual throbbing heart and uneasiness. Now that Tim was my friend, I did not fear him. But I did not escalate to a position as to magnanimously love him either. But the one thing I was certain of was that I no longer feared him and he no longer wanted to scare me.
Every morning as I would go to school, he’d greet me with a friendly bark, now more like the one Amma had mentioned that day. Every evening, I would peep through their side door to see him take a nap in his kennel. Have I really begun to love that dog? I would think sometimes. But then, I would shrug that notion away and move on. All was going well and good, until one day.
I was returning from school and peeped in through their side door as usual to see Tim. But he was not there in the kennel. I was too tired that evening to go in and check on him. So, I decided to go straight home and did not bother until the next morning, when he was not to be seen at the gateway to greet me. I decided to inquire in the evening on my way back.
At around five in the evening, I went into their house and rang the front bell. After a long wait, Meera Aunty, their maid came and opened the door.
‘Hi Aunty,’ I said.
‘Hi dear. Do come in. I’ll call Ammu.’
I placed my schoolbag on the floor and sat down on the rocking chair.
Ammu came out from her room wearing a pinafore, her hair carelessly tied in two small pigtails.
‘Oh, hi Ponnu chechi. How are you?’
‘Ammu, you look dull. What happened?’
‘Nothing. It has been a tiresome day.’ But I knew from her voice that she was lying. The usual energetic, excited, all-time-ecstatic Ammu was missing.
‘Well, where’s Tim?’ I asked.
She looked up but did not answer. As she strained her eyes towards mine, I saw something shaky within. Her eyes were welling up with tears. I saw tears of love of a tiny child who was struggling her way through depressing solitude.
‘What is it, Ammu? Tell me where Tim is!’
‘Ammu’s Tommy has gone, she said in a broken voice. Tommy has gone. He has gone. Oh! He has gone!’ She began to scream, a helpless look on her face. ‘Can’t you hear me? He has gone…Ammu’s Tommy has gone.’
She sank onto a nearby sofa and broke into fits of tears. The uncontrollable outburst of emotions engulfed her and she was finding it hard to fight back.
I got up and walked towards her. I sat beside Ammu and hugged her fragile figure gently. Her little mind found warmth in my affection, but she continued weeping.
I did not ask her any more questions but waited for her to get back to her usual self.
‘Since Saturday night, he had been showing some kinds of restlessness and impatience. We thought it to be one of his tantrums and ignored it.’ She sobbed in between. ‘Yesterday noon, his condition grew worse. I had gone to school but Meera Aunty was here. She was worried and rang up Amma. She advised Aunty to take Tommy to the hospital. And then, the doctor, he said, he said, he….’
She broke down again. I sighed. ‘Poor thing!’
She took a deep breath and uttered words which nearly made her collapse. ‘He said that my Tommy wouldn’t make it.’
I gasped. I didn’t know why, but I felt a huge weight on my heart. I didn’t know why, but I felt emotionally unstable. It was just like someone so near to me, someone who made up a part of my soul had suddenly departed from it.
‘Amma and Acha felt that if he died in my presence, it would be a horrible shock to me. The doctor knew an association which housed old and weak dogs.’ She breathed hard and sobbed. ‘It was he who advised them to send…’ she whimpered. The poor soul was truly shaken into bits that she couldn’t control herself. ‘To send Ammu’s Tommy to that association. We gave him away, Chechi! I didn’t know about it all till yesterday night, Chechi. Amma and Acha were not at home when I came. It was only at night when they came that I knew of it. My Tommy had gone, Ponnu chechi…Ammu’s Tommy had gone…’
I did not say anything. Instead, I took my bag and walked back home. I turned around once again to look at his kennel, every part of me hoping to see the lovely figure of Ammu’s Tommy in it, with his sweet brown skin and his cute red eyes, his tongue hanging out, showcasing his childish canines. But it didn’t come into view. Instead, I saw the lonely kennel weeping in silence in the absence of its playful companion.
I felt an unusual pain deep in my heart. It was beyond words to explain. I did not know the reason behind it. I never knew whether I had loved Tim. I did not want to believe that I did. But now this news about him was depressing me, bringing intricate and indecipherable feelings which I had not experienced before. I didn’t know why. I really didn’t know why.
I sprang open the door to my house and was confronted by my mother. ‘Where were you so long Ponnu? Don’t you…’
I didn’t wait for her to finish. Nor did I reply to her. Instead, I ran to Appu’s room, an unknown force pushing me from behind.
‘Appu,’ I called. ‘Tim’s gone.’
I finished it all in one breath lest someone stop me.
Appu gestured me to come and sit near him. I went without another word.
‘I know Ponnu. I know about it all. I didn’t know how to tell you.’
My face welled up with tears. My heart pained hard. ‘You knew,’ I stammered in a faint, broken voice.
Tears trickled down my weak face. Appu held me close to him.
‘I am sad, Appu…I don’t know why! I really don’t know why…’
‘I know why.’
I listened without lifting my head. I didn’t want Appu to see my meaningless tears.
‘You had learnt to love him, Ponnu. You had learnt to love his cute animal psychology without you knowing it. That is the power of animals, dear. They influence you so much that you begin to love them with all your tender heart.’
I lay down on the bed, staining the bedsheet with my tears of love. I closed my eyes. The only figure which saved me from the eye-pinching darkness was that of ‘my Tim.’ No…no, it was ‘Ammu’s Tommy’ I corrected myself desperately. But some unknown voice continued to chant the words ‘my Tim’ within me. ‘My Tim,’ I repeated loudly. ‘I loved you.’ No. I corrected myself again.
‘I love you, my Tim.’
To my Tim of my wonderful imagination: You live here today in my heart as tender and fresh as I had first imagined you. Wherever you are, remain happy and healthy and remember that your Ammu and Ponnu Chechi would always love you.
3 Elder sister
Shreya Anil is a 14 year old student from Trivandrum, Kerala, India. She is an author, blogger and public speaker. Her works have been published previously in The Bangalore Review and the leading supplement of The Hindu. She is also the author of ‘Where the Pen Kisses the Paper’.