Friday, March 13, 2009

When a dog dies

There’s a tin full of rusks on the shelf for a dog that disdained dog biscuits. There's meat in the freezer and millet in a bin since he wouldn’t touch dog food. A chain hangs expectantly outside, a collar with black fur on it still lies in the back of the car.

When I’m reading late at night in the farthest bedroom of the house, I can almost hear the familiar grunt of a big animal walking under the bamboo, down below. I still seem to feel the loose paving stone go thud-thud as he walks over it into what we fondly call “the orchard” (two prolific papaya trees, a smelly cherry that only birds will eat and one fruitless custard apple). Fallen leaves still rustle all night long but it’s only the small creatures of the night going their way unmolested now.

When a dog dies, it's easy to be in denial about it. He could be somewhere at the back, in his "room" under the tank, in the garden, off chasing something. The porch always seems as if he just left it for a while.

I’ve been dragged into many unresolvable conversations about people's feelings for their dogs, whether they’re like those for children or friends or other family or even justified at all. I’ve found these arguments strangely distasteful and I now see why. Loving a dog is like loving a dog; it is unlike any other kind. I’m not quite sure what unconditional means where love is considered – it seems a bit of an oxymoron to me – but I think the thing is that dogs are all heart and instinct. So you respond in the same way, a way that tends to bring out only the undiluted good in you. There are no power struggles, shadows or second guesses here. It’s an outpouring of sentiment anointed by the relief of not having to temper it in any way. So when your dog dies, you feel the loss just as purely.

Our first dog came when I was five and my brother was four. So this is not the first such loss we have known, and it won’t be the last. Each one was a wrenching, but this one, he was special. Perhaps it’s also my own age now but he was different from other dogs.

For one thing, he was beyond question the biggest German shepherd I've ever seen, his face more wolf-like, his gait more lion-like than most of his breed (lying sedated on the table in the pet hospital, he looked like something caught with a tranquiliser gun in a jungle). He never licked you like other dogs, he nudged you instead, almost knocking you over. He was too big to jump or frolic, so developed a habit of bounding like a dignified bolster. He slept like a duck-billed platypus with his nose pointing forward and all legs splayed.

He was one of the few single dogs we’ve had, so maybe he grew up reserved because of that. Though I remember his father used to be introverted even in the company of four others and his mother was a sleek, secretive killing machine (enlivened teenage times at our friends’ place), so perhaps it was just in his blood. There were other things bequeathed by his long bloodline: he had all the eccentricity and vulnerability of the last scion of a highly bred clan. Even the traditional enemies of all our dogs - telephone linesman, newspaper boys, meter readers, postmen, water men, vegetable sellers etc - tended to acknowledge his magnificence even while wishing he didn't exist.

But he was more than the sum of the parts. He was, quite simply, Oscar. And there's a little hole in the fabric of the day for each of us, that bit of personal time with Oscar. For my mother, I think it must be the early mornings, for my father, last thing at night when locking up. For my brother, it might be the bit of blank space when he arrives from the airport on his next holiday here.

When I got home from work yesterday, Rana, the neighbour’s dog came rushing up to his gate and looked at ours, both hopeful puzzled. There's an Oscar-shaped hole in his universe too, and knowing what happened doesn’t make it any easier for me to accept either that he's not going to turn up.

The neighbour sent a message late at night: “Miss Oscar having the last word. Don’t know whether to take Rana’s barking seriously without Oscar’s affirmation.” That's funny because we only took Oscar’s complaints seriously when endorsed by Rana.

When a dog dies, you lose both him and the part of yourself that he liked, perhaps the best part of you, maybe the only one you liked too.

Monday, March 09, 2009

A muffin in the morning

I walk in and there’s a surge of joyous familiarity. The waiters wear Turkish caps and I say “shisha” the way I would have if I was in the Middle East. The music is a reckless mix of old rock, hip hop, nineties sentimentalists and swish contemporary numbers whose classifications are as irrelevant as the names of the artists. My CD collection, for the most part. When my Moroccan tea and shisha arrive, they are good, very good, not just approximations. The keeper of the shishas is the most on the ball of all those I’ve come across. Coal gets replenished almost before you notice that it needs to be.

Halfway through the menu, it leaves off the cheerful listing of croques, crepes and panini to state suddenly: “There are only two refuges from the miseries of life – coffee and music” . Nevertheless, the place itself is bright and happy. Earth colours, with the occasional splash of pink or turquoise, assorted “art director’s pad” furniture and the option to buy the chair you’re sitting on if you’re so inclined.

But most of the clientele here is not in the furniture-buying demographic. They wear tight t-shirts of the FCUK War variety and are at least 15 years younger than I am. So shisha is clearly the thing of the moment then, but it fits so easily into the Bangalore ethos that it seems surprising it wasn’t always here. I notice someone who’s sitting alone in a peaceful trance and the thought crosses my mind that, this being Bangalore, the strong fruity scents could mask quite easily the more delicate herbal scents of private blends that have always been here. Also, this being Bangalore in 2009, the smokers are inside, while the non-smokers are outdoors. This is one of the many Wonko-the-Sane features of our times.

I message my friend in Dubai to say I’ve found “a shisha place so perfect I could cry.” She replies, “Is it Mocha?” It is. The one on Lavelle Road. I’m told there’s another, better one, but I hate Koramangala with a passion. On Lavelle road, the tech parks are hidden away and Bangalore Club is reassuringly close, its elitist disdain for Bengaluru hovering protectively over the venerable Gulmohar trees. People don’t seem to speak Hindi much on this street, or if they do, it’s at a normal volume, not one that carries for miles. (I have nothing against Hindi per se. I just despise people who move somewhere and then refuse to integrate, and it so happens that the ones I come across these days invariably speak Hindi.)

The food is good. The apple-cinnamon muffin is, in fact, the best I’ve ever had. It’s not idle praise - my favourite type, I’ve tried these from so many supermarkets and bakeries, airport lounges and cafes that if I plotted them all on a globe, it would look a little like an Emirates route map.

The night before I left Dubai, a friend asked me what I would miss about it and I replied that I wouldn’t know until I left. I thought my answer to this question was going to be “shisha culture”, and it’s true that I do miss that, but It turns out that what I miss most is me.

But I take a deep drag of my grape shisha, and it’s one of those times when the universe flows through you in a steady, glowing beam. Maybe that’s three refuges – coffee, music and tobacco, where “coffee” stands for food or beverage of choice and “tobacco”, for whatever you enjoy by yourself.

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