Gerald Durrell was a favourite author of mine in my childhood, the reason being that I could so easily relate to the pictures of a household where animals walked in and out amongst the humans, each one of the former having a personality as distinct as that of the latter.
From as far back as I can remember, we had dogs at home. My father loved them. He loved all animals, but was particularly partial to the canines. He was quite emphatic in his views that they were more loyal than us human beings. He cared two hoots for the muslim tradition of not keeping dogs at home( I still don’t know why that is so.) and so we had dogs of all breeds from Alsations to mongrels with the strangest of names such as Emden and Chonoki. We also had a dog named Hitler , so named by my father , because he indeed spelt terror to any man, woman or child who opened our gates and ventured in, unaware of the dog’s presence, on days, when he was let off from his lease.
You can get deeply attached to your pets, as they can to you and that brings a lot of sadness in its wake as when Emden got sick, with an infection on his leg, which kept spreading. There was no vet in our small town in those days and the ointments that we applied to the infected area did no good. Emden was carrying at that time and at the end of her term. Her litter had consisted of six little adorable puppies, who scrambled over each other to suckle at her teats. There they would lie afterwards, their hunger satiated and stomachs full, ensconced within her limbs, their little heads warm against her belly.
And then Emden died. The loss was accentuated with the death of her puppies, one by one. They didn’t respond to the care we lavished upon them, trying our best to play mother. It may have been that they became infected too with whatever the disease was that Emden had suffered from. Crying isn’t too difficult for me even at this ripe old age . Then, I was a kid and I cried and cried.
The last pet we had at home was Caeser, a white Pomeranian, brought into the house when he was just a month old, a soft white furry bundle that won all our hearts from the word ‘go’. I was fifteen then. For the next seven years, till I got married, Caesar was an inextricable part of my life.
My elder brother had started working and was posted away from home. My youngest siblings, Shakila and Arif were still small and so the little jobs that were part of having a pet in the house like bathing it and cleaning its poop etc devolved on me and my brother Niyaz, who is about a year and half younger to me. He has always been the smarter one and so, for most of the times managed to get away.
Caeser hated baths and he had a very strange way of taking out his vexation on me, who had made it a ritual of making him go through it every weekend. No sooner had I finished bathing him, ignoring his whimpering cries, he would rush away from my grip, running round and round in the courtyard with frantic speed. My mother’s brood of hens would be clucking around here and there generously littering the place with chicken shit. In the course of his racing around, Caeser would find a small heap of chicken shit and rub both sides of his face in it and then walk up to me as if to say’, So, Ma’am’who wins?You or me?’ He did that every time, till I started jailing him behind the closed doors of the litlle room at the end of the verandah, till he dried. By then, he would have calmed down and forgotten his vindictive intentions.
Caeser loved my father in a huge, huge way. The affection was mutual actually. Once when Caeser walked out of the gate and went missing for a couple of hours, my father’s anxiety was so pronounced that he had the whole neighbourhood involved in the search. Somebody brought back Caeser and all was well again. When my father passed away, Caeser refused to budge from below the ‘Easy chair’, on the verandah, which was my father’s favourite place of rest. Caeser died much later ,well into old age, with very litlle left of his sense of sight or smell.
I used to love narrating to my nieces and nephews the story of how Caeser almost saved me from getting bitten by a snake. I would love to share it with you as well. So here goes:
It was a bright sunny Sunday, the mother hen and her brood of little yellow chicks, scurrying around in the compound at the back of the house, the crows perched on the wall and on the plantain trees, swooping down every now and then to peck at anything that they could eat. Sometimes, their swooping down was menacingly close to the little chicks. The mother hen would then cackle loudly and the little ones would run and hide beneath her wings.
We were inside the house, variously engaged in our Sunday routines, when suddenly there was a huge commotion outside. Caesar was barking loudly, the hen and her chicks clucking wildly as if in alarm and the crows were making a racket as well. Something was surely afoot. When I went outside to look, I saw that the ruckus was concentrated near one corner of the compound . Caeser was standing there, on one side of the broken discarded aquarium that was lying against the compound wall. The hen and her chicks were there too. I was sure that Caeser had been chasing them and had cornered one of the little ones. Shouting out to him, I strode purposefully to shoo him away and retrieve the chick which I had seen disappearing behind the aquarium. Caeser’s barking became more agitated as if expressing resentment at my interference, more so as I came closer to the aquarium and then suddenly, I realized why. Even as I was bending down and stretching out my hand to get the chick, I saw it sliding further down into the hole behind. Looking closer, I saw that the helpless little bird was between the jaws of a snake.
The chick of course must’ve died immediately. The snake too met its end soon with a shot from my father’s double barelled gun (Hunting was a favourite pursuit of his and one of the several contradictions in his personality that had continued to intrigue me’how could someone who was so fond of animals find pleasure in shooting them down?) There was of course much drama preceding the final kill as the noise in our backyard was an open invitation to the neighbourhood lads , who had climbed over the wall into the compound to prod the snake out of its hiding place with long sticks and to set fire to it after it was dead, as apparently it was quite a poisonous variety. Not quite sure why a simple burial wouldn’t have sufficed.
Of course , there had been no real threat of me being bitten, but I would always tell the little ones that it was Caesar’s incessant barking that had put me on my guard and that is perhaps how I would like to remember it.:-)
We had other pets too. Sometimes, clash of interests would result in some of them having to be given away before long. The rabbits we had and a little goat had to go because they would nibble at the plants in the garden which were equally dear to my father. A little turkey hen had grown into a big bird with the menacing habit of chasing us around to peck at our feet with its hard beak. Then there was this mongoose, who was a cute little creature when he was small. But as an adult, his attention was constantly focussed on my mother’s chicks and she would have none of that. So my brother Niyaz was asked to take it away and set it free among the bushes near the river, which errand was right up his alley. So he set off on his bicycle, with the mongoose tied up in a cloth bag which was slung across the handlebar.
It must’ve been around ten or fifteen minutes before he was seen putting on the brakes to his cycle in front of our gates, panting and sweating profusely. Instead of going right up to the river, he had set the mongoose free over a wall into somebody’s compound. A man there had seen him do it and had started shouting at him and run out on the road, chasing my brother who had taken flight in a panic.
We’ve fought a lot in our childhood, my brother and I. Being very close in our ages, our activities were common and that gave ample scope for a lot of tiny wars, every now and then. I still think he was responsible for my monkey’s death.
The monkey for obvious reasons, was kept tied on a long leash upstairs, which portion of the house had been meant to be a fullfledged storey, but was only half built , with the rooms partitioned with half unplastered walls and the tiled roof built over it. My father had been an employee of the State Government. He had overrun his budget and with his fixed income and a host of other problems, had never been able to complete it. It is still like that, the upper storey now serving more as an attic and a place to dry clothes during the monsoons.
So the monkey had a lot of space to jump about . Sitting on the wall, he would pull at my head whenever I approached him and pick through my hair, looking for lice , I guess(I remember having lice in my hair when I was very small, but not then at which point of time I was in high school).
It was quite an active little animal and there was absolute pandemonium, whenever he managed to break free.The whole house was held to ransom during those hours and nobody other than me could easily subdue it. For some reason , it wouldn’t put up too much of a fight with me. I have been bitten by it though, not once but several times and I don’t remember getting any injections for rabies either.
Anyways( I’m really rambling ain’t I ?), to make a long story short, the monkey was tied more tightly around the waist , which gave it a sore and( this is the important part),at the suggestion of my brother, he was tied with a collar around the neck. Something went wrong and the poor monkey injured his neck, while jumping off the wall. He didn’t die immediately, but only after three days of suffering. I would place him in my lap as I was at home studying for my exams. He could barely swallow the water which one poured into its mouth , little by little and eat no food at all. How I rued the mistake of listening to my brother.! The monkey slept most of the time and would sometimes open its eyes to look at me with soulful sadness. And then mercifully, it died.
Mercifully too, time heals the sorrow of loss. But memories remain of Emden and Caeser , of the spritefulness of the little monkey and the affection of all the other pets that made our childhood so rich and varied.