By: Divya Dubey
The dog had to be put to sleep. Since Sunday the thought had been revolving in Simran’s mind, making it impossible for her to focus her attention fully on any task. As she began to wipe the plastic mat on the dining table after breakfast, the bottle of Berberis rolled over to the other side. Simran picked it up and stared at the perfidious object. During the last eighteen months, thrice it had brought back Bruno’s kidneys back to life when she had almost given up. She pressed it into her palm, walked over to the bin, and dumped the thing into it. The feeling of relief also precipitated guilt.
They had celebrated Bruno’s birthday the previous week, but his birthdays were no longer fun – each brought with it some amount of dread, a cloud of apprehension. At times Simran had lain next to him on the floor hour after hour, and patted his head to comfort him, watching the indigo sky melt into a pearly grey at dawn – and she had prayed that he would survive – for Alisha’s sake.
Whenever they reached the chemist’s at the main road crossing outside the society precincts to buy Pedigree food, Alisha was the first to leap out of the car and dash to the counter. If Simran forgot the appointments with the vet, Alisha would beep every hour like her mobile phone to remind her. And she even brushed his coat everyday – lovingly – like Adarsh used to do. Years ago, while watching her husband’s loving palm gliding all over his golden coat with the brush, Simran would sometimes feel the vacuum within her more acutely. The romance in their lives had faded with the scent of the jasmines soon after their marriage. She was tired by then – tired and deeply wounded that even a pet dog inspired more love in him than she did. She had ended it all before the situation could suffocate them both.
Since Bruno’s health was deteriorating, Alisha and she couldn’t leave him behind with a relative when they left Delhi – nobody would keep him (she knew it well), and they lacked time. She only had a few hours to change the price labels on the remaining household items in the living room. Distress sale – but it couldn’t be helped. Relatives, in any case, were a breed that always felt it was being taken advantage of, when it was usually the other way round. She had baby-sat their children, entertained guests who turned up unannounced, and played hostess to everybody who had visited Delhi for official work, college admissions of their children, or for a million other miscellaneous reasons. Their face muscles would start contorting the minute she began to talk about her dilemma. She did not want to plead with anybody. Bruno had played Mary’s little lamb to her for over a decade, ever since Adarsh had deposited him on the sofa in her new living room when she had just moved in – a little ball of gold that forced his nose in and snuggled into her bed at night. And Bruno had always stayed special – years after their divorce. Taking him along with them to Bangalore would be impractical if not entirely impossible. She had no home, just a mirage of a job, and no domestic help. And she was left with no money. What option did she have?
Simran didn’t want to think about the task ahead. Neither did she want to think of Adarsh. He was simply a dot on the horizon – the dot on the horizon where the past and present met. But Alisha was firmly fixed in the here and now. Simran knew there would be pandemonium if she discovered what her mother was planning to do.
She pushed the tub of soapy clothes aside and caught sight of at the ant in the bucket, its needle-like legs wriggling on the surface of the water trying to keep it afloat. For a few seconds she had God’s eye view – from the top. She could see what the ant could not. It was just a small bucket, only half full. To the ant, it must seem like it was wrestling with a choppy sea, but that was only because her foot had accidentally upset it. If she just lowered the tip of a toothbrush, she could lift the ant out of the water and set it free. Inclination was all she required. Adarsh would have done it instantly. He had never needed to think – about anything.
Simran knew if she didn’t do it, the ant would keep going round and round until it had tired. Eventually, it would die. Leaning forward, over the washbasin, she pulled out her white toothbrush from the mug, lowered it to the ant, and watched it climb up tentatively. She opened the window and put the ant down on the ledge. Then she washed the toothbrush and put it back in its place.
She stared at her face in the bathroom mirror – into two intense mahogany eyes. Would she ever be able to look into them again when she had taken the step? How could she be such a two-faced fiend?
She felt exhausted already, though the day’s work had barely begun. She straightened the bed cover on her bed, lay down on it, and shut her yes, telling herself that it was only for a few minutes. Nothing in her life inspired her to look forward to another day now; she could think of nothing that kept her going – except habit. Perhaps if Adarsh hadn’t disappeared like that, her life would have been vastly different. She had expected him to be more understanding, more sensitive…. Was it wrong of her? Her frantic shout to him that evening, and the equally frantic call to Dr Monica, had a good reason. She had detected spots of blood on her panties – it was her second semester – she needed a doctor immediately. She couldn’t take any risks with the baby. Adarsh’s brows were puckered when she stepped out of the bathroom. His boss and his wife were expected for dinner at eight-thirty. It was already past seven. It wasn’t a matter of a routine increment – he tried to explain to her, even as she stood in the bedroom, without her trousers, clutching her abdomen with one hand and punching numbers on the phone with the other. His promotion, their future, his entire career, depended on that evening. Why couldn’t she hang on and be brave (she was a soldier’s daughter after all) for a few more hours? In reply he had received a blank, shocked stare.
Simran had spent a decade living with near-numbness, been prevented from jumping off a high-rise building by Alisha and Bruno’s presence. Alisha and Bruno – her only real family.
How could she do this to her only family? And yet, how could she spare them?
She checked her email again. Within the next three days she had to be in Bangalore. The job the corporate house had advertised was tailor-made for her. If she bagged it, her life would swing back on track – which obviously meant Alisha’s would too. In a way she felt like the ant in the bucket. She had been wriggling along the edges for three years now just to stay afloat. Maybe there was a God — enjoying himself watching her – a God who could see her struggling, but wouldn’t help; who could lower a sprig of hope to her, and help her climb up to freedom within minutes if he really wished. Or maybe he was waiting for her to help herself first. She would find out once they moved to Bangalore.
But – the dog.
Simran’s mind returned to the golden retriever who stared at her obliquely from the corner of the room, as though aware of her intentions yet sitting complacent. Her first real gift from Adarsh. Her only family until Alisha’s birth. Would it be kinder to leave him at a shelter? But she knew of no shelter that would take in and look after a dying dog. She had considered leaving him on the road, but could not persuade herself to be so harsh and heartless. Poor thing was so weak that he would be run over by the first passing vehicle. Did she really have an option? At least being put to sleep by a vet would be more dignified. The day before, she had planned to smuggle him to the vet’s before Alisha returned from school. Of course she would have had to make up stories for her, but it would have been easier on the nine year old.
The house work had been wound up quicker than usual, and she was dressed. The plumber arrived – it took her mind off the vet’s for a few minutes. By the time he had finished, she could hear the sound of the ancient lift stopping outside the flat, and the iron shutter sliding open with its usual wail. There had been technological advances all around, and builder flats with marble flooring and modular kitchens were quite in vogue now, but every time she entered or exited the lift, watching the metal latticework compress or expand painfully before her, it reminded her that their society still belonged to 2012 BC.
‘Mummy, did you sign the petition?’ Alisha’s voice echoed in the corridor before she had entered the house. ‘Sandhya Ma’am said everybody must sign it to save Lennox!’
Lennox, the pit bull-type terrier in Belfast who had united all dog lovers in the world in an effort to save his life. Of course Simran had signed it. She had been one of the first ones to post it on Facebook and persuade fifty others to sign it and re-post the message on their networks.
Post that conversation with Alisha, Simran had lost the courage to take Bruno to the vet’s all day. Today, her courage seemed to have returned – under duress. She had received an interview confirmation call from the company in Bangalore early in the morning. The call had prodded her to stop brooding. She had to act.
The wooden cuckoo on the wall announced it was eleven o’ clock. There were two and a half hours before Alisha returned from school – enough time to take Bruno to the vet’s, take the step, return home and wait. Simran slipped into her slacks and a casual shirt, deliberately replaying scenes from the daily soap the night before in her mind in order to keep it occupied, picked up Bruno’s leash and bowl along with her car keys, and walked up to him.
‘Come on, soldier,’ she whispered to Bruno, kneeling down to kiss his head. ‘Time to go out with Mamma.’
Though she thought she had forgotten how to cry a decade ago, she felt tears well up in her eyes now. Bruno somehow pushed himself erect and wagged his tail. Over the last two weeks he had lost much weight. It was impossible to prevent her memory from spilling out images it had hoarded during the ten years the dog had been with them.
‘Come on, sweetheart,’ she said, forcing herself to stand up again. If she hesitated now, everything would be ruined.
Bruno trailed behind Simran as she latched all the doors and windows shut. She bolted the front door and locked it, slipped the keys into her purse, and firmly wrapped the blue leash around her hand.
‘Let’s go,’ she whistled to him, walking more slowly than she intended.
The corridor was absolutely deserted. The liftman was missing from his seat – as usual. Simran sighed and pressed the button. The heaviness within her grew as the lift came up and she saw the metal shutter come to rest in front of her.
She entered it quickly and pushed the ground floor button. She wanted it all to be over soon. Mother and daughter could still refurbish their lives. There was a fair chance that Bishop Cotton would take Alisha. Adarsh had never approved of girls-only schools. To Simran it mattered little. But they had never lived long enough together to drive their arguments to some kind of a conclusion. Simran hoped the fees would be affordable. Her next aim would be to find a good maid, and maybe then they could keep another dog.
Snapping out of her reverie, she noticed the leash – caught in the metal shutter now slammed tightly shut – with her standing inside the lift and Bruno fidgeting and whining – outside.
‘Bruno!’ she screamed, beating the shutter wildly with her palms, her heart rate suddenly a hundred and forty. She pressed some random buttons in panic. ‘Bruno, do something! Somebody….! Somebody – help!’
Nothing moved. Silence hung heavy in the corridor. The torpor of the neighbouring houses remained undisturbed. Simran realised she had wasted too much time immersed in her daydream. She waded through the contents of her purse distractedly to find her mobile phone – and watched with horror as the lift began its descent, the leash still stuck in its teeth – the mistress on one side, the trapped dog on the other.
‘BRUNO!’ Her cry sounded like a wild mother beast’s.
A loud yelp from the retriever was followed by a frantic struggle with his collar. The scrawny creature, galvanised into action by panic, made a desperate attempt to jerk his head away from the rumbling machine. The next moment Simran heard something snap, and, as he disappeared from view, his old collar – now broken into two – fell in through the metal cage behind her.
‘Mummy, can I have an ice cream, please?’ Alisha patted Bruno affectionately at the airport terminal, watching over their strolleys as her mother checked the gate numbers. She tightened his leash around her hand and pulled him closer. ‘You know, Mummy…,’ she went on once Simran had slid the change across the counter and handed her a chocolate cone, ‘our online campaign … nothing happened in Belfast. Nobody listened to us. They killed Lennox, poor thing. Nobody cared, did they? Aren’t you glad we still have Bruno?’
(Divya Dubey is the publisher of Gyaana Books and a new literary e-journal, Earthen Lamp Journal (www.earthenlampjournal.com). She also runs Authorz Coracle, a resource for aspiring writers.)