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The death of a dog

Of all the feelings I could be plagued by in the car, it is jealousy. I am jealous of those who lose their dog to an accident or to the beautiful fiction of a farm

Photo: Alamy
Photo: Alamy

Twelve years ago, I had brought her home swaddled in her mother’s blanket, on my lap, in the front seat of my father’s car. Today I’m carrying her wrapped in her own blanket in my car. Twelve years is a long time; she has outgrown the front seat. Her full life has been a fraction of ours—a fact that dog owners must wilfully forget every time they bring a dog home.

We are on our way to the crematorium. The lap was her homecoming and the lap is her hearse. When the vet’s assistant had suggested we carry her body in the boot of the car, the family had paused their different expressions of mourning and collectively gasped.

The morning is peaceful. The difficult part was the weeks leading up to this. We had to make a decision for her. She had stalled cancer’s first thrust, but it was now spreading and there was nothing more to be done. There were arguments in the family about who was being sentimental and who was being practical. There was sorrow and resignation, blame and guilt. My internet search history remains overrun with searches for “signs your dog is in pain" and “best practices for pet euthanasia", which I learnt most Indian vets do not follow. They inject one heavy dose of barbiturates to stop the heart. We opted for an anesthesia to be administered first.

Of all the feelings I could be plagued by in the car, it is jealousy. I am jealous of those who lose their dog to an accident or to the beautiful fiction of a farm. I have friends who say they heard their dogs whimper for months but did not act, as they couldn’t bear to part.

By the end of her life, she ate like a Bengali zamindar—fish, mango, mishti doi and Marie biscuits dipped in tea (she did eat vet-prescribed food the rest of her life). The day before we put her to rest, she refused even mango. That, more than the advice of multiple vets, was to us a sign that she was ready.

I exchange messages with a former colleague who lost her dog a month ago. He was 16 and she was expecting it for some time, she says. But she now realizes that expecting and experiencing are two different things. An ex-boyfriend who has quit journalism and cities to live in the Kumaon Himalayas with dogs reaches out. An artist I have never had a personal conversation with, sends a tender note. She lost her dog a month ago too. We meet and speak for 3 hours.

Through it all, I learn that the comfort derived from condolence is not proportional to how well you know someone. Some people are good comforters. Some call and distress you further. Some call and talk about random stuff, with a brief prelude on the short life of dogs.

The crematorium is at the Bai Sakarbai Dinshaw Petit Hospital for Animals in Parel, the only animal hospital that services all of Mumbai. It is a charitable institution set up by an animal-loving Parsi couple 145 years ago. It is a surprisingly green 11 acres of land dotted with open air enclosures of pets for adoption and ownerless animals who never got picked up after their treatment, but who seem to have adapted to this happy place with its hordes of visitors, including schoolchildren who use the campus as thoroughfare. The attendant at the electric crematorium, Sanjay Kamble, has worked there for 21 years. He lights a flame and some incense when we enter. Later, I ask him if he believes animals have religion. “Batti aur agarbatti sab ke kaam aata hai (light and incense is of use for all)," he says.

I develop a deep admiration for funereal processes. The complicated rituals are a much needed diversion from mulling over a million what-ifs. With a dog it is more of a do as you like. But Kamble is faithful to rites. He gives us her ashes in an earthen pot.

I stop by a week later to drop off her belongings. I ask him about job satisfaction. There are celebrity highlights—he cremated two tigers here—but apart from that he says he feels lucky to be part of scenes of love, day after day. He insists I meet his boss, the retired Lieutenant Colonel J.C. Khanna, who is the chief executive of the hospital. The Lieutenant Colonel is a genial old man who has put his years of experience in the veterinary department of the Indian Army to turning around the hospital in the last 15 years. How is his staff so happy, I ask. “People are emotional fools. I use military methods of command and control," he says, with a smile. He gives me a tour. There are people in all states of prayer around the OT of the canine ward. I haven’t seen so many people praying in a hospital waiting room. I assume that because veterinary prognosis is less sophisticated, prayer is more reliable here. The pace of our tour falls when I see the Lieutenant Colonel gazing warmly at a muzzled Labrador getting IV, as his human family stands weeping around him. With a dog, even the best of us are emotional fools.

She tweets at @aninditaghose

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