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To all the dogs I have loved before

The unexpected joys and pitfalls of having dogs as pets.

The author Orhan Pamuk wrote, “Dogs do speak, but only to those who know how to listen.” And Calypso brought in a host of stories into the author's life.
The author Orhan Pamuk wrote, “Dogs do speak, but only to those who know how to listen.” And Calypso brought in a host of stories into the author's life.

When I was a young girl, we lived in Delhi, and on Sunday mornings we would drive to our farm in the Chhatarpur area to spend the day. My father got an Alsatian puppy named Jackie and we left her to be looked after by the farm hands. By the time we returned the next week, she had been renamed Moti (pearl), a name they could relate to. A gorgeous grey wolf-like creature, she died in her middle age of a snakebite.

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It was her daughter, Michelle, who came to mean the world to me. We would carry bread and milk to feed her as soon as we got to the farm. She would come bounding up the driveway, leap at us affectionately, yelping her pleasure at seeing us. Her laser-sharp intelligence was evident from the outset, and her strong tail would thump my thigh as we became inseparable buddies. I would take her with me as I wandered the far corners of the farm and beyond, observing weaver birds make their hair-dryer shaped nests and watching jewellery-clad banjara women pat clay into brick moulds. Michelle and I would run on the lawns, and sit side by side as I read my books, with one hand stroking her. Scratch a dog, and you will find a permanent job, they say. Once, when my dad’s friend was showing me how to tackle a ball with a hockey stick, she thought we might be fighting, and it was her duty to save me. She leapt up and tore his pants off at the hip.

There came a time when Michelle delivered 14 pups. She ran around the farm with gusto, enjoying the return of her lightness. There weren’t enough teats for all of them to suckle, so I took a pan of milk and put it down by them. They ran to it, and began drinking from the edges. Others followed, and when there was no space left, they clambered over their siblings till the last three drank vertically, with their legs in the air.

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On Sunday evenings, when we would drive home, she would run after our car, following us for a long while on the tarred road.

A few years later, as we headed to the farm, my mother told me Michelle was very unwell. It was preparation for the big shock. Michelle had died. I found out later she had been run over by a truck when she chased our car the last time.

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I had lost her, but the precious reservoir of memories has stayed with me.

Years later, in London, our daughter Aranya laid siege outside our bedroom, tent and all, and letters from school friends addressed to us, for she wanted a dog. We resisted. Our lives were insanely busy, and taking up more responsibility didn’t seem like the smart thing to do. There would be loss of spontaneity when planning travel, a messy home, hair on the kitchen floor, all those walks in the cold and dark. Trips to the vet. What if one of us was allergic to the dog? The sound of barking would be deeply unpleasant. Friends brought up cautionary stories of spiralling pet insurance and hip-replacement bills.

But children can charm you into doing the opposite of what feels right, and Calypso, a Golden Retriever, pretty as a painting, came into our lives.

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The best thing I did with Calypso was not to spoil her and let any bad habits take root. She soon learnt to sleep on her own in her dog pen. Slowly we trained her to pee and poop outside the house. By rustling the bio-degradable bag when she pooped, she understood we wanted her to do her business when the bag was rustled. Calypso was never fed off the dining table, so she never made Bambi eyes at us when we ate. She learnt to be calm when the bell rang and strangers walked in. Amazingly, she learnt to stay within the front garden even when the gate was open, and to walk alongside us without a leash.

Aranya would swell with pride as her dog awaited her outside the school gates at pickup, and her friends gushed at Calypso. My husband developed a doting “Calypso voice” when he spoke to her. Our son Arjun, who had been terrorized by a Dobermann in his childhood, developed a deeply trusting relationship with her. It healed something deep inside him. Two years later, when he left for college in the US, Calypso seemed to fill in for him. Our numbers had been bolstered by her. By now I felt a deep connection to her. We played chase-the-toy in the garden and she had to sniff out the treats I hid around the house. We sat in companionable silence. She followed me from room to room, parking herself beside me, then sighing in satisfaction. My friends and I walked in the mornings with our dogs, and the world seemed like a perfect place.

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The author Orhan Pamuk wrote, “Dogs do speak, but only to those who know how to listen.” Every morning, as I took the steps down to the kitchen and family room, Calypso, taking her soft toy in her mouth, would make mewing sounds of welcoming affection. She would wag her tail and her entire bottom with it.

She would present the parts of her body that needed scratching. Sniffing around her empty bowl meant she was still hungry. Following me to the door meant “take me with you”.

She was sneaky too, jumping off the family-room sofa where she had slept all night as she heard me come down.

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My sense of wonder was stoked by her. Calypso, how come you whiff other dogs’ bottoms all the time, but never smell the lavender? What instinct makes you chase wild foxes but shrivel from small yappy dogs? What do you dream of that makes you wince with fear?

Calypso, my elegant jewel, recently passed on, at 13. But every now and then, as I settle into a space, I hear a little sigh.

Geetika Jain writes about culture and experiences from around the world.

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  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    06.10.2020 | 05:57 PM IST

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