A Mukherjee World - Inside Insight


A Dog's Life

By Anamika Mukherjee

Part 1 - Blackie

In my growing up years, at my parents' house we had, over quite a long period of time, three dogs. These were (in order of appearance) Blackie, Steffi, and Cassie.

Blackie was for a long time thought to be a Tibetan Terrier, but after many years of thinking him so, we decided (for reasons unknown) that he was not a Tibetan Terrier but a Tibetan Spaniel. Whatever the truth may have been (and it probably lay somewhere in-between) the fact remains that he was small, hairy, black, and of a notoriously unpredictable temper.

In this last respect (and in some of the others) he differed sharply from the other two dogs. Steffi, a very large Cocker Spaniel, was almost always sweet-natured - except for the time she bit me and left a permanent scar in one finger, which is another story.

And Cassie, a part-Dachshund mongrel, was fiercely loyal and highly excitable; which is to say that she would bite anybody and everybody except immediate family members.

Blackie entered our lives when I was about 3 or 4 years old, and stayed with us till I was about 18. Over the years, I grew expert at judging when he was about to snap at me, and I would grab him firmly by the scruff of his hairy neck to prevent him from doing so. This alarming tendency of his to snap at the nearest passing object usually subsided as quickly as it arose, so it was usually safe to let go of him after a few seconds. On one occasion, though, he got the better of me, because he got a good, firm grip of my other hand, which was dangling negligently and enticingly in front of his face and I almost lifted him off his feet by this means, before persuading him to let go of me.

Most of the time, he was not so irascible. He would come running to greet us when we got home, and would wind himself around our feet just like a cat. If someone were sitting on a high chair and he wanted to get into their lap, he would put his feet up and demand to be picked up (which was sometimes a risky operation). And at meal times, he would beg atrociously - but adorably.

Blackie was on the whole a healthy dog - apart from chewing grass and throwing up every so often, he rarely fell sick. He got cataract on both eyes, eventually, and was as good as blind for many years, but even though we shifted house after this, he managed to find his way around the new house, by bumping into various pieces of furniture and sometimes growling at them.

Blackie was our only dog for many, many years, before Steffi arrived and usurped his place of pride in the family. He had always been highly antagonistic to other living creatures, specially dogs, so we were a little anxious about his reaction to the new puppy. He wandered around her in an extremely puzzled fashion for several days, then retired to consider the matter. I don't recall that he ever attacked her, though he never grew very fond of her. And he never lost the puzzled, slightly hurt expression that he acquired when this strange new addition to the family appeared and refused to go away.

It's been close to 15 years since we laid Blackie to rest in the little patch of grass outside the gate of our house.

Part 2 – Steffi

It’s not easy to eat properly, if your ears keep falling in your plate. This is what usually happened to Steffi. And Steffi loved to eat. She would eat just about anything - specially raw vegetables. If you were shelling peas, she would eat the shells; cutting cauliflower and she would BEG for the stalk; scraping carrots, the scraps would disappear before your eyes. Apples and oranges she could gobble up whole, if only you would let her. And if you didn’t let her, she would stand there in front of you, hopping from paw to paw, drooling bucket-fuls of saliva, her large, liquid eyes fixed imploringly on you, till it became impossible to resist her mute but oh-so-eloquent appeal.

Steffi’s love for food often got her into trouble. She used to ransack the garbage can so often we had to ensure that we firmly barred the kitchen against her raids. And any food left unattended on the dining table was not safe, as we found out one day to our dismay.

We had been gifted a large turkey from a nearby turkey farm. My mother, in one of her rare fits of cooking-enthusiasm, had roasted it whole in our cavernous and ancient gas oven. We had invited some guests for dinner.

When the turkey was done, it was carefully placed in the centre of the large and elaborately-laden dining table. This done, we all retired to dress for the guests. When we emerged, a few minutes later, what a sight met our eyes. Steffi had managed to nudge one of the chairs away from the table; she had clambered up on to it, stretched her upper body across the dining table, and in this ungainly posture was tucking in to the turkey greedily.

She was stupid enough not to run, when she was caught red-handed, but to stay there with a guilty-as-hell look on her face and an expression that said louder than words: “But it’s so delicious! How can you blame me?”

Using her brains was not something Steffi loved to do. Being eager to please, she was easy to train so, having nothing better to do, I trained her to shake hands with her left paw and with her right paw, and to clamber up and put both front paws in my lap. In these mundane activities, she would readily oblige. But, except when it came to obtaining food, on her own initiative she would not use her brains for such things as, for example, opening the swinging screen door to get outside to the garden, or to get back indoors. Instead, she would stand in front of the door wearing a doleful expression and wait for someone to open it for her. Sometimes, she would go so far as to scratch its frame with one long claw, but that was the sum and substance of her efforts.

Steffi was famous for her hunting skills. In those days, there were plenty of rats in the neighbourhood, and every so often, one of them would get into the house. Blackie, who was partially blind by then (but had been a reasonably good ratter in his younger days), would nevertheless run around sniffing furiously. Cassie, sharp and quick as an arrow, would get on the trail right away. She would follow the rat under furniture and behind curtains, until she finally had it cornered. Then she would wait for it to make a run, and, more often than not, she would kill it joyfully. Then she would come and lay it at our feet proudly and wait for us to praise her and admire her kill.

During all this, Steffi would be running excitedly behind Blackie, or behind Cassie, or behind one of the humans. She knew she was supposed to run and look excited and she even sort of guessed that this might be a game of some kind, maybe involving a rat or maybe not. But she was never very sure which direction she should run in. So she tried her best by running in all directions. Still, since she wasn’t altogether sure what she was supposed to be looking for, she made sure that she was never in the way when it was found.

In the rainy season, Steffi discovered that there was such a thing as frogs. What’s more, she found that frogs were actually quite harmless. She would find one sitting on the ground outside the house some day and would go and stand near it, looking at it, and getting a thrill out of it looking back at her. When it at last tried to hop away, she would put out a big hairy paw and pull it back. The frogs didn’t seem to mind this, but when they tried to hop away again, a while later she would stop them again. After a while of this game, the frog would change tactics and hop towards her. With a startled squawk Steffi would hurriedly jumped away from it. The frog would then give her a sneering look and lumber away, knowing it had finally got the better of her.

Steffi liked the rain. She would go out and stand in the rain in a rather goofy, surprised way, as though to say, “Hey, what’s this, it’s all wet!” Then she would romp around in the mud and get caked with dirt and come back looking thoroughly pleased with herself.

The other game that Steffi liked to play was with her water bowl. She would amble over to her water bowl, drink a little water, look at it carefully, then deliberately put one big hairy paw on the side of the bowl, so that the bowl tipped over and all the water spilt on the floor. This accomplished, she would then gleefully slide the upside-down bowl into the living room, where she would push it under the edge of the carpet. Once it was well covered by the carpet, she would scrabble at the carpet furiously with her front paws, trying to get it out again and ruining the carpet in the process. Then, tired, she would go off to the bathroom and drink water out of a bucket.

Being a pure-bred (she was officially christened Stefanie Louise) Steffi used to fall sick quite often. For one who loved her food, it was agonizing to see her sniffing at it disinterestedly and wandering away. And sadly, that was how it was at the end. She went off her food again, but that time she never recovered. In front of our eyes, she wasted away, touching neither food nor water despite our best efforts. The vet called it a kidney failure and at last we had to put her out of her misery.

Part 3 - Cassie

We got Cassie when I was in my early teens, and entirely at my insistence (we already had two). From the start, Cassie was My Dog. She was a mongrel, the youngest of an unexpected litter of the Dachshund pet of a friend of ours. She grew up to be rather squarer and taller than a Dachshund, with no sign of bow legs, and with triangular bat-ears which she eventually learnt to prick up, most un-Dachshund-like; but with the same characteristic colours on her face.

When she came to us, she was meek as a mouse, but in a very short time she became the little tiger of her new little kingdom. She adopted us with the fierce loyalty mongrels are known for - and woe be to anyone who tried to enter her kingdom or harm her people.

Cassie was as energetic and spirited as Steffi was regal and gracious. She loved to play and would often jump on Steffi and tug at her ears or nip her in a friendly way, to get Steffi to play with her. Steffi would eye these athletics with an indulgent air and eventually would roll over onto her back, and allow Cassie to jump all over her and do as she pleased. At last, if greatly riled, Steffi would lumber to her feet, displacing Cassie from wherever she happened to be at the time, and then the two of them would run around the house, jump on the beds, roll over each other and generally put on a show for who-ever happened to be watching, the way dogs always do.

Another game that Cassie loved was tug-of-war. For years, we would present her with some scraps of rag, usually with a substantial knot tied somewhere in the middle. These she would joyfully grab and toss around and shake most viciously like an errant rat. If she could get either Steffi or one of us to grab the other end, she would be overjoyed and would play tug-of-war till the rag was in shreds. Needless to say, none of the rags lasted very long.

Cassie was unlike Steffi in almost every possible way. She was intelligent and could only be trained to do those activities that made sense to her. She could let herself in and out the door to the garden without pausing for thought. She knew how to use her nose to nudge the door open towards herself when she wanted to let herself in. She was even smart enough to figure out what to do if the door were so slightly ajar that she could not get her nose into the crack. She would stand up on her hind legs, balance one front leg on the door frame and use the other front leg to push the door shut, upon which, it promptly rebounded, not sharply, but enough to allow her to push it aside with her nose and scamper inside. But she could not be trained to do meaningless things like shake hands!

Cassie loved to be outdoors and free. On more than one occasion, she got off her leash when she was being walked, and then she would take off at lightning speed, for a sprint around the block. She would chase down and bite humans and animals alike, and wasn’t afraid to get into scraps with larger canines for no reason at all. She would return from these escapades muddy, and missing a few hairs, but thrilled to bits with herself.

And it was on one such bid for freedom, when she was still very young, that Cassie got into an accident. She wasn’t badly hurt, but she lost a large part of the skin off her stomach. The wound healed eventually, but she grew blond hair on that part of her stomach, instead of black, and it never looked quite the same again. On another occasion, she got into a tangle with a barbed wire fence and almost had the tip of her tail torn off.

Cassie hated the rain and would not go out at all if it was raining. But on afternoons when it wasn’t raining (which was most of the time), Cassie would make it clear that it was someone’s duty to take her out and play ball with her. She loved that. She would sprint after the ball, leap with all four feet off the ground, catch it in mid air, prance around with it joyfully, then bring it back and drop it at our feet, waiting for us to pick it up and throw it again.

Steffi loved to play ball too, but her idea of playing ball was very different. She would lollop after the ball at a comfortable pace, her over-long ears flapping around her face. Then she would pick up that small tennis ball in her huge jaws and almost swallow it whole, her flabby jaws closing up so that you could hardly tell that she had a ball in her mouth. Then she would stand there and wait for someone to come to her and take the ball from her. It wasn’t easy getting the ball out of her. It usually took a combination of dire threats, pleas, and plain brute force.

Cassie was also different from Steffi in her approach to food. She was quite finicky about food, and had to be cajoled to eat at mealtimes. She was usually healthy, but when she was still quite young, she suddenly developed kidney stones. We had her operated upon at once, and it was a long, slow, agnoising wait for her to recover, but recover she did, and fully. After that, for the rest of her life, she was on medication, four weeks off, two weeks on.

Cassie was probably the most voluble of our three dogs. Not only did she bark at birds, cats, and strangers, she also howled when we all went out, and practically tore the roof down when we returned. She would directly jump on the bed and shriek hysterically, expressing her joy and demanding to be patted by every one of us before returning to a state of relative calm and quiet.

The years passed, and Cassie, unbelievable as it had always seemed, grew old. Her kingdom was overrun by cats. Her bat-ears flopped and would not stand up. Her sight dimmed and she once went so far as to bark furiously at me, mistaking me for a stranger. She developed a lump on her abdomen, which slowly grew bigger and bigger, till it was almost as big as a tennis ball, and it looked like it would burst any day. I had left home by then, when my family called me and told me it was time.

That was five years ago, but even now, whenever I see a dog with Dachshund markings on its face, regardless of size, or gender, or character, or breed, I think of Cassie.

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