June 27, 2015

In All Things, Charity

Annie was the first person to welcome me to my new apartment. She didn’t live in the building, but had dropped by to ask if I needed a cooking lady. A slight woman with a simple blue dress buttoned up modestly to hide a bosom too big for her shoulders; her salt and pepper hair was sculpted with pungent coconut oil into a tight bun. Her spectacles hung on a chain from her neck along with a simple gold crucifix. Without either she claimed to be blind.

I felt the urge to hide my ashtray full of spliffs when she came in on that first day, but she smiled and said, “What can one say or do… nowadays all you kids are like this, man.” She struck me as the sort of woman who having found God early on in life, had since been living for the eternal bliss she would eventually receive. 

We decided she would come in every morning and evening; but when later that year I was fired from my job, she started coming in three times. Rather than cook, she would come in and rip the sheets off me who had taken to lying in bed all day

While making me chai, she’d tell me stories about her younger son who had been born blind, her eldest who was the apple of her eye because he had skipped two grades in school and her husband who drank so much liquor that a single kiss from him left her inebriated. Daily, she’d take the train from their little jhuggi in Mahim; inevitably, she had a story to tell about that as well. Sometimes an amusing story from the platform, sometimes an unexpected harshness experienced in the ladies compartment.

In this time, I saw Annie more often than my friends. But, never considering her familiar enough to talk to about the terrifying listlessness unemployment brings about, I would sit on my dining table and listen to her ocean of stories. 

My house was the first of her stops and usually she worked late enough, that at the days’ end she’d have to take a cab back home as the train service had stopped. This she found annoying since no auto rickshaw would leave Bandra to go to town. The taxi home cost her at least 200 rupees on the days she could not find another person to share it with. This amount she considered obscene. 

Descriptions of her family in Mahim bothered me. Four of them shared a bedroom and kitchen along with one parrot - it sounded overcrowded and depressing. Living by myself in a place thrice as big, I couldn’t help but feel guilty at the luck of my draw. Inevitably I’d start to shift around in my seat when she told me stories about her house. There was a resentment I'd feel towards her when this would happen, even though she was good at keeping her stories amusing and light. 

When the month passed by without me finding another job, I was at my lowest and would not even leave my bed for chai. Annie started to push me towards alternatives I hadn't the heart to tell her were for housewives.

“Do something good to occupy your time, charity heals the soul” she said. For my part, I did my best not to make  particularly obvious the advice’s fast track from one ear out the other.

One morning, she came in with a pink flyer. Printed on it, a photograph of a tiny cardboard box from which three even tinier puppies were staring up at the big bad world. Their sad eyes seemed to implore you specifically, and it read “PUPPIES FOR FOSTER - please help!!” along with a phone number for those so inclined. I wasn’t and this is what I told Annie.

“Come on, they’re like little babies!” she said, “It’s only for a little while and it’ll do you good to help out!!” It took her a while and, frankly, I only agreed because I thought by then the dogs would have found a home.  

 The girl who dropped the puppies off was almost as perky as Annie, she seemed only a few years younger than I, was dressed like a university student. “There’s these three left, two of them have been adopted and their owners will come pick them up soon.” she told me, “and this little guy...” she said holding the tiniest one up for inspection, “is still looking for home, so if you're interested...”

He was so small, it was heart wrenching; he had droopy black ears and stuffed toy body, with a curly-whirly attached to his bum instead of a tail.

“I doubt it,” I told her, “but I’ll take care of all of them till you guys find homes.”

I have not had dogs since I was twelve, and here are the things you skip when raising a pet with parental supervision. They do not sleep, your world is their toilet, they puke everywhere and they eat anything.  One week, four phone chargers, eight pairs of shoes and innumerable late-night clean ups later, two of the puppies were picked up; I surprised myself by feeling sad.

“Little Tyson is the only one left!” said Annie when she came in that morning. “Stop giving him a name,” I said to her.  But, secretly, I thought LT, the shortened version of his Annie-christening, had a nice ring to it. LT certainly described, perfectly the pugnacious, little puppy. I realised that I had grown quite fond of him. “Maybe I’ll keep him,” I said, “I’ll go buy him a bed and some treats today.” Annie was quiet, but I didn’t think too much of it.

When later that day I got a call back for a job interview, I told Annie, “The universe is paying me back for helping out.” That’s not how charity works,” she said, but it was laughingly; so I thought it alright to roll my eyes at her and in my excitement, forgot her words.

The next morning the realisation that I’d need a puppy sitter in order to go for the interview had me nearly in tears. Annie arrived as always on time. “I’ll watch him,” she said to me, forever helpful. “But you’re working other houses.” I said.

“I’ll take him home to my boys, they have summer vacation. They’ll happily watch him and I’ll bring him back in the evening.”

It was a convenient solution for me, so I was quick to agree. I had a car and would most likely pass Mahim on my way to Nariman Point where the firm’s offices were. Searching for Annie’s little house in Mahim’s tiny winding streets would make me tardy. So I never thought to offer her a ride.

The interview went off well and by the time Annie came back, I was celebrating with a few friends and a few beers. “Oh yay,” someone said ironically when the door bell rang, “dog crap!” I laughed.

Annie stood with a boy, who was holding on to the puppy for dear life. He reached till my shoulders, was about fourteen; wide-eyed and skinny as children who run around Mumbai tend to be. “We’ve come to give you your dog,” he said before Annie could speak. He let go of LT who immediately bounded into the house.

“What do you say Jonah?” she said sternly. “Thank you for letting us play with him,” he said looking slightly dejected. “No! Why I thank YOU,” I said to him in a tone equivalent to ruffling his hair. 

Annie turned to me beaming “So how was the interview?” I smiled back, “I got the job! They’ve asked me to start from the day after!” “That’s wonderful!” she said. With that, she and her son went on their way. When I turned around, my friends were feeding LT beer. I chastised them but could not help laughing at the little dog’s bewildered expression after he’d gone through a few bowls of lager.

I had to find someone to watch LT while I was at work, and so struck a deal with the guard outside my apartment building. When Annie came in the morning, I told her the plan. “All you have to do is feed him in the morning and then give him to the guard, and bring him in, in the evening when you come to make dinner.”

It didn’t seem like a complicated routine to me. Raised by a working mother, my life had been a barrage of car pools and play dates. Annie, however, looked skeptical, “Are you sure about leaving him outside?” “Well, what would you have me do?” I asked. There was a bit of a silence before she said, “I could take him. My sons love him.” I thought of the one bedroom, four people and parrot and didn’t know whether to cry or to laugh. 

“That’s the worst idea I’ve heard yet.” I said to her, “He’s going to get bigger and bigger, where will you keep him? In your little jhuggi?” I was looking out for a puppy, I told myself. After all, he deserved the best care, like I was able to provide; with toys, treats and space.

As the weeks progressed, I thought my plan was working well. By the time I would get home from work, LT and Annie would be home and he would be fed.

I could have easily continued to sacrifice wires and shoes to him, but as work got busier, his playfulness became a burden. On more than one occasion, I sat him down and screamed, “Look dog, I don’t have time for you right now!” To keep him busy, I substituted my time with a multitude of toys. Still, he ate through both with a vengeance. 

As a month passed and he grew bigger, I realised it wasn’t going to be possible to keep LT with me. The guard I entrusted him with had taken to tying him to a pole through the day. His frantic barking had soured my whole building to the idea of having a dog in the compound. So I did what everyone does.

I put up flyers around my neighbourhood and a note on my Facebook. I asked my friends if anyone wanted a puppy. There was a lot of noise about how cute LT was, but no takers. Anyone with a space big enough to keep him didn’t want it ruined by a dog.

At that time, I thought of Annie, but could not bring myself to ask her to bail me out. She quietly reiterated her offer to take LT, and in fit of pride, I informed her that I had found a kennel that would take him.

Since I had done no such thing, Annie wasn’t the only one surprised by this announcement. To make matters worse for myself, I then went on to say, “Oh yea, they’re in Bandra and a wonderful facility, big rooms for the dogs and everything. I’m going to take LT there next week!” Annie was ecstatic; she wanted to know the address so she could visit LT on her days off and shyly she asked, “You won’t mind if my boys go with me would you?” Of course I didn’t mind. I wouldn’t if such a place existed. It didn’t.

Turns out that one has to pay through the nose to house a dog in Bombay, and that kind of money, I didn’t have. Looking at the mammoth price tags in dismay, I felt for the first time as small as the room in which Annie lived. After pouring through the Internet for days, I finally found a ‘dog motel’ (it was so called) nearby and one that I could afford. Sweet relief!

I gave Annie the address almost triumphantly and in the week that came, with a heavy heart, dropped LT off at the ‘motel’.

The motel’s grounds, which ran in a semi circle before the building, were well kept in a rather dull way; the grass was cut short but no flowers or trees adorned the garden. The building, a one-storey bungalow, must have been painted white once; literally just once. The original colour of the outer walls could’ve been anyone’s guess; they were thoroughly blackened by creeping mould.

A wiry, old man wearing a wife-beater and a green lungi let me into the grounds. Apart from him, not a soul seemed to breathe in the estate.  Despite the state of the property and the lack of staff, I tried to remain optimistic. After all, I thought, the website rated the place with three stars. Three stars are good enough for a dog, surely!

In the coming weeks, work kept me busy enough that I did not miss nor mourn LT’s absence. The only time I thought about him was when Annie would mention him, which she did often while she was cleaning. With some amount of dramatic woe she would suddenly pick up a rug and say, “It’s boring not having that little bugger around running around but at least the house doesn’t smell of number one anymore.” I would laugh, but that’d be it.

Till one Sunday, I was out the door on my way to the office. Having been unexpectedly called in, I was in a mood. So when Annie stopped me by the door and said, “I’m so glad I caught you, listen we must talk about Little Tyson baba. I went to visit him yesterday. I don’t like the place at all, I’m positively worried for the little fellow!” I snapped.

“Jesus Christ Annie, don’t you have something else to worry about? Your kids don’t need enough mothering or what? Relax about the dog okay? He’s fine, I know because I’m paying for it through my nose! How much more can I do!” She was a bit taken aback it was obvious, but with no time to fret about anyone else, I moved on quickly.

Later that week my boss was kind enough to give me a ride home. I was excited, having never spent much time with my boss outside of the office. It was certainly good for my career path to find an excuse to bond with him. So I steered our conversation towards LT and my benevolent role in his little life.

My boss seemed interested enough to spontaneously suggest, “Well, if this place is in Bandra, let’s go visit him, shall we?”  ‘Fantastic idea!’ thought I and gave him directions. So far, I had used every moment of the journey as a show-and-tell. Look how serious and intelligent I could be. We’d exchanged a few laughs and I was feeling elated. Was I using a puppy to further my prospects? I shrugged at the idea. So what?

Once again there was only the old man visible on the compound, this time in a maroon lungi. He was standing by the gate when we arrived in our car. “Hello I’ve come to see the little mixed breed dog, is he around back?” I said to the old man as he looked at me lazily. A funny feeling started to unfurl in my stomach, fear perhaps. “Yes, they’re all out back but you can’t go there. What does your dog look like? Tell me, I’ll get him for you.”

I described LT for him, “Black and white puppy, brown markings for eyebrows, floppy long ears. He’s very frisky, I’m sure you know him by now. Do you know which one I’m talking about?” He shrugged and went off without another word. My boss stepped out of his car; looking around while stretching his legs while I, leaned against the door waiting.

“So how did you find this place?” my boss asked looking on at the dilapidated white building curiously. 

“On the internet….” I replied while looking away. When the man came back, he had LT on a tight leash. Immediately the pup bounded towards me, yelping and howling; almost as if he was trying to relay a story.

My heart leapt into my throat upon seeing him. I realized I’d missed him more than I’d allowed myself to admit. 

I thought of Annie as he jumped into my waiting arms. His tail wagging and tongue ever ready to get in a sneaky lick of my faces. My boss seemed enthralled by him, and I felt proud of my dog.

Then the magic was shattered as he exclaimed, “Oh he’s covered in ticks!!” ‘What?!’ I thought, ‘How could he be, he’s in a three star motel!’ But indeed his little body had at least a million squirmy round brown insects stuck to it in various places. In some spots, more than one tick had gnawed on and was nestled in. Upon close inspection I saw other tell tale red bumps all over his belly and paws. Horrified, both of us moved away. Poor LT never knew why. He jumped back and forth between our horrified faces.

“Have you seen this before?” my boss asked, his face clouded in a judgmental mask. Speechless I shook my head, “No, actually this is the first I’ve had time to visit him, but this place has three stars! There must be some kind of mistake!”

“You must look into it, how irresponsible to just leave ‘it’ here...” He gestured towards LT, “Without checking the place out properly, I’m surprised at you!” I could feel his disapproval boring a hole through my head. Nodding I gathered little LT in my arms and a shudder ran down the length of my body as I thought of the insects that infested his. I walked towards the building, realising for the first time that I hadn’t even asked to see where he’d be kept.

The old man was promptly at the door before I could open it. “What are you doing? What did I say, you can’t come back here!” he shouted at me. Anger welled up inside me and I couldn’t take it anymore, I roared back; “What do you mean? Look at my dog.” I showed him LT’s belly, all the ticks latched on to its thin skin.

“How have you been keeping him? What is all this? I’ve been paying you good money to keep this dog safe. What kind of a person keeps a dog this way? Answer me!” I must been right at the top of the decibel range, because my boss came down the path to see what was going on. “What are you doing shouting at him like that?” He chastised me, “Can’t you see that he’s only an old man? If you have to ask anyone, ask the person who runs this place, haven’t you ever spoken to them?”

I had, once, on the phone. I had asked where I should drop LT. Dejectedly I apologized to the old man as my boss looked on at me in a mixture of, it seemed, pity and piousness. The old man, however, was not forgiving. “Get out! Get out right now with your mutt! I won’t be screamed at like this. I’ll tell the owners how you spoke to me. Go away right now!”

Not knowing what to do or what to say, I asked my boss for a ride home. He obliged on the condition that I keep LT in a cardboard box with a lid on it. He didn’t want any objectionable creatures to escape and ruin his leather seats. “Impossible to get rid of these things…” he muttered peevishly. Though as I found out later, quite rightly.

The ride home saw only a shamed silence. Any remarks from his end were disparaging and I knew better than to disagree with a man who signs my paychecks. “So irresponsible of you to just leave it there. I mean if you’re going to take a dog on, in Bombay, I’m not saying you should, with our schedules and all. It’s stretching yourself too thin. But if you want to, you must do it properly! I’m disappointed to say the least…” and so on, followed by silence on my part.

The building super saw me try to sneak LT in and gave me a dirty look, which I only acknowledged from the corner of my eye. I was playing ostrich I suppose, hoping not to be seen if I did not see. The rest of my night was spent bitterly cursing the super, the old man at the ‘dog motel’ and sometimes LT for he would squirm uncontrollably as I picked out the ticks from his body and drowned them into a waiting plastic mug.  Each tiny death rewarding me with brief snippets of control.

The next day, when my building super came and served me with a final notice, “Look I’m not a bad guy” he said, though I felt differently.  “These are the rules, I can’t break them for you. Please find a place for the dog. Either he goes or you both go!” I felt helpless and alone. I was at a complete loss now; it looked like little Tyson would have to go back to the animal shelter where he came from.

That weekend Annie came in as usual and upon seeing LT, she let out a shriek and started to play with him. They were so happy together that my dark mood stood out like a handful of thumbs. When Annie brought it up, I readily bawled out my plight.

“You were right about the kennel, I don’t know why I paid them,” I said to her. “I got him home last night, but already the building wants me to send him away, and I can’t find anyone to take him. The pound says they can’t keep him very long if he doesn’t find a home…and they say they’ll kick me out if I keep him here… and the truth is…I don’t want to go looking for another building…” 

Annie looked at me with gentle surprise and said, “Silly you are man! You’re worrying yourself over nothing! I told you my boys and I would love to have him! What could have changed?”

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