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In memory of a beautiful, brave child

For Fox, with all our love (June 23, 2008 – June 16, 2012)

One Sunday afternoon in August 2007, I was standing in the little lane behind our new flat in Saket – the flat my wife and I had moved into after our wedding – and supervising the installation of a new booster for our water tank. In posts of that time (this one for instance) I grumbled profusely about the many teething troubles we faced in the new house. The booster installation was part of all that – it had to be done, it would take a few hours and someone had to be outside with the plumber’s helpers, checking wires and switches and things.

I had a deadline to review Hari Kunzru’s book My Revolutions, so I took it down with me. Reading it there in the sun, to the rhythm of metal pipes being fit and bolts being unscrewed, I remember being moved by a short passage. The book’s protagonist needs to steal an identity, so he visits a graveyard and searches for names of infants who were born around the same time as he was, but who had died very young (so that there is little or no complicating paperwork about their existence). On the tombstone of a child who had lived for less than two years, he reads the epitaph: “Resting where no shadows fall”.
Something about that line resonated with me. The picture it created in my mind was that of an unfortunate baby born with a serious medical condition, and the effect this knowledge had on the stricken parents, who experienced countless emotions over the months that followed: praying for a miracle, veering between a selfish desire to see the child live a full life (even if it was suffering) and the numbing realisation that this would not be in anyone’s best interests. Then the coming of the end – the immense grief tempered by an acknowledgement that the child was at peace at last, untouched by the shadows that had plagued it for all of its short life. Finally, choosing the appropriate words for the gravestone.

When I read that passage I had no firsthand experience of being a parent, but in the years ahead I was to understand not just the general feelings involved but also what it was like to have a special child, in need of constant attention and care – and what it was like to see it suffering. And there’s a little coincidence here too: it was in that very same back-lane, almost a year after I stood reading My Revolutions, that I saw my baby for the first time.

At the time, I could have no idea how closely our lives would become linked. She was just one of six pups snuggled up next to each other, fast asleep, limbs twitching sporadically as flies landed on them. In any case, dogs and their possibilities were at the margins of my consciousness: I was fond of them in a distant sort of way, but I had never been seriously close to one despite having lived for years in the same house as my mother’s Pomeranian.

Some of those early days were chronicled on this blog, since we were trying to find homes for the litter. The video in this post is one of the first videos we ever took of the pup who became our Foxie (she’s the one on top, just a little over a month old, wrestling with one of her siblings).

How she became ours, and the centre of my life for nearly four years, is a story I still can’t completely make sense of. But things slowly fell together. We were taking milk and bread down for the pups every day for weeks, and my mother had her eye on Fox from the very beginning (her features reminded mum of another street dog whom she had fed for close to a decade, and who had died a short while earlier). Coincidentally she was the last pup left after her surviving brothers were adopted. On the first night that she was alone – whimpering, missing her siblings – Abhilasha and I went to the lane and discovered she had been bitten near the cheek by an adult dog. That decided it: we made a hurried trip to the nearby vet, got the lotion he prescribed, applied it and took her upstairs to our flat for what we thought would be just one night. It wasn’t.  

That was close to four years ago. On the same vet’s table, on the 16th of this month, Foxie passed away, with the three people she loved most by her side. It was a complication related to a chronic intestinal problem – one that had been diagnosed in February 2010 and had cast a shadow over her life. At no point in the last two-and-a-half years had she been really healthy, but her condition had improved in the final 10-11 months, and the end – coming as it did – was a huge shock. Two hours before she began showing the symptoms that set alarms bells off in my head, she had been fine, greedily gulping down her afternoon meal.

Nothing I write here can come close to capturing what she meant to me – language has never been so inadequate – and I’ve felt exhausted just thinking of writing about this. But I’ll try.

For her first year with us, Foxie was the most energetic, brightest-eyed, most personable dog you could imagine. Her early life is a blur in some ways, partly because the first 9-10 months of her time as a house dog overlapped with the final months of my nani’s illness (and the attendant chaos in the house); but also partly because Fox herself was healthy and “normal” throughout that period.

It’s impossible to know how one comes to develop a particular type of closeness with a particular creature. (I was flummoxed by a comment on this old post about the need to know the “difference” between a relationship with a human and an animal – as if it is possible to set such boundaries and chains in place for one’s deepest feelings.) In the case of my relationship with Foxie, much of it had to do with our situation: I was working from home, which meant she was around me all the time. Crabby as I usually am about my writing, she always had the right to barge into my room any time she wanted and demand to be taken down, or to play ball or tug of war. (In the pre-Fox days, I kept my room door locked for much of the day.) My routine became centred around her, the bond between us grew and I began to understand the things that parents feel. Not in the distant, second-hand, vaguely empathetic way where you can imagine what the emotions are like – but really understand.

I knew now what my mother had meant all those years when she would fuss over me, worry about my being out of the house for too long, and mouth annoying platitudes about how I would understand “one day”. When I heard people talking about their kids, I related. Heck, when I heard the Steve Jobs quote about children being “your heart running around outside your body”, I knew exactly what it meant, and I wasn’t embarrassed by the rawness (or triteness) of the sentiment. Little things like that. When Jaane bhi do Yaaro: Seriously Funny Since 1983 came out, I often told friends – only half-jokingly – that the biggest justification for the book’s existence was that I had managed to get Fox’s photo and name into it. (She was unwell by that time, and the photo in the book - the one here, on the left - is not a flattering one. But I cherish it.)

All these feelings intensified when her illness was diagnosed and her condition required constant monitoring: a strictly regulated diet, enzymes with every meal, newspapers spread out on the terrace because she had to go to the toilet five or six times each day. Even knowing that my mum (the best dadi in the world) was around all the time, it became difficult for me to contemplate going out of town for more than 3-4 days at a stretch. And on the very rare occasions that I did, I would be calling my mother up every few hours to check on Fox’s condition: was she eating okay, showing signs of discomfort or pain? Did she still have trouble walking around?

This may seem like a dark picture, but here is the comforting knowledge that we will hold on to: in the last year of her life, thanks to some medicinal and dietary changes, she had become happier and more active. The pain in her hind legs and abdomen had greatly reduced; she had regained some of her natural beauty, with many of her skin patches clearing. In this last year I saw her do things I had once reconciled myself to never seeing again: tearing through the house from one balcony to the other to monitor the movements of a dog downstairs; standing briefly on her delicate hind legs, with her front legs on the trunk of a tree, cocking her head as she searched for a squirrel; playing hide-and-seek with Abhilasha and me, and whining – in the petulant, spoilt-brat way she used to as a pup – when one of us was out of sight for longer than she could bear; bringing us her stuffed toys one by one so we could throw them along the floor for her to dash after; slapping a tennis ball about with something approaching the verve she had shown in her early months.

None of this knowledge can take away what I’m feeling now in my heart and in the pit of my stomach – what I have been feeling every second for the past two weeks. (The moment I knew for sure that she was gone, these words leapt into my head: "This is the first day of the rest of my life." That sounds dramatic, and it’s true that at times like this we tend to borrow words from the literature and cinema of grief. But it was exactly how I felt. The world changes: the way you look around you, the things you see, everything has a different colour and texture.) But in the long run, when some of the wounds have healed and it’s possible to focus on the good times, the memories of those final months will be immeasurably precious. If Foxie had gone a year earlier (as she nearly did in May 2011, in similar circumstances), our lasting memories would have been of a very sick, listless dog who staggered about the house on three legs, her back abnormally arched because she was in so much pain. (Well-wishers who had seen her condition at the time had delicately suggested putting her down.) Instead, we had this grace period when she regained something of the vitality of her childhood.

There is much more to write – I’ll do it as I find the energy for it. Meanwhile, here are a few photos.

These three are from the bad days, from around a year and a half ago. The mattress is spread out on the floor in the first pic because she was too weak at the time to climb up on a bed or sofa. (She also has a scarf tied around her, in addition to the coat – that winter was particularly bad given her emaciated condition.)

She is very skinny in the third pic (though she was even worse at one point). The pose is a characteristic one – she is resting her left hind leg, which was always weak.

From happier times: checking out a handsome male dog in the park; competing with Indian Idols; relaxing generally.

Her favourite place – my mother’s balcony, which gave her a fine view of the world she knew.

And two of her very last photos - playing dadi's pet at the dining table and elsewhere.


(Other photos and memories in these posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)

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