The skies were spacious that afternoon. Even the sun struggled to spread its rays. The small canine child was trying to enjoy his short-lived happiness while he cuddled with his one spared sibling. Unaware of their mother’s murder further up the road, the little beings softly snored, delicate paws and just slightly moist noses, moving in rhythm with their dreams. When evening came, they realised that their mother wasn’t coming back. Just as their brothers and sisters had not returned. “The earth’s too small to accomodate non humans,” thought a sympathetic passerby.
In the city of Kolkata, lived a little girl called Rimi. Rimi was always happy, because she had her friend Goat.
Goat knew Rimi from the day he was born outside on the sidewalk. He waited for her every morning and evening. “Biscuits for my Goat,” Rimi would say. She carried a packet of milk biscuits in her schoolbag.
One day, Goat became ill. Rimi and her parents brought him home and called the doctor. Rimi cried. Goat did not eat his biscuits.
The next day, Goat asked Rimi for his biscuits. He stood up on her lap and pushed his round nose against her pocket. Rimi laughed happily.
Goat never left Rimi. Mother tried to take Goat back to the sidewalk, but he followed her back.
Finally, Father said, “Enough already! Goat will stay with us.” Rimi hugged Father and ran to hug Goat.
The new family member returned her hug with his wagging tail. He wagged back-and-forth, back-and-forth, knocking over books and a glass of water.
Rimi and Mother gave Goat a bath. Goat turned his head up and refused to smile. He did not like getting wet.
That night, Rimi did not sleep. She looked over her bed at Goat, who was running in his dreams. His arms and legs were moving about. “He is probably chasing a cat,” said Father. Rimi wondered what kind of cat her new friend was dreaming about.
The next morning, Goat woke everybody up with a loud bark. Mother, Father, and Rimi, ran to Goat. “What’s wrong, my Goat?” Rimi was worried. Goat led them to the door.
“Wait, let me open the door,” said Father. Rimi, Mother, and Goat stood close together behind Father.
When the door was opened, they got a surprise. There was an orange and white cat trying to say something to them. He said, “Meow. Meow. Meeow.”
Father pulled the gate shut so that Goat would not run after the visitor. Mother brought a bowl of milk for him.
Goat stuck his nose through the gate and stared at the cat. The cat did not look at him. He was busy drinking milk.
The next day, the cat came again. “Monkey is here,” shouted Rimi. “Monkey,” asked Mother. “The cat,” replied Rimi. Rimi thought that the cat looked like a Monkey. Just like she thought Goat looked like a goat.
Father opened the door. They waited for Monkey to come in. Nobody was at the door! Rimi was sad.
Father went to work and Mother went to the kitchen. Rimi sat down to eat. Goat sat by her feet, eating his own toast.
Suddenly, Mother screamed loudly. Rimi and Goat went running to the kitchen.
Mother was laughing by then. Monkey was sleeping in an open cupboard – on a long, big plate.
Goat wanted to sniff Monkey. Monkey felt a nose on his tail and jumped up. Rimi patted Goat on the head and said, “My Goat, don’t scare little Monkey. He’s much smaller than you.”
Goat understood. He stretched himself. Then he sat down in front of the cupboard, looking at Monkey. Monkey stared back with big green eyes. Rimi and Mother watched Goat and Monkey.
“Rimi, I have to go to the shop. Please look after them until I return,” Mother said.
Rimi was tired. She yawned and said yes. “Goat is sleeping. Monkey is sleeping. I can sleep too,” she thought.
Rimi went to her bed. She was fast asleep when Mother called. “Rimi, are Goat and Monkey alright?” Rimi had forgotten! She ran to the kitchen.
Goat and Monkey were still sleeping, but they were in different places. Goat was dreaming on the kitchen rug. His new friend, Monkey was sleeping next to him, his tiny paws resting on Goat’s tummy.
There was a small town called Lake Gardens near the big city of Kolkata. In the small town was a small house called Orange. Inside the little house lived a small boy and his even smaller brothers.
The small boy’s name was Ornie. His brothers were called O’Henry and Pumpkin. And there were the cousins. Tuk Tuk and Pingu. Ornie took care of everybody.
Every morning, he would get into his plane and say, “Hop in, boys!” O’Henry always sat in the front next to Ornie. The others sat in the back. Tuk Tuk and Pingu munched on carrots. The others talked about the cricket match.
Soon Ornie would take them high up in the air. O’Henry loved watching birds from his window. His nose left a round patch on the banana-shaped glass. Pumpkin would quickly wipe it away.
Today was no different.
“How much longer,” Pingu asked his brothers. “I’m hungry!” Ornie smiled and said, “Just a few more minutes.”
In 20 minutes they had reached their favourite place in Punjab!
“Alright,” said Ornie. “We will have our usual, please,” he told the waiter. They all sat down happily at their small, round table. O’Henry took out his notebook and started writing a short story. “Once upon a time…,” he began.
Tuk Tuk and Pumpkin started playing word games. “Tuk Tuk, tell me the opposite of baby,” Pumpkin asked. Tuk Tuk replied, “Ornie.”
Pingu and Ornie were quiet. They were hungry. O’Henry was still writing his story. The food came soon.
“I want something sweet today,” said Pingu while he chewed his roti.
“And I want something spicy today,” said Tuk Tuk.
The older brothers frowned at each other. “But we have ice cream at home, Pingu,” said Ornie.
“We also have those spicy chips in our kitchen,” reminded Pumpkin.
O’Henry was still writing his story. Ornie told him to stop writing at the dining table.
“My story is done,” O’Henry said. Then he patted Pingu’s head. “We could have a bit of cake or ice cream here.” Ornie and Pumpkin shook their heads from left to right.
Ornie paid the waiter and off they went on their superfast plane. This time nobody said a word. Pingu and Tuk Tuk pretended to sleep. O’Henry pretended to read his story. Pumpkin looked sadly at his round arms. Ornie drove the plane with a frown.
They reached home in 20 minutes. They were all quiet. The only sound was of O’Henry turning his notebook pages. Ornie and Pumpkin went into the kitchen to get the ice cream and spicy chips. Pingu and Tuk Tuk did not eat any. “We are not hungry,” they said.
Ornie felt sad. He did not like to see his little brothers so sad. Then he had an idea. He went to the shop next door and bought pastels and drawing paper. He came home and put them on the table in front of the little ones. Tuk Tuk looked up. Pingu asked, “Are you drawing pictures?” Ornie said, “Yes, I am. But I need your help. Please help me.”
So the three brothers sat down happily to draw pictures. Pumpkin joined them too. O’Henry sat down with his notebook. “I’m writing a poem,” he said. “About what?” the others asked.
Regular readers of my blog are aware that I love animals. My immediate family, extended family, and I, have adopted several street dogs and cats over the years. Today, barely two hours ago, we lost a beautiful canine child called Lali. Lali’s partner, Laddu, had died last year – thanks to an inhuman person who decided to hit him with his car and drive away too. Since then, other male dogs, have been after Lali’s life. The last few mating seasons, she’s been forced to hide and skip meals. Now yes, you may be wondering why we didn’t get her sterilised; well here’s a sad story. When Lali started living in my aunt’s neighborhood, she had the standard slit ear which signifies that a dog has been sterilised. Then later on, we found her lactating, and experiencing symptoms of pregnancy. The vet told us what we had suspected and heard a few times before – Lali’s uterus had been removed, but the doctor and NGO performing her operation, had left her ovaries inside. Hence, the pregnancy symptoms each season. When we decided to get Lali re-sterilised, she was not young enough to undergo surgery without risk.
After a week or two of hiding and being chased by the males, Lali collapsed in our gate area yesterday, crying for long spells, unable to get up. A compounder came and administered painkillers. He said he’d come today around 12:30 but then postponed to 4/4:30. I called him and pleaded and said it’s an emergency. He said that nothing could happen since it was just a minor injury. An hour later, Lali was gone. I called the compounder to let him know and his reply was an angry – why didn’t you mention that it’s an emergency? Excuse my language, but WTF?
Now you may wonder why we didn’t take her to an animal hospital; I’ll explain why. Because Kolkata has a couple of so-called animal hospitals which focus on getting money from desparate pet owners, and then pronounce the neglected animal dead. My family and friends who have been able to and willing to pay for the best treatment, have never brought back a pet alive. Never. Before you ask me why we didn’t call a vet. Let me tell you that they rarely visit the home. And never ever come running even if you cry and beg. They’re just like the human doctors here, treated like God.
So once again, I mourn the lack of emergency medical care for animals in Kolkata. I mourn the lack of sensitivity in human beings. And most importantly, I advise all animal lovers and pet owners to keep basic medical supplies and SOS drugs at home. In times of emergency, you will probably have to fight alone.
This festival season, celebrate the spirit of giving. Have fun, enjoy your new clothes, and good food. But also take a minute to care for those who are less fortunate – homeless people and animals who don’t even get a morsel of food most days. Ten rupees, a few biscuits, something new for a sad child who cannot afford anything new at all – make somebody else smile. You’ll feel happy too, really.
“Ira! Kemon acho? Are you here for a holiday?”
The familiar voice broke Ira’s thoughts. Which wasn’t such a bad thing really, she thought. “Hello, Uncle,” she replied while she watched the old neighbour inspect her from head to toe. No sindoor. No bangle. Clad in capris and a tee shirt. He had his answer. Ira opened her mouth to ask him if something was wrong, but stopped herself. Her mother had warned her. “You know how people are here. Your business is everybody’s business.” She was right. Ira had chosen to come back. So she had to get used to it. After allowing the Uncle another thirty seconds of staring time, Ira continued her journey.
It had just been two weeks and she was going crazy. In New York, she barely spent five hours a day at home. Kolkata was like another planet. Everything was just the way she had left it five years ago. The same medium-sized malls. The same sleepy neighbourhood shop owners. Hideous traffic on every street and in every narrow lane. And of course, the same nosy people. Ira hated Kolkata. She grew up telling her parents that she didn’t understand why anybody would live in such a lazy, boring city. But she changed her mind.
When Ira had received the offer letter from Princeton, she had cried the house down with ecstatic tears and shrieks. Her dream had come true. It wasn’t about Princeton as much as the whole prospect of being able to live life in America. She had never stepped out of India before. Family holidays had never been beyond Rajasthan or Agra. Her parents were happy for her. The day the letter came, Ira’s father spent the whole day on the phone calling friends and relatives to share the news. Or rather, to boast about his daughter going to the land of opportunity. “Prabirda, our Ira is going to Princeton. Ivy League!” Even her usually reserved mother couldn’t control her delight. She called each one of her sisters and boasted, “My Ira is the first one in our family to go to America!”
So one humid August evening, Ira left Calcutta. Her father had wanted to accompany her but Ira refused to let him. She was a big girl. And besides, “America is safe.”
Ira spent the flight tracking the plane’s path on the TV map. She slept in bouts. Her mother had packed two boxes of her favourite sweet into her carryon luggage. She ate a few and surprised herself by getting teary. Suddenly, it dawned on her. America was a whole day away from her parents. Ira realised that she was scared. For all these years she had wanted this. She had pictured herself in a world of intellectual people, fun friends, and good looking boyfriends. Would she fit in?
Ira did fit in. Her first year went by in a breeze. She got good grades. Her friends loved intellectual conversations. She even dated a classmate. The boyfriend was the best part for Ira. An American born and raised in the suburbs of New York City, when she was with Jason, her previous life in Kolkata seemed nonexistent. They talked. They ate together. They studied in the library. Ira was having fun. Her friends tried to understand why she wouldn’t sleep with Jason even though they’d been together for four months. She explained, “I will sleep with the man who’s The One.” They looked back with a mixture of wonder and disapproval.
Ira went home that summer. She dreaded the idea of spending three months doing nothing, so her father spoke to a friend and organised an internship for her. Ira spent time with her mother when she wasn’t at her internship. “Why aren’t you meeting your school friends,” her father asked. “Baba, I live far away now. They live here. We have nothing in common.” Her father looked like he didn’t understand.
When Ira went back to Princeton, Jason acted like they had never been dating. He was friendly, but that’s all. Ira couldn’t believe that this was the same guy she had been spending all day with and making out with a few months ago. “Is something wrong?” she asked him with tears in her eyes. He told her that he had been dating somebody else during the summer and was now “serious” about her. “Weren’t we serious,” Ira shouted. Jason and Ira never spoke after that. Ira had to find new friends. The old ones drove her away with their constant rebuke that Ira should have slept with Jason. They blamed her.
The next three years saw Ira change drastically. The experience with Jason had scarred her for life. She threw herself into her text books and lectures. If she had any free time, it would be spent watching second hand DVDs bought online. She even found a job in the campus computer centre, managing the front desk for a few hours every week. Whenever she ran into Jason, she would walk by as if she didn’t even know him. He had tried to say hi a few times as if nothing had happened.
When Ira graduated from Princeton, her parents couldn’t come. It was expensive and her grandmother fell ill that year. She just wanted to get out of Princeton and build a new life away from Jason and his friends. She needed to get away from where it all happened.
After a month in Kolkata when she stayed home and contemplated about life, Ira returned to America. She stayed with a distant cousin in New York City and landed a job with a magazine. Her relative helped her find a tiny closet called an apartment. Ira cried as she signed the lease. It was as small as her bathroom in Kolkata. The only plus was a very sweet, very good looking Indian guy next door. He helped her shove her furniture (read: bed) inside on moving day.
The sweet guy’s name was Vinod. He was from California. Suddenly, Ira loved talking to this Indian guy with an American accent. She had shunned men and human beings really after the Jason episode, but Vinod seemed different. The romance bloomed rapidly, thanks to them living on the same floor. Every evening after work, Ira would take a shower and call him to say she was home. He would come over and help her cook dinner. Then they would eat and talk about their day just like married couples. Ira was in love. In three weeks she decided that Vinod was The One.
Five months flew by and Ira had to take her first work-related trip to the other side of the continent. She wasn’t excited about an all expenses paid conference trip to Southern California. Vinod would be far away for four long days! “I’ll tell them I can’t go,” she told him, hoping he would say yes. “You can’t do that, Ira. It’s just four days,” he replied matter-of-factly. He didn’t say he would miss her. She told him she would miss him. He touched her hair lightly and smiled.
Ira did go to California for the conference. She spent every free moment thinking about Vinod. When she tried to call him in the evening, he didn’t pick up. When he didn’t pick up or call back on the second night, Ira went crazy with worry. Had somebody mugged him and beaten him up badly? Was he ill? She left the conference a day before it ended, paying a few hundred extra for last-minute plane tickets.
When she reached New York, she took a cab to her apartment, still calling him all the way home. One hour later, she was home. She entered the flat and found her bed in a mess and the bathroom dirty. “This isn’t like Vinod,” she thought. She heard the key in the lock. It was Vinod. He was carrying cleaning supplies for the bathroom. “Oh, I thought I’d clean the…”, he stuttered. He didn’t ask Ira why she was back early. She saw Jason and Vinod floating in front of her eyes. “Why aren’t you picking up my calls!” she shouted, tears dropping down to her pretty pink blouse. He said he was bored. He said he thought that they should see other people for a while.
That night, Ira was back at the airport again. This time, she had the two suitcases she had brought to America when she first came. She had called her landlord and given up the flat. Tickets to Kolkata were booked from her BlackBerry. She was finally going home.
Ira continued walking. She stopped at the Café Coffee Day. She ordered a strawberry iced tea and a paneer tikka sandwich. Fusion food in Kolkata made her smile today. A few months ago, she would have turned up her nose at it. Ira started to type the article that she would be sending to a woman’s magazine. It was about winter skin care, something that she had never given much thought to until her cousin asked her to write this.
Sipping on her tea, she realised that she was enjoying the laidback Kolkata culture. The café guys were watching the cricket match. The rickshawwallahs nearby were snoring away. She was sitting with no worries about deadlines, paying rent or men. Life was good.
“Hi, Ira?” Her thoughts were interrupted by a voice that she hadn’t heard in five years. It was Ashok, her first major childhood crush. Her mother had mentioned that Ashok still lived in Kolkata and near their house. If it had been weeks ago, Ashok’s local accent would have put her off. Today, she only saw what she hadn’t seen before of her hometown.
Ira and Ashok spent an hour chatting about their childhood. He even remembered the time that she had played the Raja in a play during Durga Puja! After they finished chatting, Ashok smiled warmly and said it was nice talking to her. He didn’t give her his phone number or ask for her’s. He didn’t say they should meet again. It was all so simple. Ira walked home feeling like she had never left Kolkata for even a day.