Animals tutored me my initial lessons in tenderness. When human beings entrusted with guarding and guiding me failed their parts, always it was a creature whose language I didn’t speak nor did it understand mine who had the best comprehension of the cipher I was growing into.
The earliest instances of learning how to be soft without being weak, of embracing without naiveté had come from Ruby. She was my first pup. She was orphaned at birth in a hospice adjacent to my mother’s school. The elderly residents and the matron who juts out in my memory with her butterball nose and a permanently wet mop of hair had adopted Ruby’s gravid mother during the last few months of her pregnancy at my mother’s behest. My mother has raised roughly 2 dozen dogs till date. Most of them were pariah mongrels with some or other deformity. Almost all of them either died or ran away. After the last of this brood had to be put down due to a recklessly growing hysteria that was turning him into a rabid fiend, my grandmother — embodying the finest of autocrat ethos in response to being married to my communist grandfather — in all her dictatorial compulsion had launched a law worthy of the ukase — NO MORE PETS. This was to curb my mother’s wayward habit of bringing home whatever half-breathing critter she chanced upon on her way back from work, followed by weeks of bone-thinning depressive wailing if the said creature croaked its untimely hiccup in whatever fruit basket that had been manicured into its home.
My mother, in the manner of perfectly astute peasantry combating such a communist home rule, ensured that while universally the edict was carried out, it was flouted quite well on an individual level interpretation. For eg. She often “baby-sat” other people’s pets since there was no clause against it. This is how I met my first guinea pig and subsequently released it into a basket of freshly laundered clothes till its poop was rolling around like a freshly dried black peppercorn. This was also how she had managed to rescue Ruby’s fertile mother and convinced the hospice to accept her as their latest in-patient despite not exactly fulfilling the criteria of age or generally being biped. Ruby’s mother died a few hours after childbirth and so did most of the litter since she was woefully undernourished despite the herculean efforts invested by the staffers and the usually grumpy geriatrics who somehow turned into a dollop of vanilla melting on a cracked asphalt when they saw her. They would share their rations with this feeble canine, one even snuck her into his room because he feared that she would go into labour without any supervision. I visited the scraggy mother to be whose protruding belly reminded me of my grandfather’s leather tote stuffed with all the books he would buy for me during his travels. I was tiny and sometimes thought that maybe when she had her babies some of them would be comics.
Mum brought home Ruby because the household pet tyrant — my grandmum — was away in America and so we had a free range on how things were on the familiar front. I came back from school and mum said there was something in my grandmum’s room for me. Like any other idiot child of that specific age, it never occurred to me that the “thing” would come with a little beating heart and baby incisors tucking themselves into whatever soft surface their could wriggle close to. I don’t know who startled whom worse — possibly me since I jumped up like a mattress spring that been released abruptly after a full hour of being coerced into its lair by the weight of a really heavy bottom. Then like a spinning top I circled the room in a mixture of glee and panic. Ruby was adorable and frightening. This, I have since learned, is a common blend for all things worth loving in your life.
Mum had recently remarried and my stepfather hated me. My grandparents were away and I was barely 8. We lived in a magnificently empty home where each room carried the silence of an abandoned bomb shelter. The ornate furniture slept cocooned in a thick quilt of dust and I often spent after school hours under the shade of a guava tree that was trying its best to imitate the leaning tower of Pisa. I did whatever it was I could to avoid being inside this empty shell of a house when my mother wasn’t around. The man inside incited a far more vicious fear in me than any ghost story I had smuggled from the library to read at leisure in the kitchen garden. As Ruby grew, so did my stepfather’s savagery. Mum was working full time and completing her dissertation. I saw her hulking over thick tomes, her blunt cut hair bobbing back and forth between pages. I didn’t want to disturb her with my petty screams for help. I took the beatings whenever they were dealt and pretended that I was an incredibly clumsy child whose sense of balance was akin to that of a newborn bunny.
Ruby sat with me and we both looked skywards hoping to catch a comet in the glint of an eye. We climbed up the stairs to my grandfather’s library and played hide and seek in his room. We broke his bottle of scotch and she guarded the door as I cleaned the mess up. She had eyes that mimicked small poached eggs. Something on the brink of spilling out. At midnight, they looked like deep pitchers filled with fountain pen ink. Sometimes curiosity. Sometimes mischief. One day, my stepfather forced me to accompany him to a butcher’s shop and I stopped eating meat from that night. Ruby followed suit and decided that she liked cauliflowers and broccoli now. Feeding her meat was a hell-hard task. She folded herself into some yoga position that made her look half pretzel, half upturned snail.
Most of that period is a medley of blurs; a city escaping into the rearview mirror. I do remember an afternoon when mum and I bathed Ruby and she danced around in a gown of shampoo foam. She preened as we dried her and slept for 4 straight hours afterwards to the point where we thought she had gone comatose. I paced endlessly in my pink bubblegum colored slippers and finally mum forced me to take a nap. When I woke up, Ruby was panting by the side of my bed with a half chewed rose-tinted piece of rubber from my former slipper in her mouth. I patted the blanket and she climbed up. We both jumped up and down as if the mattress were a trampoline. Mum made caramel custard and it was a happy day. A day that still anchors me to the tethers of the ribs in this rhythm I call a body when I am most motivated to fling myself into some unnamed void.
Ruby died when I went on a camping trip with my school friends. I didn’t want to go but mum and the counsellor decided I needed to socialize in order to curb some of my staunch introversion. I didn’t tell them that I didn’t like people because I was scared of them. I didn’t speak much because speech throttled me daily. A person I shared the supposed safety of my own home had flung me across hardened walls and broken my thumb and locked me in bathrooms on more days than I could count on my fingers. I sullenly went on this trip. Ruby and I spent a lot of time being mutually distraught and sitting on my window ledge. We both plotted my escape once I was back from the trip. We had a pretty clever plan hatched on the back of my geography textbook right next to a map of Portugal. We would launch it on my return. So, I went away for 7 days.
When I returned, mum’s sanguine eyes met mine in a gathering of sorrow and storms. She greeted me at the gate. She hugged my tired frame and asked me about the trip. We both wobbled into the living room, latched onto each other like sturdy vines hugging the iron grills of my bedroom. Ruby had died. Meat gone bad. Food poisoning. She didn’t want to eat the meat. The vet had told mum that this little vegetarian puppy would not survive without meat in her diet. So she was fed meat. Her body rejected it. Eventually, she rejected her body. They buried her in the graveyard that belonged to the hospice.
My spine paralysed by grief, I collapsed into my bed like a parachute landing on a tree branch. Half my limbs dangled from the bed and I refused to eat. I don’t know how long I stayed like that. My grandparents came back a week after. I refused to be held or cuddled. I refused touch; the kinaesthetics of tangible affection petrified me for a long time.
Then I realized that Ruby had educated me how to be softer than the world would have allowed me to be. She was born against chance. She survived against it as well. It was not important for how long but what was important was how much. She was fiercely dedicated to my happiness as I was to hers. She placed a paw on my nose whenever she wanted to discard one of my hastily concocted escape plans as if to indicate her prolific hauteur toward those harebrained blueprints. I survived because she did. And surprisingly, I continued to survive because she didn’t. Because I wanted to meet more Rubies.
Thereon, it was an entire circus — parrots, fish, cats, more dogs, lovebirds, more parrots, chickens, cows. Every phase of growing up was ably accompanied by an animal. When I hit back at my stepfather, I had seen a snake in the garden the day before. He had rubbished my palpitations over the fact that I was unwell and therefore delirious. I had once overheard the woman who came to massage my grandmother’s legs say that seeing snakes in your dreams was a good omen. Till date, in my mother’s maternal clan, on a designated day of the year, bowls of milk are left at places populated by snakes in an act of obeisance and gratitude.
Recently, I fell in love with guinea pigs. Mum rescued two from a breeder. They came home in a brown paper bag that looked like someone had aimed an Ak 47 at it. Mum explained that she and a student whom she had taken along to bring them punctured holes into the bag so the little ones could breathe. We placed them in an empty bird cage since we didn’t have anything else to keep them in. Then began the near soprano level wheeking — a specific sound that guinea pigs make. 2 sprigs of coriander were pushed through the bars. They disappeared. 2 slices of cucumbers. Bread sliced and shuffled across the slot. That disappeared too. Wheeking continued. We opened the cage door. One came out, followed by the other. In flash of an eye, their 20 mile dash began. Sprinting across the room, hiding under the sofa, biting the tips of the curtains across the French windows. At night, I didn’t want them in a birdcage so I placed each in a picnic basket padded with towels and pillows. In the morning I found them rolled into the shapes of two croissants the size of a toddler’s fist.
These were lab used guinea pigs and one of them already was disposed toward a gastro-intestinal disease owing to the experiments that had been tried on it. It grew frail soon and eventually died from a hemorrage. We asked the house help’s son to bury him in the offshoot of the mangroves not very far from where we lived. Mum and I held each other after a decade, crying soundlessly. We watched as his spindly body disappeared behind the trees and with him, the shoebox carrying my guinea pig. We made him promise us that he would give him a proper burial. He did.
Mourning grew its knotted blue roots into me and I looked at the lonely being left behind from the short-lived couple. It was my birthday. I told Mum we would get him a playmate. We called up a rescue and were told there were some guinea pigs but they were “damaged”. In July’s copious downpour, we landed at the rickety building and demanded to see them. The first one looked like a spoonful of cookie dough; fur splotched by chunks of tawny hints in its all white snowiness. This was going to be my Biscotti, I decided. I only wanted one and then I saw the tiniest moving bundle in the cage, lumped with 2 bunnies. It was trying to hide beneath the bunnies. I asked the helper to remove him from the enclosure and it had the most brilliant black beryl for eyes. I petted its coat and nuzzled it minute nub of a nose. It put its paw on my pinkie. Its tuxedo imprinted fur was crusted with rabbit piss and dirt. This was going to be Snowball.
I told the helper I was taking both. Later that night my sister and I donned aprons and surgical masks cleaning and sanitizing each of them. They were scared and eager at the same time. This time we had beds readied beforehand and as we released them into the pudgy bedding, they started flipping about like popcorn kernels. This was their way of showing that they were happy. I learned that when you truly are happy, you disregard gravity. You don’t feel chained to your circumstance.