I cannot say I wasn’t warned.
It wouldn’t be all fun and games, they said, there would be a lot of work involved. A big load of responsibility. A cramp on our lifestyle. As parents of grown children, we could finally have the freedom we had sometimes yearned for during those endless years of child-rearing. The flexibility and luxury to do things spontaneously, a dinner out, a quick jaunt to a fun destination. Family members suggested that this was probably some mid-life crisis, that I should calmly breathe my way out of it and then take a quick trip somewhere to show myself what I would be denying myself.
But here’s what they didn’t foresee:
That I would say that the greatest of the Chola kings was Roger-Roger Cholan. Or that I would sing about Sri Roger-Gopala. Or babble something about Roger-Rojeshwari. Or that I would twirl around to a rousing rendition of Roger! Rogerthi Roger! to the appalled horror of my family who thought they had seen the worst of what I could be.
They should have known, teetering as I was on the edges of err…dottiness… that I would not enter into this thing in a calm, level-headed manner as befitted a middle-aged lady of a certain vintage. That I would lose my heart and what precious little remained of my sanity so completely, so hopelessly.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I know your patience is wearing thin. Enough of this meaningless drivel.
Now, I dare you to look me in the eye and tell me that I have lost my mind! Wouldn’t you say that Roger-Roger Cholan is the greatest of the Chola kings and wouldn’t you sing a paean to Roger Gopala?
This is the (no longer) little fellow who has so thoroughly taken over our lives and our home. I have not laughed so much in years, nor have I ever vacuumed our home so many times. All these years in America we had neither the time nor the money nor the appropriate home for a dog. Until last year, when we moved into a spanking new apartment, which I did up with tremendous love, pride and care. For a few months, our home gleamed. The warm wooden floors glowed, the carpets, my pride and joy collected over the years, adorned these glowing floors in nice, straight rows, every cushion was fluffed just so, artful little knick-knacks hung from strategically chosen spots. I cooked the meals of my dreams from the kitchen of my dreams. For a few months, time stood still, and I basked in the perfection all around me.
As I listened to Neil Diamond one morning,
But I got an emptiness deep inside
And I've tried
But it won't let me go….
I couldn’t bear it any longer. I told my husband, “We need a dog”. And the dear man, the lone voice of sanity at home who has the patience of a thousand saints and who has navigated the treacherous paths of my moods, whims and tantrums with love, patience and humor, detected the undertone of despair, the hint of steel, in my voice, and recognized that this was one request that could not be denied. My kids were delighted and seconded the proposal with alacrity.
But it was Kaju who sealed the deal.
Kaju is Roger’s soul-mate, his partner-in-doggie-crime, his body double, who in modern parlance would be called his BCF (Best Canine Friend). His parents are dear friends of ours, and they had heard enough of our dithering about whether to get a dog or not, enough of the warnings and dire scenarios sketched out by well-meaning but dog-leery friends. They took matters into their hands and requested us to dog-sit little Kaju one Saturday.
So home he came, with his little bowl and bag of treats and toy puppet, where he settled right in after a slightly whimpery 15 minutes.
My beloved carpets were quickly urine-soaked, my gleaming wooden floors had a soft dusting of dog-hair, the meal that day was anything but gourmet, but oh, it felt so right, so good, to have that tail-wagging dynamo of joy in our home. My grown-up, cool-as-cucumber New Yorker kids were small children once again as they laughed and cuddled and wrestled with him.
Any lingering doubt was erased. And the kids made matters easier by declaring they wanted a dog just like Kaju.
Like a sparkling shooting star falling from the sky, Roger entered our home a week later.
My remaining vestige of sanity has vanished. My home is a mess. The carpets weave drunkenly across the floor in rumpled disarray; there is dog-hair everywhere that no amount of vacuuming seems to remove; the perfectly plumped cushions are pitted with tooth-marks and the artful knick-knacks are dumped in an untidy heap on top of shelves where Roger cannot reach them. The pristine molding has been chewed through with the ferocious thoroughness that only a teething puppy can achieve; the once crystal-clear views of Central Park are now barely visible through slobber-smudged windows.
And now our home is filled with a brand new bouquet of feasts for all the senses. The heart-melting sight of huge, soulful eyes that shine with such love and adoration; the sounds of laughter and shrill puppy yips that have deepened into a full-throated doggy bark, and the eager thump-thump-thump of a happily wagging tail against the floor; the warm, uniquely doggy scent that mingles with the aromas of non-gourmet cooking; the incredibly soft silkiness of his ears, the warmth of his body against yours; and the taste of….his slobber, which is not that bad, actually.
Our lives have developed a new rhythm and direction. There are the every-day walks where we meet an array of characters whom we would never have noticed, never have stopped to exchange a word with. People way beyond the farthest reaches of our so-called circle, but we have had such funny, interesting, heart-warming conversations with them. Thuggish-looking young men, their jeans slung low below their bottoms, their hoodies pulled low over their heads enhancing an air of menace, stop when they see Roger and ask, politely, if they can pet him. And when they go down on their knees and stroke his ears and back and receive the joyous blast of goodwill from him, something softens in them, and their eyes shine as they thank me and pad silently away. An old man in a decrepit wheelchair, his clothes in tatters, faced unwashed, rheumy-eyed and tired-looking, walks his little dog around the park, one hand on the leash, the other, propelling his wheelchair forward. The dog’s leash and collar gleam, she has a pink bow lovingly clipped around her neck. He cannot take his eyes off her, his pride and joy. We do one round of the park together, in silence, an odd-looking foursome who came together for a brief couple of minutes only because of a canine connection. On one of our night-time walks, we come across a tiny dog, just about the size of a large rat, who is being praised effusively for producing a small pellet of poop. We, on the other hand, are holding a bag that is practically groaning under the weight of R's digestive waste. The dogs were introduced. The little fellow is Eli Manning (a famous American football player); and of course ours is Roger Federer! All of us burst out laughing at the absurdity of it.
How can I not write about the highlight of Roger’s week, his weekend playdates with Kaju?! These are a sight to behold. Roger goes berserk anytime Kaju’s name is mentioned, and apparently the same happens when R’s name is mentioned in K’s home. My daughter suggested that Kaju be renamed Voldemort, or He Who Must Not Be Named, so that is what he is for now, until Roger figures that one out! They meet early in the morning, rain or shine, at Riverside Park every Saturday and Sunday. Both dogs somehow sense what is going to happen, and they are a-quiver with excitement and anticipation. It is near impossible to control them as they strain on their leashes – they are now big dogs, around 75 pounds each! – and the spectacle that unfolds when they finally catch sight of each other is worthy of the grandest love scenes from great literature and cinema. It is indescribably funny, and indescribably touching.
My family members in India, who read my missives about Roger with amusement, tell me in no uncertain terms that I have lost my mind. My brother wrote, as only a brother can, “ah, one more in the distinguished line of Kamini-trained dogs!” Hmph, I say, my beloved dogs Len, Pug and Lucky were all special geniuses, and my training only served to highlight those qualities. Genius is closely linked to madness in some minds, but I’ll take a mad genius dog over a tame robot any day!
Bringing up a dog in New York is such a different experience from doing so in Madras. Socialization of the dog is a big deal here, and initially, judging from how our dogs in Madras were brought up, we scoffed at the notion of Puppy Kindergarten and socialization lessons. We are lucky that Roger is a naturally very friendly and unaggressive dog, but seeing how much dogs are encouraged and expected to interact with each other here, and seeing how much they really enjoy it, I have changed my views. When I was growing up, dogs in India were trained to be wary of each other. They were strictly family dogs, and since homes in India are always filled with people, it was rare for a dog to feel lonely or to crave canine company. Indian dogs were often encouraged to be unfriendly to strangers; in litigation-hungry America that will simply not be acceptable. Indian dog-owners walked their dogs armed with sticks to ward off other dogs. American dog-owners walk their dogs with their pockets filled with treats and plastic bags! Toys for dogs were unheard-of luxuries. The pet industry in America is huge. The very first time I went into a Petco, I could not believe my eyes at the dizzying array of all manner of food, toys, treats, clothes, gizmos, you-name-its. This is ridiculous, I told myself. My Indian dogs were perfectly happy without any special toys, Roger is no different. I always succumb and buy him a new toy. And curse as I watch him destroy it in a matter of minutes. And swear never to do it again. And do precisely that – succumb yet again. And so the merry cycle continues, and Petco thrives. I have been bombarded (on Roger's behalf, of course) with offers for Pawdicures and with invitations for Puppoween and Howloween parties, but that is one line I have not (yet) crossed. My sister-in-law tells me that the pet industry is burgeoning in India now.
Everything about a dog’s life-cycle is compressed. A dog’s babyhood is over in a matter of months. When my husband and I took Roger for his first vet’s appointment, we felt like a mix of brand-new parents at a pediatrician’s office and first-time parents at a school parent-teacher meeting. Roger is now already at the cusp of young-adulthood, having torn through his adolescence with all the mischief and naughty behavior and rule-breaking and boundary-testing that is typical for that age. Soon, he will mellow down, and down the road, we know that there will come a day when he will no longer enrich and grace our lives. It is all wrong, this condensed canine life-span, that we humans should be caretakers to a baby who then becomes an old guy in a distressingly short span of time. We know this, yet we do it.