By Jackie Thakkar
On the night of April 4, 2008, sixteen-year-old me and my then girlfriend found ourselves sipping rose chai from elegant crystal cups in an uppity-looking 40-something lady’s sea-facing apartment overlooking Bandra’s Bandstand. The purpose of our visit was to convince her, that us flighty teens were genuinely interested in her cocker spaniel puppy, listed for adoption. After a round of meticulous grilling, when she was convinced that the Gujju boy and Parsi girl were decent kids, she finally unleashed two-month-old Zippy on us.
No sooner did the bedroom door crack open than we were bamboozled by a boisterous bolt of fur and frolic. It wasn’t just that this puppy was energetic; she was recklessly affectionate as well, toppling over showpieces and small furniture in a bid to lick our faces. An hour of boops and squishies later, our rickshaw ride home found us exchanging high fives for a plan well executed.
Of course, neither of us planned on adopting a dog that night.
My family was barely over the loss of our 16-year-old dog, Kuku. It had been just over a year since we’d had to let go of the liveliest member of the Thakkar clan and taking in another pet this soon was out of the question. “We can’t ever have a dog again. It’s just too hard to let go,” I recall my dad saying the night before we had to put Kuku down. It was the first time I’d seen my father that distraught.
Ever since Kuku was adopted for “baby practice” before I was born, dad loved her like his first-born. Kuku lived a full, ripe life and naturally, bringing home another affection-craving tailwagger would mean being constantly reminded of Kuku. It wasn’t going be easy on anyone.
It took an entire week of passive-aggressively playing my emo lonely-child-who-needs-company card before I made my triumphant return to that swank Bandra house. This time, with my parents in tow. My dad, who’d sworn “not to look in the damn mutt’s direction,” took all of 20 minutes to warm up to her. Zippy has been part of our family ever since.
But as they say, old people are like overgrown babies – they need attention all the time.
Obviously, my girlfriend was over the moon. For once, real life had actually played out like a sitcom episode, and getting a pup made me popular with the other girls as well. In hindsight, it was a decision driven purely by teenage hormones. Sure, my teenage romance ended soon after. But the puppy love continued.
While nostalgia is certainly a cruel mistress, I look back at Zippy’s origin story with more frequency and fondness than X-Men fans look back at Wolverine’s. I hold those memories especially tight because we’ve reached a point where nobody can deny my decade-old doggo’s very visible signs of ageing anymore. Once notorious for terrorising doodhwalas and istriwalas in the vicinity with her bassy bark and ferocity that made her seem like pitbull software running on spaniel hardware, Zippy is now an overweight, out-of-breath pooch lying haunches-up by my bedside as I write this. She’s still a little cuddle-nymph and if anything, craves more affection now than she ever did as a young ’un. But as they say, old people are like overgrown babies – they need attention all the time. Zippy is 10 now, and there’s a world of a difference between a 10-year-old dog and a seven-year-old one.
As recently as three years ago, Zippy loved sprinting along the beach. Her big ears flailing, her docked tail wagging, she’d give coconut vendors a scare by knocking over their carefully placed Nilkamal chairs. A senior citizens’ club has grown especially accustomed to her and even fondly nicknamed her “Kaali Express”. She has infamously ripped entire phone books to shreds, chewed slippers to oblivion, and been the nightmare of every vet in the city’s western suburbs. I’ve become all too familiar with the desperate struggle to save my shirts and trousers from an overzealous spaniel inadvertently ripping my clothes in the throes of a sloppy welcome, every time I come home.
But today Zippy is a different dog.
Only yesterday, her wrinkled friends from the senior citizens’ club and I watched on helplessly as the famed “Kaali Express” trudged along our familiar Juhu Chowpatty stretch with more languor than zest. She sat down and took long breaths after every few paces.
Even her fits of rage have become less destructive. She simply barks at the window and looks back in hubris, expecting a pat from me for getting rid of the pesky crows. Her failing eyesight leaves her blind to the pair of birds still stubbornly perched on the sill, but I don’t have the heart to point them out to her. Of late, the old girl has saved me a lot of money on stitching tears in clothes, since my former terror of a cocker no longer lovingly mauls me when I come home from work, opting instead to remain seated on the couch where all she does is longingly stare up at me as I pet her brow. Her glassy eye reveals hints of a nascent cataract, and her legs get restless if I stop caressing her. A lot of times, she falls asleep before I get up.
Zippy’s whiny groans and excessive panting are a reminder of the time gone by. I look back and see that I have long outgrown the teenager who once threw a tantrum for a pet. This transcends the physical aspects of receding hairlines and reduced energy levels. Relationships that perished, friends that moved away, and the harsh truths of adult life have humbled me. Through all of this, Zippy has been my distraction, my pillow, and a silent yet effective shoulder to lean on. A constant caregiver and confidante. With each passing year, as Zippy grows older, a separation anxiety grips me even harder.
It brings back memories of my father, who I lost to an undiagnosed heart disease, shortly after Zippy’s third birthday. It was sudden and taught me that most of our trauma after losing a loved one doesn’t necessarily hinge on the thought of life without them. It’s losing them before we are ready that’s terrifying.
I’m not sure I’m ready to face the prospect of coming to a home without a wagging tail to greet me. But I’d be lying if I haven’t imagined the worst. The image of a home devoid of joyous barks echoing through the halls and the heart-rending sight of another empty chair in the house has been tucked away in the deepest confines of my mind.
I suppose I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. Until then, the indomitable “Kaali Express” and her melancholic owner shall continue frequenting Juhu beach. The senior citizens’ club should be approving our application for membership any day now.
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