Reading an article on the University of Southern California hiring a ‘dog professor’ to comfort stressed students took me down memory lane to the days my ‘professor’ would sit by my side and make his stressed ‘student’ forget all her trivial troubles of the time.
It was almost a year ago (1 year 9 days to be precise) that I received a call from my brother a few hours after lunch. Given the oddity of the time accompanied by the knowledge that Simba had not been keeping well, I sensed what was in store. My brother’s sobbing confirmed my fear. Simba was no more.
One month shy of his 12th birthday, he decided to call it quits. My ‘professor’ was not just a companion to soothe the stressed soul. In fact, in his life and in his death, he taught me vital lessons. The value of trust, loyalty, taking responsibility and putting things in perspective were just some of them. He set the benchmark for friendship and companionship so high that more often than not I found myself giving up on humanity, looking at the so-called friendships surrounding me in school/college.
There are a lot of things on social media about pets and what they mean to their owners. Well all of that is true; and there is more. When he was barely 6 months old, Simba went and rolled himself in muck soon after dad had given him a bath. Dad got furious and began hitting him. Hearing his cries I ran out to the garden, picked a quivering Simba, gave one of my “looks” to my dad (a rare event by itself) and took Simba inside. This incident marked the end of a cordial relationship between Simba and dad. Call it self respect, ego or just stubbornness, till the end of his life he maintained a very formal relation with my father. He let dad oil him and give him a bath. But that’s about it. If dad gave him his food, he would not eat. If dad tried to threaten him to stop barking he would simply defy his orders. I adored the guy for his resolve. May be that is the reason that to this day I forgive but never forget. May be that is the reason behind my obtuseness and an inflated ego. May be.
His tricks were a source of continuous amusement to me. His intelligence was remarkable. More stark when contrasted with that of our pug. He was aware that my father did not approve of him sleeping on the bed, and I absolutely loved having him around. The solution was found in him sleeping comfortably next to me till he heard dad on the door. The moment he heard dad coming (kudos to his amazing reflexes) there was prompt disaster control action taken. He would take his place by the bed where he was expected to be. Lesson learnt: show the world what they want to see and continue doing what you were doing anyway when no one is watching!
Looking back at growing up with Simba, it’s difficult to imagine how I would have managed to finish the mountain of rice served for lunch, but for his help. For a plethora of reasons I’m “the slowest eater” which meant everyone excusing themselves from the table at all meals. This was the cue for Simba to rally to the aid of the distressed soul. Before I even knew it, the meal was done. To the complete dismay of mom and dad, Simba would always sit next to me whenever I ate any blessed meal and drool on my clothes. I did not mind and he did not seem to care either; that is all that mattered.
On the numerous home alone occasions that I invariably found myself in, I would use the opportunity to watch movies otherwise banned at home-I mean the horror movies, of course! Watching the movie was still fine. It was the process of going from the ground floor to the bedroom after the movie that used to be a hell of an adventure. I would hold on to Simba and then cautiously take the stairs without looking up even once. And boy o boy, if on that night Simba decided to start barking for no apparent reason! I don’t think but for Simba I could have ever managed to watch The Ring and Grudge all by myself, while the two of us were home alone.
Simba, my brother and I, we formed a Trinity. It was a funny love-hate relationship between Simba and my brother. Given the latter’s proclivity for pulling whiskers and tail, Simba was always on his guard when my brother was around but he loved him alright. Every morning when my brother sat reading the newspaper Simba would go and take his place by his chair. While acquaintances complained of getting bored at home, for us the agenda was always set. All my vacations back home have had the same routine: Wake up, groom Simba (his combing and brushing took me an hour and a half with all the chit chat and face licking!), groom my pug (ten minutes max!), eat, sleep, take them out for a walk, eat, play ball, watch the 9 pm movie, read, sleep. Taking them for a walk was another episode. With his power, it was actually Simba taking me for a ride but I still wanted to go with him rather than with the pug. The reason was simple. With Simba, the two of us would go for a walk, enjoy the process and come back. With the pug, all the society kids and passers by would surround us to play with the Vodafone waala kutta and the idiot would be more than happy with all the attention and the walk got inordinately delayed.
It was rituals that Simba was unable to observe that betrayed his failing health as he grew older. Earlier he would come up to my room without giving a thought to it. In the last two years, he wouldn’t come upstairs unless he absolutely had to. Getting onto the bed became a herculean task. When I went home for a four month long break after my post-grad, a lot had changed. Simba found it increasingly difficult to get up. He could not climb stairs. His kidney was failing him. There was water retention in his body. On my last visit home, he came to the door to welcome me alright, but he didn’t jump on me or bring his ball for a game.The same Simba who used to come up to my room and bark till I understood that his ball had gone under the bed or a table and would not stop till I accompanied him downstairs (with him showing me the way) to the spot where he lost the ball, could no longer get into the car by himself. He had stopped coming to the bottom of the stairs when he heard my footstep in his customary good morning gesture. The first day that this happened, I cried a lot because I knew that it was now but a matter of time.
He never liked being alone at home. I knew that for a fact but my parents wouldn’t agree. They learnt it the hard way. They had gone out, taken the spitz along but left Simba home. Simba promptly got onto the sofa and scratched the upholstery. That it had recently been done up incensed my mother but she realized that the mistake was theirs. Today those scratch marks on the sofa, the deformed balls with his canine marks and videos of him trying to catch his tail (apart from the memories) is all I have left of him. He rests in a peaceful corner of our garden but he is gone.
While we were growing up, he was growing old. He showed my brother and me what is in store for us. The slow and steady loss of his vitality and his departure made us so aware of our parent’s increasing age that for a while we found it difficult to digest that what happened to Simba over 12 years will happen to all of us albeit over a prolonged period. I remember our last drive together. The kind to try the entire spectrum from the 1st to the 6th gear within the city, with a tendency to stay over the 4th, I can’t remember driving that smooth ever. We were on our way to the vet. At a traffic signal, the guy in the car that pulled up beside ours first gave a surprised look followed by a warm smile: here was a car, with a girl behind the steering wheel, a pug sitting next to her and an alsatian behind her, all enjoying the drive. I had feared that it would be our last drive together, and indeed it was. He came, he loved unconditionally, he conquered!
After my break-up I used to often ask if it gets any worse. What was meant to be a rhetorical question, life took it as a challenge and gave a glimpse of how bad it can actually get. In the kind of society where for most of us death is just a statistic, at least it was for me till the time I lost Simba, it takes this insurmountable sense of loss to put all of life’s so-called troubles in perspective. The permanence of Death, it’s finality was something I had always read about but never felt too deeply. The sense of an ending, the sense of loss, the difficulty of moving on and dealing with the void are things my brother and I still try to cope with. The last paragraph of The Goldfinch by Donna Tart has the following lines: “That life-whatever else it is-is short. That Fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That may be even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open.” I now understand what she meant.