My dark blue denim jeans were seldom clean, usually riddled with her muddy paw marks just below the knees.
The day we moved in, she scampered up to us gingerly, tail slunk low but not entirely between her legs. We exchanged pleasantries: my younger sister and I let her sniff our hands as our parents began shifting in suitcases and organizing belongings of all shapes and sizes. Her tail instantly began wagging wildly, an awkward semi-circular motion that rattled her pencil-like limbs as they swung to and fro. The stray dogs were a diverse bunch of mongrels, nearly as absurd and dysfunctional as the humans that inhabited the buildings under which they ambled. Most of them usually wandered about in groups of three or four, but ours was the runt of the litter.
We inferred as much from her weak, spindly legs and thin carcass of a torso. She had clearly had a tough time coping with life here. Her coarse and mangy, light brown coat of fur didn’t hide much; the underlying rib cage labored in and out as she breathed in between bites of leftover bread or daal from our recently concluded meal. Her black snout swung, the tongue playfully lopped to one side. We usually stood away from our wrought iron gate, as a gesture of safety. We wanted her to know that we were coming to her and away from the big structure behind her, although she never hesitated to venture up to the very hinges of the gate, sniffing and licking it curiously.
Ma always found it fascinating that we worried for her more than we cared for the beggars across the street. “Life will make you understand that people require more support and care than this stray you’re idolizing”, she said. Although she was vocally harsh about our seemingly obsessive love, she would soften up whenever she saw Baba prance up to her, eyes staring intently at her face, her forehead yearning for love. Regardless of Ma’s admonitions, in the minds of a fourteen and eleven year old, dogs definitely made for more understandable and empathetic companions to spend time with.
The name “Baba” emerged in a seemingly natural sequence of events. Pa was using the word a lot lately, calling my sister or me baba daily. “Arrey baba, don’t do that, you’ll hurt yourself”, he’d say; or “How was your day, baba?” We transferred Pa’s choice word of endearment on to our newly adopted pet, showering it with love the way papa gave us affection.
Moving from one side of New Delhi to another was arguably as drastic as shifting nations. Scenery, society and even the climate morphed unrecognizably. We went from an open, well-forested 3-story bungalow in the fringes of the city to a 5th floor apartment in the middle of South Delhi.
It was a swelling welter of unplanned urbanization, complete with a flyover that pierced right through it, amplifying and distributing the pollution (as both smoke and noise) in waves and billowing clouds around the city. When our portion of Delhi wasn’t heating up because of itself and the season, it was muggy and cold. I’m fairly certain the pollution played a conniving role in bringing Baba to her state of ill health.
The beginning of every school day was marked with a morning visit from Baba. She pranced out from the corner of the street or a nearby bush, scampering up to my sister first. Baba emphatically rubbed her belly against my sister’s knee, tail wagging manically. I was next in the customary line of greetings. She usually walked up towards me in a calm and Zen-like fashion, letting me pet her back and scruff up her forehead.
I always sensed a difference in the relationship Baba shared with my sister and shared with me. The marked difference in her body language and behavior led me to believe that Baba liked me more than he liked my sister. Arguments regularly had to be quelled by Ma, who decided that Baba loved both of us equally, in different and unique ways. Over the weekends, our days were more languid and idle. Pa spent his Sundays home, so we fed Baba eggs that my sister especially cut out from her plate. Baba knew the weekend was here, emerging both later and more enthusiastically towards us, the scent of egg wafting through the air.
The word “spindly” was an integral part of our relationship with Baba. We were perched in Ma and Pa’s room when Ma, mainly in jest, asked my sister and I to describe Baba to them vividly. “Cute”, ”Furry”, ”Happy”, and other inane descriptors sputtered out of my fifteen-year old mouth. When my sister spoke, the only word she said was, “Spindly”. She’d learned it in school last week, and found that it fit Baba perfectly. Ma and Pa burst into fits of laughter, both highly impressed and utterly amused by her word. “Spindly Baba” became a household name, known by our family as well as our parents’ friends.
Baba saw a lot. As my friend drove me back from the first party I had drank alcohol at, Baba chased the car, barking angrily. She usually ended up barking at any moving object that came precariously close to our building. Gloomy white light from the street lamps above created a long, moving shadow behind Baba as she followed the car. My friend dropped me and reversed his car deftly, hurriedly making his way home. Noticing my appearance, Baba trotted up to me gaily, nudging her head against my hand earnestly. I staggered towards the gate, sinking against a wall adjacent to our apartment complex. Baba followed me, eventually sitting down next to me after she realized that I wasn’t going to move for some time. I was far too drunk, and it was far too early for me to walk in. Ma would be reading in the living room, rudely interrupted by her inebriated sixteen year-old son awkwardly trying to bumble up the poorly-lit stairs to his room.
So I sat with Baba, and she sat with me. The imminent arrival of drinking culture goaded confusing thoughts in my head: deliberations over how drinkers and non-drinkers will seclude themselves respectively. These fleeting thoughts were interspersed with Baba’s soothing, raspy breaths She was a warm and restful energy sitting besides me: an oasis. I eventually slunk back home after spending forty-five minutes with Baba, nearly falling asleep more than once. A wordless goodbye was exchanged between the two of us, and she stayed to watch me enter the wrought iron gate.
As we moved through life, Baba changed roles for us. My sister had her first breakup a few months after I sobered up with Baba outside home. I knew this because I ended up interrupting a private discussion my sister was having with Baba about the boy who left her dejected. Ma and Pa had just left for a dinner party with some friends: prime time to smoke a cigarette and unwind without tension. After overhearing her discussion with Baba for a while, I sat next to her.
“Don’t let stupid boys change what’s special about you, okay? That’s your biggest gift”, I said.
“But he said he was in love with me. We were going to take it further”, she replied earnestly. Immaturity characteristic of over enthusiastic puppy love loomed large in my sister’s eyes. I silently prayed that these thoughts would pass in good time.
“Don’t overwork yourself about it” is all I could muster, accidentally closing that discussion. Baba was nestled between the two of us, her coiled torso resting against my thigh and her snout near my sister’s feet. I smoked and we sat, silent and thoughtful.
We realized how accustomed we had become to Baba’s presence when she didn’t come to meet us for a week. By the third day, both of us came outside to catch the school bus twenty minutes early for the express purpose of finding Baba. We looked as extensively and intensively as we could, but to no avail.
She appeared 15 days later.
A ghost of her already emaciated self, Baba now looked like a bag of bones: a form teetering on the edge of body and corpse: she hadn’t eaten properly since we’d last seen her. The color drained from my sister’s face, and seeing both of them so distraught left me terrified as well. I told my sister to shower affection on Baba as I ran inside and brought her something to eat. I emerged with a rumpled red packet of Digestive biscuits from the third shelf of the kitchen and filled a bowl with water from the refrigerator.
Baba was now perched on the ground, half of her body resting contently on my sister’s foot. She sniffed the biscuits and jolted upright, nostrils dilating and constricting speedily. I placed a handful of biscuits in front of her, and the bowl of water next to the biscuits. She wolfed them down in less than half a minute, choking on the third one and coughing it out.
Nothing was the same after this day. Baba was clearly not the puppy we had met on move-in day. I was also starting the application process for colleges, and my sister was about to take her first school board examinations. Baba had her own life and her own struggles. She couldn’t prance and hobble the way she usually did forever.
A year ago, my sister and I were perched atop the wrought iron fire escape, of the same hue as our gate back home, connected to her apartment in New York. Both of our phones blipped simultaneously. Pa had sent us an email with an ambiguous, “Sorry”. It read:
“Our Baba outside contracted rabies after a fight with some of the male dogs. The government sterilization program concluded that she was far too old to sterilize since she wouldn’t last more than half a year. Two days after the inspection, a truck came and took her. Ma and I thought the two of you would want to know. We really miss you and hope everything is well at your end.
A tinge of sadness changed the colors of our scenery. I remembered the first cigarette I’d smoked with Baba. I coughed painfully that night, and there was no one but Baba around to make fun of me. As we worriedly slipped in to and out of adolescence, Baba’s manically happy presence was a constant.
My sister was finishing with college. I had begun working at an NGO in Atlanta, Georgia. Home was 13,000 kilometers away, tucked away in both the other end of the globe and an independent compartment of our memories. In that compartment pranced Spindly Baba, her tail wagging wildly, an awkward semi-circular motion that rattled her entire body as it swung to and fro.