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Of Cans and Bottles (Sreekumar Ezhuththaani)

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That was a bad year for me and my family.
 The Saturn period started when my daughter returned from France after losing her job. She had learned some strange language, computer language I mean, which had been of much need a few years back. Both its obsolescence and the economic slump led to her coming back, almost empty handed. I suggested that she should give classes in French since many were seeking jobs there. She smiled at me and I knew why. I am a moron. She is quick to see irony and paradox.
 The second tragedy was when I decided to move from freelancing into office work, out of sheer necessity. Freelancing meant I could stay at home with my family and work on my own. When my daughter lost her job and my income proved to be inadequate, I sought and got a job, a 9 to 5 job.
   The third was when a dear servant left our home and could not be brought back. The fourth was the death of our dear dog.
    A little more should be said about the third and the fourth tragedies to show their intensity and uniqueness. Otherwise they might sound like everyone’s everyday experience.
    We got a pet and also a young boy for domestic help almost the same month. We paid for the dog but the boy didn’t have to be paid for. He came to our home several times to collect tins, cans and bottles and once I gave him some food. He said thanks and left.
    The next day I came downstairs ready to go to my office - we live on the first floor now - and remembered that I had put off washing my car for a sixth time the previous day. It was summer and my car was all covered with dust. When I went down, I saw a clean car and that boy was standing near it. I tried my best through gestures to get out of him who had asked him to do that. After wasting some precious time, he understood my question and gestured back to me. It was my daughter.
  He asked me for some food and I called out to my wife and asked her to give him some food and money.
   When I came home that evening, he was still there and this time it was the house that looked a lot cleaner and my wife didn’t look tired. Thus he came and thus he stayed.
   We got the dog when my daughter begged me to buy her a pet and I had to relent. It went against my policy of not keeping pets at home or anywhere. My wife agreed on condition that it would be chained and I agreed on condition that it wouldn’t be chained. My daughter used all her diplomacy and agreed with both of us.
  She gave it some typical name that suits dogs. It took me several weeks to learn it. The dog had a strange habit of lugging around cans and bottles.It seemed to have read the Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. It would take cans or bottles up the staircase and roll them down and then chase them, creating a lot of noise which, I was afraid, disturbed our rather quiet neighbourhood. A game of its own invention.
   One day I gave it a new name, Kuppippaatta, meaning bottles and cans.  I used to refer to the boy as Pattakkuppi, meaning cans and bottles.
  They were always together, except when they slept because the dog was allowed anywhere and everywhere. The boy was not allowed much inside the house.
  While the dog enjoyed the luxury of having its own name, the boy was called by any name that came to my mind. I usually referred to him as Pattakkuppi in his absence and called him Chottu when he was around. My wife called him Balu. My daughter called him a series of names like Prabhakaran, Swaminathan, Ambujakshan, Pathmalochanana etc. Her argument was that the boy deserved to have a long name or names since that was all he would ever have.  
    Anyway, in our small family, which included the boy and the dog also now, there was a kind of harmony in everything. We all understood each other and respected the lines which were never drawn because there was no need. The boy too, like my dog, had a fascination for all the throwaway things in our neighbourhood. He still went round collecting them and handed them over to a man who came to buy old newspapers every two weeks.                                                                    
       Several proposals came for my daughter and I kept asking her what she thought about marriage. I was surprised to find that she hadn't found a boy for herself with all the freedom she had to do so. I waited. She might want to continue her studies. I often found her reading so much on Hitler and his people.
     An Uneventful six months went by. The boy was often hired by our neighbours too for gardening and cleaning on an hourly basis. I found that he was working hard when none of us were at home and was making good money too. My wife was his banker but she never divulged even to me the exact amount the boy made in those six moths. Once she shared with me her surprise on how much one can save through manual labour these days.
    We also figured out where he was from. One day while  I was browsing the channels and hearing a tribal song from some north east frontier state, he rushed in and was disappointed to see that I had opted for a different channel.I understood him and let him watch that channel for some time. I had to switch back to Times Now to see if the Citizenship Amendment Bill would be passed in the Rajya Sabha. But I made it a point to tell the boy that he was free to see that channel when we were not at home. By then, we had allowed him a little bit inside the house too.
  I had always thought our pet dog was a Pomeranian but when my daughter's classmates came home one day, one of them told me it was an Indian Spitz. He showed pictures of both of them and after a few attempts I was able to tell the difference. Then I realized that the Pomeranian was a rare breed and that most of the Pomeranians I had seen were actually Indian Spitz. They are less hairy and much bigger.
   Then all of a sudden, one day our dog ‘Kuppippaatta’  started to behave strangely. I thought it might have to do with the mating season and decided to take it to a kennel as early as possible. I asked several people to refer me to a good one. In a way it gave me and my wife almost the same feeling we get when alliances came for our daughter. Then we realized that the dog’s extreme level of affection for us was not wasted on us. We too had come to regard it as family.
    My daughter had told us once that the dog was so attached to us because it had no other family but us. We had got it before it knew who its mother was. Had it been taken away later, such an attachment would not have been there and it would have gone on searching for its mother all its life. Just like us human beings. Our dog thought that we were its parents somehow. When my daughter ended her lecture on relationship among canines, I told her that such a theory made her its sister and she said she was, in fact, honoured.
    Once my wife said that the boy might also bring home a wife making her the mother-in-law and me, the father-in-law. I found the title an agreeable one.
    When the dog began to act more and more weird and it stopped eating properly and followed only the boy wherever he went, I was sure it was sick. I took it to the vet but we were told that there was nothing wrong with our Kuppippaatta. The doctor joked that the dog might have got some depression. How could that be a joke!
   The doctor had no idea about our dog. It showed all the emotions my daughter showed. Happy, annoyed, anxious, sulking, depressed, just plain sad, or ruminating and it was not so hard to distinguish among its varying moods.
    With two more months for a new year to begin, the tragedy struck again and again. First, the boy expressed a desire to go home. He had been missing his parents for a long time, he said. He was recently feeling very worried about them. He was wondering whether they had gone back across the border. I was not feeling very comfortable about him going back at a time like that.
    Four days after our dog fell sick, one morning, my daughter came in from the garden where the boy was playing with the dog and asked me an interesting question. I was sitting in the veranda, reading my newspaper and sipping my coffee.
 “Couldn’t you figure out why Dondu got sick for no reason?”
 “No, even the vet was helpless.”
 “I feel so stupid that I saw this only now.”
 “O K, what do you see now?”
 “The dog fell sick because Chandrasekharan was going away.”
   "You mean, Pattakkuppi?"
   "Yes. I would like to bring to your notice that it is not politically correct to call him that."
   I appreciated her comment on me. We discussed what to do when the boy really went away. I wondered how the dog came to know about him going away.
 “I am sure the dog knew it even before he knew it. They can read our thoughts.”
  I glanced at the boy who was now giving the dog a good bath. It liked water so much. I could not take my eyes off them. The boy could not read and the dog could read his mind. Did it read my mind too? Did it read everyone's mind? O, god!
   I congratulated my daughter on that discovery and we  decided to ask the vet what to do as soon as possible.
  But, that evening when I talked to the vet, he just laughed at me as if I was returning his joke to him.
  Two days later, the boy took all the money back from my wife and caught a train to Assam or somewhere there. He assured us that he would come back.
 Our dog did exactly what we expected. It stopped eating and fell sick. We took it to a vet and he gave several injections, drips and tablets. Its condition improved a little and then went on like that for a week. We knew its days had come. There was no more hope.
   The boy had taken our address with him but we didn't hear from him for two weeks. We all found our home very depressing. We realized how the boy and the dog were an inseparable part of our home and our lives.
   Then we got a letter from some government clinic in Assam. They were asking me what to do with the unclaimed dead body of a young boy. This had been the address he gave at the hospital. He seemed to have no other address. I rang them up and transferred some money to their account asking them to give the boy a decent burial.I didn't want to know how he died. None of us, who were mourning the death of our dear pet, was in a mood to travel. We had given a decent burial to our Kuppippaatta the same day it died.

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  1. Joseph Abraham

    2021-08-29 02:26:51

    congratulations. This story is in the genre of stories publishing in NEWYORKER AND ATLANTIC. excellent story on human empathy towards fellow beings, that not only includes human beings but animals and nature too.

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