Here I am, seated at the white marble table in my balcony. The rich melancholy notes of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata come wafting at me. Strong Singaporean winds buffet against the window, much like the myriad emotions that seem to be buffeting against my heart unrestrained. He was the king. In every possible way. Cherished by a small community of people and loved for what he was. And that was a lot.
It was a long time ago, fourteen years almost, and the details are a bit fuzzy. I was a schoolgirl then, wild eyed with wonder at god’s multitudinous creatures and their quirks. I had just begun to probe into the personalities of different kinds of animals, and suffice it to say I was at such an impressionable age, that encounters with the wonderful creatures would mould the way I perceived them, for many years to come. And as luck would have it, two of the most delightful animals crossed my path, my pet dog Cleopatra, and her stray counterpart-Mastaan.
Mastu as we affectionately called him was born a good year before Cleo. He was the very first dog that I closely interacted with and as a consequence learnt a lot from him. He was born a perfectly white fellow, affable and vivacious in nature, abounding in energy. He could run like the wind and he loved to playfully boss over his siblings whenever he got the chance. He was alert and attentive at all times; especially at night and woe betide the wayward rag picker who decided to go about his business in the dead of the night. Mastu would bring the building down with his incessant barking. A fantastic watchdog, he soon gained everybody’s favour as he grew in size and age. As is the case with human centric societies everywhere, a few residents raised issues about mastu being there and suggested that he be relocated elsewhere or be euthanized. But when mum clicked a picture in the afternoon, clearly showing mastu wide awake and watchful, while the watchman slept soundly, and showed it to them, it was unanimously agreed that he should remain there for security reasons at the least. And soon he had everybody eating out of his hands.
One thing I distinctly remember about Mastu, is his acute distaste for baths. He was such a lovely milk white colour, that when he started to turn gray owing to layers of dirt and mud accumulated over time, his “humans” entertained the idea of “cleaning” him. So the watchman and I got him into my father’s garage. Mastu came along unquestioningly.
Obviously he didn’t foresee the vicious plans hatching in our heads. I went upstairs and got the bucket, shampoo and brush, while Bahadur, the watchman tied him up in the garage. Everything was going so smoothly, we were thrilled at the prospect of having a clean mastu again. But alas! As soon as the first drop of water touched him, mastu wailed out for the dead and kept wailing till we gave up. We let him loose and he darted off. When he had run a considerable distance, he turned and defiantly looked back at us as we looked on haplessly. We had lost. Mastu had character and he had scruples, of which getting dirty was a rather strong one and he would do all to protect his god given birthright of staying dirty. We resigned ourselves to his strength of personality, and never ventured to clean him ever again. He remained a wondrously dirty dog right till the very end.
Mastu had some quirks to his personality that could safely be attributed to his unique individuality. He used to stay mostly with Bahadur for the first few years, in the guardhouse. He had a gunny bag for a bead and a small bowl for food and water. We used to often see him moving around with the sack in his mouth, when he wanted to sleep elsewhere. Sometimes in the garage, sometimes in the building lobby and sometimes smack in the middle of the road. He would faithfully bring his gunny bag along spread it out on his chosen place of siesta, go round and round on it and then settle down on it comfortably. He used to translocate his bowl in a similar fashion whenever he wanted to go someplace other than the guardhouse.
A year after mastu was born, we got Cleo. If I had my way, I would have gotten mastu home too, but unlike the diminutive individual that Cleo was, Mastu was a wild free soul. He could never be leashed, tied up or taken for walks. Mastu was the kind that would TAKE a person for a walk, always leading the way. A born leader, he would never accept being second best, or playing second fiddle to anyone, human or animal.
Cleo, Mastu and I grew up together. Even though mastu was an unfettered soul, he never hesitated to spend good quality time with me and Cleo when we were out. Cleo’s friendly, open nature, enabled them to become kindred spirits, and they always remained good friends. Even when Cleo suffered from arthritis and could no longer run with mastu the way she could before, he would nonetheless spend time with her, when we came downstairs for a breath of fresh air. He never bossed over her, like he did the other dogs. He was always soft and gentle, big brotherly to an extent with Cleo.
Mastu grew up to become a handsome young chap and was beginning to become quite the ladies man. We figured the best thing to do, with the unhindered growth in stray dog populations, would be to get mastu sterilized. So on the fateful day, we put him into my dad’s car and drove off to my mother’s newly opened animal shelter and hospital. He was not happy when we put him in the cage there, but it was only a matter of three days, so we said our goodbyes, promised him he’d be fine and left. I still remember the look on his face. I felt like I’d betrayed him, but I knew it was for his own good, and it was something that had to be done. The surgery successfully over, mastu was brought back home three days later, but he refused to look at or speak to me. It was only after a lot of cajoling that I managed to get him to be friends with me again.
But after the sterilization, as it happens with a lot of dogs, mastu became a changed boy. Like his teenage human counterparts, mastu was rather thin and very juvenile in his behaviour, till before the surgery. A few months after the surgery, we were delighted to see mastu completely calmed down, gaining the much needed pounds and even more lovable than before. He slowly stopped caring about anything other than his meals, his sleep and being adored by all and sundry, and that encouraged his exponential weight gain. Soon he became a cylindrical dog with a penchant for stopping traffic on the road on account of his siestas. Let me throw some enlightenment on this peculiar trait that Mastu developed. He began to enjoy basking in the sunlight smack dab in the middle of the road. Small cars and two wheelers would maneuver and find a way out, but large family cars and trucks would have to stop. They would honk and holler till their voices went hoarse, but as was characteristic to mastu, he wouldn’t care. He would refuse to budge. Ultimately, we observed very often, that the drivers would have to dismount, physically pick him up (a daunting task indeed) and move him to the side of the road, utter a few expletives and move on. Surprisingly, no one bothered to admonish him for his lack of sentiment toward hapless drivers. Rather, these displays of laziness made people love the quirky fellow all the more.
Mastu never scrounged for food a single day in his life. His meals would appear as if by magic from the buildings, that housed him namely Krishna and Gangotri. Meat in all forms, biryani, chapattis and even deserts sometimes, would be compulsorily kept aside for him, or the leftovers given to him. Either way, he was content living the good life with the comfortable home, lavish food, humans who loved him and the freedom to bark (on rare occasions, when he felt like it) at a passing doodhwalla or gaswalla.
Mastu’s whole life was spent here in these two buildings and he became a part of the community. People doted on him and any aberrant behaviour on his part was not hidden from us, because it was reported immediately by one resident or the other. I have been privy to questions about his health, his weight, his appetite, his behaviour and his social life, from people of all age groups ranging from tiny little 5 year olds to concerned elderly residents.
Mastu saw me go through school, through Junior College and through Degree College. He witnessed my whirlwind romance, which was shadowed by the untimely and gut wrenchingly painful demise of our friend and companion, Cleo. When I drove off to get married, he was there, sitting regally in the middle of the road, watching. And when I left for Singapore with my husband, he was there, stoic and sombre. I had his best wishes when I left for the foreign land, and I still remember that the person I was most pained to leave behind apart from my parents, was him. Every time I visited he was there, in the same position, unmoved and content, happy to see me. Of course he had matured much by then, he was quieter and reserved and lesser prone to a show of affections, but an occasional lick on my face and a wag of the tail, assured me that our mutual affections were unaltered.Suddenly on one of my trips back home, I noticed a dramatic change in Mastu’s girth. He was thin and very quiet and didn’t want to move much. And somehow I felt this was not because of the laziness that he was accustomed to. This was different, and not something I had seen in mastu ever before. A number of uneasy thoughts popped into my head, but I discarded them almost immediately. It wasn’t possible that something was wrong with him. He was a stray from the roads. They’re the strongest of the lot, and mastu was a particularly hard headed survivor. He would not easily succumb to anything, of that I was sure. So I just left it at that and came back to Singapore with the nagging thoughts safely tucked away at the back of my mind. But my subsequent trips confirmed my suspicions, till finally on my last trip he was almost skin and bones. I couldn’t discard the fears anymore. Mum and I made it a point to ensure that he gets wholesome food, and we even had him hospitalized at mum’s new animal hospital. His diagnosis was very vague and the doctors couldn’t really make out what was wrong with him. They brought him back to his homestead, where he seemed to have bouts of recovery followed by extreme weakness.
I witnessed his health fail more and more. He seemed to be in a lot of pain, but unfortunately there wasn’t much more I could do than feed him, love him and pray. But I noticed through it all that he remained a fighter. He couldn’t get up when I put his food bowl in front of him, so he used to pick it up with his teeth, empty the contents on the floor and then lap it up. Ingenious fellow he was and very assertive right till the end. The other dogs always bowed down to his greatness, even when he was but a skeleton, and they never even tried to venture in and have a go at his food.
On my last trip home, I spent a considerable amount of energy with my mum, trying to get him up and moving. But the old boy had no strength left in his tired bones. So on the last day before I left, I went and talked to him, and asked him to get well soon. I sat with him for a bit and then with a heavy heart, walked away. I left the next evening for Singapore, but as I drove off I saw him there, sitting in the building looking just about as handsome as I’d ever seen him. Regal and serious, on his gunny bag, with his food bowl in front of him.
Once I got back, I got enmeshed in the various responsibilities that life hands one often, but I kept careful tab via phone and email on the status of my friend’s health. Much to my disappointment, he just kept getting worse. Finally he had to be hospitalized. The doctors now diagnosed that a certain kind of bacteria that eats up muscle mass, had been flourishing in his body for a long time. And he was just too tired fighting it. He also probably had a slip disc, because there was hardly any muscle to support his spine. He used to be in pain, and sometimes one would see tears streaming down his face, on account of the pain, but he would as always deal with it. Even in the hospital he preferred to bask in the sunlight, and he used to wait for my mother’s phone call. She would be put on the speaker phone and my mother would talk to him and he would listen to her voice and apparently like it a lot.
Day before yesterday, he was up and about in the morning, and seemed to be fine. He ate and sat down in the sun for his usual sunbath. Dad was just about to call in the afternoon, to talk to him, but before he could they got a call form the hospital, that Mastu’s condition was suddenly deteriorating. He was gone before dad could reach the hospital and say his goodbyes.
When I heard the news, I cried. I cried like I had cried when my grandparents died, and when Cleo died. The feeling of loss was the same. They brought him back home from the hospital. Everyone was in tears. Normally animals that die in the hospital are cremated or handed over to the municipal authorities for proper disposal. But that was unthinkable in Mastu’s case. He had lived his whole life there and it was agreed that he should be put to rest there too. So a grave was dug for him in between two bottle palms, in the garden facing my parents’ house. Mrs. Irani who had catered to Mastu’s every need as if he was her own, brought flowers for him, amidst a sea of tears. And Mastu-the King of Jangid and of the hearts of all the people and animals who knew and loved him, was laid to rest with all the respect, admiration and grief that is accorded to a loved one who passes on.
A red bougainvillea plant will be planted on Mastu’s grave in memory of the wonderful soul that he was. He touched so many lives without them knowing it. He definitely taught me a thing or two about life. Love openly and with abandon, live by the highest standards, compete with no one but yourself, succumb to nothing that life hands you, and be your own person. That’s what I learnt from the cherubic white little puppy, the adolescent skinny dog and the grand old somber chap that he later became.
When I first thought of penning down something in memory of Mastaan, all I could see was a blank page on my screen. I doubted I could get even a page out, since I wanted the story to be perfect. But that’s something else Mastu taught me. Nothing in life is perfect, but a lot of things are nearly there. And one should do is grab the opportunity that life gives us, go after what one wants with complete conviction and live life to the fullest in doing so. So I started to write and I think this piece justly encompasses all aspects of his life. I will grieve his loss for a long time to come. He was a friend of my childhood, a companion of my youth. However, I came across a few thoughts on the aspects of death and found something that has cheered me infinitely. To everyone out there, who misses Mastu, or their own, whom they have loved and lost to death, I have a little poem written by Mary Frye, that I would like to share with you.
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glint on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you wake in the morning hush,
I am the swift, uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starlight at night.
Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there, I do not sleep.
Do not stand at my grave and cry.
I am not there, I did not die!
Long live the King!
----Your friend always, Twinky.