1. A dog named Rin

Rin. Never at ease with me around.

It’s been eight years since I lost Sammy to an inexplicable illness. Eight years since that fateful night when he lay in my lap, in shock, and passed on at dawn. And yet, I have never gathered the courage to write about him. I’ve eulogized people on the blog before, but I never got around to eulogizing Sammy, perhaps the most important person to have graced my life. I have often thought about why and always arrived at one probable reason – my years with Sammy were too pure to be confined in the inadequacy of words. I grew up alongside him, and a big chunk of my childhood memories has him prancing about or consoling me in my loneliest moments. Also, his loss is too difficult a time to revisit. Nothing has changed, and this post, too, isn’t about Sammy. It’s about a dog named Rin (in pic) and an important lesson he recently taught me.

Anyone who has ever lost a pet will know how utterly devastating the experience is, even though we know the eventuality the day we sign up for the role. Humans outlive dogs, generally. That is the unfortunate norm. But that doesn’t soften the blow of losing a dog. Although I don’t have a frame of reference, I’m going to go ahead and say it, it’s like losing a child. And so for the last eight years, I have been a parent without a child. The parental instincts Sammy birthed in me did not die with him. They remained dormant and triggered every time I came across an amiable animal, or a dog video, or an ad for pet adoption… basically, every day. But I refrained from adopting another, for my career choices had lent me a nomadic lifestyle. And there was never a permanent home to give a lovelorn dog. I also didn’t want to adopt someone and leave him/her behind at home for 8-10 hours a day as I worked towards a fulfilling career. But when I entered a permanent relationship this February, I knew I could finally share the responsibility and afford to provide a good life for a loving dog. So off we went, a dog lover and a reluctant accomplice who had never experienced the joy of a pet, to a shelter full of howling dogs looking for loving homes. Or so we thought.

When we first visited Canine Elite’s shelter near Qutub in Delhi, we were impressed. Not only did their revenue-making daycare centre have good facilities for dogs, their adoption shelter too pampered the furry residents. These dogs weren’t all compressed into cramped cages – a sight I’ve seen far too often at shelters. Each one had a decent-sized, clean, separate space; an individual meal chart that listed their favourites; two-hourly walks on lush grass; lots of cuddles; and even a CCTV camera to watch over them. Lest they hurt themselves or each other. What’s more, adopting from their shelter meant lifetime discounted rates of pet lodging in their daycare centre and invaluable peace of mind whenever we travelled out of the city. We were asked a bunch of questions on our living arrangements and readiness to adopt, and eventually introduced to a few indie dogs (all of their shelter dogs are desi, which is great).

This is where we met Rin. Born and rescued as part of a big litter a year ago, Rin was one of only two siblings left behind from his clan. The rest had found homes. When we met him, he was kept in quarantine, under observation for any remnant symptoms of tick fever, which I was told had already been treated a month ago. But that wasn’t the issue. The moment I entered his room, Rin reached for the farthest corner and cowered with fear. His short fur was black on the back and white on the belly, with a few brown patches thrown in for good measure. The tremble of his skin reminded me of the panic that overtook Sammy every time firecrackers rung in the air during Diwali. Rin relaxed immediately as soon as I was replaced by his caregiver, the soft-spoken Gurjeet. His sensitive and introverted nature reminded me of a young me. As a child, I was very much like Rin. I dreaded any interaction with strangers and hid behind family in social situations. But I was loyal to a fault with my best friends. And so, my mind was made. We would take Rin home. Once he got to know me, he would love me, I thought. Just like Sammy did. And I’d love him more.

We chose to take a week’s time before we brought him home. That would be enough to baby-proof the apartment and get all his supplies. Since he would still have to spend 3-4 hours alone in the apartment for about 3 days a week, we decided to foster him for a trial period of 7 days to see if he could cope. Off we went the next Saturday, documents and treats in tow. So excited was I, and dare I say the would-be first-time pet mom, that we had already bought a wine-red cushioned harness, a customized name tag that re-christened him Sirius Black, dog pads for our home, dog food, dog shampoo, dog brush… all the paraphernalia in the one week leading up to our second visit.

This time, the unfortunately-named Rin was out of isolation and back in the adoption area with the other dogs. But we wanted to meet him outside, on the green lawn, which I imagined would be his happy place. The moment a caregiver brought him out, all of my eight years of wait flashed before me. All of my heartbreaking shelter visits and volunteer work came down to this – the day I take one home. In this moment, I also realized that Rin was a handsome dog. All his colours – sparkling white belly, shiny black back, and brown patchy eyebrows beautifully blended to make a wonderful-looking doggo. I hadn’t noticed all this in the cramped, dark room where I had met him first. He was also the right size to thrive in our apartment. But one thing was amiss. The same moment I fell in love with him, he scampered away.

Rin fled back to his shelter the moment he saw two strangers had come to meet him. At first I thought it was us. So with both exit gates to the lawn closed, we let him take his time to get acquainted and see the lack of threat from us. He spent the next half an hour running between both exit gates and a few circles around the lawn. No amount of bone treats or chewy toys could lure him towards us. Eventually, they took him back to his room so he would be compelled to meet us. I knew we were cornering him again but it looked like the only option. The shelter, too, was keen to provide Rin a home. Thy had warned us he was a shy guy. If only he would let me pat him, he would know, I firmly believed. After all, I was good with dogs; they all seemed to love me. I had spent the last eight years cuddling every dog I met.

Back in the room, Rin ran out of corners and eventually retreated to one where he could see his beloved caregiver through the gate. His sibling, who had been so far separated from him by a meshed wall in the adjacent room, was also brought in for some reassurance. Spotty was even more afraid of us, if that was possible. With some help from dog biscuits and a chicken meal, I eventually got Rin to sniff my hands, eat from them, and let me pat him. But things stalled at that point.

Even though Rin let me touch him and feed him his favourite meal, he was never happy about it, always looking longingly at his caregiver and still searching for a getaway. Another round in the lawn went exactly the previous way. In all my visits to different shelters in various cities, most dogs jumped at a visitor, yearning to be lifted and given belly rubs. More often than not, I’d find myself torn between numerous wagging tails. My departure would be met with howling pleas to come back. In all these ways, Rin was the anti-dog. He barked with disdain at arrivals, ran away with fright when approached, and barked again in triumph at departure. It was clear: he didn’t want us there.

It dawned on me later that perhaps Rin knew. He had seen most of his siblings taken away by visiting strangers. Perhaps he knew that we intended to take him away- from his loving caregivers, his sister Spotty, and his cool companion dogs. He didn’t know what awaited him at our place, but he did know what he would lose. And perhaps at this shelter, it was too much to give up.

And so, after eight years of denying dogs a home, Rin denied me a dog. In doing that, he taught me a valuable lesson. One that I thought I knew. You don’t choose a dog. The dog chooses you.

Sometimes, when you want something so badly, you forget to ask, “Does it want me back?”

 

P.S. I intend to visit Rin and his other cool doggo friends again, to see if someone eventually chooses me. Until that day comes, I shall continue to cuddle every dog I meet on the street.

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Dear Chester

Dear Chester,

You hanged yourself today, but the rigor mortis seems to have set in our collective limbs. It is you who died, but we are all numb.

It was the most confusing time of my life when I was first handed audio cassettes of Meteora and Hybrid Theory. I didn’t quite fit in at 17; I sought my place in a new world and didn’t find one. Then, you came on the music player and spat out Somewhere I Belong. That day, I found my first college friend, one who taught me that I owed zero fucks to the world.

Linkin Park was perhaps as big a Western music influence on my life as Michael Jackson had once been. But MJ couldn’t do what you did. Whenever I was hurting, whenever I was caught in the undertow and needed to scream my head off, you screamed for me. The college bully suddenly knew I wouldn’t be ignored; every time I took one step closer to the edge of sanity, you took one with me; and I realized it was okay to have a voice at the back of my head, a face underneath my skin. My quest for an identity, the urge to rebel, to chase my dreams – had all found an indomitable voice. A voice that thundered through the windows while I stayed shut inside the house. I wonder what, or whom, you turned to when the chaos got to you. You repeatedly rescued us with your songs. I’m sorry we couldn’t rescue you.

It’s a little baffling that only in your end do I get to know you so much better. You, Chester Bennington the man, and not the lead singer of Linkin Park the band. Your interviews now pop up on my timeline; your history of battling depression, childhood abuse, and addiction reveals itself. I check out your latest posts on Instagram and find them tainted with your death. Your words, photographs, videos… everything has been stained the color of suicide. Your lyrics have acquired a whole new meaning; your screams are now soaked in pain. Now, every time we listen to one of your songs, we lose you all over again.

There are a few who are calling you names, fans who think it was selfish of you to kill yourself. Not everyone understands despair, Chester. Not everyone is acquainted with the kind of sorrow that plagues the mind and renders every success and joy meaningless. Thousands of people, including I, wanted to be you all these years while you were shedding your own skin with each song. I don’t blame you for leaving, but I wish we could’ve given you at least one reason good enough to not reach for that rope. I hope you finally find yourself somewhere you belong.

All that you leave behind – your songs, your grunts, your gut-wrenching angst – all of it will continue to echo through thousands of lives and lead confused young minds to peace. Knowing that we aren’t alone in our despair is sometimes just enough to hold on. I wish you too could’ve had that solace. I wish you could witness the grief that clouds the world of rock today. And I hope you know that, in the end, it does matter. In the end, you matter.

Rest in peace, my friend.

Still screaming along,
The boy who doesn’t fit in

Paris, mon amour

So here I am

Leaving you behind –

The train lifts its skirt and runs

Before I can change my mind –

Wondering who,

If anyone, can ever conquer

This memory of you.

 

I’d stay and save

Myself the mediocrity.

If you’d let me have

You for eternity.

But you’re a fickle lover,

O Paris, mon amour,

Let’s not linger

On this goodbye.

My time is up! Au revoir!

 

The canals in the new town

Reflect my parting blues;

In a concert of cities

Who would want to follow you?

O Paris, mon amour,

Let’s not fake niceties now.

It’s not me. It is You.

 

You invited me over

For a drink or two;

Before night fell, I was in love,

You had had your someone new.

Your streets are full of lovers gone mad

Artists, they call them,

Victims of cobbled-street voodoo.

O Paris, mon amour,

Let me go

Before I’m a prisoner, too.

 

No corner cafe will ever smell the same

The streets won’t sing again

Church bells will never promise

The stunning spell of Notre Dame.

What have you done?

O Paris, ma chérie,

My heart is now a homeless refugee,

My soul is yours to claim.

 

I’ll be back another night

For one more forbidden affair

Between my pen and your rues.

Until then,

O Paris, mon amour,

Grant me this final farewell kiss,

Bid me a fond adieu.

 

 

Dear Kingshuk Sir

“My goal in life is to be one of those people who are just light. You see them and you suddenly feel so warm you just want to hug them. They look at you and smile with the warmest light in their eyes… you want to be close to them and you hope that some of their light transfers onto you.” – Anonymous

Dear Kingshuk Sir,

We last met in February. You wore your radiant smile at work. I came with my wedding invite. We joked about your failing memory. Today I learnt, that was our final meeting.

I wanted you to come to my big day, but I knew you wouldn’t. I knew you’d instead be busy checking and rechecking every fact and every sentence in the news stories of that day, thinking up ways it could sound more objective (and perhaps clearer to “someone’s grandma working in the kitchen”).

Many writers I know love to weave purple prose – it reasserts their self-belief. But you were always one for brevity and precision. You tirelessly stood for pithy sentences that delivered facts in the most efficient and accurate manner. (Your spoken words, too, followed the same frugality.) And you ingrained the same principles in me. (Sorry for the long-winded transgressions I make today.) It’s little wonder that you came to personify the word ‘editor’ in my dictionary. For instance, I remember the day you introduced me to staccato intros. I’d written one accidentally, I believe. Today, I wrote one intentionally. I hope I did it right.

An editor, you were. But that’s not all you were. One day, after I had attended your editing class in journalism school, I searched for your TOI blog. I was sure one would exist and that it would talk about serious political and social issues in the most balanced tone possible. Your beaming face popped up next to this description:

Kingshuk Mukherji is first a parent who loves listening to and understanding all children have to say on everything — from their friends, to school, their peers and their teachers. He is also an associate editor with The Times of India.

Anyone who’s studied under you will relate to that first line (and chuckle on the last one). It would be a gross understatement to say that you were the favourite journalism teacher of mine and everyone else I have known to struggle in those halls. No, you were more a parent to all of us. We never feared angering you with our assignments (or the lack of them); you seemed incapable of losing your temper. We feared disappointing you. You believed in each of us more than any of us believed in ourselves. To let you down was to let ourselves down.

That hasn’t changed since, for me. Only now, it’s about leading a fulfilling life and not about submitting a worthy assignment. If I come anywhere close to achieving what you always believed I could, I will have lived a fantastic life.

Right from the moment I awkwardly stood up in your first class and announced my reckless ambition of becoming a travel journalist, you supported me fully. (In fact, you said that you wished you had taken that path.) It was the first time my dream had not been diluted down to its nearest common denominator.

Later in TOI, there were days I was put in your team. It was the only time I was given full freedom to design a special edition page (or any page). It was so unusual for a sub-editor that I panicked at the responsibility and gave it back to you. That was the only time I saw you get angry. “You’re the best student I’ve had, Sumeet. Now tell me which story should go where. You know this. I know you know this!” you said, hurt by my low self-belief, and handed the page back to me. I was never sure if I deserved that title or that responsibility. But those work-days taught me more about journalism than an entire academic year did.

On days when I felt lost in life and suffered bouts of depression, there was one person in office I could look towards. And you never denied me a chat. Over cups of machine-spewed coffee, in a quiet corner cabin of a bustling newsroom, we confided travel fantasies to each other. I told you my plans of being a travel writer and exploring the world. You said that one day you would walk away from that chaotic newsroom and live in a quiet, remote place – like Ladakh.

Come back, and live that dream. I insist, Sir.

No eulogy perhaps can articulate what we, your students, feel today. And I realize that the callously-phrased rant I quoted at the beginning of this letter isn’t the best way to pay homage to a man of such measured words. But when that line appeared on my social media feed a few weeks ago, the first person I thought of, was you. I did not know that that light was to go out sooner than any of us could imagine. The world is much darker for it.

Rest in peace and quiet, Sir. You’ve earned it.

Photo courtesy: Devlin Roy

(You can read Kingshuk Mukherji’s personal blog here: https://kingshukmukherji.wordpress.com/
and his delightful parenting blog on TOI here: http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/author/kingshukmukherji/)

104 degrees

Time

She checks my temperature,

“Scarily warm,” reads the plight-

Sterilized mercury stick

Dangling from parched mouth,

Reeking of the black night,


And pills that made

Skin the shade of auburn

Monsoon into sheets, her arms,

Memories of another summer-

When spring birds sang out of turn.



‘Do you need anything warm?’

Warm warm warm

‘How are you feeling?’

Feeling feeling feeling?

‘Still under the weather?’

Hot and humid, with a chance of thunderstorm.



The white coats arrive in armies,

Carpet-bombing the dermis in their foray,

A steel briefcase of needles

Preying on veins, probing

For signs of foul play.

‘Tis a pity they don’t stick one

Into my atrocious excuse

Of a heart.

I don’t remember

When the blackness sank in,



Walls painted with despair,

Closets filled with pain;

There’s no more room for sin.

The forecast every March is January-cold,

Cold as the wind that bites



My monsooning skin.

~ Sumeet

Longing

cast-away

Rain drapes everything
In a veil of wistful longing,
A yearning for something lost
Many moons ago,

About the same time
Solitude became more
Pleasing than company,
Silence, a friend, and conversation, a woe.

There’s nothing quite as soothing then
As a song on love and its follies,
Windows rolled down, the years fleeting
Amid arrows of melancholy,

Falling.
“I’ll have a cup of tea,
Please. Brewed to a burn-
The skin of lovers put out to sea.”

~Sumeet

Singalila

The rhododendron trail has a roof

Clad in hues

Of departing autumn:

Orange of the maple leaf,

Ever so elegant in its fall;

Green of the magnolia,

Eager to blush at the faintest whispers

Of spring;

The barren have long shed their green

Revealing my winter blues –

An endless playground for wings.

Death is the end, only

If you think it so;

Just ask the tiny oak nut that rebels, 

Plummets, 

And breaches the silence

Of an infinite jungle on tiptoes.

~ Sumeet

The closer you get…

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Fireflies

“Should we go outside?”

“But it’s snowing out there, hon. We’ll freeze!”

“Yeah, but it feels more Christmas-y outside.”

“What? How?”

“The fairy lights. They glow like fireflies, like a portal to another world. ”

“Sigh. Poets! Okay, but you better hope I don’t catch a cold in this alternate reality.”

Most lessons from school have been completely forgotten, but some tidbits persist. Some inexplicably random memories floating weightlessly in a crevice of the mind. Like a short story in Hindi class (or was it Gujarati?) that taught us to counter evil acts with kindness, repeatedly if necessary. Like a Sanskrit adage that translated to “Familiarity breeds contempt.” The latter rang true in my life every now and then, the first time perhaps when I became college roommates with my best friend from school. I’ve come to realize now that proximity, too, has the same effect.

Have you ever noticed how fairy lights look magical from a café’s window – almost as if the spirit of Christmas itself has manifested as a bunch of fireflies. But the moment you go outside, to have a seat under the dim lighting that promised to cast a gentle holiday glow on the soul, they lose their sheen. You start to notice little details – the one or two erratic bulbs that flicker, the flimsy wire that holds them together – invisible from across a window but now, up close, louder than the lights themselves, the potted roots of the miniature tree they entwine and its stunted fate. It’s almost as if the flaws magnify, like this café wasn’t even a good idea. Unless…

Ah! Look at those cheesecakes inside. They look soft as clouds, and the chocolate fountain sprouts ecstasy in reckless abandon! Besides, the old woman wearing the hat at the far end looks like a witch right out of Hogwarts…

“Can we go inside, love? Near the cakes? They look like they were delivered from heaven’s own little patisserie!”

“This is exactly why we don’t do date nights.”

Thank you for the gesture, stranger

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Dear stranger with the kindest eyes,

I fear I’m already forgetting you, the little details that I cherish remembering about people – strangers encountered in brief moments of serendipity, composed on a cosmic instrument that plays out our lives like keys in perfect symphony on a grand, old piano.

Yesterday night was the first time I was ferried around on a wheelchair in a shopping mall. It was a terrifying lesson in losing control, publicly. I’m temporarily impaired by an injury that will heal in a week or two, not a permanent disability. But I got a taste of what the latter would feel like. What hurt a travel writer more than his inability to walk was the almost-ubiquitious pity he received from complete strangers. A wheelchair seems to mandate a series of reactions from people – first comes surprise; then, an exaggerated effort to move out of the way; followed by a look of pity and wonder; and lastly, an aversion of one’s eyes as if this grim fate is contagious. I wore camouflage trousers, and wished I were invisible.

When I joked and laughed out loud with the two friends who wheeled me around like it was any other day at the mall, spectators marvelled at the boy who could laugh on a wheelchair! I nearly jumped out of my quasi-coffin on crutches, to prove that I was still human. Capable of wit and sarcasm, and love and laughter. As if it needed to be proved.

And then, there was you. In a summer yellow top, I think. Or was it the orange of dusk skies? I forget. It was, after all, merely a glance. I looked away from your approaching silhouette, assuming you’d be one of the scores to gift me a look of unequivocal ‘sorry’ for the day. But you stopped in your tracks, bent down, and looked me in the eyes. For the first time that day, a stranger talked to me. Me, and not my bandages which seemed to be a screaming beacon of attention. “Get well soon,” you said, almost sang it as if in a musical, emphasizing the soon, like the world couldn’t wait to see me back on my feet. Your kind eyes spoke of concern and optimism, not a condescending form of sympathy. For the first time that day, I felt that I fit in. That I was a part of the species that populated the mall and indulged in reckless shopping, and selfies, and inappropriate humour. For the first time that day, I grinned from ear to ear and meant a “Thank you!”

Friends who do not miss a single chance to pull a fractured leg joked about how a wheelchair couldn’t dial down my charm. They’re the best, stranger. They would later take me window shopping, and to a birthday party, without ever letting me feel the weight of my helplessness. But through that entire evening of being towed around and stared at, I carried the gentle warmth of a kind gesture by a beautiful stranger who seemed to know just what I needed to hear and who did not heed to the walls we build between one another.

People think changing the world comes only from big policy decisions and seats of power and money. But change is also in the little things, stranger. Smiling at the overworked staffer behind the counter, an inflated tip for the waiter with the torn apron, a bag of holiday candies for the homeless, a random conversation struck with an immigrant alienated for her dreadlocks, the girl who wishes you on a wheelchair when everyone else averts their eyes… It’s the little things that matter, it’s the little things that stay with you.

Thank you for the gesture, stranger. It made my day. I hope you know that.

~ The boy in the brown jacket

Where Forevers Begin

img_1653

I seem to have lost my words;

They left in the middle of the night-

The day I forgot to swallow my blues,

A mouthful of addiction, memories on flight.

 

I seem to have lost my blues;

They left on a train of thought

While I was willfully drowning

In a fight I had never fought:

 

The light of your caramel mornings

Seeping into a world forgot.

 

~ Sumeet Keswani