Last night I followed her. She was not her blithe, carefree self. She looked preoccupied, cautious, almost jumpy. To my experienced eyes none of these are good signs so I tagged along. I wish I hadn’t for I was shattered by what I saw. I cared for her deeply so it’s hard not to be affected. Since then I have been trying to console myself. Telling myself that we are different. All of us live with our past. All of us allow it to shape our future. But some of us know how to shrug the past. I think that is who I am………and this is what makes me different from her and most others. These lofty thoughts floated through my head as I rested in the warm winter sun. I had slept fitfully during the night and it had been an unusually busy morning. I had had to raise sleep- heavy eyelids on two occasions to investigate the commotion caused by some unruly guests.
It was relatively peaceful now and I looked forward to my well deserved siesta. That is when I sensed her. I could feel her presence before opening my eyes, the unmistakable fragrance of Chanel mixed with her own musk. I could visualise her to the last detail. The meticulously achieved ‘wind swept’ hair, the layers of makeup to create a nude look, the carefully planned ‘casual’ attire. Oh, I knew her well, she was the Poodle. She was so vain, and went to great lengths to hide it. But I could see through her rehearsed laughter and practiced smile. I have to grudgingly admit though, that she was a rare combination of beauty and brains. She had what most men find desirable. She was dainty, demure and mysterious.
It was that time of the month again and they were meeting for their customary lunch. A ritual where they had a heart to heart talk and claimed to bare their souls. I often wondered whether she had a soul, or that any of them had souls worth baring. Most of what I knew about her came from overhearing the others. I knew that her husband had cheated on her. He had fallen for his young, nubile secretary. I knew that she knew and wondered if they knew. I knew that she had swallowed her pride and decided to let it go. But not before forcing her husband to replace the girl with a bespectacled, matron. She had became more careful about her looks and had started looking more carefully. And then she had let bygones be bygones. Shrugged the past after taking lessons for her future…..
She checked her reflection in the window pane and sat down at a table near me. I wondered who would come next. If the Rottweiler arrived then I would hear some juicy gossip about the Collie and the Bulldog, else I would get an update on the Rottweiler’s dwindling finances. It was amusing how they knew that the one who reached last would get talked about most, every aspect of her life would be ruthlessly dissected and laid bare. No wonder everyone was very punctual. I preferred the chitchat before all four of them were in attendance, afterwards the topics became more generalised and less fun.
Just then the Rottweiler swaggered in. The doorman stood up taller, the waiters cowered in a corner. She was a hard to please nit picker, so everyone tried to avoid her gaze and look busy. She didn’t command respect, she demanded it and most of the time got it. People pandered to her whims to steer clear of confrontation, to avoid creating a scene and be ridiculed in public. But I have seen the uncertainty on her face when she thinks no one is looking. After her husband’s death she has persevered to keep her herd together and the money lenders at bay. She tries hard to hide her shrinking resources and mounting bills. She spends hours on the computer tackling medical transcription. The job doesn’t pay well but she values the privacy. No one should ever know that she is no longer royalty, that she has to work to put food on the table, that the unpaid loans her husband has left behind could take away the roof over her head. She doesn’t know that they know. That they discuss her knock-off designer purse and fake diamonds behind her back. Industrious and alert she maintains a tough facade and tries to shrug her past and shape her
After the customary air kissing, she sat down at the table and ordered a drink. They started with some small talk and I strained my ears for the gossip that would inevitably follow. “Did you hear what Ms Goody two shoes has been upto?” crooned the Poodle. That is when the Collie pranced in. Till last night she had been my favourite. The bounce in her step reminded me of the frolicking canine Einstein, full of energy, always in a good mood and ready for a laugh. I had always felt a tinge of envy in the others voices when they referred to her. She seemed to have it all, in fact from what I have heard, she has always had it all. She was the proverbial it girl, had a torrid affair with the most popular boy in college and had given it all up for the security of an ‘arranged’ marriage. I know that it had not been entirely her decision, in fact she had resisted the proposal but her parents had slowly wore her down. She seemed to have settled well in domesticity, had bore two children. But honestly speaking, I had always been troubled by the momentary wistfulness which occasionally crossed her eyes. Yesterday, my suspicion was confirmed when she trudged into the past.
The Bulldog bustled in and broke my line of thought. She was short, squat and ugly. Her skin seemed a size too big for her and folds hung around her chin and arms. It was the result of indiscriminate rounds of fasting and feasting. She was dim witted and usually lagged behind in the conversation, constantly seeking explanations and clarifications. Her noisy breathing, a series of gasps and grunts added to the agony of her presence. I knew that she was an orphan who had clawed her way out of poverty. I often wondered how she became part of such an elite group. I myself, had held her in low esteem till I came to know about her past. She had been caught in the crossfire between warring communities. Rioters had barged into her home and killed her parents while she had watched from the wardrobe, where her mother had hurriedly hid her telling her not to breathe. She had survived, got over the nightmares, mistrust and bitterness. The only visible remnant of her night of horror was her erratic breathing. She habitually held her breath and followed it with loud gulps of air. It was amply visible that the others didn’t mind her idiosyncrasies and valued her, I just couldn’t figure why.
As all four of them settled down and discussed what to order for lunch, I thought about the futility of their existence and how my life had been so much more meaningful. I had spent most of my life in the police force. I had earned the nickname ‘The Nose’ for my ability to sniff out trouble. I was valued and respected. One day a bomb exploded, injuring me and forcing a premature retirement. Since I didn’t have a family to fall back on I was assigned a care taker. Retirement didn’t suit me and although the caretaker was considerate his children weren’t. They didn’t understand that a decorated retiree will not fetch things or perform tricks to amuse them. One day I left without a word and roamed the streets. Hungry and tired, I opted for this job in a posh outdoor bistro. Its not that I was offered the position, in fact I created it myself. I hung around and got rid of lurking stray dogs who gawked at the guests. The owner thought that I could be useful and offered me dinner in return. Its an informal, unwritten agreement. I don’t have to do much, in return I get free meals, a comfortable place to sleep and all the gossip I can handle. As long as I appear disinterested and distant the owner doesn’t mind my eavesdropping on his guests. I think he would be less open to the idea if he knew how keen my sense of hearing is. Should I, who had an illustrious career of catching consignments of illegal drugs and explosives be chasing stray dogs at the fag end of my life. This question used to bother me a lot earlier but doesn’t any more. I have inferred that I should shrug the past and make peace with my present.
I didn’t realise when I dozed off. This is what I like about this job. Most of the time my presence is enough to intimidate the intruders, sometimes opening one eye and giving a hard condescending stare is all that is needed. Rarely do I have to raise my voice or chase the mongrels. My boss respects me for my aura, the invisible boundary I have created and my no fuss way of guarding it . When I woke up, I could hear the Bulldog talking animatedly on the phone. The others, as usual, had left. I snickered at the stupidity of the Bulldog. How could she not see that they always left on some pretext, forcing her to foot the bill. Just then she said something which made me sit up. Her exact words were,” Fodder for my jokes! You don’t know how much people reveal about themselves when they think that they are with a twit.” Then she laughed and added,” I love these lunches. Its fun to act stupid and you should see how it builds their self esteem. Their conversation keeps me in splits afterwards so its money well spent.” That is when it all came together. That is why they loved her. She made them feel good about themselves. And they helped her shrug the past……
It was nearly closing time by the time the Bulldog left and the waiters had started moving the upholstered chairs indoors. I am trusted with guarding the tables and the parasols. I have to admit that they are fixed to the ground making theft improbable but I have a role in keeping them pee free. I like to believe that I play a distinct part in the scheme of things, and that what I do matters.
I was basking in this glorious feeling of self importance when suddenly, I had a profound moment of enlightenment. I realised that like me, the Poodle who preens to prove herself, the Rottweiler who barks and bites to defend her brood, the Bulldog who dumbs down to fit in and the Collie who is not as perfect as she seems, all are victims of their circumstances. I understood that it is wrong to judge someone without knowing their journey. And instead of spurning her I should help the Collie let go of her past, just like the others had unwittingly taught me to move on. With this newly acquired wisdom I got out from beneath the table and made my way to claim the leftovers dumped on the street. But before that I needed to raise a leg and refresh the territorial markings. A day in a dog’s life is never done.
( carried in the Open Page of the Hindu on 13/5/2018).