My uncle owns a posh house in the suburbs of Washington DC. Not far from the tourist places, but far away from the congestion and crack houses and quite accessible to the metro station. It is in such a neighborhood, that he bought it real cheap, but expects it to appreciate in value about twenty folds in just a few years. It has the best school district and is located very close to my uncle's and aunt's places of work. In fact, it is the best pocket of land in the vicinity of the nation's capital and sheer economic sense destined him to spot this El Dorado of a real estate. And he closed the deal at a ridiculously low mortgage rate. If there is a center of the universe, it is this, it is this, it is this.
I went over there for the holidays. My aunt and uncle and their two kids, the picture-perfect family (at least for a year or two, till their youngest kid, Rahul, becomes a teenager) were on the doorsteps inviting me in. My aunt had promised me a 'surprise' and I was bracing myself to act quite surprised.
"Look on the sofa" my aunt said, unable to prolong the suspense any more.
"Why, a new cushion ?" I asked carelessly.
"No, a DOG, your uncle's friend gave her to us last month. We are calling her Thunder" Sheesh, I should have guessed. When I phoned them up a few days ago, I heard strange yelping sounds in the background and I had presumed it was my uncle making those sounds. My aunt didn't know that I had a surprise for her too. My holiday gift for her this time was a book titled '101 uses for a dead dog'. The 82 nd use was a 'very large pin cushion'.
There it was - all black, blacker than the telephones of yore, with black beady eyes (Piccasso would have called the beast White on White) Thunder ?!? It looked more like a Bundar. As if switched on, it lifted its head lifelessly and emitted a few perfunctory barks at me.
"She already likes you" my aunt reassured me as the dark, shaggy thing came up to me and deposited a puddle of drivel and gasped a few times. "I wanted a cat, but cats are just couch potatoes and Anita was pestering us for a dog. So we decided on a dog. It was such a difficult thing convincing your uncle to get us one."
My uncle intervened. "Your aunt is an expert in getting things her way. In this house women are in majority till my son grows a mustache. Have you ever noticed how these women gang up with each other and against men ? Even if two strange women meet, they quickly develope a rapport and generate brotherly feelings toward each other in no time at all. No wonder men are losing their ground." Are you listening Gloria Steinem, Jayashree Gururaja ? "Your aunt wanted the dog to be a veggie dog, can you believe it ? - in this age of dog chows and puppy chows."
"What's wrong, you tell me" my aunt argued, bringing me into the battle. "I raised all my kids in this country to be vegetarians. Why can't I raise the dog the same way ? We Indians are the only ones who give up their culture the moment we step into this country." It seemed like they finally worked out a compromise, that the dog could eat meat, but only in the basement - the dog food would not enter the main sanctums of the house.
"Thunder is keeping all of us very busy. We had to house-break her and walk her. Just last month, we had an accident in the guest bedroom, where you are going to be sleeping today. Thunder did pooh-pooh there." Thanks aunt, knowing this, I will sleep like a baby tonight.
"No mom" came a loud protest from my cousin Anita "Thunder didn't do pooh-pooh. She only did choo-choo".
"No, sweetheart, remember we rented the carpet steamer from the drugstore ? She did pooh-pooh not choo-choo."
Thus began my vacation.
"Look at your aunt's handbag. Notice how huge it is - if the people at the Domino's Pizza see it, they would want to borrow it and use it to deliver their extra-large pizzas. Look at the way she walks the dog - even Nancy Reagan didn't walk the First Dog like this."
I made my first car trip with a desified dog, sharing the backseat with it and two kids. It was tougher than I had imagined. There was a constant battle for territory. Every time the car came to a stop, the dumb thing would lose its balance and fall down and whenever it tried to creep into my lap, I had to judiciously push it away, without arousing my cousins' suspicion.
On the second day, I took it for a walk, which amounted to it dragging me for a good kilometer. It stopped to urinate at every single tree and quasistationary object in sight. For a creature that had absolutely nothing to do in life, Thunder was extraordinarily hyper and had to be around whereever there was any excitement. As per Somebody's Theory of Canine Ego, that the smallest dogs have the largest egos, Thunder would bark its tail off at all those large, real mean dogs, as if it owned the territory. I would get scared stiff for being drawn into the feud by association. Fortunately, the bigger ones would just ignore Thunder and me and walk on.
While inside the house, it always walked between my legs and everytime I had this irresistible urge to give it a violent kick, my aunt would quickly appear at the doorway, as if she read my mind. Then the ritual of giving it vitamin pills. Rahul would pop the dog's mouth open for a split second. Anita would quickly deposit the magic pill and Rahul would hold its mouth shut till it either swallowed the pill or suffocated to death. One of the low points in my life occured while I was resting on the couch, when Thunder lunged forward at me in one great friendly gesture. Before I could even react, the animal was already all over me, belly-up, like a dead cockroach, beseeching me to pet her. And I had to scratch its underbelly to earn some points from my aunt. ("Anita, isn't she cute ?")
Although he never admitted it, my uncle was secretly proud of having a dog in his house. He even attempted conversations with it.
"After all, you are man's best friend" my uncle told Thunder. Oh, no, he is in his PJ (Poor Joke) mode. He won't stop now. He continued "But doggie, when you go out through those doors into the wide world, remember it is a doggie-dog world. And I am doggone right ! You will be dog-tired, especially if you have been workin' like a dog. If you don't follow my advice, you will just go to dogs. But then, every dog has his day. Yes, my dear Doggie Howser."
The PJ mode was infectious. I too joined in. "Kuthe, kamine, mera izzat ko mitti me mila diya" I told the dog, " And watch out Thunder, people might call you a bitch, but to me you are a doggess". I winked at my uncle, who quickly came out of his frivolous mood and gave me what seemed like a semi-dirty look.
On the following day, there was a massive party. Thunder was exiled to the basement, after it attempted to lick an elderly woman guest and nearly caused her death by heart attack. The party itself was fun. My uncle's friend's father, retired officer, Indian Railways, was making conversations with me "You are from ITI Kanpur ? my son-in-law's brother-in-law also studied there in 1975. A brilliant fellow. Now he is in Jaipur. No he is from ITI Kharagpur, not Kanpur. Parvati, What is Vasudev Kaka's second son's name ?" I was slowly sinking to the bottom of the ocean.
It is time to philosophize. Why would a perfectly normal and happy desi family suddenly get a dog at this point in time. Why ? Maybe there are reasons. For my uncle, it is one more feather in his cap during his long life of seeking feathers in his cap - like buying his house or filling his basement with a 35 inch TV. To my niece, who is a rookie teenager, walking the dog down the road is a nice way to meet all those cute boys and perhaps a good compensation for some of the inadequacies of being raised in an immigrant, non-caucacian household. And as for my nephew, the dog is the kid's version of American dream, something larger than life. In fact, it was larger than even an elephant. I am sure it means something to my aunt too. And does Thunder have a say in the matter? How does it feel to be a dog in a desi household ? Any difference ? Is Thunder the desi equivalent in the world of dogs? After all, it too confronted the veg-non veg issue. It is forbidden to enter the Pooja room. Like desis in real world, it looks very important and gets a lot of attention with the weekend visitors and parties. It too has a disproportionately large ego and displays it at every given chance. It also barks a lot and never once bites, like many desis. It too never quite enjoys catching frisbees and never got around to being good at it. Pretty soon, it will get a huge paunch. Then it might even make posts on Soc.Culture.Indian. Is the dog just a metaphor ? How surreal ! Why can't I accept Thunder for what she is and live in peace ? Well, I can go on and on, along this convoluted train of thought. But, I shan't. It is time to sleep.