The Story Behind the Scar
By Anisha Ralhan
I grew up with one sister, six parrots, one rabbit and a tank full of goldfish. But all I ever wanted was a dog. On the morning of my sixth birthday, I saw the most beautiful German Shepherd propped next to my pillow, gawking at me with hazel eyes. I held him close to my chest and wondered how long it would take for him to love me back. "Soon," Ma said. "Soon you'll get a real one," and tore off the Hallmark tag clipped to his ears.
I was nine when my sister got diagnosed with asthma. She was six at the time, too young and too tired to comprehend the arguments that ensued between Ma and me. "Have you seen her condition? Pet dander is the last thing we want in the house." Ma thought she was meeting me halfway when she took me to a guy in Delhi who sold exotic and (most likely) endangered birds and reptiles, the kind one only sees on the likes of National Geographic. She returned home that day with two parrots and a slightly less sulky daughter.
By the time my sister parted with her inhalers for good, I was a 10th grader who had nearly flunked her half-yearly mathematics exam. The dream of getting a dog got buried under the weight of trigonometry books and parental pressure. Besides, as a teenager, my priorities had shifted to finding the most painless way to get rid of armpit hair, penning the wittiest one-liners on slam books, trying on outfits for high-school parties, and writing poems about my imaginary boyfriends.
During my second year of college, a friend told me about a lady who had started a non-profit welfare outfit to rescue abandoned dogs. She was described as fierce and stubborn by local newspapers. I couldn't wait to write an email to the crazy dog lady, asking her for a role. Any role, really.
After a month of colour-correcting digital posters, sending promotional emails to strangers, and doing other mind-numbing tasks, I was asked to stand-in at the adoption stall in a decrepit parking lot outside a mall in South Delhi. I remember that evening vividly, the bamboo facade which looked like it could fall any moment, the burnt caramel smell from the cotton candy stall next to ours, the cheap satin bedsheets spread over our counter complete with heart-shaped pillows stamped with the words, "Puppy Love". An hour before the closing time, I stepped out from the back to help Geeta, a 30-something volunteer, feed the eight puppies who weren't so lucky to get adopted that day. She was surrounded by feeding bottles which had traces of milk inside.
"This one is not eating, she's got a stomach bug," Geeta exclaimed, pointing towards a timid-looking mongrel who could pass off as a Labrador, if you ignored his long pointy Pinocchio nose. I took the pup in my lap and offered him my hand. He sniffed it and licked it promptly. I couldn't have asked for a better handshake.
"She likes you," Geeta said.
"It's a she?"
"I was going to take her home with me. Don't think it's safe to bring her to the shelter tonight. You know what, you take her."
I looked at the pup – white as a lamb, soft as a dove – and stroked her ratty head the way I would pet my plush toy. In that moment, I just knew what I had to do.
Sheero – my little "lamb" at the age of three, and not so little anymore – was sleeping where she slept every day, on the edge of my bed, on top of my blanket, when I returned from work around midnight. With her head delicately tucked between her paws, she looked ridiculously adorable. The face of bliss, we had called it. I bent over to kiss the top of her head. It wasn't the first time. But it would be the last time ever.
I can't recall very well what happened next. I remember feeling weightless like I was floating on a cloud, although, in reality, I don't think I could've even blinked without help. I remember seeing blood gushing like water from a broken dam, down my chin, discolouring my baby-blue shirt and the marbled floor underneath me. I remember wanting to lie down, like my life depended on it. There were screams, mine and then Ma's.
A few minutes later, an aunt who lives in the same building appeared in her nightie and held my right arm as Ma tucked my left arm under her elbow. Together, the three of us walked out of the house like soldiers scurrying away from a battlefield.
"This appears to be a sixth-degree dog bite," announced the young doctor in the emergency room of Gangaram Hospital.
"Fifth degree, the patient is alive," corrected his senior, a bespectacled man in his 50s. "Laceration on the lower lip. Deep cuts on the chin. Needs at least eight or nine sutures. We will have to call a plastic surgeon to stitch it up," he declared to Ma who was standing beside my stretcher.
"Promise me, you won't do anything to Sheero," I said to Ma as the nurse stabbed my vein to inject medicines with unpronounceable names.
"How about you focus on getting better first," she said while stroking my cold feet peeking out of the thin hospital blanket. "Anyway, the doctor has asked us to monitor Sheero's health." The word "rabies" hung on her lips, but remained unspoken.
In my mind, I knew she was fine. She had to be. She'd been nothing but a perfectly loving dog who loved the same food I did (vegetarian dumplings and curd rice) and played with the same toys I grew up playing (her favourite too was the tattered doggie soft-toy). With that tiny morsel of assurance, and some hospital-grade drugs, I drifted in and out of a comfortable numbness. The rest of the night, or whatever was left of it, passed quickly. Nurses came, nurses left. A cloud of familiar voices passed over me. Early in the morning, I was taken into the operating theatre. It looked exactly like I pictured it, a scene from Grey's Anatomy.
During the recovery period at home, Sheero and I were kept physically apart at all times. Every now and then, I heard her whimpering from the other side of the door, pleading to be let into my room. Her room.
"What do we do with her now?" Ma asked nonchalantly. Drop her at the shelter, hissed my aunt. Give her a second chance, pleaded my sister over the phone. Back in my village, a mad dog like her would have been shot with a gun, scoffed Grandma. So, are you going to give her away? my best friend texted. I pictured Sheero in a filthy three-foot cage, refusing to eat, just like she did when I was gone for three days. The image of her yelping in pain (she had broken her hind leg once) invaded my mind like a nightmare. How would I face the thought of her sleeping on the cold floor and not on her bed? My bed. How would I ever forgive myself for abandoning her?
I knew this was my test, the real test of love. Everything I knew about myself, about my dog, was distilled into one moment.
"She can't go," I said to Ma. "It wasn't her fault; she was in deep sleep! I woke her up. I frightened her. Maybe she was having a nightmare about the street dog who had gotten into a fight with her. Maybe she thought I was the street dog," I said between sobs.
There was a long pause.
"Oh honey." Now Ma was sobbing too.
Sheero is nearly 13 now, sleeping more and eating less than usual. Twice a year, when I go back to my house in Delhi, she greets me with drools and a dancing tail. I pet her under Ma's supervision, and kiss her in my head. We sleep in different rooms, on different beds, like lovers grown apart. Every time someone shows me a tattoo of his or her pet, I show them my scar.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 3 Jul 2020