Short story I submitted to Deccan Herald more than a month ago. I had originally written this as the final assignment for the writing course I took, but it so happened the day I finished it was the last day for DH’s short story contest. So, I added a little more detail (DH had a word limit that was twice that of my assignment) and sent it across to DH. No idea if they received it as I never got a response. The contest results aren’t out in any case.
Little Diya startled us awake at some ungodly hour; it was pitch black outside, but the dim glow of the light in the corridor, sneaking in through the barely open bathroom door, moderated the darkness in the room. We blinked once, then twice, but it was a full minute before we were able to orient ourselves. In any case, it was not the momentary blindness that had us worried. It was Little Diya’s frightened voice – “the dogs, the dogs – go away, go away!” she had screamed. That was what had startled me awake. Naina was probably awake anyway – if I knew my wife, she must have felt the nightmare even before she heard the scream. It was the most natural thing for Naina to gently feel Diya every hour or so – checking if she was on the bed, was she sweating, was she still under the blanket or if the blanket had fallen away down to the floor. My friends have told me their wives are the same – a maternal instinct that we men, fortunately, do not encounter, and therefore sleep soundly; some of us, loudly as well.
However, this time, I was wide awake too. A child’s nightmare is not something to ignore. Naina switched the light on, but Diya had her eyes tightly shut and kept saying “the dogs, the dogs…the black dog, they are coming, they are coming. Make them go away, Appa”. There were no dogs, of course, not in the room at least. Her voice breaking, Diya mumbled “They are attacking me, go away, go away Black Dog”. I had to laugh, but stopped my laugh short as I noticed Naina looking at Diya, her eyes showing plain worry and little humour. I patted Diya on her back and sang “Old McDonald had a farm, eeya eeya o”, and then my own personal jingle “jo jo re papa, jo jo re po, jojo po re papa, jo jo re po”. I thought that would calm Diya down, and so it did. Naina switched the light off, and after a few minutes of cuddling, patting and singing, the tension let itself out of Diya, and she went to sleep again. Shortly after, I went to sleep too dreaming of a black dog called Black Beauty.
In the morning, Diya woke late, it must have been almost ten and I had to gently draw the sleep out of her, lest she sulk through the morning. I brushed her teeth and then we played blocks for a while, or attempted to do so at least. I would build odd shapes and tall towers and Diya would encourage me to add one more block, then one more, till finally there was no more to add. She would then clutch the structure, and holding it with one hand, proceed to break it apart with the other. All the blocks would be down on the floor again, and she would squeal delightedly, “It’s done, It’s done!”
A most fascinating game, no doubt, but after a while, I bored of it, and stepped away to watch a movie on the TV. Diya forgot about the blocks and went to play with her dolls in the balcony. It would have been like any other day, when, suddenly, a violent series of barks rent the morning’s peace, followed shortly, by a heart-rending squeal. I ran to the balcony to find Diya looking out through the railing. There were seven or eight dogs downstairs, but what caught my eye was one of the smaller dogs limping away to the side – the squeal must have come from him. It seemed like there had been a serious altercation over territory. I could recognize at least three of the dogs – the large black one and two dirty brown ones, the others weren’t as familiar. Clearly the local dogs had won, for the dog with the limp and the two unfamiliar ones scampered away into one of the adjacent alleys. That seemed like a cheery outcome to me – I don’t particularly care for street dogs, nevertheless, who doesn’t like to see one of the locals win! The losers didn’t leave easily though, they ran like all besieged beings do – snarling at the black dog and his companions, all the while stepping away slowly from our alley.
I was heading back to the TV in the living room, when Diya started wailing loudly “the black dog, the black dog…bad dog bad dog”. In a minute, the tears were rushing down her cheeks in a flood, it was as if some dam of fear had cracked and there was no stopping the tears any more.
“Shh Diya, it’s nothing. Just a few dogs…don’t worry”
“Black dog, black dog…Bad, very bad.”
“Don’t worry, see, it’s gone now”.
“No, no, bad dog. It bit the small dog.”
“Don’t worry, it’s gone now”
“Take the dogs away, Appa. I am scared, no dogs, don’t want dogs…Go away, black dog”
“Shh, Diya…I hugged her tightly and sang “Jo Jo re papa, Jo jo re po. Jojo po re papa, jo jo re po”.
There was no stopping Diya’s tears though, she kept crying about the bad black dog. I didn’t know what to do. This was normally the cue for me to hurriedly transfer her over to Naina. But Naina wasn’t around, she had gone out to the local supermarket and wouldn’t be back for another twenty minutes at least. “Diya, stop it!”, I screamed. That only made her cry even harder, and I had to mutter “sorry” over and over again.
I lifted Diya, and shot across the living room, throwing her up and down repeatedly. That was something that had her shrieking in delight usually. Not this time though, she only shouted “No, no…don’t do. Stop, stop. No, no”. I put her down on the floor again, and wondered what I ought to do to stop her tears. Call me nuts if you will, but at that moment, I was almost as worried that she may have been immeasurably scarred by what she had seen.
I remember, when Diya was younger still, she would refuse to walk down the stairs. She had tripped and fallen in one of her first attempts to do. Truth to tell, she was not even trying to walk down then. She had taken her tricycle out to the corridor and accidentally, one of the wheels had caught the edge of the first step and she tumbled down the stairs with the tricycle. That had been one harrowing moment for us, and left her with a bump on the forehead that took two months to heal. It took longer still though – over six months, before we were able to lessen her fear of the staircase and she began to walk down the stairs herself again.
I walked up and down the room, holding and soothing Diya all the while. Nothing worked – the wails would pause every few minutes, only to start all over again as she found an additional reservoir of pain energy. I walked across to the balcony again and looked down to the road. The black dog was back, this time alone. He had found a shade below one of the small trees that lined the lane and appeared to be settling down for a late morning nap.
What I did then is something that has me wondering to this day. I guess all I can say is that maybe something clicked, or some voice spoke; whatever be it – I quickly put on my footwear, locked the house and walked downstairs with Diya. It was hot and humid outside, and I could understand why the dogs were morose and angry with each other; it was the sort of day about which Dickens would have written “It was a season to sleep indoors”. Well, something less banal. But, I digress. I asked the security guard, Pravesh, if the water tanker had come – one of those auto pilot questions that I had to ask any time I saw him. I don’t remember what he replied, for, I was, by then, outside the gate. I put Diya down on the ground and that seemed to silence her for some reason. Before she could start wailing again, I carefully sneaked up to the black dog. A thief would have been proud of how still and silent I was then. A dog’s senses are sharper though, and he opened one eye to look at me. For the longest moment ever, my heart was in my mouth, as he appraised me like an X-ray machine would a smuggled item concealed in the secret chamber of a suitcase. Something about me was reassuring or maybe it was something else – in any case, he shut his eye again and went back to contemplative sleep. I exhaled silently, and kneeling down, nuzzled the dog, gingerly at first, and then as some unwarranted confidence seeped in, more robustly. A full two minutes passed this way; me petting the dog, and him breathing deeply and gently. Allow me a short detour.
When I was much younger, I grew up in a small town bordering this city. We lived in a housing colony that had few dogs and while I played outdoors a lot more than my daughter does now, I never did encounter too many dogs. One evening, while I was playing cricket on the road with my friends, a small dachshund, no taller than my knee, for some reason, found me a repugnant presence, and as I ran back to stop the ball from rolling into the ditch, it ran faster still after me. “Watch out”, I heard a scream from my friend, and as I stopped and turned around, I saw this damned little thing bounding speedily towards me. I jumped right across the ditch and must have run another two hundred meters when it caught up and leapt at me. It would have taken a chunk of my calf, I suppose, if I hadn’t reached the fence at just the same time. And so luckily for me, all I heard was the ripping sound of my trousers and the heavy breathing of a little dog that, for a few moments, had had me on the ropes.
So, you see now, why it was such a big deal for me to be nuzzling an unknown dog, and a stray one at that. It had taken me every ounce of my courage, and then some, to take this giant leap. As much as little Diya feared the black dog, my fears went a long way back and had rankled silently for two decades now. I was more than a little pleased already, and hadn’t even realized it, but when I turned around, I noticed Diya was standing close by, holding on to Pravesh tightly.
She looked me in the eye, and said “Appa, can I touch him?” I pulled her tiny fingers into mine and gently put her palm on the dog. She touched him hurriedly and scampered back to Pravesh. I mimed a signal that it was all fine, and slowly, she let go of Pravesh and tiptoed towards me and the dog. Her smile widening all the time, she brushed his skin, felt his neck and laid her cheeks on his back. I did the same and closed my eyes. I heard a little voice say “Good dog, good dog”. Smiling broadly, I thought the dog opened his eyes then to see a man and his little daughter hugging him, and dismissed them summarily, imagining it to be a dream.