“Don’t love her too much. You can’t love her so much that she needs you.”— My mother, on dogs
This is a story of two dogs, Melo and Angel (and Baby makes three).
It is a story about the question, “What is Love?”
It is a story of the only correct answer, which is, “Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more.”
It is a story about the things that live in the dark.
It is a story of dogs that bark at them.
In October of Frankly, the Worst Year in the History of All Time, that is 2020, I came back home after staying away for seven years.
The circumstances were profoundly funny, the way very sad things tend to be.
It started when I wrote a will. I thought, as a newly minted adult, it was The Right Thing to Do while looking down the barrel of our collective impending mortality. This is something that happens when you work in news during a global pandemic.
I have since been informed that this is not how wills work. You appoint an executor. You distribute assets. You do this in your fifties. And you do not, in fact, send an email to your mother, with no conversation leading up to it.
In such cases, a very reasonable reaction is for said mother to presume that her daughter has exited this earthly realm via a staircase of her own devising.
This becomes much more likely if, like me, you have been on anti-depression medication for two years, and in therapy for four.
My mother woke up and read that email first thing. Then she tried to call me.
She tried again. And again. And again.
I didn’t pick up.
So, she thought. The child is dead.
She did the sensible thing, which was to call my workplace.
My workplace did the sensible thing, which was to believe her.
That is how I woke up that morning to a copy editor at my doorstep, asking me politely if I was alive, and whether I’d tried to kill myself the night before.
I had not, I said.
Are you quite sure, he asked, confirming the detail, as copy editors are wont to.
What are you doing here, I asked.
I offered him tea. It seemed the thing to do.
This meant he had a front-row seat when I closed my eyes and called my mother, to inform her that I was, against all expectations, alive, and probably going to die of embarrassment.
She didn’t laugh.
“Ma,” I said weakly. “I’m fine. I was sleeping. It was just – for fun.” She was crying too hard to yell at me. I started to sweat. This had never happened before. Things were Very Bad.
I weakly floated the idea that perhaps she should not have leapt to conclusions. The copy editor raised his eyebrows disapprovingly.
My mother hung up.
As it turned out, it was to step on to her flight, which she had booked five minutes after reading my will. Apparently, the usually unflappable staff at Bombay airport will hold the flight for you when you turn up late, with crazed eyes, and tell them your daughter has tried to kill herself. Evidently, a lot of the regular rules of the world change to accommodate that, which, as a concept, is very good of the world, but was terrible for me.
Two hours later, my mother stepped into my house, hugged me, and didn’t let go.
Orpheus begged and pleaded and lost, but with Demeter, Hades took orders quietly.
“It’s time to come home,” she said. It was no longer a question, and my moral high ground was slippery.
This is how we found ourselves at a railway station a week later, with Melo refusing to get on the train.
Melo is eight years old. She was a rescue who came into my life a year ago. She is a brown dog who turns a gorgeous autumn Irish Setter russet in the sun.
She has the long, deep coat of a Golden Retriever, with fluffy paws, feathered legs and the elegant, tufted ears of a Collie. Her tail is a long-fringed plume of a question mark that says, “Underneath the fancy fur, my friend, I belong to desi streets.”
I didn’t see any of this when I chose her, though. She was hiding underneath a bench surrounded by hyperactive, loud puppies at the shelter’s adoption day. Well-meaning potential pup parents tried to pet her as she cringed beneath the bench.
Melo did not perform. She was not a big fan of people and hated loud noises, and that day was a combination of too many people, all making loud noises. They wanted her attention, and she refused to give it.
Fundamentally, Melo knew that people were not nice. She had learnt that the hard way. She had been in the shelter for seven years. I was watching her sitting there, when she looked at me with big caramel eyes, and then turned away. She did not gaze at me and say, “It’s me.” She did not put her soft head in my lap trustingly. She did not walk straight up to me and say, “Take me away from all this.” She looked away and panted, stressed, and I sat next to her for a while and didn’t say anything at all. I got up.
“What about – her?” I said, pointing to the bench.
“Oh, that’s Melody. She’s sweet. But she’s not social,” the shelter lady told me.
“Huh,” I said.
“She has a lot of anxiety,” she said. “Ah,” I said.
“She doesn’t trust men, doesn’t like children – ”
“I’ll take her,” I said.
We already had more in common than anybody else I had ever met. She was perfect.
Delhi is not a city people come to stay in, unless it is already their home; it doesn’t know what to do with new blood. Unexpectedly, betraying my Bombay roots, it fit me. I stayed, rooted, as friends and lovers swam into my life and away in a relentless, annual tide. Perhaps this is what happens when you’re in your late twenties. Perhaps it is easier to love people with a built-in expiration date. Perhaps I am easy to leave.
But I wanted someone to stay.
I wanted someone who wouldn’t just love me while they were waiting for their life to really begin, and I didn’t want to be someone’s beginning. I couldn’t stand belonging to someone, and I wanted someone who was all mine. I wanted to wake up by myself every morning for the rest of my life. I did not want to be alone. I wanted a friend, not a lover – but more. How much more? All of it. I haven’t found a word for that yet.
So Melo came home.
I gave her a bed, and she gave me a reason to come home at night. She took me on walks where I had been too scared to go alone, and made me go out into the world, every day. She made friends with my neighbours who had dogs, and scoffed at the ones who didn’t. She made me feed her properly, every day. Even if I survived on coffee, cigarettes and cheap kathi rolls, she had fresh meat and veg. Every day.
After four years of living on that corner, watching people come and go from high up on my fourth-floor window, I became the Didi with the Dog. Melo was the Dog Who Did Not Play. The children, holding hands, would shout Melo-Dy when we stepped out, and I would shout back Hello-Dy, and they would fall over laughing.
Melo was friends with the downstairs dogs, the brindle hounds Rodney and Gazelle. She loved Rodney with her whole heart, and he bounded up to play with her when I whistled. She thought Gazelle needed to learn her place, and Gazelle, in full agreement, lay belly up and weed herself in terror and joy.
With the dogs on the corner, she had an ongoing feud, and they shouted insults at each other when we went to the grocery store. She fell injudiciously in love with young Sultan, the gorgeous, shining- black part-German Shepherd part-Lab, acting like a pup half her age, as they ran across the park, nipping gently at each other’s hocks. She would stand in the sun, laughing up at me with her tongue lolling, flinging herself into freshly cut grass.
Days I had to stay in bed and watch the ceiling, shivering, she was there.
I could reach my arm down and find her, and she would lick my fingers.
Whenever someone famous kills themselves, the internet bursts with reminders to check in on your depressed friends, and to be there for them. What they do not know is that the most efficient way to be there for someone is to live under their bed.
Melo did not scare away the monsters, because the only thing a monster is scared of is another one.
But she was there.
Every morning, she woke me up at 5 am, singing with the azan outside our window. She was a cold nose in my ear, a leaping, jumping delight, ready for her walkies. We went out, and we came home.
I brushed her beautiful soft coat every morning and sleepily, she let me, turning her head inquiringly if I stopped.
She did look at me trustingly then. She did put her small soft face in my lap. Only I would be the one looking her in the eye and saying, “Take me away from all this.” And every time when my fingers sank into her soft fur, she did.
She still did not like people. I didn’t either, so this worked out superbly.
Home was my matchbox flat with a bright yellow wall with blue plates hung by long bookshelves. Home was a ratty, ancient armchair that was second-hand two hands ago, and a couch Melo would mutinously pee on if I left her alone too long. It was piles of books, in corners, within reach from every seat. Our bedroom was white – walls, linens, curtains. For eyes to be quiet after the outside. We fell asleep with the shadow of the cotton-silk tree dancing across the wall, every night.
So Melo did not want to get on the train. She wanted to go home. But I hauled her in anyway.
A train ride later, and all at once, we were home – new home, old home, ancient and fresh. I hadn’t come back in seven years. I wanted to call it something else – the house – the old house – mum’s house?
But with a definite, menacing certainty, it insisted that I was back, and this was home.
It was dark.
The brooding, chaotic violence that accompanied my father was not here. He had been politely asked to move in with a friend so that I could stay. I had not spoken to him for years, and this was the first time my mother had picked me.
But it was still – unmistakably – his turf.
The walls were covered in senseless colour, leftovers of concept art which had tired of itself midway. Baffling kitsch littered every surface. An earthen fish. A box of the packets in which rolling tobacco comes – all empty. A resin statue of Jesus with a broken arm.
There were cables – charging cables and USB cords and LAN cables and plugs, taking root and reproducing in drawers in every room, crawling over spaces where sense might have lived. There were cables for technology that hadn’t existed since 2007.
There were twenty-seven drawers – I counted. Inside the dark caves of their frames, they were covered in fine, creeping white mould.
Then there were the hobbies. A wall full of earthen pots with holes drilled into them, through which tiny lights would be pierced. A black board, through which fairy lights were stuck like pixels to make a tacky, tired Christmas tree, flashing blue and yellow. It was never taken down, but it forbade a real Christmas tree in its place. It insisted on being art.
Huge, dark furniture loomed, grabbing shins and biting toes when you walked across the room, eating the sunlight that fought its way in.
Heavy curtains covered in a year’s worth of dust shrouded the windows. The books were behind them. It was from this house that I had inherited the instinct to hoard books, like a librarian who happened also to be a dragon. Books were treasure. And like in my home, they were in every room, but twisted, like the reflection in a circus mirror. Here, they lived carefully slotted into shelves built into the windows, and they kept out the light.
Books are not meant to block out the light. I remembered why I left.
This was where light came to die, and a broken, blinking facsimile demanded to take its place.
Then suddenly, a brand-new, tiny dog bounded up to me, and let out a volley of barks.
Angel was two years old. They had adopted her just two weeks before I arrived. She was a small black-and-white Spaniel, the white flecked with black as if sooty fingers had stroked through her fur.
Her original family had loved her very much, and had trained her to go to the toilet for her business. She did not have her own basket, because she lived on their laps, in their arms, and had done so since she had come to them a week old.
She was meant to be their retirement plan – they had bought her for forty thousand rupees, and were told each of her pups would fetch the same price when she was bred. But by the time she was old enough to breed, she had caught a skin infection that caused her fur to fall out in patches, and she had been shaved so often that the hair grew back sharp to the touch. Suddenly, she was too ugly to breed. When the lockdown came, her family, who lived one day at a time, jostled into a house inside a single room, all having lost their jobs.
They could no longer afford to love her.
They cried when they gave her away.
There was already one dog at home – Baby, whom Mum had adopted nine years ago. She was seventeen now, and half-blind. She was a rescue too, and had barked exactly twice in her life.
She was soft in the way that the absence of hardness is. Baby was independent; she only needed to be fed, and appreciated a pet, but didn’t really need one. She slept a lot. She liked two meals a day.
She went on her own walks. She was a good dog; she was good at being invisible.
Still holding my suitcase, I looked at Angel doubtfully. She suffered from the curse of small dogs, which is that they have to prove themselves to big dogs, and they seem to want to do that by saying, “come on then, if you think you’re hard enough,” with absolutely no provocation required. The world is made up of big dogs, if you are a small dog.
“She growled? Melo’s aggressive?”
“No, she’s just got good boundaries,” I said.
“Yes, but will she fight with my dogs? I mean, of course she’s my dog too, she’s my grand-dogter, hehe, but with Angel? And Baby?”
“Of course not,” I said. “She’s my dog.”
Three days later, Melo bit Baby.
For a week, Melo cowered. Nobody had yelled at her. Nobody had said anything, really. But she hid under the bed, anguished, knowing I was upset, that she had Done Something Wrong.
She didn’t come out to be cuddled. I didn’t want to cuddle her. She gnawed at her paw till it bled, which made me feel guilty and upset. Every time she emerged I would bandage it, and she would flee under the bed as soon as I finished, away from me. Every time. I hated myself.
I had to keep her locked in my room, and in a fit of furious, defensive rage, I locked myself in with her. We only went out for walks, and ate our meals silently, alone. Mum couldn’t leave the house, quarantined for two weeks with me. She bustled outside, every hour of every day. She was loving. She made food. She came in and chatted about nothing.
She flinched every time Melo walked outside.
I was not going to stay in a place where my dog wasn’t welcome. I knew Melo was a good dog. She was a good dog. I knew she hadn’t meant to bite; her teeth had nicked Baby in the scuffle, just barely. Head wounds always bleed, and when we had wiped away the blood from the scratch near Baby’s eye, we couldn’t even find the scratch again.
But there had been blood. And so there was fear.
I knew it was my fault. There had been a plate of food, and I had forgot to separate them.
I was furious at myself, for not knowing my dog. I was furious with Melo, for not being beyond reproach. I was furious with my mother, for being afraid of my dog, who was a good dog. I hated myself for being angry with Melo, who hadn’t done anything wrong. I was angry with Melo, for not doing everything right.
But most of all, I was furious at this house, this dark house with its sharp corners, where lifeless things ate up the light, this house that dragged me back every time I ran away. This house, where rage had lived for so long, it had seeped into the walls, and made you vicious to survive. It took joy between the teeth and spat it out, turning it into fear and sorrow. I hated how it leeched blackness into the one pure thing I had.
It had made Melo sad, it made me make Melo sad. I wanted it to be alive so I could choke it to death with my bare hands.
It laughed at me.
“So, ah,” the dog therapist said, looking at me, “have you had any stress recently?”
“I mean, not particularly,” I said. “I just moved home.”
She looked at me steadily. “Been a while?”
“No, no,” my mother interjected, smoothing happiness around her like jam. “She has her own room. She works all day.”
“And your husband?” the therapist asked.
“He’s – not there now,” my mother said.
The doggie therapist sat on the ground with all three dogs. She played with them. She walked away she came close. She gave them bones. They ignored the bones. She took us out for a cigarette, and Melo went and sniffed her, tentatively, and asked for pets.
She petted Melo.
Then she turned to me and said, “You’re over-bonded.”
“I am what?” I said flatly.
“Melo thinks the world starts and ends with you. You put the sun in the sky, and you make the grass grow. Everything she needs comes from you, and she knows that.”
Melo padded over to me, and I sank my fingers into her fur, clutching. So I needed her as much as she needed me. Wasn’t that – right?
“It’s not a bad thing,” the therapist said gently. “But it means that if you’re stressed, she is stressed. And then you stress out because she’s stressed, and you’re both in this cycle.”
“She also gets annoyed if I feed Melo,” my mum piped in helpfully.
“You feed your dogs twice a day and I feed her once, Mum,” I snapped. “And you act like I’m starving her but I’m not; she’s happy and she’s healthy, and if she gets fat her bones will bow, and you act like I can’t look after my own dog – ”
My mother turned to the dog therapist. “Like that,” she said dryly.
“Your daughter is under the bed,” the dog therapist said. “What?” my mother said.
“When dogs are afraid and unhappy, they will go to a place where they feel safe. Quite often, that’s under the bed. Like how Melo goes under the bed. If they are under the bed, you should never, ever pull them out. You should never feed them there, or they start associating fear with food. You should let them be till they come out.”
“Okay – ” my mother said, uncertainly.
“Don’t feed Melo if your daughter doesn’t want you to,” she said briskly. “If she wants help, she’ll ask. Don’t try to go under the bed.”
“But – ” my mother tried.
“No,” the dog therapist said.
It was a No that went to the bones. She had honed it to a fine point, with dogs, and now it worked on humans.
“Move upstairs,” she said to me. “Set your distance. Mark your territory, and Melo’s. Keep the other dogs away from her if she growls, and don’t punish her for growling. She’s communicating. She’s talking to them, to you. She’s saying, ‘I don’t want this.’ And we reward her for using her words. She’s doing a fantastic job of telling you what she needs, and we will encourage that. And if the other dogs bother her, take them away.”
Mum looked unhappy.
“Why do they have to watch their ps and qs just because she can’t?” she asked. “Mine are the compassionate ones, and just because she’s – rude – she can just walk all over them?”
The doggie therapist turned to her.
“They are all good dogs,” she said. It did not brook argument. Soon, Mum started leaving for work every day. She looked after elderly people, and the pandemic made it more important for her to be there.
“Will you manage with all three of them?” she said fretfully, standing at my door. “Will you love them all? You won’t ignore them for Melo?”
“Yes, Ma,” I said, looking at my phone. “They’ll be fed and healthy and happy when you get back.”
She looked at me.
“Okay,” she said.
I don’t want to love them all the same, I thought savagely. I wasn’t going to. I was going to love Melo, and just keep these two alive. It was going to be fine.
Angel did not get this memo.
Fifteen minutes after Mum left, she scratched at my door.
Melo growled quietly.
“Good girl, Melo,” I said, looking into my laptop and ignoring the door.
The scratching grew louder. I ignored it. Scratch scratch scratch,
Angel went, diligently pawing the door to open. It had always opened for her before. It did not open now. Scratch scratch scratch. I concentrated harder.
It was done.
They would learn, and it would be fine. They didn’t need to be loved to be okay. Besides, I wasn’t going to be mean to them, I just wasn’t going to be...devoted. I already had a dog. Sorry, no vacancies.
Suddenly, a piercing howl broke through my reasoning.
I ran out.
Angel was sitting by the door, looking outside, and howling. She was howling her heart out. She howled and howled and howled.
She was howling because she was miserable. She was so small, her sadness was so big, and she howled to let it out. She was two years old, she had lost her mummy a month ago. Now her new mummy had left her. Angel was crying because she was all alone. She was so small, and being alone was too big.
“Well,” I said under my breath. “Fuck.”
I walked up to her and ran my hand down her back.
She stopped howling and turned and looked at me. Her eyes were huge. They were what puppy-dog eyes were named after. Pools took notes on how to be limpid.
She nosed my hand, and tentatively wiggled her bum. She didn’t have a tail – they’d docked it when she was a week old. All that was left was a black patch in the shape of a Beatle’s haircut, which she wiggled now.
“Fine,” I said. “But you have to be quiet, and let me work.” I bent down, scooped her up, and took her to my room.
I said, “Good girl, Melo,” and set the puppy down.
The puppy jumped back up and planted her paws on my knees.
She had her eyes on, adoring. She beamed at me, panting, tiny pink tongue in her soft grey face.
“No,” I said weakly. “Down, Angel.”
Within about two weeks, Angel had colonised my life.
For the first week, she missed her mummy, and would chase middle-aged women she saw on walks, yanking at her leash, while I was left mumbling apologies in her wake. She was a nuisance. She wanted my mother, or her old mother, basically some kind of mother, who was not currently available. She did not understand anything. She never came when I called; she wanted to fight dogs six times her size; and she barked at everything.
If it rained, she barked at the sky. She jumped up to the window and barked at the neighbour lady cooking dinner. She barked at butterflies for flying, she barked at the grass for growing. She barked to tell the world that she was here, and she was watching, so it had better get its act together.
At night, she would put her little paws on the bed, and beg to be allowed up. I declined. She was persistent and determined. She figured out that she could take a running leap and climb up herself. As I lay myself to sleep, there she sat next to me, staring at me like a tiny furry stalker.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” I asked her, cross.
She walked up to me, curled up in the crook of my arm and laid her small head upon my shoulder.
“Oh,” I said stupidly.
My arm curled around her without waiting for permission. I told it to go back. It had a job and was not to waste its time cuddling dogs. The arm refused to listen. It went on strike. The revolution crept through my body and unionised my bones. My spine turned traitor and curled around her. It was blatant, brazen insubordination...Her head was the softest thing in the world.
Angel sighed happily, and I fell asleep.
In the morning, she licked my nose till I woke up, bleary. She wanted walkies.
Melo never tells me what to do, I thought. Melo fits herself around me. With Melo, I was the one driving the car. Angel simply crashed the car, then looked up at me from the conflagration with her big eyes and wagged her bum.
What a horrible device a car is, her happy face said. How much better for you to walk. With me. Now. Because I have to pee. Now. Walkies.
The days I refused to wake up on Angel’s clock, she peed in the hallway, despotically.
She was a tiny, horrible tyrant. She deployed her bladder like a fascist deploying troops. If she ever found democracy, she would pee on it.
I wanted to be a bitch. She just wouldn’t let me.
Moving upstairs didn’t work. When Mum left, if I went up, even if it was just to hang my clothes to dry, a small parade walked with me, with Angel in the lead, scoping out the territory. I followed with faithful Melo, and Baby, who didn’t like to be left out. Melo growled. Baby ignored her. Angel ran everywhere and peed on the washing machine.
I loved it. I loved my little caravan. They didn’t like each other, but they all loved me. I couldn’t get a glass of water without having a dog underfoot. I complained about it with transparent delight.
Angel looked at me with an addictive adoration. She stopped yanking on her leash. She climbed into my lap when we watched TV. I would find myself watching for her to follow when I left a room, same as Melo, and they both came together. When Melo growled now, it was a grumble, and Angel would automatically turn away. I crowed. She was a Good Dog! Good dog, Angel!
One day, she bounced into my lap, and I held her tight – tight tight tight – and she looked up at me. I was gone. I was hers now as much as I was Melo’s. I grinned at her and cooed.
“Who’s my little banana? Is it you? Are you the most beautiful girl in the world – ”
“You shouldn’t love her so much,” my mother observed, snapping me out of it.
I looked up guiltily from the small dog in my arms.
“Make up your mind,” I said. “First I loved her too little. Now I love her too much.”
“I don’t want a dog that wants to be held all the time, and you’re encouraging her. You keep letting her up on the bed.”
“You let her up on the bed first,” I said.
“No, I didn’t,” she said, lying.
“How am I not supposed to love her?” I asked, aggrieved. “She didn’t let me not love her. She made me love her. I didn’t want to love her; she made me. It’s her fault. Yell at her.”
“She’s a dog,” my mother pointed out, unfairly.
“Why don’t you learn to love her more?” I asked mutinously. “Because everything goes away,” my mother said, now upset. “You can’t hold on to anything. Nothing’s yours. You have to be – enough – by yourself. You can’t love anything so much. You can’t let her love you so much that she needs you.”
I looked at her.
“You can’t love her too much,” she repeated, helplessly.
That week, we cleaned.
My mother called the carpenter, who dismantled the big, heavy bed, and set it again in a corner, away from the windows.
“I didn’t know it fit there,” she said absently.
We pulled out the drawers, all twenty-seven of them. I hunted down every cable like a madwoman, with Melo and Angel following me, putting them in a clear box I bought for the purpose, tying them all up with red tape. Angel decided she wanted to live in the box, so I put some red tape on her head. Melo huffed at the fuss.
We turned the house inside out and laid everything across the floor. Use Pile. Throw Pile. Give Away Pile.
“This is from 2012, Ma,” I said, waving a tube of rancid moisturiser.
“Yes, but you can still use it,” she said. “Or we can give it away. It all cost hard-earned money.”
She stared at it for a few seconds, torn, then looked away.
“You do it. When I’m not here. So I don’t have to see.”
She turned to cabinets, and with single-minded focus, started pulling things out. Tools. Drill bits. A set of paint brushes. Carrom coins. A wooden magazine rack. An air fryer. Paper plates. Jigsaw puzzle bits.
“You’re right,” she said, turning over a shoehorn and tossing it.
“It’s all fucking rubbish,” she said, wonderingly, holding a handful of ravel plugs.
“I want to throw it out, but they won’t let me. I can’t find this house under all this rubbish. I can’t do it alone, so I just – ”
She flung a set of visiting cards venomously across the floor.
“Ma,” I said. “Do you want to take the books off the windows? We can put them in the drawers. They’re empty now.”
We looked at each other, and started to laugh.
About a year after I wrote this, Angel lived up to her name and made her way across the rainbow bridge. In her three years on this undeserving earth, she had grown to be a therapy dog to housebound elders, who looked forward to her visits every week. She packed more joy into her brief time with us than any of us could have ever conceived, and while I would like to say that this was a consolation when she was taken from us, I would be lying if I said that. It was unfair, and unnecessary.
In her honour, I hope you make sure your dogs are given their tick treatments with the regularity they require to avoid the galloping tragedy that is tick fever. It’s my firm belief that Angel understands exactly how unfair this is, and is distraught by how much her passing has left us wounded. As such, I’m sure she is waking up every morning and peeing on god. She will always be a Good Dog.
Naomi Barton works as a digital sheep-wrangler at The Wire, where she also occasionally writes. In her free time, she takes her dog to visit priceless ancient monuments, which she appreciates with due respect, and her dog sometimes pees on.
Excerpted with permission from The Book of Dog, edited by Hemali Sodhi, HarperCollins India.