You know those sleeps when all your fears cram into the centre of your head and you’re forced to contemplate the certainty that you will not only lose everyone you love but that you’ll grow old alone and die in a troublesome way? Despair that begins inside the body – along the byways of arms and legs, the arteries and veins pumping blood vociferously, moving haplessly in the direction of disaster. Or perhaps nothing is intuition. Perhaps it is all retroactive premonition?
The day we lose the first of our dogs, I wake to that kind of morning.
First there is the smell of burning. A sharp, rancid smell of something giving way. It comes from the west, from the shuttered windows behind my bed. I wonder whether Mallika is setting another snake on fire, or if it’s something more horrible – the house catching fire, a gas leak.
Outside it’s dark and smoky. I reach for my spectacles and torch, and make my way downstairs to check the gas. Then I come back upstairs and go across the landing to Lucia’s room. She’s sleeping on her back, the bottoms of her feet meeting in a foot Namaste, hands thrown up over her head. Watching her like that, I want to climb into the bed and fan her thin brown hair against my chest and shoulders.
Out on my balcony, where the phone signal is strongest, I call Mallika.
“Where’s all this smoke coming from?” I ask. “Are you burning another snake? How many times have I told you they’re not poisonous!”
“No, Ma. It’s not a snake. Today is Bhogi. Everyone is burning their old things. You should close the windows.”
I’d forgotten about this tradition of people hauling all their useless things to burn in preparation for the New Year. I bolt the shutters and windows and climb back into bed to fall into a fearsome sleep, thinking only that I should remember to buy Mallika a new sari the next time I go to Madras. She’d expect it for the New Year.
A few hours later, Lucia’s at the bed, tugging at the covers. “Wake up, Grace, wake up.”
She doesn’t let me change. “Fast, fast,” she keeps shouting, so I pull on a robe and find slippers for my feet.
Downstairs, Mallika looks sullen, wearing one of my old cardigans over her sari, arms wrapped tightly across her tummy.
We set off down the driveway – Mallika and Lucia ahead of me, marching. Lucy’s thighs rub-squeaking against each other in pyjamas.
I take note of how many holes there are in the brick compound wall. That’s where the goats come through – there and there. I marvel at how nicely the bougainvillea is coming along – huge, heaving hedges of magenta and orange sprawling over the brickwork. A speckled woodpecker sits in the middle of the path, making his noise, then disappears into a gulmohar.
The dogs are arranged like a question mark on the ground by the gate. Kat, Preity, the three mothers – Hunter, Thompson and Flopsy – ungainly and heavy-titted. By the gate on the ground there’s a package of newspaper with rice and meat. At first I cannot comprehend the scene, but then I see smears of vomit and blood around the mouths of the dogs and understand they’ve been poisoned.
“Get that out of here,” I say to Mallika. “Anyone could pick that up and eat it.”
We come back with gloves and shovels. The poor, sad, dead dogs. Their black bodies are hardening in the sun and beginning to stink. Mallika asks if she should ask for help.
“A man would be useful,” she says.
“No, I don’t want anyone in here,” I say.
It takes hours to dig the holes. The sun is strong and a scratch of pain starts from my lower back and spreads into my shoulders. I plug on obstinately until the work is done. We wrap the dogs in plastic first, then sheets, and lay them in the ground. Lucia wants to say a prayer for each of them. “Oh Father,” she starts, the rest of her words nonsensical, flowing out of her in some kind of litany.
“Tell Valluvan I want to see him,” I say to Mallika, and then I go back to the house to wash the death off me, leaving Lucia on a pile of mud in her pyjamas, rocking and singing.
Valluvan’s wife, Nila, offers me hot, ghee-soaked pongal on a steel plate and a tumbler of tea. Valluvan himself looks luminous in a shiny white new lungi and veshti. He’s fussing with the cows in the courtyard, whose horns have been painted red and black – the household’s political colours – in preparation for New Year. The daughters dart about like parakeets in bright green pavadas with heavy gold borders, saying, “Hi auntie,” while the boy, Lenin, just nods shyly.
“I’m sorry, I’ve brought nothing.”
“Never mind,” Valluvan says, “Come, sit.”
The jute stools have been moved so I sit on the floor, crossing my legs awkwardly, the blood at the top of my thighs choked and dizzy.
“Someone has put poisoned food outside my house. Five of my dogs are dead.”
“That’s not good.”
“A man came to see me about selling the land recently. Do you think it could have been him? I’ve phoned my friend at the Blue Cross, you know? He says I can file a police complaint.”
“There are so many bad elements in the village these days,” Valluvan says. “They all want to become millionaires overnight. Not happy to be fishermen or farmers, no? They are only interested in this new gold, and we are sitting on it. I didn’t think they’d try anything with you, though.”
“What can we do?”
“If I ask here, they will say that your dogs are eating their chickens at night, which is the truth. Here, if someone kills your animals you kill theirs. But if it’s that broker you’re talking about, then it’s hard to say.”
“But shouldn’t they lock up their chickens? There are so many packs of hungry dogs around here. It could have been any dog! What kind of person puts poisoned food by the gate? What if someone’s child picked it up?”
“You don’t know these rowdies. They go around with axes and knives. They want to sell all this land and make resorts and coal factories. You are too educated, so they can’t fool you. But so many others have already lost their land. Illiterate people who just put their thumbprint on any document. And the police – they are involved in all this. Don’t think they’re going to help you.”
“So, then?” I say. “I should just do nothing, is it?”
“If you want your dogs to live, tie them up at night, simple.”
A mood settles over us all. Raja and Bagheera stretch out on the patio – morose and listless. The puppies are frantic for food. With the three mothers dead I don’t know what to do. I take mashed-up dog food over to where they’ve been hiding in the neem bushes, and they rush out, a flurry of black and white, setting upon the bowls with blind hunger.
“Do you think they’ll make it?” I ask Mallika.
“We’ll have to see.”
Excerpted with permission from Small Days and Nights, Tishani Doshi, Bloomsbury.