Ten years ago, when I moved out of the city of Chennai to live down the coast, I had not expected that I would be moving closer to death. The sea was a romantic symbol for me: life-giving, relentless. I had witnessed cyclones and a tsunami, seen how a placid coast could suddenly become a scene of destruction, but there was still something eternal about the sea, the way it breathed continuously – in-out, swallow-spit, hiss hiss. It was reassuring.
Living beside an ocean day after day, season after season, I began to understand patterns of deterioration. In the house it arrived as a plague of rust, eroding hinges and collapsed light fixtures, coils inside fans detonating like small bombs. But the sea dragged in actual death as well, not just the insentient variety of orphaned slippers and toothbrushes.
Hundreds of bloated fish with marvellous planet-like eyes washed up on our shore along with vanquished birds and decapitated sea snakes. Occasionally, my husband and I would see a drowned dog or cat, frozen awfully in a phase of rigor mortis, and we’d shrink away. Even in the months of January and February, when the Bay of Bengal is a sheet of glass, there are corpses. Olive Ridleys that have been cut free after getting tangled in trawler nets dot the shore, their large prehistoric bodies, kingdoms for an entire frenzied ecosystem of bacteria, midges, crabs, crows.
There is something terrifying about witnessing a corpse. In Chekhov’s story “A Dead Man,” two peasants keep watch over a corpse at the edge of a forest one cold night when a pilgrim stumbles upon them. When he finds out they must stay with the dead body, he becomes flustered. He tries to walk ahead to the village, which is so close, but finds he cannot, begging one of the men to accompany him. “I am not afraid of wolves, of thieves, or of darkness,” he says, “but I am afraid of the dead. I am afraid of them, and that is all about it.”
We are afraid because a corpse reminds us of our own mortality, but also because it is shocking to see a creature without its life force. In death the people I knew seemed shrunken. Always, it’s the area of the mouth which seems to reveal the loss – slack, empty, with no longer anything to say. Growing up I had seen corpses carried through the streets of Chennai, accompanied by the loud life-affirming sound of the parai, drums that jolted you not just to seize the day but to hold everything beloved close. The dead remind us to live. This is why we honour them and are haunted by them.
If you have a home, you think you can hide from death. This year, more than any other year, that idea has settled. Stay home, stay safe. If you have no home, walk to one. If there is no space for you in that home, find a tree. But you must find a place to shelter from the out there.
Out there lie dangers. Those dangers are always changing and morphing, so we must build nests in order to feel safe.
For ten months I was unable to travel home. My caretaker Ammu looked after the house, dogs, plants. While I was away, I worried for everyone – my parents, brother, friends, Ammu, the dogs, but mostly our oldest dog, Bagheera. She had been a pup when the house was built. We thought she was somewhere between twelve and fourteen – ancient for a beach dog.
She came to us wild, not feral, but resistant to domesticity. She was of this land, knew its secrets and hazards, taught them to our two other rescue Indies. Over the years she learned to inch close, closer, but never in a sentimental way. From garage to patio, and finally into the house, stretched out near the stove, but only if the doors on both sides were open so there was guaranteed escape.
Living with the dogs in this place sometimes made me feel as though I were living in a poem from the Kuruntokai. Drenched, sweet, dangerous. AK Ramanujan describes the binaries of akam and puram in Tamil classical poetry as the domestic versus the public. Akam being house, interior, private, the story told in the kitchen. Puram being the complex and communal out there.
For me this sense of interior and exterior was linked by the dogs who rode the line between the hearth and the wild. They could never be pets. They were free agents who we had sterilised and vaccinated but they chose where to sleep and who to follow. The dogs roamed with us on our walks, and when we were back inside the house, it was the dogs that reminded us of the wildness still out there.
In the middle of December my husband and I were finally able to fly to India. The dogs greeted us as they always did, with a howling that is old and insistent. They charged around and raised their faces to the air, a noise coming out of them that seemed to be saying many things at once. They have three different registers, our pi dogs, but it is always Bagheera who begins the choir. She taught us how to howl. Snouts up, then shout, cry, really draw that sound out from the centre of you. Ahoooo awoooo ooooo. Here we are. Here you are.
Pi as in pariah dog. Pariah as in outcast, untouchable. Anglicised from Paraiyar, a South Indian caste, player of the parai. Parai in Tamil is to speak, to tell; also used as a derogative to mean low, worthless. Traditionally, it is the paraiyars who lead funeral processions down streets to the cremation grounds with the sound of their drums and death songs.
I remember running out of the house as a child to stand at the gate and watch the cortege pass by – hypnotised and fearful. These musicians were creating a rite of passage between life and death, turning the private grief from inside the family’s house to a public mourning. Their drums were louder than death, they took grief and spun it into something else.
When we howl with our dogs, I have that same feeling. It is a sound of resistance, of survival; sturdy and territorial. Seize the day, hold your beloveds close, remember to live while you are alive.
Bagheera dies on the morning of the Great Conjunction between Saturn and Jupiter, on the Winter Solstice, though at 13 degrees north I’m not sure how far I can take metaphors of light and dark. I want to make meaning is the thing.
We have had a week together. The sea is moody, post-monsoonal. In the mornings the dogs tear away. Their bipeds are back and they are eager to get into battles with other packs of beach dogs as we can always be relied upon to wave our hands and chase after their tormentors. The anxiety that I’ve been holding the whole year refuses to go away even though I’m here, I’m finally home.
It is a morning where she’s less interested in the walk, more interested in breakfast. We don’t go very far because the sand is bitty and sucks down our feet. When we turn around, we see her on the ridge just ahead of us. It is an image that has returned to me every night since. Her in the green spiny weed, a look of confusion, as if to say, what is this happening to me? She darts off faster than I have seen her run, into someone else’s property. I chase after but when she sees me, she gets more distressed and disappears into a casuarina grove.
At home, I speak to the vet, and tell him I think she’s been bitten by a snake. She is lying a kilometre away in a kind of wilderness so the advice of putting her in a car and taking her to a hospital does not hold. We go back to find her with her bowl and water. She has moved further away, immobilised on the ground, her body spasming and panting.
I have never seen a creature in death throes like this. I want death to be peaceful. To be able to go to sleep and never wake up. But here is her body and here is death moving through it. The poison is powerful and terrible. A crow circles around, cawing. A harbinger? We howl. We call her name. She lifts her head but her eyes are glassy, her tongue hangs out and she is in a state that is not life or death, but in between. We pour water over her mouth, but all the bile, all the poison, must cut through, and then, it is over. Her body is warm, but immediately you see that life has left.
We borrow a spade from a woman who is herding goats nearby. Ammu knows her. She comes over and asks what happened. We want to bury her where she is, in the grove, but the goat woman points further away, where there is a natural depression, a place that would require less digging. When it is time to bring the body over, Ammu takes the front legs and I take the back. The weight of this dog is something. I arrange her paws, touch the beautiful black coat. We cover her with sand, leave her bowl beside her.
Later that evening, we go out on the beach with the other two dogs who have not understood what has happened. They seem to be sniffing more than usual, eyes pinned to the horizon to see if the familiar black shape of Bagheera will emerge from wherever she has been rambling to join us. On the shore, not far from the waves, I see a snake. It is small and alive, brown and white with a sharp triangular head.
I say to my husband, if this were a short story it would be too much. Symbolic overkill. Your dog is killed by a snake and then a few hours later you see a snake? Who scripts these things? We turn around quickly. I call to the other dogs to stay close. I want to trap them in the house and never let them out.
I miss the presence of her. We all do. Even the house seems to sag. My anxiety has been replaced with deep sadness. Not just for this beloved dog, but for the year. For all the death in isolation of Covid wards; for all our fearfulness of touch; for the unrelenting vanishing that we find ourselves amidst this Sixth Extinction.
My husband and I keep telling ourselves that at least we were there, she was not alone, we saw what happened, we stayed with her. It could have been that she disappeared one night and never came back. Her corpse could be lying somewhere in the out there in a slow state of decomposition. It was a terrifying death, but it happened under a ring of trees with the sea whispering nearby.
Bagheera’s death releases something in me. It has been inside me this whole year, this anticipatory grief – a knowledge that you will lose something, and after that you may lose some more. It is a directionless, unpredictable grief that settles inside you. You cannot know which way to look, which new thing will destroy you. What you know is that eventually you must mourn, so you must be alert to it. It will come in the form of death and something about you will have to change in order to hold this death.
I’ve been thinking about what the sound of this collective grief that has settled in so many bodies all over the world could be? Is it a hum, a chainsaw, a maddening drip? I only know what sounds we’ve made to counter it, and it began with chants of Azadi in Shaheen Bagh earlier this year, and continued with singing on Italian balconies in February, and was carried forward by the beating of pots and pans for healthcare workers in households across the world in late spring.
It was the silence of aeroplanes and the triumph of birdsong. In all our isolation, in all the deepening battlelines between inner and outer, we have found ways to keep each other company through sound. Not just to say, Hello, I’m still here, I exist, but also to say, I hear you, I see you, I reach my imaginary arm over to embrace you. The work of survival is the work of mourning, it is also the quiet work of radical joy, a drumbeat, a howl.
Tishani Doshi is a poet and novelist.
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