It’s all happening a little too fast. I am typing this column from a train. My children and I are on our way to our village to attend a wedding in the family. My husband is already there, looking after his father and helping with arrangements for his first cousin’s marriage. All this is good news, but the corollary to this is that our very new pet animals, Scarlet the puppy and Rahat the kitten, are alone at home. Ashok, who would have driven us to the village and attended the wedding too, has stayed back and will live in our home for the next four days. Scarlet is crazily fond of him but Rahat has barely registered Ashok’s existence so far.
One of the peculiar side effects of bringing a puppy and a kitten into our lives is that my empathy meter has gone completely out of whack. I feel overwhelmed by what seem to be Scarlet’s feelings. I have nightmares in which I am wounded and abandoned and have been kidnapped by strangers who are taking me to a place from where I don’t know how to return. I am not a stranger to strange dreams, but when I thought about these I realized that my subconscious was playing out what it imagines are Scarlet’s feelings. It is a useful trait, but for the first time I am realizing that empathy has to be managed too so it doesn’t paralyse me with anxiety. Thankfully, our children are calm and balanced as they help us manage our new life.
Even before I became an adult, I had always fantasized about adopting a child. I still remember some of the babies’ faces at Palna, the adoption agency I used to volunteer at as a college student. As a film student, I had made a film on adoption. When we didn’t choose adoption as a couple, I had never imagined that the theme would return to our lives with a cat and a dog.
My school friend, Anupama, who had held my hand gently through the process, called after reading my previous column in Lounge. “If you hadn’t adopted them, both Scarlet and Rahat would have had a miserable life on the streets, eating rubbish to survive," she said. “Scarlet for sure would have been dead if Sandhya hadn’t picked her up for treatment when she was found with maggot-infested wounds in a park. And poor old Rahat was hanging around tiny and alone when my niece rescued him. Urge people to adopt desis, our ignored and ill-treated street animals and forget about breeds."
Anupama feeds five dogs in her neighbourhood and helps get street animals neutered and adopted. Sandhya, who rescued Scarlet, is part of a people’s campaign called TNR (trap, neuter, return) that facilitates sterilization and immunization of feral cats so they are safe and can live in their community.
When Scarlet first came to our home, timid and scared and yet so hopeful of finding love and nurturance, I would often look at her face and feel a connection to her mother. This thought would cross my mind—someone else’s child has been entrusted to us. We owe it to the universe to take care of her.
Among other gifts, our pets have introduced us to people who love and care for animals. To be honest, I am still mesmerized by this tribe and the extent to which they go to care for vulnerable animals. If this isn’t spirituality in action, what is?
My husband called me a couple of hours after we had boarded the train. He is managing his feelings towards the new babies by pretending that feelings are irrelevant. “Be practical. Don’t lose perspective," he repeats to me, but I suspect he is talking to himself more than to me.
“How was Scarlet when you left her?" he asks. After being rescued by Sandhya, Scarlet had moved from foster home to veterinary care and animal shelters and had almost completely healed when we adopted her through the animal welfare initiative, Paws for a Cause. But she has lingering skin issues and her newly healed wound has split open and needs vigilant care.
I give my husband all the details of Scarlet’s wound and medication and then he asks me again, “Yes, but how is she?"
I smile to myself. If I had volunteered information about Scarlet’s state of mind on my own, he would have told me that he was asking about physical health only. Because I didn’t go there, he had to lead the conversation to her feelings because that was on his mind too.
Reader, it is time for me to confess. My dog, I am sometimes disappointed to discover, is a dog. She eats dirty things. She rolls in the mud. She wants to make friends with every dog and human she sees outside. She occasionally nips at my children. She scratches her own wounds.
She gets overexcited and does not understand etiquette when we have guests over. Like I said, Scarlet is a dog.
She also reminds me of babies. Who want to put everything new in their mouth. Who don’t see class differences till we demonstrate different ways of behaving to them. Who want to share with you their excitement about the new world they discover every day. As with babies, I have to remind myself that when Scarlet grows up, she will not become like me. She will become more like herself.
“What should we do?" I asked my daughter as we watched Scarlet circling the compost pit in the corner of our garden and looking for crunchy eggshells yet again. “Let her be wild or try to tame her?"
“Let her be wild," said my 16-year-old. “She will teach us new ways to be."
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker and the author of the books My Daughters’ Mum and Immortal For A Moment.
Twitter - @natashabadhwar