My grandfather used to bring me a packet of sweets when I was nine or ten years old. When he arrived in the evening, I darted towards the verandah and stood panting, waiting for him to take the packet out of the side pocket of his white Khadar Jubbah. After washing his face and legs from the snouted metal pot and hooking his curved black handled umbrella on the lath, he sat on the pyol. I was beckoned and he gave me the packet saying,
“Don’t eat all by yourself, it will spoil your teeth, give to your mother too”.
I vanished from the spot and gave two sweets to my mother in the kitchen, sat in a corner of the kitchen and ate them with great relish and the packet was soon emptied. My grandfather’s voice came:
“Santu, wash your face and legs and pray”.
I soon finished the ablutions and prayed sitting in the middle room for some time lapping up the mesmerizing fragrance of the agar batti in the room, came back to the verandah and smeared the holy ash on my forehead from the wooden container hung in a corner of the verandah standing on the pyol. Grandfather came after his short prayer with holy ash smeared on his forehead and a towel thrown on his shoulder. I sat on the pyol and read aloud a chapter from my book and soon fell asleep while my mother came and took me to the kitchen and after supper I slept in the room near the middle room
One evening my grandfather came with a puppy. I was sitting on the pyol waiting for the sweets. The puppy swang along his heels and stared at me. It was light brown in colour, ears drooping and tail in white at the tip. At the first sight it took my heart. Grandfather pushed it aside and after his ablutions entered the house. The puppy stood puzzled near the step of the house for not having given any permission to get in. It began to let out light barking. I went in and stole a piece of dosa from those kept for my grandfather near the hearth and threw it towards the puppy. It seized it and began to eat with great zest. Grandfather came after his prayer, went to the kitchen and came to the verandah with a dosa, beckoned the puppy whistling. It fawned and came near him, with humility accepted the piece and ate with great joy. I asked,
“Where is it from, grandpa?”
“I found it near our shop and when I walked past, it followed me. First I hesitated, then called it aside” he said.
“It is very cute, grandpa” I said.
At night we gave it a portion of our meal in a plate and it slept in the verandah, not fully asleep but closed its eyes and keened its ears to snatch even the rustle of leaves.
In the morning when my grandfather was preparing to go to his shop dressed in white jubbah and dhoti carrying his Tiffin box, the puppy was lost in a game of seizing an insect under the cassia in front of our house. The puppy came running and walked in front of grandfather. He said to me,
“Santu, tie it. It is not well tamed and would sometimes run away”.
I took it, held it close to my heart and tied to a stump in the front yard of our house. It went on barking. When I came back from school, I ran towards the front yard to ensure that it was there. It was lying there and at my sight barked. I gave it some food. It stretched its body and yawned. I untied it. It jumped in ecstasy. Throwing a piece of paper I tried to fool the puppy which ran after it, smelt it and returned in vain after I called it. Some of my friends too joined us who provoked it for fun. We played like this for a long time that we hardly noticed how time passed. My mother told me to stop the play, my friends left and we returned to the verandah. I went through my ablutions and prayed. When my grandfather came, the puppy began to wag its tail and stood meek.
We named him Raju. He grew big and fat and his bark reverberated like thunder in the air that made neighbor’s children scream. Raju remained loyal and faithful to us.
When the postman came in the afternoon, Raju let out a yelp that made him run back. I called him back after ordering Raju to keep quiet.
“Come, Sridhar Etta, he is chained. Don’t be scared”
He gained upon me after ensuring from a distance that Raju was chained and sat on the pyol letting out a long sigh. I could see him perspiring profusely.
“O, Amme, give me a glass of water”, he cried.
My mother gave him a glass of buttermilk and stood giggling at the way he drank with eyes wide open as if he had escaped by the skin of his teeth from a terrible accident. He gave my mother the letter from my father and she went in taking the glass.
“Raju’s the name of our dog” I said proudly to Sridhar Ettan.
“Why not Hitler? I think it is better” he replied.
I simpered unable to gasp the meaning of the name he uttered. He left without failing to look carefully back at Raju who had debunked a man like him before a boy like me.
“Amme, O Amme”, cried the old Muslim woman standing under the jackfruit tree which made Raju bark loudly. My mother and I came to the verandah and found the old woman trembling with fear. My mother shouted to Raju to keep quiet and he obeyed. The woman, who
came often to gather dry leaves in exchange of Avil , wiped the sweat on her face with the edge of her purdah and placed on the ground the dung-smeared basket she had hugged to her waist like a baby. Her lips were red with the betel leaves she chewed. She took out the Edanganzhi filled with Avil kept in the basket and gave it to my mother. I snatched it from my mother and had a handful. Oh, what a taste it had! My mother used to mix it with coconut scrapes and jaggery and the taste was inexplicably sweet. But eating it plain was no less tasty that I remember stuffing my mouth at frequent intervals from the kitchen. She began to gather the fallen, crumpled dry leaves and putting it in the basket began to scold Raju.
“Give me something to drink”, she said, her voice feeble due to exhaustion.
As per my mother’s word I ran to kitchen and brought mug full buttermilk and a glass with water. The old woman rinsed her mouth with water and drank the buttermilk. I feel nowhere can a person’s innocence be as obvious as when he/she drinks, eats or sleeps. In sultry summer, buttermilk replaced water at home and I was fond of it that even to this day no sophisticated, popular drink has been able to tempt me so much. She left me saying,
“I have never seen a dog like this. Santu, if you don’t control it, you won’t get Avil”.
From that day I was very careful to keep Raju quiet when she came lest her displeasure should end in a shortage of Avil that I can’t bear to think of.
Raju accompanied grandfather to his shop in the small town. He strutted in front of grandfather like a bodyguard. He watched the sewing machines and clothes in his shop and after leaving him safely there, returned home. I never allowed him to accompany me to the school lest he should create a scene seeing the hive of children.
Coconut thieves were plenty in those days. They played the despot of the land next to our house in the night when Raju was small. But when he grew, they were very cautious to make any noise. One night, Raju chased them barking. They ran for life in haste leaving the tender coconuts and coconuts under the tree. Raju came back only after ensuring that they vanished and would never dare to venture again even to a far-off land.
Raju barked loudly in the night if there was any light near the fence of our house. This was a disturbance to all our neighbors. He became a headache to the thieves and a nightmare to the small children who hesitated to go to school. The land next to our house belonged to an old man who visited it once in a month and returned disappointed. But nowadays Raju was a solace to him and to some other neighbors who were completely saved from the plunder of the thieves.
One day, Raju, as usual accompanied grandfather to his shop. It was Saturday and I was playing in the backyard of our house. Raju returned late and was crawling along. I heard his bark and rushed to the verandah. He bowed down in the front yard blood oozing from his body, trickling over his chins from his mouth and he vomited and barked. I couldn’t make out anything. He closed his eyes for ever.
When grandfather came, his grief also broke all the boundaries of control. My mother too was very sad and upset. I was absolutely speechless. I knew only in a person’s absence we feel their worth.
Later we came to know that he was given food mixed with poison and broken glass from an arrack shop by some one on his way back from grandfather’s shop.
We buried him near the gooseberry tree that stood near the mud wall.