For the longest time, we had called her “the mother” – an unintentionally mystical-sounding form of address, as if we were referring to the Holy Mother or some such divinity, though that thought hadn’t crossed our minds. (Mata Kali in her most ferocious form…maybe.) More to the point, we sometimes called her “Chotu’s mother” or “Chotu’s mom” – Chotu being her increasingly obese and dumb-looking son, probably the only surviving member of her litter, from whom she was inseparable: right from the time they came together into our lives in late 2011, until his death, likely of a heart ailment, in 2018.
“Chotu and the mother” – a classic case of the patriarchy decreeing a woman’s identity in relation to a man. But in the years after Chotu went, she morphed into the generic “Kaali” – something I still regret a little, since I would have liked her to be distinguished from the many other black street dogs, the Kaalis and Kaalus, named by other people, whom I have known. (In the last few months alone, I have written obits for two of those.)
When I wrote a little about *this* Kaali – in her own voice – in an essay for the anthology The Book of Dog, I designated her the dog who had no name, and recounted how we had briefly toyed with calling her Prada (only because Chotu was a lovable Gucci – as in a gucci-coochie-pie – and Prada was the harsher-sounding name that suited her). When I watched the horror/historical-fiction series The Terror in 2018, I thought of naming her Tuunbaq after the monster in that show – she was still the bane of many newcomers to our lane, and over the years we had often had to compensate courier boys, maids and others who came wailing to our door with bleeding ankles. Inside the house, she complained and muttered and squinted like a canine Lalita Pawar, even wailing in indignation if she thought one of us was scolding Chotu or coming too close to him. There were many name possibilities.
But Kaali she stayed. It seemed most convenient (and I hadn’t yet made acquaintance with many other black dogs as I would do from the pandemic years onward).
In that Book of Dog piece, I had also touched on how many different types of relationships it is possible to have with dogs, across the continuum from street animal to house pet. With the “part-time dog” – part home, part street, in varying degrees – being the trickiest. Well, Kaali Ma was the towering example of that variety. For the first few years that she was part of my life, not only was she a very independent, full-time street dog, but I wasn’t even the primary caregiver for her and her son, and had minimal interaction with them: my wife Abhilasha (perhaps feeling the absence of our Foxie who had moved almost completely to my mother’s flat) began feeding them once a day near the gate of our building, fielded most of the neighbours’ complaints for a few weeks, and then started bringing them inside our flat just for 5-10 minutes each day so they could eat and go back down – she also arranged for their sterilization operations, a necessary step that if I recall right also led to the first time that they spent a few hours inside the house (carefully restricted to one room), since we had to monitor their healing after the operation. A photo from that time below, Chotu in the foreground, Kaali at back – one of the rare pics we have of them together.
Resistant as I am to sweeping pronouncements, Kaali was in many ways the dog with the most distinct, versatile personality that I have known up-close. Or just the most personality, period. Even in the early years, before I had much to do with her or Chotu, I would tell Abhilasha I much preferred The Mother because she had vitality – unlike her “bhondu” boy (bhondu being an inside reference, it was what my alpha-male maamu had always called *me*).
Personality, personality, personality all over – much more than the Samuel L Jackson character in Pulp Fiction could have imagined when he said that line about personality going a long way. She was the feistiest, the most expressive, the most fearless. (For comparison, the two dogs I have been closest to in a parental way – Foxie and Lara – were, respectively, very introverted and very nervous.) From her full-throated singing as accompaniment to Abhilasha’s practice (music teachers, hearing Kaali in the background on Zoom videos, would in all seriousness hold her up as an example to emulate, noting her control over sur and taal. “She is a true Rasika”, my friend Karthika Nair – who knows a good deal about poetry, performance and artistic rigour – remarked after seeing a video) to her playful way of pouncing, panther-like, on a calcium bone I had thrown out for her – or, if she was seated and it was within arm’s reach, crooking her paw (often unnecessarily, more as a dramatic gesture than a practical one) to grab it and draw it towards her, like a dog from a picture-book story, or like Macbeth reaching for the dagger of the mind: “Come, let me clutch thee.”
Looking back now, I still marvel at how much on the periphery of my life Kaali and Chotu were for the first few years they were with us; marvel at how, despite ours being a fairly small, compact flat, they never even got to see the little balconies next to the rooms for years. (Kaali would later spend a lot of time in the drawing-room balcony in her old age.) When they did start spending more time indoors, they weren’t allowed inside the living area, were mostly restricted to a room, and were very well-behaved about this.
This means that in my head – even now – when I think about the period between June 2012 (when my Foxie died, aged just four) and mid-2015, when we adopted puppy Lara, I think of myself as dog-less (and this was the time when I managed to work on the Hrishikesh Mukherjee book and also get some of my most prolific writing done as a columnist and reviewer). Chotu and Chotu’s mother were very much around during that time, but there wasn’t much responsibility attached to them. Also, as relations between Abhilasha and me began to get strained in the year after Foxie’s death, I may have felt a tiny bit of resentment (mixed up with the vague fondness) about these dogs who weren’t really “my” dogs, spending so much time in the house.
There is no point overanalysing along those lines, but it’s certainly true that I never came close to thinking of them as *children* whom I loved, like I did with Foxie and do with Lara – there wasn’t any comparable physical closeness, no cuddling or sleeping on the same bed; anyway, when Kaali came into our lives she was already an adult dog with an almost-adult son. The most intimate contact I had with her and Chotu was on the occasions when I had to pluck what seemed like dozens of ticks of all sizes out of their ears and back during the summers. And even with that proximity, I don’t recall feeling the need to pet or stroke them.
This began to change, very gradually, after Chotu went – and especially in the last 3-4 years: first, as Kaali became an almost round-the-clock companion to Abhilasha during the lockdown months (when my attentions were largely on the dogs around my mother’s flat and on the streets), and then in late 2021 when her walking problems became more pronounced and an X-ray disclosed that an incurable joint issue – one paravet called it a form of "bone cancer" – had taken root. Around that point I took over her feeding full-time, changing her diet to the food that was already being made for Lara and the other dogs in my other house, and giving her the daily medicines she needed for her joint problem and for numerous other issues she developed along the way.
My routine became organized around her – even being out of town for a couple of days meant having to give detailed instructions to our domestic staff. In her last two years, my driver Mohan or I would accompany her whenever she needed to go downstairs, even though she was never leashed. (The big epiphany for me had happened one night when, looking down from my balcony shortly after letting Kaali out, I heard whining from the end of the lane and realised that for the first time ever, *she* was being bullied by a couple of dogs whose territory she had confidently crossed into. I had to go downstairs and get her to emerge from the car she had hidden under. Such a thing would have been unimaginable a few years earlier when she was in her pomp, and the scourge of every other dog – and a few humans – in our lane.) She had always loved car drives anyway, and had this unnerving habit of randomly jumping into an auto-rickshaw if it stopped on the road near where she is (and then sitting elegantly in it, as if waiting for the driver to get on with it) – but taking her for a short morning drive around the block became a new ritual in her old age.
And in the final couple of months, as one dire diagnosis followed another – intense diabetes, necessitating two insulin shots a day; liver and kidney failure – I was carrying all 40 kg of her up and down most of the stairs as it had become almost impossible for her to negotiate them. Sleeping on a couch very close to her bed, I would feel reassured at night when she was snoring peacefully; feel stressed when I heard her getting up and shifting around uncomfortably, or drinking more water than she should be.
At the start of this month, a cloud hung over my Jaipur lit-fest trip, which had been planned months ahead: I made the decision to leave on the scheduled day only after a long phone conversation with our vet, who told me it was very probable that if given electrolytes daily through a drip, she would stay alive and reasonably comfortable for the two-and-a-half days I was away. Even so, I had a terrible, sleepless night in Jaipur on the 3rd, calling Abhilasha to check at 4 AM, looking at various permutations of flight bookings, convinced I would have to fly back to Delhi for a cremation and then try to get back to Jaipur in time for my session.
Kaali waited, though. Wagged her tail when she heard my voice when I walked through the door. Continued to deteriorate otherwise, being unable to retain the water she was so thirsty for, unable to get in the right positions for her toilet. And on the 6th evening, with the gentle encouragement of a vet who almost never encourages euthanasia, it was time to take a call.
In the past few years, I have taken other dogs to be put to sleep (including another old black dog, another “Kaali”, who was Lara’s mother – and quite possibly the mother of this Kaali too). But this time was different, more difficult, since it was the first time I was doing it for a dog I had become really close to and spent many years with. And yet, when it happened – calmly, peacefully – there was a strange feeling of satisfaction. This whole process – looking after an old dog round the clock, dealing with the trials and challenges of age, all heading up to the inevitable moment of letting go – felt like the sort of closure we hadn’t got when Foxie died on another vet’s table when we were completely unprepared for it on June 16, 2012, still the worst day of my life.
When Kaali was cremated at Sai Ashram, Chhatarpur, a few feet away from a tombstone that had Foxie’s birth and death dates on it, it struck me that though they had never really known each other, Kaali must have been very close to Foxie in age: they were probably born just a few weeks or months apart. And apart from everything else Kaali gave us over the years, she had given us this opportunity – so badly missed and regretted on an earlier occasion – to celebrate and participate in a full life. Her ashes are buried in a little site right next to Fox's grave, which feels apt.
There is much more to say about her, many other memories – and if I get around to doing a monograph about the dogs in my life, she will be an anchoring presence in it – but for now here are a few photos/videos.
Posing with her “bestie”
Singing and contemplating
Smiling wistfully at the remembered scent of courier-boy blood
Objects in the rear-view mirror...
With Mishra ji, one of our lane's residents who must be the only one around who remembers Kaali when she was a pup and still talked to her as if she was one (and she tolerated it!)
Rediscovering her youth briefly after becoming very fond of a young boy dog - there was an age difference of around 80 years between them in dog-years, but romance knows no borders etc.
A rare trip out of Saket - when she came and visited the Panchshila Park house in which I grew up, shortly before it was demolished for reconstruction.
Guardian of gate and door