I never really understood the significance of the stories Maa used to narrate about when I was a kid. "You wouldn't eat until I pointed at some animal. Crow, Horse, Pigeon.. anything. It just had to be an animal and you would open your mouth in astonishment. That was the moment I'd be waiting for and I'd thrust the spoon full of food in your mouth. You'd do this every day and you have no idea what a pain you've been!" Completely contrary to her purpose of these narrations, I would end up feeling rather proud upon hearing these blasts from the past.
Today, more than 20 years down the line from 23rd May 1989, I have so many more examples to add to this list of my obsession with animals. All obsessions are not necessarily bad by the way. During my school years, I would constantly arrive at my doorstep minus school bag and lunch box but plus kitten or puppy or frog or gecko. Maa would shriek and the poor animal in my hand would go temporarily deaf. Over the years, this continued and I think eventually she started bothering more about the missing school bag and lunch box than her daughter at the door with the random animal. I vividly remember one particular kitten who I had fondly named Milky at that time, due to the then undeveloped creativity. Well, she was white with black patches and really tiny. She was sitting at one corner of the garden where the tap is and I was smart enough to have learned from earlier experiences that all cats are instinctively not the friendliest of animals. This one, didn't even budge when I approached slowly. Odd. So I thought something had happened to her.. and as far as my naive 7yr old eyes could figure out, no external injury.
The maid lived in the outhouse downstairs and she was a Konkani so it goes without saying that she had an eternal supply of dried fish. Cat heaven! Innocent kids with animals are apparently hard to refuse so whenever I showed up at her door and asked for a dish of milk and some dried fish, she would promptly conjure it up within seconds! I made a cozy home for Milky in the garden itself because Maa and me have asthma and she is allergic to cat hair (and has tried to make me believe that I am allergic to it as well). So 3 days passed and all was normal. Oh yeah, no one threw a tantrum because Maa saw it as a good thing that I'd actually made arrangements for the "animal" without actually bringing "it" upstairs! We live in a bungalow which was built in 1940 so it is, yes, OLD! It has a ground floor, a 1st, 2nd floor and a terrace.
On day 4, Milky decided to follow me up when I got back from school and paid her usual "back from school-need to see the cat" my visit. I had no idea I was being followed so when after about 15minutes I heard Mom scream, I went running to see what had happened and saw Maa towering over tiny little Milky, who was looking up at Maa with the cutest expression ever!
And thank heavens for giving Mom's a heart! She lost the heart to yell and grabbing the chance, I scooped up the confused kitten and delivered her back into her "bed". Day 5, and Milky was gone. She was just gone. An extremely dejected me tried looking everywhere, including neighbouring houses to a point that my neighbours offered to file an FIR. Yeah, I wasn't smart enough to realize they were pulling my leg! At 7, all you care about is your lost cat! Ah well, she never returned but I always hoped she's fine. That evening, Maa couldn't stand seeing me all upset so she explained how keeping animals is a very thankless job. They just vanish someday. So I nodded and said, "she didn't even say bye!"
A little over 2 years ago, on the 2nd of September, I was just leaving the house for my shift at the hospital. Granny had suffered brain haemorrhage and so we all took turns staying there. For the record, I Hate hospitals and I hate doctors! (My mom's a doctor! And I avoid stepping inside her clinic at all costs!) So as I was shutting the gate, something squealed. A dog. For sure. But where? I looked around in desperation and just as the white car in front of me started to move, I realized, the puppy was stuck and if it didn't move immediately, it would be run over! The driver was a sadistic freak who could SEE the pup there and went ahead anyway, so in my seemingly heroic attempt to get the dog out from under the wheel, I leaped and what happened next took about a minute to register! My hand was bleeding and it felt like it was going to fall off any second. The dog was 8feet away from me and visibly safe. When I realized the pain in my hand, I instinctively showered every slang word I could think of upon that jerk of a driver. 6 people gathered to watch the scene and I explained in a way that made people feel very sorry for the pup, who was now in my non-bleeding hand. The car had gone over my hand instead of the dog.
In a flash, Maa was informed that I would not be doing my shift at the hospital, the vet in the next lane was amazed to see the pup n me walk in looking the way we were and my nieghbour was even more startled to have me at her door with the pup. She has a handsome Golden Retriever. So anyway, we cleaned this tiny 2-week old pup and she fell asleep wrapped in a towel and there was a long, "Awwwww".
Today, this same dog is Whiskey, my first and best Angel. The crackpot who made life worth every hurricane that had to be endured. Whiskey. A Labrador-stray cross-breed, who has grown into a beautiful chestnut coloured doggie and still has the same big round innocent captivating eyes. I miss her at times when life is at an all time low, like now. She would be hear my bike come in through the gate and sit up straight, and wait for me to show up. She had a limit though. A minute into the waiting, if I didn't show up, she'd bark her head off till I came from wherever I was. Nutcase. She would sit and give these "What you standing there for, rub my back" looks! And I think I spoiled her because she started this with everyone in the family. Eventually, Maa fell in love with her too.. and today when we go to see her, she gives more bhaav to Mom than she does to me n bhai. :)
Then in August this year, I got a call about 3 very unfortunate puppies who were abandoned by their owners and will konk off if not adopted on an urgent basis. Another "I dont care I want a dog" fight was out of the question. So, me being me, went and saw the puppies. A Boxer, a Rotweiller, and a Labrador. The only one who had not already been adopted, was the Lab. and she was the one I had clicked with. This one, was 5months old and looked 2months old. Completely malnourished, diseased, manged, and worst of all, her morale had been crushed. An animal who's spirit and confidence, who had still got boundless energy and who's eyes lit up the instant someone came towards her. I felt so sorry for her. I went home. I didn't say anything to anyone. 2 days passed. And the 3rd day, I could help it no more. I called a few friends to ask if they'd be able to help out in a few ways, and being the adorable folks they are, they agreed. So at 5pm that evening, 2 guys were at the door with a stinking diseased and dismal looking Lab puppy in their arms. She saw me, and again, went mad with the jumping.
Maa freaked again. "This animal is NOT going to stay in this house. You do what you have to, and look for another place for her. I want her gone in 3 days." I wasn't a wee bit scared. Somehow, this "animal related confidence" is omnipresent! It's 27th October today and Ginny, the manged diseased nearly dead dog, looks like a 7month old pure bred Lab puppy should look. Her fur is back, the stink is gone, ALL the wounds have disappeared, and no ticks, no fleas. Just one hyperactive, jumpy, excited dog. And today, I turn to Maa and ask, "So is it still a thankless job?" And she has no answer for she knows, that if it hadn't been for us, Ginny would have probably not made it. She's sleeping with her head on my lap and her front paws on my face. As I look at her, peacefully dreaming, I feel good, that I took my decision and chose my calling as my career.
Today, when I've almost finished with graduation, and have applied for a Masters in Wildlife Conservation to 3 Universities across the globe, I look back at all the wild animals who have made a special place for themselves in my life. The first thing that comes to my mind are the Chambal Gharials. There is NOTHING like the pure delight of spotting and then observing Gharials after hours of having seen nothing while walking along the Chambal. There is honestly no feeling that can compare to that. It is like a reunion with people you love. Seeing them hale and hearty feels great. The two hours we spent on the rocks during the first Gharial expedition, watching a courtship display between a pair of Gharials, are unforgettable. Last December, sitting next to the dead Gharial felt like a piece of me was ripped out of my soul and stabbed. It hurt. It hurt knowing this beautiful animal had lost its life because of something like a fishing net. At that time, I didn't think "Critically endangered". I only thought.. Why her? And one tear formed. Just seeing her.. dragged onto the bank with a lot of delicate effort.. her visible jaw bones.. Sort of rekindled a burning desire to never give up trying for this species. These personal connections with animals aren't very describable. So I'll skip that part anyway.
Then there are the Berda cubs in Ranthambhore. On 23 May two years ago, I was lucky enough to spend a whole 45minutes with these two cartoons and their gorgeous beauty of a mother. What a way to turn 19! They were much younger then obviously and they were splashing about in the water, and playing with each other while their mother kept an eye on them and the other on us. We were the only people witnessing this sneak peek into Nature's beautiful ways. Honoured. Two years went by and this April, their mother died. One heck of a Tigress she was. Died. And yeah, mysterious circumstances. Everyone knows what the truth was. No one said it. And she was just gone. :( So this May when I saw the cubs again, they were larger, and looked ok. But they were sticking to the area where their mother had last left them. They hadn't gotten the hang of hunting prey yet. The male would snatch the female's share.. and again, we were the only people witnessing what happened.
6 of us in our gypsy. 2 of them (the cubs) sleeping soundly in their cave. The female woke up, yawned, nudged her brother. He ignored and kept sleeping. Harder nudge. Awake. Both stretched. They literally walked down a "ramp" and were 10 feet (max.) away from the gypsy. She came first. Looked. We were a little too close for comfort. She snarled. We respectfully backed up. She was satisfied. She sat. He came. He stretched again, against a tree this time. Then looked. Straight at us. I could feel those piercing eyes looking right at me. There is something about those two and the way they look at you. It's heart-warming. The less I say about this incident, the better because no words can describe these feelings. They're better felt than written.
The Siddhababa female in Bandhavgarh. She went to the extent of letting us have the honour of observing her every single ride during that camp. The kids in my gypsy all wanted an extravagant story about her .. and all I could say, seated beside the driver, was, "Just WATCH her.. forget story.. she's a Tigress!" She recently had a new litter of cubs. :)
Then the Leopard who had killed a Chital stag and dragged him up a tiny hillock and placed the kill on a fallen log. 103 minutes of Leopard sighting accounts for quite a story. It would have been 118 minutes but the rest of the time went in looking at the pair of Mottled Wood Owls sitting in the branches right above our heads!
The Elephant who stuck his tusk in the car in Nagarahole and gave me a "first time" experience I still shudder to think of. The Tigress with two cubs on the cliff in Nagarahole.. the Crocodile in Ranganthittu, the Skimmers in Chambal, the Muggers, the King Cobras in Agumbe, the Hump-nosed, the Malabar Pit Vipers in Amboli, the leeches even!!
There are endless such encounters.. and each and every one holds a very special place in the story of my life. The whole point of writing this article was the pure and endless love, admiration and respect that I have for all the animals who have, at any point in time, given me the honour of being in their vicinity and observing them. <3