This rather (extremely) long post is dedicated to a very special life that touched every other one that crossed its path.
People who know me well enough are also as familiar with my grandmother’s dog Soththi; better known by her full name – Soththi Upalilaage Monalisa Katuballi. Don’t laugh. Both she and my grandmother took the name very seriously.
My very first meeting with Soththi was quite accidental and completely unceremonious. I was on my way to school when I saw a van in front go over a tiny shivering brown blob on the road. The blob was so small and still that it managed to escape the van’s tyres by being fortunately positioned right in the centre of the lane. I would have dismissed it for a piece of cloth, had not I suddenly spied two ears peeking up from somewhere on its moving surface.
Needless to say I had to shriek, stop the car and cause the panicked squealing of several tyres behind me. Just inches away from the quivering mass on the road, that turned out to be some sort of enlarged rat. On closer inspection, the mass turned out to be an actual DOG… still in puppy mode, albeit a rather ugly one. It was a bit uncomfortable to behold. Puppies are by default cute furry lumps of happy tails and drooly pink tongues. This one was…well…
The first thing you saw was its ribcage, which was causing all the shaking and shivering. With each feeble breath heaved, those ribs would stick out to allow counting. The rest of it was just as emaciated and covered in mange. Like a CSR advertisement for Somalia. A gnarly rat-like tail stuck out of one end of this little bag of bones, whilst on the other end panted the most hideous face you ever saw on any creature, let alone a pup. Sunken cheeks, sunken eyes and a black raisin nose. But the one feature that took the cake (or put you off the cake, as the case seemed) was its pair of ears. Huge cavernous bat ears that stuck straight up out of the top of a nearly-bald thimble head, invoking thoughts of vampires and demons.
See what I mean? Ugly as sin. But ugly never deters me, especially (no…wait… ONLY) when it comes to animals. A pup is a pup, and one that had just narrowly escaped death warranted my concern. There was no way I was going to leave this blob to die. I had to pick it up.
Picking up a half-dead, really horrible looking, diseased animal off the streets is one thing. Taking it to school is a complete other, because there was no where else I COULD take it at that point. I had to stuff the creature into my schoolbag to sneak it past the old but always-suspicious security guard at the gate, and then figure out where to PUT it for an entire school day. Keeping it in the bag wouldn’t do at all, given how piss smell never completely leaves books and a dog never stays still. My solution came in the form of my classroom desk. Quite conveniently, school desks are produced with a circular hole on their top-left surface… no doubt an innovation designed to provide ventilation to puppies being kept inside. I lined the cavity of my desk with sheets of paper and gingerly placed the now whimpering pup inside. It immediately blessed the desk with a puddle of pee before curling up and sleeping on the piss. Lovely.
The other students were enthralled. In the history of their schooling, no one had put a dog into a desk before. I was an instant hit as the weird kid. They kept lifting the lid of the desk every two seconds to gape and say ‘anaaaa’ in those hateful shrieky voices that only girls are capable of, and to feed the animal a host of goodies, including highland packeted chocolate milk. Puppy and I were both rather overwhelmed, but happy that we were getting sufficient attention. A few hours into the day and my Biology teacher decided to give us a test. This meant total silence, save the droning whir of the ceiling fan as we all bit our lips and tried not to cheat. Suddenly in the midst of the almost meditational calm of the exam, a long, high-pitched howl emanated from somewhere at the back of the classroom. My desk, to be exact. My feeble attempts to convince the Bio teacher that I was the howler were useless. She swept up to me and demanded I open the desk and show her its contents. Her admonishing glare turned into a stare, which then turned into something akin of a coronary attack. Puppy and I were immediately banished, despite the cacophony of ‘aney miss… pau miss’ coming from all the other desks around me. She told me I could only come back once I’d gotten rid of ‘that disgusting thing’. And so we trudged off into the horizon of the school complex, slighted… me struggling not to retort loudly on animal rights and the puppy struggling to piss out the overdose of chocolate milk.
I’ve always been proud of my PR skills and now I’m convinced that my schooling days honed that talent. Never more so than that afternoon when I debated, beseeched and extorted my way into getting the school’s hostel mistress to allow me the temporary use of her facilities for the pup. She was a cat-mad lady, and housed several of her pregnant and newly-birthed rescuees in a row of wooden kennels she’d built behind one of the hostel buildings as a ‘feline maternity ward’ of sorts. If there’s one place a weakened dog should never be kept, it’s in the immediate vicinity of a group of hormonal female cats. But the place would have to do for the time being, and puppy was successfully installed in a vacant cage, under the promise that it would be taken away by end of day. That whole day, I spent my time in class like a panicked mother on her kid’s first day in school. Every yelp, howl and whine sent me running back to the cage in distress, convinced that the fellow was about to meet its maker at the claws of a fellow patient. I soon learnt that puppy had cunningly figured this out and was using its vocal skills to its advantage.
By end of day I still hadn’t figured out what to do with the dog. No one in class or in any other was willing to take it home. My mother, I knew, would kick me out of the house if I took it back with me. I HAD to find it a home. Luckily, at the very last second before absolute helplessness set in, a younger student said she’d gladly take it home, but only if I gave her a ride. I gladly agreed, and we put puppy in a box and proceeded to her house.
One hour later Puppy and I were on our way back, with the girl having been grounded by her mother for even THINKING of bringing a creature that ugly into the house. Even I got a shout for putting nonsense into her daughter’s head. We now truly had nowhere to go. In absolute desperation we turned to the one couple I figured we’d stand a chance with – my grandparents. I knew they didn’t have the heart to say no to something like this.
“No”, bellowed my grandfather. “Absolutely NOT”. He was as black as thunder and refusing to consider any of my pleas. “What IS that? Is that a DOG?” asked a bewildered grandmother. It took me a good few hours to convince them to house the pup temporarily… until I find it a permanent home. After some time they reluctantly agreed. “Only for three days. You can please take it away then”, said the thunder.
Three days later, like a prayer, there was a furious voice on my phone receiver that had to be kept a foot away from my ear lest I go deaf. The dog would be OUT on the streets if it wasn’t collected immediately. A foster family had been found, I lied. They would be able to accommodate doggy only in a week’s time because they were in the middle of shifting, I said. Man, I thought…. I should go into writing fiction. In a week, the dog and its stinky poo would be out of my grandparents’ hair, I promised.
I avoided them like the plague for the next three weeks. The phone calls and verbal abuse became less and less frequent, progressively replaced by daily chats on what funny little canine stunt had been performed that day. It was a she, I found out. She now had a name. Soththi Upalilaage Monalisa Katubelli a.k.a Soththi. The more ironic thing was that she’d been christened so by my grandfather, who was also suddenly waking up at 6 am every morning to warm her milk and boil her breakfast beef.
A few weeks hence and Soththi had been securely (and victoriously) installed in the household and one couldn’t dare to even think of taking her away. It had been discovered that she had black birthmarks on her tongue and inside the padding of her paws. According to local belief, they were signs of luck; and you couldn’t find a luckier pup than Soththi. The constant cooing and cuddling she got at the hands of my animal-mad grandmother resulted in quite a spoilt pup. She was fed the best cuts of meat… ice creams for dessert… biscuits and milk at the smallest of whimpers. She had a ‘magic carpet’- the rubber mat in front of the kitchen fridge, where she’d sit and woof out snack orders. As if by magic, these would instantly appear at her paws. All of a sudden, the floor was no place for such a pweshuss darling, and my grandfather’s side of the bed was hastily evacuated for her sake. He’d have to sleep elsewhere or learn to share the pillow. In no time she’d fattened out considerably and her ratty-bat looks were soon replaced by quite a good looking silky golden coat, gentle warm brown eyes and a constant smile. That tail of hers couldn’t stop wagging. By all rights, with the kind of upbringing she had, Soththi should have grown into one of those Colombo 7 pampered pooches that did nothing but sigh all day. By all rights. But she wasn’t one of those dogs. She was mad.
By mad I mean completely, utterly, totally batty to the bone… a nutcase of a dog on a permanent sugar high. This was a dog to which one never merely threw a ball. Rather, the ball would be thrown up in the air, and she’d jump beside it… the game was to see who could go higher- dog or ball. She also had a routine demonstration of lunacy. Visitors to the house were treated to about fifteen minutes of being pounced on from every angle by a ridiculously thrilled dog, followed by another 15 minute display of ‘running in circles’ around the living room. Then she’d leap onto EVERY SINGLE PIECE OF FURNITURE in the hall like a computer game and end up on the one nearest to you, before offering her stomach for scratching. Woe betide he who scratcheth Soththi… he’d be stuck doing it until the end of the visit, with a bit of rump scratching added as bonus. When she was sterilized, the vet advised my grandparents to be gentle when handling her and to allow her the comfortable rest she needed, for she would be in too much pain to be moved for a couple of days. An hour after they’d brought her home and ever-so carefully laid her out on pillows to sleep on, they found her scaling the garden walls trying to catch squirrels. That was Soththi.
Her madness never receded one bit through the 12 years that she lit up that household. She hadn’t a care in the world and she made damn sure you didn’t either when you were with her. The gloomiest of days would brighten up instantly with one goofy smile and a pounce-hug from her. That dog knew just how lucky she was, and she made sure she showed her gratitude to us every single moment. She was more than a dog – she was a child. She had her own bed custom made, her collection of collars – one for every occasion and a myriad of treats at any given time. She was referred to as ‘my little Kella’ by my grandfather, the very man who objected to her existence at the beginning. He’d submit to her every whim at the drop of a hat, or a paw as the case would seem. He spent the last two years travelling to and from veterinary clinics, having Soththi treated for cataracts and lumps. But that still didn’t deter her from going happy-berserk whenever someone so much as smiled in her direction. No family gathering would end without at least half an hour’s reports on the dog’s latest activity. Through the years, she’d almost as good as become my grandparents’ reason to live.
A week ago, Soththi pounced across the universe to doggy heaven, leaving heavy hearts and an empty miniature bed behind. It will be some time before her foster parents get over her demise… I doubt they ever actually will. You couldn’t, if you knew the wonderful, funny little ugly duckling that was Soththi Upalilaage Monalisa Katubelli.
I shall miss her.