PRICE OF LOYALTY
It was a pleasant April morning of the year 1973, when Ajay Vani had woken up at 6.30 in his 75-year old bungalow in the center of the sprawling Vani Farms in Saphala, Taluka Palghar, about 100 kms. north of Bombay.
He had returned home a fortnight ago after appearing in the final exams of his science degree course from Wilson College in south Bombay.
From the second day of his return, Ajay had followed a disciplined routine. He would wake up at around 6, take a walk through half-a-kilometer of his family land across the house, continue for another kilometer and climb up a small hillock in the nearby hamlet of Virathan Khurd.
On reaching the heights, he would watch the orange glow on the eastern horizon, take in the panoramic view of vast stretches of greenery dotted with bamboo huts of the villagers and an ad hoc brick-and-wall dwelling of a well-to-do farmer, inhale the fresh oxygen, squat on the rough terrain and mull his future plans.
He wasn’t interested in any of his family’s businesses of agriculture, grass trading and salt works at home. Having spent four years of the University education living in Mackichan Hall facing the roaring Arabian seas at Chowpatty, taking Sunday evening strolls under the Queen’s Necklace from his hostel to the end of Marine Drive, going for new releases along with friends at the Lotus Cinema in Worli every Fridays and occasional meals at swanky restaurants, had imbibed in him a desire to stay put in the city of dreams.
He did love the quiet and peaceful village life, but considered it more of a weekend getaway from the hustle and bustle of the fast city life.
He thought of starting some business in Bombay after the results, which were expected by mid-June
Sambhav, older than Ajay by 3 years, worked in the fields with his father 8 am to 6 pm with a 2-hour lunch break in between.
Akash lived fat off the land. Being 5 years older than Ajay, he had made several unsuccessful attempts in the second year of the Arts degree course and had finally given up on life. He would get up at noon, have lunch followed by a long nap up to dusk, get up again, shower once in 3 days, dinner and end of day.
On this particular morning, as Ajay had stumbled out of his bedroom, rubbed his eyes, focused on the surroundings from the first floor and started walking down the stairs, he was surprised to notice two puppies on the landing between the stairs.
He rushed down and gleefully looked at the cute canines, which appeared like freshly blossomed roses in the garden along his porch, tiny creatures, but rotund and full of life, taking baby steps to locate their bearings in the new place wherever they had
come from. One was completely black and the other, chocolate brown, their coats smooth and robust as a Kashmiri rug.
Ajay picked them in turns, looked into the small sparkling eyes, kissed on their pouts, as the slender tails spontaneously moved in an amicable response.
Ajay immediately realized that he had skipped a heart beat by touching and fondling them and somewhere in the sub-conscious felt that he had attained an instant connect with the four-legged ones.
Dattu, a farm-hand had just entered the kitchen with a large bucket of fresh cow milk.
Ajay called him and asked:
“Where did these pups come from, Dattu?”
“I don’t know barka sheth. But I saw Gotu playing with them some time ago.”
Gotu, the other servant, informed that a dog near his hut had given birth to four young ones a few weeks ago. Only these two survived somehow, so he brought them thinking that they would get a caring and loving home.
Ajay immediately went to the kitchen, took some milk in an aluminum bowl, diluted it with water and took it to the pups. No sooner had he placed the bowl down, they attacked it as ravenously hungry creatures deprived of any food for days and slurped the contents within minutes.
Ajay requested his mother for some more milk and asked Gotu to feed them again at midday. Then he quickly showered, had breakfast and left to catch the 9.25 shuttle for Virar.
From here he took a local train to Churchgate and on alighting, walked to the Central Library located in Fort Area. He picked up a book on pet care, sat browsing for a few hours. After making notes, he went to a street vendor and ate a couple of grilled sandwiches.
At about 3 in the afternoon, he took a cab to Pydhonie and met his friend, Babu Nagarwala. Babu had dropped out of college and was six months into trading of industrial instruments. After discussing the progress of his fledgling business among other things for an hour or so, Ajay left for Bombay Central to catch Bulsar Express.
On reaching home at 8, Ajay inquired about the new guests and was shocked to learn that the black one had gone missing since late afternoon. The other one had made himself comfortable in the store room under the staircase.
His mother told Ajay that any one of the dozen odd servants may have stolen the missing one. A heartbroken Ajay picked up the remaining one, held him close to his face and whispered,
“Your name is Diamond, little one. Don’t worry, I will protect you and I am sure, we will be great friends forever.”
Diamond again moved his tail, and Ajay thought that it was a sign of acceptance and gratitude.
Fearing that somebody may take away Diamond too, Ajay carried him upstairs at bed time and placed him on an old bed cover in a corner of the room.
The next morning, Ajay took him and sat him down in the garden. Sambhav had also taken a liking for the pup. He came over, rubbed his palm over its head and asked:
“Why have you kept him here, Ajay?”
“Toilet training. If we follow this routine for a week, I assure you, he won’t dirty any other place in the house.” Ajay replied matter-of-factly.
“What do we feed him?”
“Cow milk for at least another month, and then we can start him on a diet of rice and milk. Gradually, we should add some meat.”
“Who will allow you to bring meat in this house?” Sambhav asked shaking and scratching his head, fully aware that their parents were religiously against non-vegetarian food.
“I will ask our milkman to bring some from the butcher every day on his way back from the station and then feed Diamond far away in the farms. Initially, dad may object, but I know eventually he will relent.”
“Aren’t you going on your walk today?”
“I will leave shortly, after he’s done.”
“I will join you.”
After reaching the top of the hill, Sambhav asked:
“Do you think anybody else will take care of Diamond after you leave the Vani Farms?”
“I am not going to leave him alone for another five months. After the monsoons, I will be joining Babu in his business. I will commute daily from here. Besides, you would be for him all the while.”
They discussed on various other topics including preparation of soil for the forthcoming paddy cultivation and Akash’s lethargy and indifference, before coming back home.
Diamond had adapted to his new environs soon and within a fortnight, kept at Ajay’s heels wherever he went in the house. Sambhav also found time to play with him. Diamond and either of the two brothers was his constant companion.
The day after Diwali, Ajay and Babu became partners.
On a Sunday, Ajay took him to a vet in another village, Agarwadi, 5 kms. away for vaccination. Every evening, Diamond would wait at the gate. As soon as Ajay would arrive, the tail would wag rapidly east to west until Ajay would pick him up and plant a kiss on his snout.
Then Diamond would follow him everywhere until bed time. He would position himself outside the bedroom at night to protect his friend from any harm. At the slightest of sound or even ruffling of leaves of the nearby trees, he would start barking.
As Ajay’s business grew steadily, Diamond progressed rapidly. By the next Diwali, he was a fully grown adult with length measuring 30 inches from jaw to the end of his tail and height, 2 feet ground to shoulders.
One Sunday, Diamond followed Ajay to the bedroom. As soon as they entered, he started barking loudly. Ajay was confused at this sudden change, that too when nothing harmful was visible in the vicinity. Perplexed, he kept looking at Diamond and seeking
the reason. All of a sudden, his eyes fell on the almirah’s full length mirror and realization dawned on him.
Ajay burst out laughing and escorted Diamond down to narrate the instance to Sambhav and his parents. After this, whenever Ajay went upstairs, Diamond would follow and challenge his adversary, his replica.
Around the same time, Ajay’s father had acquired about 20 acres of land adjoining their existing property. He partitioned it equally among himself, his wife, Akash, Sambhav and Ajay.
A month later, Sambhav got married. As tradition goes, normally the eldest one would tie the knot first, but Akash was in no hurry to settle down in life. He was content being spoon-fed by the parents.
Sambhav and his wife, Natasha, who belonged to a farmer’s family in Gujarat, began cultivating the new land for horticulture. Diamond would be with them morning through evenings, come rain or shine.
In the evenings, he would be at the gate. As soon as Ajay arrived, he would stand up on his hind legs and embrace Ajay. He would part only after Ajay kissed and patted him.
Subsequently, he would go after Ajay in the mornings for a couple of hundred meters to the end of the road before Ajay turned left for the station. This became a daily practice.
One day, Diamond kept trailing Ajay all the way to the 3 kms. distance to the station. When they were about 100 meters before the railway level crossing, the train had arrived. Ajay ran and boarded the last coach facing the crossing. The next moment, the train chugged away.
Ajay couldn’t bid goodbye to his friend. But all along the 2-hour journey, he kept thinking of Diamond. He was worried about Diamond’s safe return home, without being hassled by other dogs on the way.
He also tried to probe Diamond’s mind at discovering tracks beyond the realms of his safe haven, scantily clad children playing outside mud walls, men and women rushing to work, bullock-carts ferrying cow dung or wood or gunny sacks full of farm produce, a strange looking long entity on the rail lines, Ajay getting on it, loud honking nearby and the sudden disappearance of his mate.
Did some monster swallow Ajay and ran off, did some harm visit Ajay or did Ajay abandon him in the unknown wilderness after leading him far away from home?
Come evening, Ajay was relieved at noticing Diamond in his usual position, but also got answers to the troubling questions earlier in the day. Although he was waiting anxiously, Diamond did not greet Ajay unlike the regular practice.
It was obvious that Diamond felt betrayed. But the feeling apparently lasted until daybreak only, because the next morning, he accompanied Ajay again. Before taking the
turn, Ajay asked Diamond to go back home. Diamond was in no mood to heed the command. Ajay called out Sambhav and asked him to take back Diamond.
Ajay’s mother’s health was failing and she was finding it difficult to attend to the kitchen duties. A maid would assist her in kneading the dough for rotis, cutting and cleaning of vegetables, lighting the stove and other related activities.
One Saturday afternoon, as Sambhav and Natasha returned from the farms, Diamond in tow, Akash shouted at Natasha,
“Listen you slut, we can always employ an additional servant for Sambhav at work. You are supposed to manage the house, mainly the kitchen.”
“Motabhai, Ma herself asked me to be with Sambhav, saying that she could look after cooking with a little help from Gopi”, Natasha replied referring to the maid.
“You insolent bitch, so now Ma is responsible for your stupid and selfish behavior?”
Sambhav couldn’t bear the abuses heaped on his wife and intervened, saying
“Mind your language Akash, it’s not becoming of you.”
“Now you will teach me language and manners, you idiot? Even Dattu and Gotu never cross my path.”
“So my status is even below those servants?” Sambhav asked.
“You are not even above your dog, where is he?” Akash thundered, rushed out, picked up a spear, and hit the mute, innocent creature on the neck, sending a threatening signal to Sambhav.
As Diamond fell down yelling and writhing in pain, Sambhav brought a cloth and tied it around the bleeding neck, while Natasha applied turmeric powder to the wound and tried to soothe the injured creature.
When Ajay returned, he was surprised not to see Diamond at the gate, rather sulking in a corner of the porch. He noticed a deep gash on the neck, about 3 inches long and as much wide, with the loose skin flap resembling the wing of a small bird. The bleeding had almost stopped, but Diamond appeared in severe pain.
He moved his tail slightly, tweaked his ears and kept looking at Ajay, suffering silently.
With moist eyes, he was seeking solace from his friend, pleading to alleviate the pain. A tear rolled down Ajay’s eyes as he kept running his hand on Diamond’s head, hoping and praying earnestly for an inherent strength to help him bear his agony.
The next morning, Ajay and Sambhav took Diamond to Agarwadi by a bullock-cart. The vet cleaned and sutured the wound under local anesthesia, applied an ointment and administered a pain killer injection.
For the next week, the brothers took him to the vet every morning to change the dressing on the wound. Ajay would take the 9.25 shuttle instead of the 7.30 Bulsar Express.
The following Sunday, his stitches were removed, while the follow up treatment continued every alternate day for another fortnight. After this, Diamond was up and kicking again with renewed vigor and vitality.
The bond of love, trust and confidence between him and the two brothers had further cemented.
Occasionally, in their presence, Diamond would start barking on noticing Akash approach. Was it a sign of apprehension or defiance or nonchalance? Only Diamond could answer.
Two years after parting with Babu, Ajay got a large order of heating equipments from the Department of Atomic Energy. The manufacturer from whom Ajay had outsourced it, failed miserably to measure up to the exacting standards of quality and precision set by DAE, despite several attempts.
The fed up client not only cancelled the order, but also charged a hefty penalty for their plans getting delayed, apart from black-listing Ajay’s company. In the meantime, Ajay inadvertently, ignored the regular clients.
In a matter of months, he ran up tremendous losses and as a result, had to wind up his business. To add to his financial predicament, he had to tackle an additional responsibility of taking care of his 3-month pregnant wife of one year.
Looking for alternate employment somewhere, he landed a job in far away Delhi and reluctantly bid farewell to home and family, including his beloved, Diamond.
A few years later, Ajay’s parents went to Delhi. After dinner, as they gathered around a playful 2-year old youngest member of the family, Ajay inquired about Diamond.
“We buried him in your land day-before-yesterday”, Ajay’s father replied solemnly.
“What? What happened?” Ajay was dumbfounded.
Both remained silent and sullen, increasing Ajay’s anxiety and impatience.
After a long pause, his father said,
“Soon after you left, we had to face a lot of hardship because of 2 successive years of drought. Sambhav needed money for his growing children and Akash has been in perpetual need.
“We sold off our share of land that was acquired ten years ago. Within a year, Akash had exhausted his share of the money and subsequently, he also relieved me of my savings.
“Then he started pestering Sambhav to spare some. Sambhav had deposited a substantial chunk in the bank for his children’s education and he refused to yield to Akash’s insatiable greed.
“They had a heated argument before coming to blows. An enraged Akash, once again resorted to the same spear to hit Sambhav. Just as the weapon was at striking distance, Diamond jumped and took the fatal blow on the neck, same place.”
Ajay was speechless, the blood in his veins had gone cold as he kept staring at his parents incredulously, wishing that they announce that they were playing a cruel joke on him. With tears flowing copiously, he screamed out loudly and blurted,
“You are responsible for Diamond’s death, Ma and dad; you killed him. You should have reined in your wayward fiend of a son years ago. Instead you pampered and cajoled him, ignored his misdemeanors and didn’t show him the right path.”
“I am sorry, my son”, Ajay’s father said unapologetically.
“What about Diamond? What was his fault?
“What were his thoughts when he breathed his last? Did he feel betrayed by me, that I abandoned him in the company of a barbaric brute after promising him that I will guard him forever?
“Did I let him down in the hour of his dire need? Did he curse me? Tell me, dad.”
“He would never curse you, Ajay”, his mother said, adding, “you had been very loyal to him.”
“Human beings can never be loyal to anyone, Ma; loyalty is the exclusive domain of other animals, particularly dogs. See the price Diamond has paid.”