The past year was filled with many joyous moments! My son’s wedding in July was definitely a high point. It was wonderful to welcome his smart and beautiful wife into our family. The wedding was also a chance to renew our friendship with our relatives and make some new friends too. I also had a brief but affectionate visit with my sister. This summer I felt honored to be part of my favorite aunt’s 96th birthday celebration. Every time I see her I marvel at her grace, wisdom and amazing capacity to love. There were a few rejection letters to temper all my joy. But there were some acceptances too. I had a short story published in an online magazine, and had several poems accepted into two different anthologies. I was also invited to become a book reviewer for The New York Journal of Books. So all in all it was a great year!
My holiday gift to you is a short story published several years ago in an anthology titled The Dog with An Old Soul. The story features my mom and her dog, two of my favorite subjects.
The Dog Who Wouldn’t Bark
The black-and-white photo was old and yellowing, but I could clearly make out the proud stance of the dog and his mistress. I could barely make out the words penciled on the back of the fading photograph: “Leela and Chuppa, 1951.” My mother and her beloved dog.
The cool mist swirled around Leela and smothered her in its wet embrace. She shivered and wrapped the woolen shawl more tightly around her slender body. The late November days in Kotagiri were chilly and dismal, nothing like the warm tropical nights she was used to. Leela’s sigh sounded loud in the gray silence as she paused to take a deep whiff of the fading jasmine blooms on the vine by the front gate. It was then she heard the sound, the tiniest whimper, which she would have missed if the world hadn’t been so silent. She reached up and unlatched the metal gate and stepped onto the patch of grass. In the dim twilight she could make out a small bundle lying on the wilted jacaranda blooms. When she looked closely, she saw it was a tiny shivering puppy. She couldn’t bear to leave it there on the side of the road. She relatched the gate and walked into the kitchen using the side entrance.
The kitchen was warm and cozy. Her mother, Ammalu, was seated on a small wooden stool in front of the hearth, stirring a pot of lentil stew. The sharp scent of cumin mingled with the wet puppy smell. Ammalu wrinkled her nose.
“What do you have there?” she asked, getting up to take a closer look at the black-and-tan bundle in Leela’s arms.
“Oh, Amma,” Leela wailed. “Look what someone dropped off at our front gate.”
The puppy seemed to know it as being inspected and opened its tiny jaws and yawned, stretching out a minuscule pink tongue.
“Not everyone has your kind heart, my daughter,” Ammalu sighed. “Remember what our neighbor Sister Mary told us?”
Leela nodded and held the puppy closer to her chest. Their nearest neighbor, an Anglo-Indian everyone called Sister Mary, lived a few miles down the road and was a feisty animal lover.
“Be warned. Villagers get rid of their unwanted pets by dropping them off at the bungalows in the middle of the night. Most of us are only too happy to take in these dogs and cats. It’s a shame, though, because not everyone wants a stray and that is the end of the poor animal,” she lamented.
This will not happen to this little one, Leela silently vowed. Mother and daughter dried the puppy and fed the hungry creature some rice gruel. Soon the little dog was curled up on a pile of rags in front of a warm hearth.
The next morning Ammalu mixed a little rice and vegetable broth in a beautiful ceramic pan decorated with deep purple flowers and urged the little puppy to eat out of the fancy bowl.
“Amma, why are you using such a nice dish for the dog?” Leela protested.
“Leela, you know I don’t like to use these tainted containers.”
The tainted containers Ammalu was referring to were part of a collection of dinnerware left behind by the previous owner. After the declaration of independence in 1947, many British decided to leave India rather than live in a country no longer ruled by Great Britain. Rather than pack up an entire household, some of them left many things behind. One such Englishman was the owner of the charming bungalow that was now Leela’s home on the outskirts of the remote hill station town of Kotagiri nestled among the famous Blue Mountains or Nilgiris.
When they moved into the charming red-tiled house in late 1948, they found the musty rooms filled with large pieces of wooden furniture. The cabinet doors were inlaid with ceramic tile in beautiful geometric patterns. An intricate carved folding screen in one of the three bedrooms provided privacy and beauty. The dining room boasted a large china buffet, complete with silver soup tureens, round and oval serving platers, big serving bowls and a tea set. The delicate moss-green tea set, made of the finest bone china, would never be used, though. Like most upper-caste Indians, Ammalu’s family was vegetarian. They had no intention of eating and drinking from vessels used by strangers and non-vegetarians. At the first opportunity Ammalu invited friends, neighbors and acquaintances from surrounding areas to come chose from the lovely Spode plates and Wedgwood dinnerware. So the puppy happily ate off the Spode chinaware and drank from his Wedgwood saucer.
The German shepherd turned out to be the most patient of animals. He waited for Leela or Ammalu to get up each morning to let him out. He would wander around the front yard, sniffing at rosebushes and lifting his leg against the spindly poinsettia tree. He would then come back to lie on the kitchen floor, his bright blue eyes following Leela’s every movement.
“He really is the most silent dog,” a friend remarked to Leela. That was when she came up with the perfect name for her new pet, Chuppa, or “the silent one.”
She tried out the new name, calling, “Chuppa!” Immediately the puppy sat up, straight and proud. He cocked his head and looked at Leela as if waiting for a command. From then on Leela spent countless hours with the young dog, teaching him simple commands. Chuppa was an intelligent pup and wanted to please Leela. He became the young girl’s constant companion. He would greet her joyously, albeit silently, every afternoon when she returned from school. He draped his long tan-and-black body across Leela’s doorway. The pair was a common sight as they went on long walks among the tea bushes and apple and pear orchards.
One evening, when Ammalu made a teasing gesture toward Leela, pretending to hit her, Chuppa immediately sat up and stare at Ammalu and emitted a soft warning growl.
“Chuppa thinks I was going to hit you!” Ammalu exclaimed. “What a good dog. Don’t worry, Chuppa, I would never hit my girl.”
Ammalu bent down and petted the agitated pup, who settled down, his head resting on his folded paws, as if he understood Ammalu’s words.
Leela decided to teach the dog commands to make sure he would know when the threat was real and when a family member was just playing. The dog took to the lessons as if he was a sponge soaking up spilled water.
Two years later Chuppa was a full-grown German shepherd with thick black-and-tan fur and bright blue eyes. He was a familiar sight in the little village and allowed young children to pet and fuss over him. But his soft eyes were always on Leela.
A few months later, their postman, the deliverer of news and mail, had some disturbing gossip. “Did you hear about the thefts?” he asked Ammalu and Leela one afternoon. “There has been a rash of thefts in the area and residents area asked to keep their gates locked.”
That following spring Ammalu and Unny, Leela’s older brother, had to make one final trip to their ancestral village to take care of some business, and Ammalu was not happy to leave Leela.
“Don’t worry, Amma. Chuppa will keep me company at night, and during the day Mala and her husband will be here,” Leela assured her mother.
Mala and Lingam were local villagers who came to help Leela’s family with household chores. Ammalu and Unny were expected to be gone for about five days, and after giving Mala and Lingam many instructions about the household and Leela’s personal safety, they finally left.
That evening Leela made sure all the doors were locked before retiring to the living room. A fire in the hearth made the room snug and comfortable. Chuppa settled down in front of the fire and Leela curled up on the sofa with a Sherlock Holmes mystery.
“Why didn’t the dog bark?” she murmured to herself.
Chuppa glanced up with a questioning look in his blue eyes.
“Don’t mind me, Chuppa. I’m just talking about the clue in this story,” she assured her pet, who sighed and went back to staring at the golden flames.
The crackling fire was the only sound in the room and Leela found herself drifting off. Chuppa’s low growl woke her up.
“Shh…Chuppa. It’s just the fire.”
But the dog didn’t settle down; instead he stood up and looked toward the front hallway. The coarse hairs on his neck were standing up and his body was tense and alert. Leela was alarmed at the dog’s stance and got up to stand in the living room doorway. She was as tense as Chuppa and tried to hear what had disturbed the dog.
Then she heard it, the slightest grating of metal as the front gate was opened. Chuppa growled beside her. She put a hand on his head, wondering what to do.
“Is anyone home?” a woman’s voice called out from the front stoop. Leela knew whoever was there had probably seen the warm glow of the light through the living room window, even though the cloth curtains were drawn shut.
Leela took a deep breath and walked into the dark hallway. She turned on the porch light and lifted up the curtain to peer through the front window. She could make out the figure of a woman and a man standing on the porch steps. The woman raised a slim hand and knocked on the wooden door. Leela looked back at Chuppa and gestured for him to stand behind her. The dog obediently went into the hallway, where he was hidden in the shadows behind his mistress.
Even though she dreaded opening the door, Leela decided it was better than waiting for the couple to perhaps break the glass and force their way in. She pulled the door open and peered out.
“Who are you, and why are you knocking on my door at this time of the night.”
The woman laughed, a sound that was nervous and at the same time somehow threatening. “Sister, we are just poor pilgrims on our way to the temple on the hill. Can you spare us a hot drink or a few paisas?”
“I’m sorry, but my hearth is out for the night and I have no change. Perhaps you can find hospitality farther down the road.” Leela said.
“Listen here, sister,” the man snarled, pushing the woman aside. “We are not asking for a few paisa like beggars. We are demanding you hand over your necklace, earrings and anything else of value you have in the house. I don’t make idle threats.” As he spoke, he pulled out a knife, the blade glinting in the overhead porch light.
“I don’t like threats. I suggest you leave,” Leela said, trying not to sound as frightened as she felt.
The man answered by pushing the door aside and taking a step to come inside. A deep rumble from the hallway stopped him in mid-stride.
“Chuppa, come here,” Leela called out to her faithful companion, who came to stand beside her. He bared his teeth and gave out a menacing growl. The couple stared at the German shepherd.
“Now, I suggest you leave before my dog gets impatient,” Leela said to the couple.
The man hissed in anger. “A dumb animal isn’t going to stop me,” he said in a low tone as he stepped toward Leela, his knife raised.
“Chuppa, get the knife,” Leela ordered in a firm voice.
Without a moment’s hesitation, the dog leaped and grabbed the man’s hand. The knife clattered to the ground. The man yelped in surprise. Leela quickly kicked the knife out of his reach. The dog let go of the man’s hand waited for his next command.
“Good dog. Now get him,” Leela said.
Again the dog leaped and, using his full weight, brought the man down. Chuppa placed a heavy paw on the man’s chest and bared his teeth. The woman cried out, and dog looked at her with his soft eyes and pulled back his lips to show his sharp white teeth.
“Call off your dog,” the woman cried. “We meant no harm.”
The silence was broken by a murmur of voices.
“Miss Leela, are you all right?” a voice asked from the driveway. It was Lingam. He was carrying a smoky homemade torch in his hand. Behind him were several villagers.
“Lingam! I am so glad to see you,” Leela called and sighed in relief. “Chuppa caught a man who was threatening me.”
Lingam walked up to the porch steps and looked down at the figure on the ground.
“These look like the couple who have been robbing houses,” he announced. “We heard they were out tonight, and came by to check on you. But it looks like you can take care of yourself.” His white teeth flashed as he grinned at Leela.
“It was Chuppa who saved the day,” Leela said. “Chuppa let him go.”
The German shepherd looked down at the man and growled again before moving slowly off him. The animal went to stand beside Leela, looking up at her with adoration shining from his bright blue eyes.
Leela bent down and hugged the dog. She buried her face in his doggy fur. “Thank you, Chuppa,” she whispered.
“Woof.” Chuppa’s bark was short and soft. Leela laughed out loud. That was the one and only time Chuppa ever barked.
For years the dog was my mother’s faithful companion in Kotagiri. When he died of old age, my mother was heartbroken. Chuppa was the last pet she ever owned.,