Once, when we lived in Sydney, we went to visit my mother who had an apartment in the seaside holiday resort of Avoca. We walked through back streets until we came to the Pacific Ocean at Terrigal, and we stood on the sand, and watched the surfers playing the waves, and looked across the heaving waters which vanished against the eastern horizon.
Then we went to a small café, and sat inside the glass window, where we could watch the beach and the waves, as we drank cappuccino. And, while we were enjoying the coffee, it began to rain, and then we noticed, pressed against the glass window, a Blue Heeler dog.
She was a beautiful creature, her coat thick and mottled grayish blue, her eyes huge and brown, her snout so neat with a black nose, her tail thick, straight and pointed at the end with a white tip. The Blue Heeler is also called ‘Australian Cattle Dog’, and they are bred to be a working dog, to heel the cattle, to race furiously round the outside of a mob, nipping the heels of the steers, whilst the rider works the herd towards the yards. Known for their intelligence, and their fierce loyalty, and affectionate nature, these dogs had become a fashionable pet suburban dwellers, although the active nature of Blue Heelers did not suit them to a quiet life in the suburbs.
‘That dog must be waiting for someone,’ I said.
‘Her owner’s no doubt in some shop or on the beach,’ Jeremy said.
‘But it’s raining. Why would they leave her in the rain?’ I thought I had never seen a lovelier dog.
By the time we had finished our coffee, half an hour had passed and the Blue Heeler was still running backwards and forwards frantically outside the window. She would stand for a minute on the corner pavement, staring up along the road, and then she would return to her position outside the café, pressed against the window, to avoid the rain.
‘She’s lost,’ I said to Jeremy. ‘I know she’s lost.’
‘Someone will come for her,’ he said. ‘Just leave it.’
We left the café, and I glanced back once more at that gorgeous dog, with her coat ruffled and wet, with her broad chest and her straight legs sitting and gazing fixedly up the road.
‘Promise me,’ I said to Jeremy, ‘That we can come back in one hour and if she is still here, I can take her home.’
He agreed to this proposal and I stood at the window of the apartment, looking at my watch, watching the rain, and waiting for an hour to pass. When it was time, I said to him, ‘An hour has passed’ and he reluctantly took me in the car, back to the place where the dog had been waiting.
And she was still there – wet, expectant, staring into the distance, all of her muscles tense, her beautiful, thick neck in waiting position.
I jumped out of the car and called to her, ‘Sita’, because it seemed she was like Sita, who had waited faithfully for her beloved to return. She was grateful for any stranger to recognize her need, and she ran to my arms, and I picked her up, and took her wet, cold body on my knee, and we drove her home.
We put advertisements in all the papers that we had found a dog, but no-one answered them. Every time we took her for a walk, when she saw a blonde young man carrying a surf board, she would become very excited, bark, strain on the lead, and try to run towards him. Then, when she got close to her selected target, her ears would drop, her tail stop wagging, and she would slink back to us. This behaviour continued for many weeks. We surmised that her owner had been a surfer, who was travelling the coast and could not keep her. We were obviously a poor substitute for someone she loved, someone who had been kind to her, but no longer wanted her.
When we returned to Sydney we took her to the vet for a check-up. He informed us that she was heavily pregnant, and should be spayed because she was carrying pups too large for her size and could die whilst giving birth. So she was spayed, and slowly she accepted us as her new owners.
We developed a whole language between us. She played games by putting her head on one side, and giving a short yelp of invitation. Then I would yelp, and she would yelp, and I swear she would laugh, with her lips pulled back into a wide grin. At other times she would fetch a ball or a stick, and lay it at our feet, and sit, and look expectantly until we went outside to throw it for her. She would put her paw on my knee when I was sitting, and look up into my face with her huge brown eyes and when I patted my knees, she would jump into my lap, and sit there, licking my face and wriggling with joy.
When it was time for us to go and live in India, at the animal shelter in Jaipur, we had to sell our house. It was our family home and I loved it and felt a certain regret that we had to part with this place forever, this place where there were so many memories of our boys growing up, and finally leaving home to marry.
A group of estate agents, wearing suits and ties, and carrying notebooks and looking efficient, came to value the house. As I showed them into the hall, a pungent smell of sewage wafted through the house. I led them into the sitting room, and there, right in the middle of the expanse of new cream-coloured carpet, was a huge pile of wet, smoking faeces.
‘Does your dog always defecate on the carpet?’ one of the estate agents asked me.
‘She’s never, ever been to the toilet in the house,’ I answered.
It was clear that Sita, having sensed my reluctance in having to sell the house, had expressed her own feelings towards these men who were the agents of my distress. Although I cleaned the carpet, the stain remained there, in the otherwise pristine expanse of perfect décor, and somehow that stain helped to remind me that houses were only houses, and there was always a stain somewhere.
I asked among my friends, and our own sons, if there was anyone would would like to adopt Sita, but no-one wanted her. The only solution was to take her to India with us. She traveled in a large box, designed by a company which specialized in air-freighting dogs. It was a long journey from Sydney to Delhi, but she arrived safely, and we fell into each others’ arms when the box was opened.
Sita took happily to life at the animal shelter. She was a true Blue Heeler, full of energy, watching everything, and she made her post on the top verandah, where as the top dog of the hierarchy she could survey her kingdom, and command all who disobeyed. At night she slept at our feet in the small cottage in the grounds of the shelter where we lived.
Sita hated cats. It was her one and only foible. If ever she saw a cat, her neck would go stiff, her head would extend outwards, and her eyes almost popping from her head as she exercised supreme restraint, she would parade stiffly past the cat, each leg moving in slow motion, her head immobile with disgust.
We had a small cat that lived in our garden. He had been abandoned by someone and we kept him in our care. His name was Ginger, and Sita hated him because he was a threat to her rulership and her kingdom and her priority. One day, we noticed that Sita pushed open the screen door with her nose, vanished into the garden for a moment, and then came back with a look of extreme satisfaction on her face, slinking into the room, gazing at us sideways from wary eyes,
‘What did you do, Sita?’ I asked her. I opened the door, and looked outside. The cat lay dead, its neck broken. She had waited for a moment when she hoped no-one would notice, and killed her only challenge in life.
One day, Dr. Ramchandani, who was a vet, and one of the trustees of the animal shelter, told us that there was a dog show in Jaipur. He suggested we should enter Sita into the show, as she was an unusual breed of dog to be seen in Jaipur. Indeed, he said, there probably was not another Blue Heeler in the whole of India.
‘She doesn’t have any papers,’ I said. ‘She was just a stray we found on the beach.’
‘She’s a beautiful dog,’ he said. ‘And it would give the people interest to see her.’
On the day of the show, Sita sat in the back seat of our small Maruti Gypsy, which we had bought to suit her, because she could lie on the back seat which was elevated, thus allowing her to look from the window. She looked immensely self-satisfied, grinning with her special smile, the lips pulled back, her pink tongue lolling, her lips a dark grey.
The dogs had to parade in a circle. This was no problem for Sita. She enjoyed any parade and behaved herself completely. Perhaps aware that she was on display, she pranced over the grass. Not surprisingly, she won ‘Best of her Breed’ because there was no competition.
At the end of the day, the winner of each category had to parade in front of the judge for the final selection of ‘Best Dog in Show.’ Again Sita performed with an excellence beyond her normal capacities. Without doubt she knew that she was the winner.
When the judge called us into the middle of the ring, I was surprised. She was, after all, only a street dog, without any pedigree papers. He called about five or six dogs into the centre, and asked the others to leave. Owners and dogs stood in a line, and waited for the judges decision as he walked past each dog, examining them one by one.
Finally Sita’s name was called. She was declared, ‘Best Dog in Show.’ She had to sit on a table, with her blue ribbons and her wooden and silver shield, smiling widely, while she was photographed and praised.
‘I’ve lived and judged dogs in Australia for many years,’ the judge, who was from Calcutta said to me. ‘And I know Blue Heelers well. She’s a beautiful dog, no doubt. She deserves the prize.’
Of course Sita thought so also, and we hung the wooden shield with its silver embroidery on the wall in our office at the animal shelter.
When it grew very hot in Jaipur at the beginning of May, we decided to drive with Sita to Darjeeling. It was a long trip of over 1700 kilometres, across the Great Gangetic Plain, through cities such as Varanasi, Allahabad, and Patna. It took us seven days and each night we stopped in a different town. Then we would give exercise to Sita by throwing a ball for her. She was so good at catching the ball that she could jump into the air and field it on the full. Crowds of people would gather, clapping and cheering at her skills. They called her Allan Border (the famous Australian cricketer). She always slept in our room at the various hotels. I would explain in halting Hindi that she thought she was a human, and the hoteliers seemed to understand that she was not an ordinary dog. You only had to look at that wise, intent face to know that she was the leader of all the canine species.
After we returned from Darjeeling, to the animal shelter, and after we had expelled the rats and ants and lizards which had taken refuge in our cottage during the monsoon, we settled down once more to life in the shelter. One evening, Sita came into the house, swaying slightly.
‘She looks drunk,’ I said to Jeremy,
We gave her some water, which she started to drink, and then she collapsed into the bowl, falling forwards onto her face, completely unconscious. We looked at each other in dismay.
We carried her up to the dispensary, and told Daya what had happened. Daya was the manager of the shelter, and very expert with animals. He was more skilled than many a qualified veterinary surgeon.
‘She looks as though she’s been poisoned,’ he said ‘Could she have eaten anything poisonous?’
Then I thought of the mangled body of the pig which we had rescued from the road that afternoon. The pig had still been alive, although half its body was torn and mashed after having been run over by a passing truck. We had administered a large dose of anaesthetic to the pig, which had then died without suffering.
I ran down to the nulla and looked at the hole where we had buried the pig, for in those days there was no municipal service to collect carcasses in the outer suburb which the shelter inhabited. There were signs that the hole had been dug up by several dogs and the pigs’ body eaten in parts. No doubt Sita was one of the offenders. To this day I do not know whether it was the thiopentone in the pig’s muscles which caused Sita to lose consciousness, or whether she had found some bait, or other poison which she had consumed, for behind the shelter there was an agricultural farm, where sadly, from time to time, the beautiful fruit bats would fly into our shelter and die on the ground in front of us, having been poisoned so that they did not eat the fruit which grew on the great trees in that area.
Frantically I rang up the vet in Australia who had once spayed Sita and asked him the effects of an overdose of thiopentone. ‘It would probably damage the liver if she recovers,’ he explained ‘But if the dose is too large the brain will stop functioning, the body will close down, and she’ll die.’
For forty eight hours we took turns in sitting beside the unconscious body of Sita. The body continued to breath. Daya had fixed a drip into the vein in her arm. Pus poured from her eyes and her mouth.
Finally, it seemed her time had come. Two days and two nights had passed. Her brain would be damaged, her body diseased, cancerous. She had to die.
Frantically I seized her body, and shook her violently. ‘Sita, Sita, ‘ I called ‘Come back to me. Don’t go. Sita. Sita.’
Then an extraordinary thing happened. As if she had been passing down a long tunnel, and had turned around at the sound of my voice, my call, out of great love, she left that place of peace and of light, and, because of her loyalty, and because of our adoration, she struggled against the lure of heaven itself, and opened her eyes, and made herself materialize again in the hard, uncomfortable world, so that the dead body was again filled with life, and whatever Spirit which was Sita again occupied that wracked, aching form.
And we brought her a dish of milk which she drank, and we knew she would live, because of her love, which was beyond all other love, and she did live for many years more, although she was never as healthy as before, and she died, in my arms, from liver cancer, in the garden where she had lived in Jaipur, in India. And she had come with me so far, from a distant country, and we had been together so long, and I was bereft without her.
But in the night I had a dream, and in the dream she appeared to me as she had always been, young, and smiling, and laughing, and running before me, and looking back at me, and she said, quite clearly, in words which were imposed into my mind, ‘You are grieving because you think I am not with you. But I am always with you, its just that you cannot see me now.’
And because she said this, I knew it was true, and I know she has been with me ever since.