It’s the night of Diwali. The smell of firecrackers permeates the air, taking me back, like it always does, to some memories from my childhood. Rather, it takes me back to the thread that weaves in and out through every memory I have of that period. That thread belongs to Orpheus.
My uncle Jayanta had brought him home when he was just a few weeks old. Nobody seems to remember anymore what year that was, but judging by the photos I have with him, I was about five years old then. My aunt Shubha, a voracious reader and overly fond of thinking up fanciful names for pets (I’ve heard stories about a parrot named Achilles), had named him Orpheus.
Mine was an old and well spread out colonial house, filled with a variety of grown up relatives. Orpheus lived in a kennel custom made for him. He was free to roam the grounds and the house as he pleased, but the bedrooms and kitchen were off limits to pets of all species, and Orpheus and I had both been taught to respect this boundary. Some evenings, when he would get impatient waiting for me to come out to play, he would poke his head in through the curtains and whine at me from the threshold, but he would never, ever cross it.
Orpheus did not like Diwali evenings. He would either stay inside his kennel, burrowed under his blankets, or hide under the planking of the house, until the sound of firecrackers bursting all around wound down to an occasional bang every now and then.
I was maybe seven or eight and it was another Diwali evening. Having finished my modest collection of fireworks, I’d decided to take a nap before dinner. I couldn’t have been asleep for very long when one of the louder bangs woke me up again. With my eyes still closed, I tried to turn to a side, and realised I couldn’t. Something had me pinned down. When I opened my eyes, I found Orpheus, with all the weight of a full-grown Alsatian, lying on top of me. He was happy to see me awake, but showed no signs of wanting to get off. Then, my mother came into the room. As soon as he saw her, and before she could even react to the strange sight in front of her, Orpheus slid off the bed, and walked out. Upon checking, we found him back in his kennel, burrowed under his blankets.
No one had any explanation for this episode, besides that he was probably frightened by the loud noises all around. No one really thought too much about it either. I did, and had an explanation of my own. Earlier that year, our neighbours, a quiet elderly couple, had sold their house and moved to Calcutta. The new neighbours had teenage children, and a lot of money. Their celebrations were noticeably louder and ran much longer. Terrified as he must have been, Orpheus was also very protective of me. So instead of hiding out like past years, he came looking for me, and upon finding me alone and asleep, he put himself between me and whatever harm he imagined those loud noises held for me. It may sound far-fetched to some, but I knew my Orpheus.
Growing up, I believed in the existence of malevolent spirits and was terrified by the notion. It started, I think, when I was a toddler, with my mother’s ill-advised use of the sound of mice scurrying around the rafters of our house, as proof of an other-worldly fiend, ready to pounce on me unless I finished my meal. I saw through the trickery as I grew older, but the fear was harder to get rid of than the misconception. By then, I was terrified of being alone in the dark. Power cuts startled me and being asked to fetch something from a dark room was as good as a punishment. My biggest challenge however, was going to the bathroom.
Our house was very old, belonging to the period when toilets were built away from the rest of the house in a separate structure. So, going to the bathroom after dark meant getting out of the house, walking across a deserted albeit well-lit courtyard, and then walking into a pitch-dark room. The light switch was inside. To make matters worse, I had an active imagination, that conjured horrific images of creatures lying in wait for me in the dark bathroom stall. I was so scared, I wouldn’t go to the bathroom unless there were people around. As a result, any time I needed to use the bathroom after hours, my mother had to walk me down there and then wait outside to walk me back to the house, paying a rather tedious price for her earlier deception.
Thankfully, I did overcome my fear of the bathroom stall (and eventually, of the dark), and a lot of the credit went to Orpheus. Somewhere along the way, he took on the task of being my guard when I went to the loo. He would walk across the courtyard with me, wait outside while I was in there, then walk back to the house with me. He did this, even when Ma, or someone else, was already there for me. Back then, based on things I had seen in poorly made horror movies, I truly believed that dogs could see ghosts even when humans couldn’t. The fact that Orpheus was walking calmly with me and not cowering under the planking with his tail between his legs, like the dogs in those movies did, was very reassuring. At some point, I no longer needed a grown up to accompany me to the bathroom. Orpheus however, never stopped walking me to the bathroom and back.
When I moved from my nursery school to a bigger school, I had to be away from home much longer than before, as the new school was further away from home and the classes ran longer. Orpheus noticed. To let me know that he missed me, and was glad to have me back, he greeted me with increasingly excited barking when I returned from school, culminating in a thorough licking of my hands and face. I couldn’t change or wash up or eat a snack until this ritual was completed, or he would drive people up the wall with his barking. I remember this very fondly even now, a couple of decades since. I have many people in my life who love and care for me, but no one, not even Ma, has ever been as happy just to see me again, as Orpheus used to be, day after day. It’s hard to forget being loved that much.
I had my first real crush when I was twelve. It was also when I had my first big heartbreak. It hadn’t really occurred to me then that the twenty-two year old college boy, who I saw around the neighbourhood, was unlikely to be interested in a twelve year old schoolgirl, even if he didn’t already have a girlfriend his own age. Having to watch the object of my affection share momos with this other girl, while I waited for my own order, was a terrible way to find out it wasn’t meant to be. For a week, I spent my playtime sitting under the Camellia tree, mourning the tragic end to my great love story that never took off, and making mulch out of the baby pink petals the tree had shed all around. Orpheus stayed by me quietly, lying on the ground with his head on my lap. He didn’t once whine at me to play ball with him, which is something he otherwise did even if I was late by five minutes for our evening playtime. He just waited with me, the oddly comforting weight of his head resting on my thighs.
By the time I turned sixteen, Orpheus had grown quite old. His eyesight wasn’t as keen as it used to be, he no longer could jump up to greet me after a long time apart, nor did he gulp down his food like he hadn’t been fed for days. He moved slowly, carefully, spending long stretches just napping in the sun. The way we spent time together had changed too, over time. We no longer had our evening playtime as before, as I didn’t have as much time and he didn’t have as much energy.
Those days, I had Maths tuitions early in the morning. Every day, before I left for the class, I would run up to Orpheus, who would be napping on a sunny patch of grass across the ground, give him a cuddle and tell him I would see him when I got back. On that day, I was running late for class. I had stayed up the night before, catching up with my brother who was home for Diwali, and then slept right through my morning alarm. When I stepped out, Orpheus saw me from across the ground, stood up and took a couple of steps towards me. He didn’t usually do that, but I didn’t make much of it at the time. I was already ten minutes late, it would take me another five to reach my tutor’s home, and he didn’t look too kindly on tardiness. So, I just called out to Orpheus, told him I’d see him when I got back, and rushed out. The class ran very long that day. School was off, finals were coming up soon, and my tutor never missed an opportunity to work us a little harder. It was almost time for lunch by the time we finished. When I reached home, I noticed Orpheus was fast asleep at the same spot as he was in the morning. Not wanting to wake him up from his nap, I went straight in, planning to spend time with him after lunch.
Halfway through my meal, I heard an urgent yell from my brother, followed by some commotion caused by everyone talking at once, people rushing out, people rushing in. Then they told me. Orpheus had passed away in his sleep. I remember just freezing on the spot for a while. I couldn’t speak or move. It had taken a while for some feeling to return to my limbs, when I could finally go out to see him. To me he’d still looked like he was sleeping but Dr Inti, his vet, had assured me he was gone.
I had grown up an only child in a house full of adults. Even my brother was nine years older than me. None of my neighbours had children my age, and my friends from school didn’t live close enough to play with every day. From the time Orpheus came to us, when I was about five, he was my only friend and playmate at home. I had never felt lonely with him around. So, it was only fitting, that I felt very alone that day, sitting on the ground, running my hand all over him, repeating every term of endearment I had ever used for him, hoping there was some truth to the idea of everlasting souls, hoping he could hear me. Hoping above all, that he would know how sorry I was that I couldn’t spare a minute of my time to spend with him that morning. He’d tried to come to me. Maybe he had needed his friend. Maybe he wanted to say goodbye. I hadn’t tried to understand.
Later that night, I walked down to his kennel. The dark didn’t scare me. In fact, some part of me had hoped to find a shadow burrowed there, under the blankets, trying to drown out the firecrackers. There wasn’t one. At least, not one I could see.
Every year, invariably, the scent of fire crackers takes me down this rabbit hole of memories. Almost all of them make me smile. All except the last. To this day, I regret not having been there for Orpheus the one time he needed me, while he had been there for me every time I needed a friend. Sometimes I imagine going back in time, back to that day. I would have sat down next to him, held his head on my lap and stroked him until he fell asleep. Then, I would stay right there with him, holding him, until he passed away, as he had to, of course, but this time he would know, without the shadow of a doubt, that the friend he spent his whole life loving, was with him right till the end.
I wonder if Orpheus has a kennel in heaven and if he’s burrowed in his blankets again today, to get away from all the fireworks that are lighting up the sky.