A Dog Named Koochi

(Here is Koochi, in a photograph from the summer of 2008. She is, very uncustomarily, tied – most probably in deference to the wishes of a cranky neighbour whose dislike for Koochi was matched only by Koochi’s dislike for him. While I wish the chain wasn’t there, it is perhaps the only reason I was able to photograph Koochi – and even then only in profile.)

Koochi (May 25, 1998 – March 10, 2011)

Koochi adopted our family on May 25, 1998. She must have been about two months old at the time. I myself was not yet ten. We were living in the D-quarters in the IISc campus then and had never considered owning a dog or a cat or any animal really. For one thing, few people actually “owned” animals in those days: cats and dogs that became “pets” were usually strays that, roaming the roads of the campus, were lucky enough to chance upon a benefactor who gave them something to eat. A couple of rounds of such feeding meant the animal usually stayed on, coming and going at will. At the time Koochi came along, there were already several (terrifically-named) neighbourhood fixtures, including Neandrakal, a rather haughty, unpredictable dog; Getti, a somewhat timid and complaisant dog, whose ingratiating ways and constant presence meant its name was a shortening of “Get out”; Dabuji, an aged and regal loner-cat (that remains perhaps the biggest cat I’ve seen in my life); and Brownie, a clever little cat that was quite easily the most-pampered animal around. The few “proper pets” that were around were all dogs: Zaika, a bloody-infuriating white Pomeranian, whose constant shrill yapping was the bane of the people around it and that instilled in me a lifelong dislike for the breed; Doggie Rao, a largish brown mongrel that, as the story went, had been rescued on a rainy night as a terrified puppy stuck in shoulder-height brambles and had since then been kept chained almost all the time – making it, as we were growing up, an almost-legendary creature-of-menace that most of us kids were scared to approach (and that we only saw when it virtually yanked its owner along for its evening “walk”); Regina, a smallish black dog with a leg damaged from being run over, an event that had turned it both wary and snappy and that made petting it an exercise in delicacy and caution; and, arriving just a few months before Koochi, Stagina (or Stag), another mostly-outdoors pet that grew into a large, brown, beautifully-athletic specimen of a dog that could move from being coy and lying on its back for a bellyrub to being a snarly grump that growled throatily if you even got close to its food-bowl.
     It was into this environment that Koochi arrived on the evening of May 25, 1998 – and, in what can only be called a ಋಣಾನುಬಂಧ (ruṇānubandha), a Kannada word that refers, approximately, to ‘a bond forged through mutual interaction and relationships over several lifetimes’ – made herself our dog – and eventually the neighbourhood’s dog – in the teeth of my father’s initial opposition and my mother’s reluctance. (Amma was fond of animals and had grown up with dogs, squirrels, and budgies. Appa, on the other hand, had had very little to do with dogs all his life and wasn’t keen to start.) Of course, like me and so many of the neighbours, they would both come to adore Koochi, that pure-mongrel dog with its wonderful large liquid-brown eyes, its small black-and-white-dappled frame, its endearingly-reproachful howls, and its remarkably clever ways (that led my father to remark that Koochi was easily the cleverest dog he’d seen).
     I did not know, when I started to write, what form this preamble would take or how long it would be. In fact, the purpose of this post was to share two pieces I’d written previously about Koochi: one, a poem I wrote not long after she died on March 10, 2011 – and that I have revised a little since; and two, an essay I wrote, in early 2019, to accompany the photograph of Koochi you see above. (That said, I am quite pleased with the way the preamble’s turned out and the reminiscing it allowed for. I also think it has done a good job of not “stepping on the toes” of the two pieces.) Here, now, are the poem and essay.

Note: The poem was written at a time when I was still writing poetry in the ‘romantic style’. Like I said, I have revised (and tempered) it a little. But I reckon its ‘romanticism’ remains fairly obvious. Perhaps the unadorned narrative style of the (photo) essay I wrote in early 2019 was meant to counterbalance the extravagant language of the 2011 poem.

Poem (2011) : Koochi – Memories

Whether by instinct or brow-written fate
she’d come as a lonely cub to our gate
on tiny, tottering feet; it was how amma learnt that a glance
can take on a bigger aspect and show the blindness of chance;
and like a blue unclouded sky can nurse a shower,
creation can thread us to an unseen star.

Thereon she lived, I like to think, many happy hours
in the company of friends – hers and ours –
who doted on her like she was their pet alone
and placed her on a variety of thrones.
Yet no matter how far or near she roamed
each night we found her on the doorstep she first called home.

I remember that she came when I was just a boy
who in my innocence and wonderment and joy
spoke several sounds that meant but
little to both me and her, yet from which she learnt
that Koochi was her man-given name;
which, in all her puppy ardour, she treated like a game.

Nature’d given her a coat that mingled black and white
and a mongrel ancestry as natural as the light
that played off of her soft brown eyes; to look into those
was to see feelings that ranged from fear to repose
and passed through tail-swirling joy and howled soft reproach
when we came back late – for she always scented our approach.

I’m happy to think we left her free
to wander as fancy struck (and sniff at every tree
she passed); still, all her life was not just ease:
twice savaged by her own ilk, her smallness was almost her disease.
And still she waxed into old age to continue to reprimand and startle;
that we who loved her thought she was immortal.

But one day, her soul left when none of us was near
her side to give her final thoughts an ear;
yet I know for sure she faced death with a calm
mature as old-rooted tree; a calm we all could learn from.
And this was how she left into the dusk
she came from: memories linger, fragrant as musk.

Photo Essay (2019) : The Coming of Koochi

A woman sets out for her routine evening walk. She rounds the jackfruit tree by the corner and walks on. She glances to her left and spots the tiniest puppy dog – small enough to fit in her palm she thinks. The puppy lifts its head and looks her in the face: the two lock eyes for a fraction of a second. The woman walks on. Her thoughts drift and the puppy is soon forgotten.

The woman returns from her walk. As she nears home, she sees something on the lower step outside her door. She gets closer – it is the puppy she saw not an hour ago! The puppy looks her full in the face. Astonished, the woman returns the look. (Little does she know what is in store.)

Koochi runs up to the woman and wags her tail madly as she swishes in and out of the hem of her saree. The woman bends down to pet Koochi, murmurming affectionately. Koochi – the nonsense-name her son invented as he looked to express his affection for the tiny puppy; the puppy that adopted her; the puppy that has now grown to be a most intelligent dog that waits eagerly for her afternoon meal; the dog she soothed and extricated from the chain that had bitten into her flesh; the dog with such a wonderfully expressive face she seems to her almost human at times.

Koochi is now an old dog, deaf in one ear and slowly fading. Her tail no longer spins like an over-excited windmill. The woman watches as a cluster of ants march around Koochi in one of nature’s mysterious ceremonies.

A couple of nights later, the woman and her son will take Koochi to the veterinary hospital. She will stroke Koochi gently as she stands on the operating table, semi-conscious and trembling. She will hope but sadly. A few hours later she will hear that Koochi has died – at around 6.40 a.m. She will console herself and her son and murmur softly to herself: “May 25, 1998 to March 10, 2011. Not bad, not bad…she lived a good life.”

(Like you must have guessed, the woman in the story is my mother.)

Myth and the World

There’s a glossary below. Clicking on the asterisk by a word will take you to it.

Did you knów the fragrant flówer
was once the fláme of a fiery stár?
Did you knów a woman’s milk
is but nectar stráined through silk?
Did you knów the Dionýsian* dance
was bórn of a sōma*-induced trance?
Did you knów the human heart
has a place in the Múseum of Cosmic Art?
Did you knów the vaidic* fire
once lit unstáined Baldur’s* pyre?
Did you knów the Arctic sea
was fórmed from the frost of the Yggdrasil* tree?
Did you knów the sweetest fruit
is seéded in wise wisdom’s sight?
Did you knów the bányan tree
fálls to the ground in ecstasy?
Did you knów the sweat of toil
is nectared-ráin to the drought-dry soil?
Did you knów the song for the deaf
spríngs from the kàlpataru’s* leaf?
Did you knów each cloúd above
once carríed water to a thirsty love*?
Did you knów that in the earth
lives a wórld of unheard mirth?
Did you knów that myth and man
are as rávelled as the chaff and grain?

(written ca. mid 2015)

For more about the context of and history behind the poem’s creation, see notes.

1. Dionysius (die-oh-nisi-yus): A figure of Greek mythology, considered the patron god of drink and revelry.

2. sōma (so-maah): A fabulous kind-of-nectar (distilled from a plant) that is supposed to have been drunk by the vaidic priests.

3. vaidic: Relating to the véda-s, the oldest extant Sanskrit literature.

4. Baldur (bald-er): In Norse mythology, the son of Odin and Freya. Killed, as a result of Loki’s machinations, by his own (blind) brother Honir.

5. Yggdrasil (ig-drus-il): The giant tree of Norse mythology that straddles the three worlds.

6. kalpataru (cull-puh-thuh-rue): The wish-tree of Hindu mythology. Located in swarga.

7. thirsty love: a reference to the “Mēghadūta (The Cloud Messenger)”, the famous Sanskrit poet Kālidāsa’s celebrated work. The premise of the poem is of a deliriously lovelorn yaksha (a demigod-like creature) speaking to a cloud above and telling it the message it should take to his equally lovelorn beloved hundreds of miles away.

Amma, Suzanne, and Leonard

I first listened to a Leonard Cohen song at home – when my mother sang ‘Suzanne’. She sang it as she moved around the house, in that soft melodious voice that so wonderfully suits those English songs she first heard when she was young and now sings from memory — and I can still see Amma emerging from the half-darkness of the passageway (that led to the two rooms at the back) into the bright light of the drawing room, singing “and the sun poured down like honey | on our lady of the harbour…” as I sat on one of the sofas in the room, continuing to do what I was doing even as I listened to those lovely words with half an ear.

     Some time later, I would go on to listen to Cohen himself singing ‘Suzanne’, his deep, distinctive, scratchy voice made even scratchier by the dust that had settled in the grooves of the old LP Amma owned. A couple of years later, Cohen would become part of my routine at college — his husky voice now emerging from the laptop on my desk as I drifted off to sleep. Later still, I would travel alone (for want of a like-minded companion) to listen to him sing live in Minneapolis, one of the venues he played as part of his long and final tour, a tour forced on him by his dire financial situation but one he learned to love and embrace as it went on and he witnessed the many rapturous and heartfelt receptions he was given.

     It’s been a number of years now since we moved out of our house on the IISc campus. We live now in our “own house”, which is a lot larger and has both an upstairs and a downstairs. My room is upstairs, and is where I spend most of my time. Amma, on the other hand, spends most of her time downstairs. Things have changed: we now have a cook (who also plays housekeeper and with whom and whose family we’ve formed a bond) and Amma spends most of her time doing the Sudoku and the crossword, reading her Kindle, indulging in the odd game of Mahjong or Solitaire, and playing the piano. She moves about the house less these days – there is no reason to – and while she may occasionally recall an old favourite song, it is very rare to hear her singing like she used to. Very occasionally, my father brings her a thesis that needs to be copyedited, a task she devotes herself to with a conscientious diligence that comes naturally to her. Her evening routine has also changed. She now goes for a walk with her “new” friends, friends from the IISc she has got to know better upon moving here. It is a daily ritual she revels in – and one that gives her the opportunity and luxury to eat the several snacks and sweets she enjoys.

     (To be fair, the singing hasn’t stopped completely, but if she sings nowadays, it is as part of her ‘music class’ – a session where she and some friends spend an hour learning some ‘devi stuti’ or the other and about an hour-and-a-half savouring each other’s cooking and chatting about mundane matters.)

     To tell the truth, I cannot remember the last time Amma sang ‘Suzanne’ or ‘Tambourine Man’ – a most favourite song and one I first heard because Amma sang it – or ‘Five Hundred Miles’, another old favourite and my introduction to the wonderful music of Peter, Paul and Mary. However, I occasionally hear her humming and singing one of her old tunes and once in a while, I sit down on the end of the sofa (
her sofa really) whose other end she’s at and play a song on my phone, one I know she’ll enjoy – and am suitably pleased when she responds to the cue, looking up from her crossword or Kindle with a smile and often singing along.

     I know if I asked her why she’s stopped singing or pester her to start again, she would say ‘I’m old, Madhava’; and I would contest the matter and a needless argument might break out. So I won’t. After all, one can sing only when one feels like singing – and perhaps Amma just isn’t inclined to these days. Also, old or not, she is certainly growing older and her enthusiasm has switched gears and moved towards other things – like the piano, an instrument she’d always wanted to learn and first began learning almost twenty years ago; that she gave up (for reasons I don’t remember) after some three or four years; that she returned to some three years ago after a prolonged break; that she got better at again in those three years, even venturing to learn “Für Elise” upon my request; and that she has just recently been forced to stop playing because of a minor dislocation in her thumb, the result of a freak fall.

     In this time of COVID-19, Amma is waiting on two operations. One for her thumb – which isn’t mandatory but that is likely help in the long run – and the second for a cataract in her left eye (the right one already being done), an operation that was to have happened yesterday but has now been postponed indefinitely. (2022 update: Amma
s thumb has improved dramatically – to the point where it has now fully healed and has allowed her to return to playing the piano – upon doing exercises prescribed by a doctor-friend and her cataract operation wasn’t so important that it couldn’t be postponed.)

     When during my bath today, I suddenly remembered the essay I wrote after Cohen’s passing in 2016 and thought of sharing it, I hadn’t thought to write all this much. It occurred to me to simply write an introductory line or two and then share that essay. But I began – and this is what came of it. And perhaps it is only fitting, because, really, without Amma there would likely be no Leonard Cohen – nor a concert and a remembrance.

“And she shows you where to look
among the garbage and the flowers…”


Leonard Cohen — A Remembrance

(written on November 13, 2016)

It seems like so long ago, but there was a time in college when I looked forward to doing the laundry so I could come back to my room (on 4th Burton) and listen to my collection of Leonard Cohen’s songs as I folded a couple-of-weeks worth of clothes. In fact, there were times I wouldn’t have to even “turn on” the playlist – for it was to that very playlist that I’d have fallen asleep the last night (and the night before and perhaps the night before that too…).

It was a comforting, pleasant feeling – meticulously folding my clothes in the mellow, yellow light of the lamp by my bed as Cohen’s voice sang his songs in the sequence that had become so familiar. (It’s been years now since I listened to that collection, but I seem to remember that the first song was “Suzanne,” the second “Take This Waltz” and the third “The Stranger Song”; each having played some 400-odd times.)

Cohen was also why I put out my first (and only) public announcement in the NNB (Noon News Bulletin) – where I asked if there was anybody else who’d bought tickets to his Minnesota concert on the 2nd of May, 2009. (Two people responded, but were unfortunate enough to miscalculate the date.) I, however, was lucky enough to go and see him perform. While the experience was a little underwhelming (for one, it would have been nice to have had a fellow-fan; for another, I didn’t care so much for the orchestra-versions of his solo songs), his enthusiasm on stage belied his age; his voice had its famous husk; and his fedora beautifully capped his wise, impish, bejowled face. (I bought a fedora, of sorts, in the markets of Delhi some two years ago. It remains a prized possession.)

I haven’t, in recent years, listened to him like I used to, but I still remember those college days fondly – and the frissons of happiness that I felt sometimes as I sailed on the waves of his music and poetry. He was, with Yeats, one of my first-favourite English-language poets.

So – since it’s hard to pick a Cohen-favourite, I’ll offer two. The first one is “Take This Waltz“, a musical rendering of Cohen’s magnificent “transcreation” of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Spanish poem. The second is “If It Be Your Will“, a genuine masterpiece, a lyrically-charged hymn for the ages.

P.S: For the interested, here is a playlist (that I occasionally update) of Cohen’s songs.