It was already dusk when the bus finally dropped me at Belpahar. After four months in Delhi, the dusty and deserted town looked out of place to me, but still looked welcoming. Hitching my bag up, I looked around and started the trudge into the town. I was home.
"This place ought to be in a horror movie." I thought as I slipped past the creaking gate and looked up at the most familiar house in my life. The lone streetlight had transformed the otherwise respectable garden into a haunted scrub. I walked along the garden path taking in the familiar surroundings. Suddenly, I was suffocated by a hug.
"You’re home!" Mum looked as lively as ever. "How was the journey?"
"Don't ask." I said, clutching my back.
"Well, go and freshen up and I'll serve you pakodas. How does that sound?"
"Great!" I said.
As we stepped into the verandah, I spotted a white shape on the lawn.
"Mum! how come we're still getting stray dogs in the garden? I thought the fence was fixed?"
"It was.",Mum turned around." Where do you see a dog?"
"Right there", I said, pointing at the lawn, and paused. The dog had vanished." Never mind. I'll check the fence in the morning."
Dinner was a royal affair. Mum had put all her expertise to work to compensate for the pathetic hostel food I had been suffering for the last few months. I stuffed myself as much as I could, at the same time fielding questions from Dad about my studies. I ate too much, I should say.
At 2 am in the morning, everyone was asleep in the house except me. I rolled over, clutching my stomach, trying to block out the loud ticking of the wall clock. Slowly, I eased into restfulness. A loud bark jolted me awake.
"Oh God! Not now!"
The barking came again. I got up and looked out of the window. The garden was dark like hell. The bark came a third time. I strained my eyes against the dark to look at the source of the noise. There at the foot of the mango tree I could make out a faint outline. Two pointed ears and a tail. The dog began barking again.
"Hey! Shoo! Go away! Get out!" I called.
The dog turned and looked at me, but did not run away. It barked again at the mango tree.
"Shoo! Shoo! get going! lemme sleep!"
It raised its head towards me again. I made a movement like throwing a stone at him. He did not budge. Instead he slowly walked towards the window, tail wagging away. He gave a low whine.
I paused, surprised. He was pure white in colour, with a brown patch on his forehead. He had extraordinary bright brown friendly eyes, that looked straight at me, as if beckoning me. There was something familiar about him. I lowered my hand, and smiled. He was a pretty animal. I looked around my room for something edible, but could not find anything. I looked back. The dog was gone. I laughed to myself, I was still a sucker for dogs.
"The dog was in the garden again in the night", I told Dad in the morning. "He'll ruin your gladioli again." Dad was busy stuffing down toast for breakfast as fast as he could.
"Hmm, Strange.", Dad said, picking up his coffee." I thought the fence was repaired. Its the first time this year. I'll tell Ramu."
“He kept me awake half the night with his barking.” I complained.
“Really? I did not hear anything.” Dad said
“That’s because you were too busy snoring.” I scathed.
Mum smiled as she served me cornflakes.
After breakfast, I picked up the rusted piece of iron and rubber my mother ventured to call “my bicycle” and rolled it towards the market to have it repaired. The video shop had some new videos and i managed to coax the owner to lend me two for the day. I bought myself some chocolates and retraced my path on my cycle. As i eased into the lane in front of our house, I spotted the dog sitting in the middle of the road. I stopped.
“You do keep running into me, don’t you?” i told him
He gave his tail a wag and gave me a piteous look.
“Shoo!” I stamped my foot. He did not move. Strange dog.
“Here, have some chocolate.” I said as i broke a piece off my bar to throw in front of him.
He looked at the piece, got up and slowly trotted away into the woods.
“What? Now you are showing some attitude, huh?” I called after him.“Chocolate’s probably poisonous for you anyway”
Why was he so familiar? A passerby stared at me as he walked by. I gave him a smile.
I parked my cycle and went to examine the fence around our house. It was quite high all around. I walked to the place where the dog might have come through. As Dad had said, it was repaired.
“The only way he could have come in is fly!” I thought.
I went inside and loaded a C.D into the player. Flopping onto the sofa, I unwrapped another chocolate bar.
“Wash first”, Mum called from the kitchen.
I groaned and got up to go to my room. I flicked on the lights and stopped dead.
There at the centre of my bed, sat the white dog.
“Mom, how the hell did a DOG enter the house?!” I stumbled into the hallway to grab a broom.
“What?”, Mum came out of the kitchen.
“A dog! In my room!”
“What are you talking about?”
We went inside my room. It was empty.
“Where is the dog?”
“It was right here. It must have gone out of the window.”
“Ha-ha! You and your little jokes. I would like to see a dog get through those bars. ‘Dog in my room!’ For heavens sake!”, Mum said as she exited.
“I swear I........”, I looked around the room. Was the Dog really in my room?
I looked at the bed sheets. They were untouched.
“Funny me”, I tapped myself.
I washed and went back to the movie. It was about a spectral dog haunting its murderers. The director suffered from the illusion that the story was creepy. I was asleep after the first half hour.
We were sitting in my bedroom. I was petting the white dog who was nibbling on a piece of chocolate. Looking up at me, he offered me a piece. I refused.
“Well, It’s poisonous for you anyway”, said the dog and threw it aside. He got up and suddenly, turning into a spectral dog, flew out of the window, barking at the mango tree.
“Time for your bath.” Mum was shaking me awake. On screen, the dog was attacking its murderers seeking revenge. I clicked the TV off.
The afternoon saw my brother arriving from the station. Hugging Mum, he threw me a box. “That’s for you.”, he said. It was an I-pod.
“Cool! Thanks bro”, I said, unpacking it and immediately hooking it to my ears.
“Your clothes are as dirty as a beggar’s.”, Mum announced as she unpacked Bro’s bag. “I’ll have to spend days cleaning them.”
I laughed as I resumed watching the movie.
“What’s it about?’, Bro asked.
“Oh, it’s about a ghost dog. Stupid really”
“Here, load this one”, he said, handing me a DVD. “Transformers 2.”
“Cool!”, I obeyed.
We passed the afternoon watching giant humanoids blasting each other with death rays. In the evening, Dad came home and announced that we were going out for dinner to a nearby restaurant.
It was late night before we were making our way back home on full stomachs. I was driving the car, having convinced Dad that I could drive on the highway. I was triumphant by the time we turned into our lane, as I hadn't bumped even once, when a white shape flitted past the headlights. I floored the brakes.
"What the f......", Bro caught himself as he messaged his forehead where it had hit the windshield." Are you out of your mind?"
"There was a dog on the road. It came in front of the car." I looked around. There was no sign of the canine.
"I didn't see any god damned dog!", Bro had hit his head quite hard.
"Warn us before you try anything adventurous next time." Dad called from the back.
I cursed the dog under my breath. parking the car inside the garage, we trooped inside. Bro immediately dived into the bathroom to relieve himself, and a few seconds later dived back out.
"AAAHHHH...........!!SNAAAKE....!!", I flattened myself against the wall as his massive body steamrollered past me in the corridor.
"Snake?! Is it a cobra?" I asked gleefully. Our house got a lot of snakes from the nearby woods, but I had never seen a cobra. Picking up a stick from the store, I tiptoed into the battlefield. There, under the toilet bowl, peeked two evil eyes. A pink tongue flickered in and out. It was a cobra. It looked creepy.
"Stand back for god's sake! It will bite you!" Mum screamed from behind.
"It's okay. I know how to control them. I watched it on NatGeo!", I offered.
"Stand back! I'll go call Ramu.", Dad called." I've told that idiot a hundred times to pour acid in that mound near that mango tree!" He went off to call the gardener.
Out of nowhere, a white shape bounded in. The white dog flitted past me into the bathroom, bared its teeth, and barked ferociously at the snake. The snake rose up on its hood and spat back, looking fearsome. Not taken aback, the dog barked even more ferociously back, his teeth looking dangerous. Slowly, the snake withdrew, slithering out of the window. I sighed.
The dog looked at me and wagged its tail. His deep brown eyes seemed to beckon to me again. He had a beautiful coat for a stray, and his step was majestic. I again had the feeling of meeting a long lost friend.
"What are you smiling at?" Bro was staring at me.
"Huh! it's cute, isn't it?...." I looked back. The dog wasn't there.
Bro shook his head as he went out." He finds the cobra cute! Too much NatGeo has winded him........."
I was too shocked to reply. The dog had simply vanished.
"But......", I paused. Was it a hallucination? Was it a ghost? My head played images of a bloody spectral dog. I shook myself. But wasn't the snake real? And did it not spit back at the dog? My head was aching from trying to figure it out. I went into the living room. Mum was looking at an old family album, her favourite pass time
"That was really some snake. scared the shit out of me!", Bro was saying.
I wasn't listening. Why did the dog keep appearing in front of me? What was so strange about him? How did he keep vanishing just like that? Why were his eyes so captivating?
"................But why the hell did the snake keep spitting at the blank wall? Maybe it was cross eyed, He he !",Bro was saying.
I spun around. "What?!"
"You saw it. It wasn't even facing us when we went in. It jut spat at the wall near it. You didn't notice?"
“No........I......”, my hands were going cold. The pieces started making sense to me.
Mum laughed as she passed us the album. “Look at this one. You two look so cute in this picture!” She pointed at a photo of two chubby kids playing in the mud. Bro laughed back. I did not respond. I was too busy looking at the picture below it. A picture of an eight year old me playing with a dog. A white dog with a brown patch on its forehead. The pieces fell into place.
“Rex!”, I whispered.
“Huh? My bro looked at the picture too. “ Oh yeah, the dog you had befriended in third standard. It was rather cute.”
Rex. He was a puppy when i first saw him. I was eating my tiffin on my way back home when I spotted a white pup pottering around along the road. Immediately, I picked him up to cuddle him. By the time I reached home, he was happily following me, feeding of the last scraps of my tiffin.
“Oh god! Look a you. How do you manage to get so dirty?” Mum stood at the doorway.
“Mum, look ! What a cute puppy!” I showed her my find.
“You did not touch it did you?” Mum screamed. “ Hey Ram! Go have a bath, quick!”
“Can I keep it?”, I asked
“Of course not! Last thing I want is dogs in the garden.
Nevertheless, we became fast friends. I christened him Rex. He would accompany me to school. I would feed him my tiffin. Subsequently, he became a regular visitor outside my home, where I would feed him whenever possible. Mum soon melted before his charm. But she never allowed him inside the house. Sometimes he would come outside my window and whine, and widen his sombre brown eyes to look at me pleadingly. I would have to let him in secretly. Stray he was, but was very proud. He never sat on the floor, but planted himself on the bed. We tended Rex till he was three years old, after which I was sent to a boarding school. It took me a month before I stopped sulking at losing such a good friend. Mum says he died a few months later.......
I had walked outside into garden without noticing it. The cold night air stung me. Below the mango tree, the gardener was pouring acid into a mound. Had Rex come back, after all these years? Was he still alive? Why was he invisible to others? Why did I keep seeing him everywhere? Was he a ghost, like the one in that movie?
I paused in my tracks to look towards the mango tree again. The gardener was pouring acid into the mound. Behind him, a white shape lurked in the darkness. A shape with two pointed ears and a tail. Slowly, Rex walked out of the shadows into the moonlight, his coat shining brighter than ever. He trotted towards me, his tail wagging, brown eyes beckoning to me as usual. I sat down and extended a hand to pat him.
“Rex!”, I whispered. His tail wagged harder.
“What are you? Why can’t anybody see you? Are you for real? Are you a ghost?”
Rex lowered his head and gave a low whine.
“Of course you’re not. You are very much alive! You are my best friend, aren’t you?” Rex licked at my hand.
“What do you think you are doing outside? You want to catch a cold?”, Mum called from the doorway.
“It’s okay!”, I called back. “It’s just.................Rex” I paused. Rex was gone. I looked around the garden, but could not find him. I looked at my hand. Dry as a bone.
“Come in, beta! At least wear your muffler!”, Mum called again.
I sighed and got up to walk towards the house. As I climbed up the steps into the verandah, I heard two barks from the woods. Rex was saying goodbye.
“See you later buddy”, I whispered, and went inside.
A week later, I was boarding the bus to the station, my holidays over. Mum, Dad and Bro had come to see me off.
“Don’t forget to eat your meals and do take care of your health!”, Mum said as she kissed me.
“I will, I will.”, I said as I broke free.
“Study hard! You need good points in your exam!”, Dad advised.
“I will, I will.”, I repeated.
“I’m planning to go to Goa next month. Your exams will be over. Care to join?”, Bro asked.
“I will! I will!”, I said gleefully.
We laughed. I boarded the bus as it roared to life. Grabbing a seat, i looked out of the window. Mum, Dad and Bro were waving at me. Beside them, tail wagging furiously, stood Rex. As I spotted him, he gave a couple of loud barks. I smiled at him and waved.
“I’ll miss you, Rex.”, I whispered.
Mum and Dad waved back. Rex barked even harder. Mum, Dad and Bro ignored him.
“Well, I’ll come back again, I promise.” , I told him. The bus eased out of the stop.
“Bye beta! take care”, Mum shouted.
Rex started running beside the bus, barking his goodbye to me. Soon the bus outpaced him, and he receded into a white shape in the dust. I could still feel his lively brown eyes looking at me. I waved a last time and pulled myself in. Somewhere in that dusty town of Belpahar, I was leaving my most trusted friend behind. And no matter when I come back, I knew, I will always have that faithful friend waiting for me, waiting to welcome me home.