Based on a true story of how a long lost dog came home.
In the summer of 1972 Nita Rai got her very own puppy. It was an exam passing gift from her parents and a close run thing; if it hadn’t been for the old lady who appeared on their lawn one morning, she would most likely have got a fountain pen or a set of science books instead of her very own dog.
That day she placed her jute bag down on the grass with extra care and sat hunched with her feet splayed, balancing on her heels. She usually came once a month to offer vegetables, trinkets, shawls, nick-nacks from Bhutan, even once fireworks for Diwali. But this time there was extra care in the way she put her bag down.
And there on the grass in a patch of sunlight between the shadows of the cedar tree branches, she pulled out a tiny puppy, a fist-size quivering bundle of soft white and brown fur and shiny little black eyes blinking in the light.
The mother had been run over and killed on the road to Cherrapunji, and the old lady needed good homes for the puppies and this, the runt, was going for just 100 rupees.
Nita picked up the puppy and held the warm softness to her face and pleaded.
“Ple-e-e-ase let us keep this,” she said to papa, stopping the puppy from climbing over her shoulder.
Papa got up from the recliner and puffed his pipe. Ma peered above a magazine and murmured in a voice just low enough to be out of Nita’s ear-shot.
‘It could be her exam prize couldn’t it Sunny?’ she said.
‘I wanted her to get something educational, like a microscope or chemistry set. But a dog?’
‘A dog could teach her responsibility. And give her company, she’s an only child…’
Sunny was slowly coming round to the idea in a small cloud of tobacco smoke.
‘I suppose we could find space for it, in the room behind the kitchen?’ he added.
Papa crouched on the ground; his knees clicked as he held the puppy in one hand and his pipe bellowing smoke from his mouth in the other.
He held it up to his eyes, inspecting its black eyes, sparkly like polished ebony. He put it on the ground and saw it scamper in to fallen petals under the rhododendron bush. He picked it out of the bush, looked at Nita and nodded.
Nita yelped for joy and hugged her father’s legs and by the time the old lady had tucked the hundred rupee note in to her belt, she had already named the dog: Deano.
Deano instantly became part of their family. Nita made a small bed for Deano from a soft cotton cloth that lined a bamboo cane basket; they placed it in the small box room behind the kitchen beside the woodchip stove that warmed the room with a tin flue protruding through the ceiling. The puppy slept soundly that first night, and by first light Nita was already up, with a bottle of warmed milk, too excited to sleep on, too keen to start playing with her new friend. They made him a blue velvet collar with a brass disc that read “Deano” in a swirly script.
Deano grew in to a beautiful dog, with a tan and white coat; his white paws and muzzle made him look as if he had walked through a giant lassi.
The dog became part of the family’s routine. When it got too cold at nights ma would place a blanket on him, and leave the stove running with glowing embers. In the morning papa would sit on the veranda reading the Assam Tribune patting Deano and stroke his chest with his toe. In the evenings when the family sat down at supper, Nita would secretly drop pieces of food under the table; soon she would hear the gentle patter of paws, feel the brush of fur against her knees and hear the chewing sound of a secret snack. He was playful and brave, and would leap up at her when she returned from school and fiercely protect her from strays in the street which hounded their evening walks.
Deano made the house secure, and had developed a piercing, gravely bark that would raise alarm to a slight noise like a falling pinecone in the night. They spent days at by the lake at Burrapani where Deano would chase pigeons and paddle and, in a grand finale, shake himself dry next to ma, spraying her sari and the picnic. He gave Nita a sense of responsibility (she washed him once a week, fed him twice a day and cuddled him every morning and night).
Unfortunately for Deano, his ready bark would be his nemesis.
One evening as they sat down to dinner they heard the growl of a motorbike engine. It was unmistakably the sound of Mr Lindow’s Royal Enfield. He never came at night though and they had already paid him the rent for that month. This was a strange time to call – something was up.
“I have had some complaints Sunny,’ Mr Lindow said as they paced in front of the veranda. ‘You know the rules in the lease agreement. No dogs. Section 12.1.a.’ He pulled out a carbon copy of the typed agreement and sure enough there it was.
‘No pets, whether the lessee’s or not, are permitted anywhere on the property, even temporarily. If a pet is found on the property, the Lessor may declare the tenant to be in violation of the lease agreement and begin eviction proceedings accordingly
‘Oh come on sir, its not doing any harm,’ pleaded papa.
“The neighbours say it is causing much noise and waking them at night. And they know the minister.”
Papa assured him that he’d do his very best to ensure that it wouldn’t continue. He could even increase the rent if he needed to.
“I’m sorry – on this I cannot negotiate,’ he said buckling his helmet strap under his chin. ‘Either it’s you or your dog.’ He revved the throttle on his motorbike and sped away between the pine trees and in to the misty night.
Of course Deano was Deano, lively, fun and noisy; he couldn’t change his bark as much as he could his white paws and floppy ears. As if to tempt fate, his bark grew louder and more penetrating resounding through the whispering pines; as his barks grew in volume so did the complaints from neighbours and all this time, Nita’s parents hadn’t told her about the trouble till they had decided the dog must leave and for full week Nita cried incessantly even sleeping with Deano in the box room.
One afternoon, her father opened the back door of their grey Ambassador and Deano jumped in. They usually went out for walks with the dog at weekends, to the Elephant Falls or Shillong Peak and Deano had no reason to suspect that this was like any other trip.
They arrived at the village of Nongpoh, a place where travellers break their journey to Gauhati in one of its many tea shops or to buy fresh fruit. A lady behind a pineapple stall noticed Deano and after some persuasion agreed to take him. They explained to her the dog’s eating and sleeping habits. Papa made her promised that she would have to treat the dog affectionately.
By sunset, beside the pineapple stall on the highway, they said their goodbyes to Deano one last time. They stroked his chest and hugged him, Nita kissed his muzzle. As they drove away, Nita’s last image of her Deano in the rear window, was of him tethered to a post pining, his shadow long and eyes sad, transfixed on the car as it sped away in to the hills.
The family never took another pet again, Nita didn’t want another dog, Deano never really left her heart; she missed his bark, the feel of his fur, and his excited leaping greetings when she returned home. A black and white picture of him by her bedside kept his memory strong; she never had the heart to move his basket by the stove which they used for holding woodchips.
Some months later on a business trip to Gauhati, papa stopped off at Nongpoh for some refreshments and noticed the lady at the pineapple stall.
‘Your dog never settled,’ she said, slicing the top off a pineapple. ‘He never ate much and behaved very badly, and his barks, well they never stopped did they. He had bitten through his rope one night and escaped we asked around but no one knew of his whereabouts. Perhaps he’s been knocked over by a lorry, or captured by hill tribes.’
A year later, reports started to come in from friends and family. Some said they had seen a stray dog with white paws scavenging amongst scraps next to the bus stand at Pan Bazaar in Gauhati, a hundred kilometres way. In those days, the road between the two towns was winding and slow, with hairpin bends and chicanes, not like the fast highway you see today. It was incredulous that Deano had made it that far.
Another family friend reported seeing the same dog fighting with other strays in Fancy Bazaar, and the dog was smart and snarly and became leader of the pack.
Years passed. Nita grew up and went to boarding school in Dehra Dun. In the summer of 1984 she came back for the summer holidays from her Design course in Pune. The family were together catching up and eating their evening meal, chatting and laughing.
Suddenly there was thumping at the front door. Then some scratching and a faint pining. Papa opened the door and in walked a small, dirty, scrawny dog, its ribs protruding through a brown coat of dishevelled and flea bitten fur. Its eyes looked downwards and were bluish grey with cataracts and it had scars from scratches on its dirty muzzle from years of fights. On its rear legs mange had exposed an area of skin and it limped along head down, tail between its legs. Around its skinny neck was a threadbare blue collar.
Gone was the liveliness and fun; ten years of fending for himself had changed him beyond recognition from a playful family pet to a tough and solitary feral stray. If it hadn’t been for the blue velvet collar it still wore they would never have realised it was Deano. But it was.
“My God,” shouted papa wide eyed. Ma stood up to see this skinny little creature walking round the front room. Nita was shocked.
Deano was different now, he was unaccustomed to people’s touch and human kindness and when Sunny tried to stroke him, he growled showing his incisors and pink gums.
They offered him a bowl of chicken and water bowl; he promptly refused them both. He crept slowly from room to room, sniffing the floor, searching curiously. In the room behind the kitchen he sniffed around the woodchip stove, yawned and lay quietly down on front resting his head on his paws. Deano was home again.
The stove was kept burning that night. Nita placed the tartan woollen blanket over him, the very same one she had placed on him as a puppy and kept as a memento for 12 years. She watched his bony ribcage rise and fall as he slept with a sense of incredulity and guilt and despite his hideous appearance she wanted to hold and caress him, to run her fingers once again through what remained of his patchy fur and, despite his disgusting appearance, to kiss his muzzle.
In the morning, she rushed to the back room to see him, like she did as child when she’d see him already awake, ready to jumping up at her, lick her face, ready to play. But this morning Deano was different. He had a peaceful look on his face, lying on his side resting paws on paws. Nita stroked his muzzle; it felt bristly and cold, like a brush. He had passed away in the middle of the night.
Deano had made the long journey back home, not to be with them again; he had returned to the house to die.
The family left Shillong shortly after Deano’s death; Sunny got a posting to Delhi where he, his wife now live. I haven’t heard from Nita for years, but I think she works in a design agency in Des Moines, Iowa. The bungalow was sold by Mr Lindow to a young local family, who modernised it with large windows, magnolia walls and replaced all sorts of oddments including the woodchip stove which was thrown out and replaced with an electric cooker. In the front garden, under the rhododendron bush, covered by earth and old petals, is a stone marker.
“Our beloved Deano. 1972 – 84.”
The owners have never noticed the fading gravestone. Perhaps no one ever will.
Deano’s Return was originally published in The Sentinel (2006)