Balto moved on to dog-heaven yesterday, the 31st of January. The closest I ever got to having a dog of my own, is when Rajendra and Shalini got Balto for Bhargav, seven years ago. , A Labrador, he was barely a few days old when he came with the family to spend a Sunday with us at A-5, a tiny pup who looked every bit like God intended puppies to be- just that blend of cuteness and sadness to make the hardest heart melt, and cause everyone to make themselves ridiculously silly over him. In one visit, he acquired grandparents, an aunt and an uncle, who sometimes may have forgotten to ask about Bhagu, but never missed asking after his canine sibling. For people who never owned dogs, they took to Balto with surprising ease, as if they’d been around dogs all their lives.
He soon grew, as dogs do, into this silent, watchful hulk that no could ignore, largely because he would not let them. He took turns to lay his heavy head on every knee in the living room, to be patted and stroked and have a few words of endearment mumbled to him. He stared unblinking at the goodie in your hand , willing it to fall so he could wolf it down, and made sheep’s eyes at anything placed on the coffee table for the visitors until they shared it with him. He was a dog that loved to eat. And he had a sweet tooth too.
It felt good to feel the sharp thwack! as his tail swished gently, for him, when he slid past you as you sat on the sofa. If this was the effect of a negligent, casual flick of the tail, I wonder how hard I would be hit if he seriously decided to whip my legs! He ran circles around himself to indicate his joy at sighting you, though it is mystifying exactly why he felt joy about visitors. It must be that thing that dogs have- that never lets them forget a person or how she/he smells.
Every now and then, Balto expected the conversation to veer around to him, or at lease include him. He added his own understated wuff ! or a grr! depending on whether his parents were updating visiting relatives about his latest exploits, or talking about something quite irrelevant.
He was the leader of the street which had enough dogs for it to be the norm to identify the homes by the dogs that lived in them rather than the masters. If people needed to know which was Shalini/ Rajendra/ Bhagu’s house, they needed to ask, Balto maney yaavudu? (Which is Balto’s house) When he went out for his walk, morning and evening, other dogs deferred to him.
When the time came to leave, he always knew. When you said your goodbyes and went to the door, there was Balto, standing huge and quite immovable, and not an inch would he yield to let you pass through. It is extremely puzzling that Balto, who constantly interrupted Rajendra when he was engaged in deep conservation, and sought attention to himself, and indicated very clearly that he was not at all pleased with being ignored in this manner, should be an ass over the departing visitor.
And if you felt honored that Balto counted you as family, you only needed to go down to the gate to realise you were being mildly delusional, for while seeming to care deeply about your leaving, he was cleverly ascertaining that Rajendra was not about to get in the car and leave, too. “Hey Balto, look Appa’s calling you” would have him bounding down the steps to the gate, where he would inspect the car, and make sure Rajendra was not being kidnapped (as if we didn’t know) and once he was sure that wasn’t the case, he pretended that his real purpose was to cross the street to the other side, and do his Number One job on the wall of , before returning nonchalantly to stand by Rajendra.
He had not been well of late, and for months we were only hearing of his fever, his lethargy, and lack of interest in anything. He was not in the mood for socializing with his doggy pals, and they had learnt to leave him well alone. The day before he died, he stopped to exchanged a few wuffs with Prince, a dog who belongs to no one, but is a dogizen of the street, the first since months. He must have known his time had come.
I thought all day about Balto feeling sad that he would no longer be there to regale us with his comical ways. When I called, Shalini cried, and Rajendra was inconsolable. It’s not right that Balto, was taken way before his time. It’s not fair that from today, we will no more hear of Balto’s walks and jogs, and his adventures on his outings, and to suddenly realise Balto was needed more than we thought he needed his family.
Balto will never be forgotten. And he will always be missed.