When Kumud and I brought a dog home from the RSPCA in Kuala Lumpur in October of 1996 we expected the little puppy to sit or lie quietly in the box we had brought along, afraid perhaps of the bumpy journey to a destination he didn’t know, our home in Damansara Heights, and unsure of these people that had picked him up. The home in Damansara with a lush surrounding garden had been part of the condition for getting a dog: he or she should be able to romp around.
The little puppy however went through the entire 45 minute ride with his front paws on the edge of the box, panting and trying to look outside, in as much as a six week old dog can.
Back in the garden in Damansara, we put a collar around his neck, watched him sniff around the garden and basically stared at him for about half an hour, trying to figure out what we had brought into our lives, and more importantly, what to call him. At some point Kumud looked at me and asked, “I don’t suppose we can call him Rustom right, I mean, that would be strange for a dog?” I looked up in surprise and replied that I had thought of the same name a few minutes ago, but dismissed it because it would have been too strange for a dog.
So Rustom it was, and over the next several months he grew in leaps and b0unds, tore up socks and shoes and used the garden to its full potential. Our first daughter Mira arrived on the scene in August of 1997, a full month earlier than planned, apparently already keen then to get a head start on life. Rustom sniffed and danced around the little doll basket in which she was brought home but never once in any of the years to come was a threat to her, our second daughter Tarini, or any child that came to the house. No children’s birthday would ever be complete after that without Rustom parking himself in the center of the group of children, as presents were unpacked.
A few months after Mira’s arrival Kumud attempted to take Mira for a walk in the pram and thought it nice to have Rustom walk alongside. Rustom ran up and down the street, into and out of gardens, setting off a chain of barks from competing dogs. Kumud went hoarse trying to call him back and never repeated the experiment again. As a British neighbour of ours remarked dryly, “great idea, wrong dog”.
Rustom would go AWOL many a time in his life, especially when we lived in Amsterdam. Being essentially a street dog (or a ‘chien de rue’ as the Dutch say, tongue in cheek) the need to sniff, explore and seek out garbage never left him. The local flower stall owners in Amsterdam would periodically ring up and cheerfully say that Rustom was once again with them, having slipped out of the house in an unguarded moment. We would go back, pick him up, thank them, and out of sheer guilt buy another bunch of flowers.
If airlines were ever to issue frequent flyer miles to animals, then Rustom would have earned his platinum card. He flew ahead of us from Kuala Lumpur to Amsterdam, on KLM Cargo, as we relocated to Amsterdam for me to take up a job with KLM Cargo. Six years later he flew with us to Chicago, his kennel strapped to a maindeck pallet with 20 Russian police dogs.
His last trip by air was from Chicago to Bombay, via Amsterdam. He was by then already 14 years old and we were deeply concerned about his ability to take the trip. Clay Dabbert in Chicago, the kennel owner, and the colleagues at KLM Cargo from Chicago to Bombay, took excellent care, setting up a constant relay of messages over the course of a week as Rustom flew from Chicago to Amsterdam, broke his journey at the Animal Hotel (!) and then continued on to Bombay.
When we picked him up at Bombay Airport at 4 a.m., in the middle of the monsoon, with puddles of rainwater everywhere, the car bringing him out inched slowly forward, passing security guards as if we were at Checkpoint Charlie. We opened the door of the car, and then the kennel, and expected to find a bedraggled and perhaps soiled 14 year old Rustom. It was Rustom all right, but full of energy as he bounded out and began sniffing everything in site. He was home, in the city where his name is very common, and in the city that offers free smells.
Over the next year and a half Rustom adjusted to apartment living as best he could, pulling and tugging on the walks along the streets of Nariman Point, enjoying sniffs and scraps of food. His safe zone became Tarini’s room, lying on her pink carpet, in ‘Tarini Land’. In spite of the rapidly declining hearing and eye sight, the bare essentials of a street dog’s life gave him pleasure. It was when that ceased to be the case, when the doctor confirmed that cancer had spread internally to his liver, that we knew his time had come.
After cremating him at the Bombay SPCA Kumud and I walked back to the car, hand in hand, ash twirling in the sky behind us, with our heads hung low, feeling suddenly old, like parents who have laid a child to rest. We keep expecting him to be there in the morning, ready for a walk and food, or lying in the laundry room, in deep sleep, but he isn’t.
He’s up there somewhere, nose to the ground, tail to the wind, looking for scraps, and with no intentions to stop running anytime soon. Be well, Rustom.
*with thanks to The Red Hot Chili Peppers
Btw, the banner photo was taken from our holiday home outside of San Gimignano at 6.20 am. What light! It lasted all of five minutes.