Of Cats And Dogs

There were some random discussions going on at a friend’s house. And as random discussions are wont to, the topic suddenly shifted from the secret pleasure of wearing mismatched socks to growing up with pets. Somebody then asked me whether I love dogs or cats. And that simple question sent me scampering down memory lane in a flash.

I adore dogs. I can't get over their capacity for endless unconditional love. We have had a couple of dogs of mixed parentage. In other words, we had no idea about the parentage.
One of our first dogs was Kalu. He had a glowering no-nonsense personality. Not exactly Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. More the senior Focker in Meet the Fockers. Not many could befriend him. And only a select few were allowed to rub his belly. After Kalu went to that special place where he could chase rabbits to his heart’s content, the frisky Cap'n Jack Sparrow entered the scene.

Cap'n Jack was a mongrel that my mother claimed had Alsatian genes. Not because of his dimensions for sure. He was just a little bigger than the average dog. But because he could be quite ferocious if he wanted to. And therein lies a conundrum. Cap’n Jack was so named because of his as they say in India - slightly ‘off’ behavior. He was never sure whether he wanted to be ferocious or not. Especially when he was young. He will bark away at a stranger. 

But the moment the stranger made a friendly overture, such as whistling, Cap’n Jack will expose his belly with a happy grin plastered on his face. Or climb all over the person with his tail wagging in all directions. Once the tail wagging was so intense that my mother’s colleague’s ‘Made in China’ wig flew off. Cap’n Jack obviously thought it was great fun. He quickly grabbed the wig and ran off with it. The incident had a profound influence on that colleague. He embraced his baldness.

But then like most of us, Cap'n Jack became an adult and sobered down quite a bit. He now walks around fiercely protective of us. And the house. He will greet regulars with excited barks. However, strangers are welcomed with menacing growls till he sniffs out their intentions. You can learn a lot about people when you have a dog in the house. The growls are always reserved for the mean ones. The 'well wisher' who is not exactly one. The ‘friend’ who always has a sob story ready for some cash in return. Or the neighbour who is always ready to borrow stuff but then forgets to return them. When my brother and I got married and our respective better halves came home, Cap'n Jack just trotted up to them and welcomed them with cheerful wags of his restless tail. I heaved a sigh of relief. And I am sure so did my brother. Cap’n Jack during his youthful days had this habit of waking us up in the mornings with a jolly fight on the bed. He would especially target my brother. He would jump on the bed and pull the blanket away. Failing that, he will try to get inside the blanket. This activity is accompanied with a lot of excited barking. The poor thing is now getting on in years and every time we are home he tries to pull that same trick but you know what they say about willing minds but non-compliant flesh. Bonding with Cap'n Jack is one of the highlights of being at home.

My brother and I love cats too. I especially relish winning their (sometimes) hard-to-earn trust and
dare I say, affection. Yes. As any cat lover would testify, cats can shower affection too. In their own special way. One of our first pets was a runaway kitten. He responded quite favourably to the name my brother and I gave him – Meow. It’s another thing that all other cats that have adopted us have also been anointed as ‘Meow’. In order to avoid confusion, we decided to have Meow The First, or Meow The Second, Meow The…you get the drift. Anyway, Meow The First was as affectionate as the clichéd Bollywood grandmother – the one who’d eat the Sunday section of NavHind Times to quell her hunger pangs while she fed her grandson the last remaining piece of mutton rogan josh. He thought nothing of grooming us after he finished grooming himself. 

We doted on Meow The First too. During my high school days, he was my alarm clock. My mosquito net used to serve as his oversized hammock. Every morning, at precisely 4:30 am, I’d wake up to find Meow inches away from my face, mewing to let him out for his morning walk. Even today, memories of Meow’s playful antics are still fresh in our minds. 

My brother and I have been fortunate enough to be adopted by several cats during our school days, college years and Is-the-weekend-already-over phase. There have been attention-seeking cats, constantly-acting-cute cats, affectionate cats, not-so-affectionate cats and injured cats. Attention seekers – you scratch them behind their ears and they keep on nudging you for more. Drama queens – they meow piteously, you feed them, they meow some more, you feed them more and then suddenly they go quiet and start licking and grooming themselves. Mischief mongers – they will quickly slap the nearest unsuspecting feline nearby and go on a wild dash around the house knocking over all kind of items. Especially fragile items. The conversationalists - Believe it or not, I once had almost a 20-minute conversation with a heavy-lidded cat with impressive whiskers. I think he told me the meaning of life or how to open a bottle of jam without exerting much pressure. 

Right now, I stay in an area where people find it a bit convenient to abandon their pet cats. Quite a
few of them have somehow found their way to our place. One fine morning, a mother appeared with her kittens and then used her feline intuition to decide that we can take better of them than her. She would then disappear for hours on end with the responsibility of feeding the kittens given to us. And then she disappeared for good. One kitten succumbed to an illness. While the other made herself a part of our lives. Then a gang of three brothers and sisters surfaced from nowhere. Obviously somebody who once took good care of them has left them behind. They are extremely friendly and I refer to them as ‘comcats’. Definition of comcats (comfort + cats) – cats who can make themselves comfortable in the most comfortable part of the house without uttering a single ‘meow’.

The sister is extremely affectionate while her brothers don’t miss any chance to bully the others cats. Especially the kitten that is now a young adult with temper and sharing issues. The sister looks for every opportunity to climb on the nearest sofa and catch a few winks. Or climb on top of my head and stay put there, purring away contentedly. The kitten turned angry adult loves nothing better than a good chest and belly rub rub. The moment she spots my hand hovering near her, she quickly lies on her side. My better half, not really an ardent admirer of these furry balls of fun, mischief and occasional Lady Gaga impersonators, declared them persona non grata inside the house. However, slowly but surely, they started unspooling her resolve like a ball of twine. Nowadays ‘cat food’ has found its way in the weekly shopping list.

Over the years, we have had several pets. A turtle. A parrot. A pair of rabbits. And then very quickly a colony of rabbits. But I have found cats and dogs to be the best companions. So, am I a cat or dog person? Well, let me put it this way. I’d want one curled up on my lap, purring away contentedly and the other at my feet, chewing away on a slipper, also contentedly. It's called having the best of both worlds. 

Escaping Big City Lights

I have always been fascinated by fireflies. I love the way they fly around unhurriedly like little airplanes with no ETAs. Fireflies represented everything good about summer during my childhood in a quiet university campus. Holidays. No homework. No surprise tests. And plenty of time to do whatever one liked to do. I would capture fireflies in a bottle and watch them flit around for hours imagining that they were sending signals to a spaceship. Of course, the moment I brought the bottle inside the house, the magic would be lost. The soft glow of fireflies is not a match for the artificial lighting inside a house. Ever since, I have had a love-hate equation with light sources that are not natural.

My city-centric profession has ensured lazy summer holidays and fireflies have disappeared from my life. Big city lights, however, are a constant presence. In an attempt to redress balance, I am always looking for a chance to escape this neon-lit environment. Being based in glitzy Dubai, this, understandably, becomes more of a pressing need than a want. Unfortunately, the lack of a driving license in the initial months of living in Dubai meant my options were quite limited. I had the option to head to the beach and stare longingly at the horizon, with the city behind me. The other option was to catch a cab to the airport and take a flight to a quiet place. No yearly subscriptions to the National Geographic or the Hound&Horse for guessing which option kept on getting vetoed all the time.
But then came the day, when I got the much-coveted driving license. And I turned into Forrest Gump, minus the historic baggage, Robin Wright and that damned CG feather. There was a huge difference though. Forrest kept on running. I kept on driving. I drove endlessly for hundreds of miles on straight-as-an-arrow roads through vast expanses of desert country. I drove up and down twisty mountainous roads that ended in verdant mangroves fringing an aquamarine sea. I drove to long-forgotten villages and crumbling forts abandoned to the elements.

Once, I even raced the setting sun along a beach road. I lost.

Having exhausted all possible options in the UAE, I trained my greedy sights on its attractive neighbour – Oman. Or the Musandam exclave, to be more precise.

Musandam is separated from Oman, by a strip of the UAE, and from Iran, by the Arabian Gulf. The border crossing is relatively easy, as long as you have the required documents, namely, passport and motor insurance. With the promise of a beautiful coastal drive with the shimmering waters of the Arabian Gulf, the craggy Hajar Mountains and small fishing villages the size of Nemo for company, drives to Musandam became a happy habit.

Often referred to as the 'Norway of the East', the mountainous Musandam region is known for its rugged beauty, mysterious fjords and a sense of timelessness. Mother Earth or to get a bit technical, the Earth’s crust had a big hand in creating this dramatic coastline. The region happens to be sandwiched between the Arabian plate and the Eurasian plate. Unfortunately, the situation is far from being harmonious. A gigantic battle for supremacy is taking place between these plates for quite some time now. And the geological fact in cold terms is that the Arabian plate is being pushed under the Eurasian plate. This not only has resulted in the earthquake-prone mountains of Iran but also brings us to a rather sobering conclusion. The Musandam Peninsula is, slowly but surely, sinking. 

The towering mountains have nothing to fear, apparently, for a million years or so. But the sea is claiming the valleys, one by one. The result of this intense subterranean drama is a region that offers one spectacular view after another. Often during my drives, I’d stop at some vantage point and soak in the peaceful atmosphere, punctuated at regular intervals by the throaty bleats of ornery mountain goats and chirpy squawks of attention-seeking seagulls.

It was during my second or third drive to Musandam, when I decided to head further north towards Khor Najd (khor- Arabic for water trapped by land), the only beach in the region accessible by road. Usually, I do some research before heading out to a destination. But then after a few weeks of dealing with people who look askance at anything that make sense and specially when every mail that lands in my inbox is marked as ‘urgent’, I tend to slip into my AdventureMan* avatar and cut loose the chains of caution with my SOA (sense of adventure) laser beam.

This was an AdventureMan trip. Which meant I had left my trusted road map back in Dubai. A              
situation that necessitated a stop at one of the two gas stations in Khasab, the sleepy capital of Musandam. I had to stock up on fuel and figure out the directions. I knew vaguely that I had to drive over a mountain to get to the beach. But that bit of information was as useful as knowing I need a lot of money to climb Mt. Everest. The cheerful attendant was quite clear in his directions. I have to drive up and down a 5-km long winding mountain pass to get to the beach. But as most locals are wont to, he made it sound like a trip to the neighbourhood grocery store.

From a distance it looked like a thin gash along the mountainside. As I got closer, I realized that’s the dirt road that will take me up the mountain. Barely wide enough to accommodate one car and probably half a cycle at a pinch, the road ensures drivers stick close to the rocky mountainside rather than tempt fate by straying too close to the sheer drop on the other side. Halfway there’s a broad leveled area that provides sweeping views of the sea encircling the mountains as well as the chance to calm one’s jangling nerves. 
The (thankfully) much broader but steep sinuous path down to the gleaming bay is a lesson in trying to look cool in front of co-explorers while attempting to disguise panicky yelps as yips of excitement. I drove steadily treating each bend in the road with the respect reserved for a Roman emperor. As I pondered about whether my white knuckles would go back to its former dusky glory, I felt the crunch of pebbles under my tyres. The gleaming blue bay was right in front. I switched off the ignition and climbed out of the car with the confidence of a man who could have done the drive blindfolded.

Later that evening, as I camped under a canopy of twinkling stars with the sea a feeble stone’s
throw away, I suddenly realized, I haven’t felt this alive in years. It might have been the drive, the location or the soothing breeze blowing across the bay. Or it might have been the fact that I was far, far, away from bright city lights.

There were no fireflies. But I wasn’t complaining.

*AdventureMan is a work-in-progress name.


The Charm Of Long Walks

I think it was sometime around my mid-teens when I discovered some truths about long walks. 1. They are enjoyable. 2. Their problem-solving reputation is a bit overrated. (They did help me to walk away from more than one problem though.)
3. You need semi-decent shoes to enjoy them.

Even though I had a cycle and an overcrowded city bus at my disposal during my school days in Guwahati, I used to prefer walking to school. Or to the inescapable tuition classes. The attractions on the way were many – Dighalipukhuri (a big pond rumoured to have an underwater connection to the Brahmaputra), Latashil Field (perfect to catch an ongoing cricket match) and my favourite, the Ambari Archaeological Site. Every now and then, on my way back, I used to casually saunter inside the site hoping that maybe a bespectacled archaeologist would find something similar to King Tutankhamen’s tomb.  And I’d be right in the midst of all the excitement. But all I used to see is a couple of labourers in grimy vests shooting the breeze and swatting flies with practiced ease beside an excavated part. An area that frankly looked more like a couple of deeper-than-usual ditches than the major excavation promised on the signboard. On one particularly memorable occasion, I spotted these two gentlemen in vests swinging their spades actively at a mound while a portly official under a black Mohendra Dutt umbrella sweated and cursed profusely. I guess they were looking for some iron treasure chest or something equally solid. Because nothing made of earthenware would have survived that onslaught. I also enjoyed experimenting with different routes, each longer than the other, to reach my Chemistry professor’s house on a hillside. One was through a well-maintained WWII graveyard. Which I used to avoid once it got dark. 

After shifting to Pune for my graduation and PG, the long walks of my school days looked like short trips to the neighbourhood grocer. The camaraderie of new friends shrunk huge distances considerably. College. Good Luck Café. Cinema halls. Especially cinema halls. We walked everywhere irrespective of the distance. The well-heeled ones biked it to the nearest movie theatre. Some of us had just about enough money for the ticket. And that meant more long walks. Watching a late-night show at Rahul Cinema or Vijay LNCM (Lok Nritya Chita Mandali), or Westend at Camp (almost 10 km one way), meant long merry hikes from our respective hostels. There was this iconic TV commercial of the 80’s – Lijjat Papad – in which an overgrown rabbit, clumsily chomping on papads, used to end the commercial with a moronic ‘Lijjat Papad…eh…heh…heh…eh…heh…heh’. The Pune Lijjat Papad office had this aforementioned rabbit grinning away on a hoarding. And this office was right on our well-trodden route. The moment we saw the Lijjat Rabbit, we’d all stand at attention and yell away ‘‘Lijjat Papad…eh…heh…heh…eh…heh…heh’.  Now that I think of it, we must have been directly responsible for the sale of sleeping pills to go up in the neighbourhood.

Working in Bombay meant one ran, instead of walking. Run to catch Bus No. 164 to the station. Run to catch the 8:57 slow. Run out of the station at Elphinstone Road to catch a cab. I did figure out a short walk to the agency through a peaceful railway colony. I kept it a secret as long as I could. I am sure if everybody in Bombay takes a week off, stop eating kacchi dabeli and build a little bit of stamina, we can easily beat the Kenyan/Ethiopian long distance runners at their game. But I had the occasional day when the urge to walk would override all common sense. I’d then dodge errant auto rickshaws, Schumi-inspired BEST bus drivers and generous loads of sputum, and march relentlessly to the rocky beach at Versova to watch the tide come in. 

Shifting base to Dubai meant my passion for long walks was reignited. Empty sidewalks. A peaceful and long stretch of beach. The atmospheric lanes leading to the Dubai Creek. Everything appealed to my walker’s instinct and I walked everywhere. Till I got my driving licence. And then I fell prey to the ‘why-walk-when-you-can-drive’ syndrome. An affliction common to the residents here. I think that day is not far when people will be able to drive straight inside their house and roll out onto a travelator that crisscrosses the house.  

Thankfully, long walks are still my (and my companion’s) preferred way of exploring a place when we travel. Long walks in unfamiliar places have helped us discover ancient mountain villages, non-touristy culinary gems, friendly apricot-gifting strangers and icy cold streams on a hot summer day.

Times may have changed. But the essence of long walks has remained the same. But yes, you still need a good pair of shoes.