Shashi Warrier | The Christmas Conversion

It seems that there are cat people and there are dog people, and ne’er the twain shall get along, like Swift’s Big Endians and Little Endians. My wife and I have always been cat and dog people: Our in-house menagerie at one time consisted of two dogs and two cats, all living amicably together. So we took this saying with a pinch of salt until a few years ago.

A year or so after we moved into our house by the beach, a couple moved into a house nearby. There were just the two of them, and they kept themselves to themselves, never making any effort to speak to any of their neighbours except an old gentleman nearby, a retired Army NCO, who happens to be a fanatic gardener, out in all weathers tending to his vegetable patches, which are spread out over a few vacant lots in our township.

Over the weeks, we learnt something about the new couple. They are Christian, both work, and the husband is an avid — though not fanatic — gardener. Neither ever smiled: We nicknamed them Mr and Mrs Grumpy. The one unpleasant aspect of their attitude towards neighbours emerged slowly. They both belong to this state and area, and insist that anyone who chooses to live here must learn the local language. I tend to agree that if you decide to settle down somewhere it makes a great deal of sense to learn the local language, but, being old, learning a new language takes time.

In any case, our first disagreement arose some months after they moved in, when I found him throwing stones at one of our dogs. I confronted him, and he replied in rapid fire Kannada that I didn’t understand. We were both too angry to look for a middle ground, so we left it at that. I later asked the fanatic gardener what the man meant — I remembered some of the words he used — and discovered that he objected to our dog using the flower bed outside his house as a toilet. Understandable, I thought.

It was about then that we discovered that he and his wife are cat people. They had a pair of cats that roamed the neighbourhood at all hours. They discovered that our dogs didn’t mind cats and often found their way into our verandah at night, getting into fights and making the most ungodly noises at odd hours. I thought of complaining to Mr Grumpy, but he was a cat person, after all...

For the next few months, he crossed the road whenever he saw me coming, and I ignored him. I had no idea how to deal with him, and, besides, there were other matters to take up my time.

In the middle of November a stray bitch whelped in the ditch running in front of the house. The litter consisted of eight pups, one of which fell ill and died some days later, and a second disappeared... We dreaded to think that of what happened to it.

They grew fast, and, by mid-December, were little balls of fur with legs. Feeding time offered great amusement. They ate out of one very large dish, originally intended for their mother, and they did it with single-minded commitment, not hesitating to climb over each other to get at the food, and, when the food at the edges of the dish was gone, climbing into it. When the dish had been licked clean, they licked each other clean, because they’d have dog food all over their faces and their feet. Over the weeks, they learnt to bite their way through the plastic netting we’d put on the gate to prevent them coming into our compound: they even occasionally managed a mouthful or two from the dishes of our two dogs.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. A rat snake turned up one day, timorous and sleek and almost invisible in the drying grass of the ditch, but the mother, who must have smelt the intruder, drove it away. Crows waiting to get at the remnants of the food hovered around them, pecking unprotected bottoms and sending the puppies squealing for help which their mother was unable to give. And, this close to the sea, there were sharp-eyed predators wheeling in the sky, waiting for a puppy-sized morsel...

All six survived until Christmas Eve. But when it was time for their second feed of that day, teatime for us humans, I was dismayed that only one of the six turned up to eat. The remaining five had disappeared. We wondered what happened to them, because we’d been home all afternoon and hadn’t heard a single squeak of protest from the pups. I went looking for them in the neighbourhood, but they were nowhere to be seen. At their breakfast on Christmas morning there was still only the lone pup present, and we were getting really worried, knowing how committed they were to large meals. I just hoped that some benevolent dog-lover had carted them off, leaving one being to console the mother.

And then, on Christmas evening, Mrs Grumpy appeared around the bend in the lane that hides their house from ours. At her ankles frisked the five missing puppies, plump and playful as ever. Every now and again she bent down to give them some sort of a treat. The Grumpies had been converted that Christmas, from cat people to cat and dog people! And everyone knows: cat and dog people have to stick together.

We still call them the Grumpies, but no longer with malice. And, the next chance I get, I’m going to try to mend fences.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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