by Raji Jayaraman
We’d had dogs for as long as I could remember. My family had a pair of Labradors back in India when I was born. Blackie was black. Brownie was brown. My cousin, who inherited Blackie when my parents left the country, later got a ginger-haired Labrador. He named her Ginger. It was clearly in this family tradition that I named Waggy, Waggy.
He was a jolly fellow, always happy to see us. He’d race after the Land Rover as we drove into the driveway of our house in Somalia, wagging his tail, bounding up to greet us under the thorn tree where we parked the car. Although he was always ready to play, we didn’t often oblige because it was just too hot. That winter though, the winter Waggy died, the weather was exceptional. It was an unusually wet December. The temperatures fell with the rain. The dust settled and, with the thorns in the yard briefly buried, we played with Waggy outside until we could no longer bear the stench of ants that came with the rains. I just learned that although these ants’ genus is Paltothyreus, they are commonly known as the “African stink ant”. Clearly, more erudite people than I take the descriptive function of names seriously.
That year, we had a house guest. Anand bhaia was a Bengali-Fijian priest and, it being December, our parents adopted his Christmas traditions with gusto. We were unenthusiastic, but our parents insisted on our active participation. “Atithi Devo Bhava,” our mother explained. A guest is God. The irony of this Hindu foundation for her embrace of Christianity was not lost on her but, blinded by indignation, we mistook her generosity for hypocrisy.
A desert pine was duly installed in our living room. We laced it with tired wisps of cotton, in a tragic imitation of a Christmas tree. On Santa Lucia my sister carried candles around the house, with Waggy following skeptically behind her, to honour the Swedish guests bhaia had invited over. It should have been up lifting. But it’s hard to feel uplifted when you’re carrying a candle through a pitch-black, thorn-strewn courtyard, imagining that the twinkling pair of lights in the distance are a desert fox’s glinting eyes, as hot candle wax drips unsteadily on your trembling hands. You would think that was the worst of it, but that honour was reserved for Christmas eve, when our family comprised the entire congregation of Anand bhaia’s one-room church service, followed by cacophonous door-to-door Christmas carolling. Mercifully early in the choral program, we extended an offering bag into which our captive audience hastily deposited hush money.
Trudging for what seemed like miles from one house to another in the desert night left us with a keen appreciation of Christ’s trials, but a growing resentment for the man himself. When we pressed our mother to explain the Fijian origins of these particular Christmas traditions—Christmas tree, Santa Lucia, mass, carolling—she told us not to be disrespectful. She sounded defensive to us then but, looking back, I see that she was right.
It was a few days later that Waggy started avoiding us. He stopped eating. He stopped drinking. He seemed to be walking funny. When he started foaming at the mouth, we were told that the desert fox must have bitten him. We were all barricaded in the house. There was no vet nearby, or anything nearly as fancy as a sleeping dart gun, so local militia men were called up to put him down. They arrived in their pickup truck and gunners with rifles in the back. The pickup was high enough, and our compound wall low enough, that we could see them from the living room window as they arrived outside the front gate. They stayed there, engine revving.
Waggy was in the front yard. One of the gunners took aim and fired. He hit Waggy’s hind leg, which was already nearly paralyzed by rabies. Waggy ran as fast as his lame legs could carry him, around the side of the house to the back door, where we always fed him and where he got the most rigorous pettings from us. The pickup followed on his heels, skirting the outside wall. We followed in sync, racing around the bungalow, from room to room, window to window, wailing in sorrow for our wounded dog.
A second shot rang out just before he got to the back door, then a third. We arrived at the window of the back door just in time to see him crumple to a heap, dead. We weren’t allowed to open the door to touch him one last time. Two of the men in the truck hopped over the wall, grabbed Waggy by his paws, and tossed him casually into the back of the pickup. The three of us kids wept inconsolably for our beloved dog, even my brother whom I had seen cry only once before. Our mother, always ready to offer comfort but never willing to let the moral of a story go to waste, said to us, “I know you are sad. But just imagine what it must be like to lose your parents, as I did at your age.” That left us truly dumbfounded, even if we knew she was just trying to comfort us.
Waggy was my last real childhood pet. It was a hard act to follow, in more ways than one. It took me thirty years, and months of pleading from our kids, to get another dog. He is black Portuguese water dog, with a small splash of white on his chest. The kids named him Pepper. It’s progress of sorts. Pepper has a tendency to bite strangers, which is unfortunate, but he lives for cuddles and greets our arrival with sheer delight, tail a-wag.