What would you say about a dog who lives the most vivacious life, gives joy wherever he goes, loves everyone unconditionally, never sulks, knows no dog tricks and then dies on you? That was Hector, our pet Labrador who was part of our lives for 8 years. Happy years, growing up years, tumultuous years – the Hector years…a term which later came to be associated with a short era and all that happened in and around the family in that period.
Like our children who perhaps a bit pompously, are known as Army brats, Hector was an Army Dog… except, he was not trained to sniff out bombs or hidden arms caches as Army dogs are. In fact Hector was pretty dumb… except for loving everybody, he could do nothing right.
But I digress. So, as an Army dog, Hector moved from place to place in the truck with our baggage. He earned friends, human and animal, with ease in the new places, quite like Army children do. In one of our big, old colonial style houses, Hector, after some early showdowns, got friendly with a turkey, which was part of the animal entourage of the house we ‘inherited’. It was a bizarre sight to see the turkey chasing Hector all over the place and later, after the peace accord, strut along in the garden with Hector in tow. There was never any doubt who the boss was…the tag of acolyte clung to Hector like his skin.
Hector was spoiled silly by my daughter Nimisha, who incidentally had brought him, a month old, in a shoe box from Delhi in a train…ticketless. Not only would she be indulgent to a fault, but would not allow anyone in the house, including me, the purported disciplinarian, to chide or rebuke him. Hector therefore got away with much. It was only when Nimisha left home for higher studies, that Hector could be admonished for anything. But his grooming years were behind him by then.
The Hector years saw happy and heavy moments in the immediate and extended family – wedding, reunions, promotion, success, sickness, failure …he was an inalienable part of it all. Though he would only get in the way and be shooed away, he would sense the moment and do his best to be a part of it. He was happy with people around him and the feeling appeared mutual. In fact the only forlorn part of his short life seemed to be the phase when he lived with me alone in a remote corner of Kashmir, where I was actively involved in intense military duties and would be away for long periods. But there too he made the best of his time by befriending a whole lot of soldiers around my ‘basha’ and generally doing what he did best – being silly.
One of his several endearing attributes was the manner in which he would dash, at lightning speed, to meet & greet unsuspecting visitors at the gate. His ‘charge’ would often unsettle the uninitiated visitor who would freeze, before realising that it was a welcome routine, peculiar to Hector. He would then escort the visitor inside and, embarrassingly for us, be present throughout the proceedings.
Hector was greedy. Food meant the world to him. No matter how well fed he was, he would never miss a chance to eat or grab more. He was a permanent fixture at the dining table… despite admonishments from Anju, my wife, the children and I would feed him crumbs. He would lap them up like a starved cretin. He would then go scrounging around the kitchen for more. I have often thought in the years that Hector has been gone, if overeating did him in.
There was only one dog trick Hector ever learnt…to not touch a food offering till he was told. A greedy fellow like him would stare at the offering, eyes popping out, drooling from both corners of the mouth, but not devour it till the okay was given. We tested his resolve once too often , I thought, throwing things like chicken bones at him and saying “Hector, no!” We rather selfishly and meanly teased him with this stratagem often….drew some wicked ‘hooman’ pleasure out of a loved creature’s discomfort. I now wonder why.
The Hector years went by before you could say, well, Hector. My daughter would come home on holidays and Hector would unlearn all that he had painstakingly learnt in the interregnum between Nimisha’s visits home. As I said, she had proprietary rights, both material and emotional, over Hector. You didn’t want to mess with that. I suspect Hector remained amongst the dumbest creatures because of Nimisha’s excessive protection and indulgence… together the two ruled the roost and we could only wring our hands in affectionate despair.
We once hired a trainer for Hector. In a month, Hector learnt nothing…the trainer however, as per his own admission, became a more loving human being…. that was Hector : stupid, stubborn, silly, but with his heart where it should be. Long after he had gone, Anju and I (both children had flown the coop to pursue their own careers by then) would often try to think of someone who did not like Hector. We finally zeroed on to a ‘safaiwala’ (cleaning man), who would actually try to hit Hector with his broomstick because he would be all over him, day after day, despite his rebukes. He could, it seemed, never understand Hector’s love. But Hector had the last laugh, or more appropriately the last cry…. when we were burying Hector, Shyam Lal, the safaiwala, on his day off, was at the grave with a bunch of fresh bush flowers. He was actually crying!
The Hector saga is endless. He was so much like, and yet so much different from pet labradors…for one, he probably had a genetic, congenital defect, we thought, wherein his tail would never be still. My nephew Shubbu, who was often with us, and in Nimisha’s absence, was the leader of the ‘Spoil Hector’ gang (with close competition from my son Rishabh), said his constantly and vigorously wagging tail could produce enough electricity to run a small turbine. On more occasions than we care to remember, we have seen him wag his tail in his sleep. Don’t know if dogs dream, but he apparently did. Happy dreams… of probably food and Nimisha.
On Diwali, when most dogs hide under furniture, scared to death due to the firecrackers and the din, Hector would be super excited. He would whirl around with the chakri and leap high every time a ‘rocket’ was fired from a bottle. Would also run to fetch the extinguished remains when they hit the ground, sometimes smouldering. There were some ‘retriever’ genes in him, after all. He played Holi with equal fervour – would take my wife weeks to get the colour off him. As I said, there are endless Hector stories…
Hector is long gone from our lives but, clichéd as it sounds, he lives not only in our hearts, but in the hearts of hundreds of people whose lives he touched. This includes a few non-dog lovers in our acquaintance, whom he unwittingly ‘converted’. Anju often asks what his thoughts could have been, as he gasped for his last breaths. I would imagine he didn’t even know about death, so, while in agony, would have only thought of the love of his life – food, and/or possibly Nimisha, who was then literally across seven seas in USA. He could also have shed a dog tear for his family…us. Who knows – none of us have souls noble enough to imagine how Hector’s worked.
Hector’s funeral was grand. Many of my colleagues, their wives, house helps and neighbors were present. As he was tenderly laid to rest in the backyard on a warm March day, many felt that by the time the ‘service’ ended, Hector would already be furtively scratching at the pearly gates of Dog Heaven. Having been let in, he would have made friends with the angels and could have become St Peters’ ‘pet’, even as he was being mourned in the world he just left behind.
When I decided to write an ode to Hector and discussed the same with Nimisha over phone, she had only one advice: do not sentimentalize the write up. I said I wouldn’t… don’t know if I have been able to keep my promise. However, in closing, we would like to remember Hector by the epitaph which Rishabh, my son, placed on his grave:
On the uptake, was often found slow
Never did he put up a very good show,
But for him there was no one high or low
Didn’t matter whether you said yes or no,
Lively, loyal, loving and always on the go
Hector was certainly a nice dog to know!
© Sharabh Pachory, 2019. All rights reserved.
Photographs from personal archives and albums