27 September, 2010
Mans Best Friend
“A dog is a man’s best friend” I heard this very definite statement from the fellow passenger sitting ahead of me on the bus ride home. As I was about to silently agree with him he continued “No other animal displays the character of the owner as his dog” and that corollary opened up a page in my memory of a fairly different experience I have had during my travel in the laid back town of
nearly fifteen years ago. This was during the time when I was selling boilers in the industrial area there. The days began quite early there & towards the late afternoons when the meetings had finished up & having bid my dealer partners adieu, I would be at a loose end. It was here that I would take a walk or use the sturdy old Hero bicycle of the hotel owner to explore the area. It is a beautiful countryside and I being a city boy was fascinated by it. It is here that I have had my best food experiences eating at farmer’s houses or eateries settled inside nooks and crannies of the villages. Mahad
It was eating a spicy mutton curry at Sudam Pawar’s hotel, that’s what the board read but was nothing more than an open kitchen of his house and two string cots laid outside beneath a tree, which I came across Shiva and his cat Vaghya. Shiva occupied the other string cot and was eating with a happy concentration and Vaghya lay peacefully below him gnawing on a meaty bone. We just nodded at each other and continued our fare. It is not so polite to strike conversation immediately in villages as people being touchy I had learned to guard my tongue. Vaghya was a large tom cat of a pattern that is often found on snow leopards and very lean and strong. He ignored me completely. Shiva had a duffel bag that was lying by his side and he finished his meal picked it up and started walking away with a greeting to Sudam’s wife. He had not said a word to the cat but the animal in one sleek movement loped off after him and they vanished from my sight. Quite a pair, I thought. As I looked up Sudam’s wife saw my gaze at their departing backs and said he is Shiva. He travels up and down this road and is not a local but is here during the summers. He is a sort of general handyman who helps with the farm, the wood and does all kinds of odd jobs. I smiled at her. I used to run into this pair quite often from then on.
Once while going along to the industrial area I saw the man and his cat and he raised his hand & smiled. I waved back. He was working on painting the factory wall. He was doing a very good job of it too and the cat had picked up a spot in the sun and was lying about near him. When I finished my work and was talking to the overseer he happened to mention that I wish we had more workers like that one pointing to Shiva but he doesn’t want a permanent position. Where is he from, I asked? Oh he is somewhere from Ratnagiri but never stays in the same place for more than a few months. Takes his wage and moves on. That cat is always with him and it is the strangest bonds I have seen. As I got to know about Shiva and we ran into each other again at Sudam’s hotel, I smiled and invited him over and he came too. The big cat also came on soft paws towards our cot inspected me with care and I had a curious feeling of been found wanting as he silently sat at Shiva’s feet.
He was a pleasant enough fellow, looked very fit and healthy but on closer inspection seemed to be in his early forties. After our dinner as we were talking he asked whether I like it here and when I nodded he said that he did too. When probed on where did he come from he indicated a village in Ratnagiri. I asked him about his home and he said he had none. I marveled at his clear replies that it held no source of worry to him. When asked about it he said what do I worry about? I work to earn my bread and I have the road and all I need for it in this bag. He was wearing frayed denim trousers, and a faded khaki shirt both very clean. When I offered him a smoke he refused saying he didn’t enjoy it nor did he imbibe the spirits. Here I was at the beginning of a career already earning good money and had acquired some credit card debt , looking to buy a house and yet tremendously worried on how to go about it. While here was Shiva owning nothing but all that was there in his duffelbag and face clear of any lines, serenely at peace. He continued "My only companion is Vaghya he nodded to the cat and the animal as if he knew that he was the subject of the conversation stretched a paw to him and rubbed his foot. I asked him about Vaghya and he said that in one of the sites that he worked he had found this kitten and looking at his striped body pattern the locals had shunned him. So I fed him and he started traveling with me. There are times when I can’t get food that Vaghya feeds me. He just laughed at my open mouthed expression. Vaghya is not only an excellent hunter but he also fishes. We share our food and when he is the one providing he shares it with me. Fondly he scratched behind the cat’s ear and the big cat closed his eyes in bliss and purred.
Tomorrow is a Sunday come over to the river and you shall see. Tom cats are very slow ponderous creatures and I had seen the relaxed way in which the man and his cat ambled away, as I agreed to the expedition. I woke up late and as I cycled up to the river there was Shiva stretched out on the bank on a rock having taken a swim lying very much like his cat whom I could not immediately spot. I stood watching and before I could catch the movement streaked a form from the rock straight into the water and with deft flick of the paw had impaled a medium sized fish on it. Grasping the wriggling fish in its strong jaws the cat swam to the shore. He kept the grip on the fish till it stopped its movement dropped it near Shiva and went near the rock to peer into the water with intense concentration. He did this three more times and something about that scene stayed in my mind about the complete communion of man and beast in friendly co-existence; two fiercely independent spirits curiously having found soulmates in each other. In one of his forays into the water Vaghya knocked astray Shiva’s duffel bag from the rock and out clattered all his worldly belongings the two pairs of denim trousers and two shirts one shorts, one large multi-utility Swiss knife a roll of chappati and a sepia coloured photograph of an earthy young woman. There was a story there but it was not on this page today. I silently walked back without disturbing them as I thought about the character of the man and his animal companion, the likes of which I have never seen before.