Monday 17 October 2022

A Story Is Never Born Before Its Time - Panchami Manoo Ukil

"A story is never born before its time". - an old saying.
Once its time has come, nothing can hold it back. For the last four or five years, my husband and I had a conversation about writing this story at the beginning of October. However, the conversation never progressed to writing it down, maybe because its time had not yet come. We have not spoken about this year, but the story has decided it is ready to be told. In December 1997, almost twenty-five years ago, I was in my eighth month of pregnancy and was to go to Bhubaneswar for delivery. My father had come to Delhi for work, and I was to travel back with him. Though I was all packed and ready to go, I had a sleepless night, wholly distraught and depressed. There was a reason. A Beagle puppy. One Sunday morning in September, we heard the whining of a dog close by. From the direction of the sound, I understood that it came from the house just across from ours. I opened our front door and looked out to see a puppy chained to the handrail of the external staircase that led into the flat. It was a tiny male puppy, scared, maybe hungry and utterly traumatised. It looked like a Labrador to me. Beside it was a halved shell of coconut containing water and another with some food that seemed like curd rice. I climbed up the staircase, removed the collar from the pup and picked it up. It was shivering with fright and simply snuggled into my neck. I took it home and fed it with some warm milk. The puppy lapped the milk, curled into my lap, and fell asleep in a minute.
Meanwhile, my husband had gone up to the flat and rang the doorbell. After almost five minutes, an elderly gentleman opened the door, looking somewhat grumpy. Perhaps the bell had woken him up from sleep. My husband told him their puppy had been crying for a long time. The gentleman was unperturbed and peered out the door to look at the puppy. My husband explained that since the puppy had been crying for a very long time, we had unchained him and taken him home. He had been fed and was sleeping. In the meantime, the lady of the house had come out. Hearing that the puppy was at our home, she seemed a bit disturbed, but my husband calmed her, saying we would bring the puppy back to them as soon as he woke up. She invited my husband to step in for a cup of tea. Over tea, my husband learnt that the elderly couple had been gifted the puppy by their son and daughter-in-law. The puppy had travelled by air all the way from Chennai and had been picked up from the airport by the couple. These were obviously first-time pet parents, so they appeared pretty baffled. The puppy had been indoors at night and had soiled the floor. The lady had felt so harassed that she had put him out early in the morning and was deeply regretting the entry of the puppy into their lives, but they did not wish to hurt the sentiments of their children by asking for it to be sent back. My husband returned home and updated me with these details. After a while, much against my wishes, we took the puppy back to its home. The lady was quite aghast to see that I was letting the puppy lick my face. The puppy was clinging to me and refusing to let go. I put it down with great difficulty and tied the collar and leash back around its neck. The lady told me to chain it outside again. I requested her to allow it to remain indoors, but she vehemently denied it, saying there was no one to clean up the soiled floors. Gently, I gave her a lesson on toilet training the puppy, but she said she had neither the energy nor the patience. Before I knew it, I had blurted out, saying that if it was okay with them, my husband and I would walk the puppy three to four times a day, enabling it to be toilet-trained. The couple was thrilled to hear this. I told them the only condition was that the puppy would remain inside the house. They agreed. That evening, my husband and I took turns walking the puppy. We would feed it with Cerelac, chicken and milk after the walks, and his owners were relieved that we were also taking care of its feeding. Over a few days, the puppy was almost toilet-trained. It began to whine to indicate that it needed to go out. The driver or the part-time house help of the owners would then take it for a walk. We had explained to the owners precisely what diet was to be given to the pup and had also introduced them to a vet. At night, however, my husband would take it for a walk every day and bring him to our home for a few minutes before taking him back home. The pup was named Toffee, and, as it turned out, it was a mixed breed of Labrador and Beagle. With my advancing pregnancy, I would notice the puppy's affinity towards snuggling into my belly. Sometimes it would put its ear to my stomach and then cock its head from side to side. It was strangely emotional for us as if Toffee had already found a way to communicate with our child. However, after a few days, we noticed the puppy again tied outside on the stairs during the day. The elderly lady could not trust leaving the puppy inside when she would go out, fearing that he might chew up the furniture or spill water. I was utterly distraught, the state of hormones of impending motherhood already playing havoc with my emotions. We told the lady that we were willing to keep the pup with us when she went out. She was happy to hear this but said she would take it back home when she returned. This became a regular routine, with Toffee spending more time with us than in his home. His owners were also more relaxed with this arrangement of informal joint ownership.
So, the night before I was to leave for Bhubaneswar, I suddenly felt panicky at the thought of leaving Toffee behind. I had seen the apparent disinterest in his owners who were simply tolerating his presence in their lives, keeping the sentiments of their children in mind, and, also, because we had chipped into a large extent in taking care of the dog. My husband and I had discussed the idea of me taking Toffee away to Bhubaneswar though we knew that his owners might never agree to this if we asked them. I cried all through the night, making my husband extremely worried. In the morning, we found Toffee tied outside on the stairs again, the proverbial last straw on the camel's back. I decided that I would be taking the dog home with me. I had no idea how to do that, but I had to do it. We called the Vet, who guided us on how I could carry the pup in the aeroplane cabin. With my weight and the bulk of pregnancy, I wondered how I'd have a seven-kilo puppy for a moment. But I was determined. We went out and bought a zipped bag on which we made holes. When we returned home, the pup was still tied outside. We rang the bell, but there was no response. I simply untied the dog and brought it with me. We fed it and then put it inside the bag to see if it fitted inside comfortably. It was perfect. We gave the pup its first dose of sedation prescribed by the Vet and left for the airport. Getting off at the airport, I picked up the bag and strode inside with supreme confidence. My husband was in a state of anxiety as he saw me off. I walked up to the check-in counter and said I needed to buy a ticket for my pet puppy. The manager at the counter did not bat an eyelid. The bag with the dog was weighed, and I was given a bill of Rupees Nine Hundred. The ticket was done. I was asked to open the bag and show the pup at the security check. The puppy was fast asleep, and I was allowed to pass. I'm sure most people around must have been aghast at seeing a heavily pregnant woman carrying a large bag, huffing and puffing, and looking absolutely hassled. Anyway, I saw my father walking into the boarding area with a few other colleagues after a while. I went to him and told him about the pup in the bag. The smile on his face vanished. I have perhaps never seen him more livid than he was at that moment. After giving me a mouthful on even daring to do something like that, he said to me that I was on my own on this and that I should not be expecting any help from him at all. I decided that having come this far, I would not relent to any pressure. Toffee, the puppy, had woken up and was moving inside the bag. I opened the bag and ruffled his ears. He looked at me sleepily and went back to sleep> When boarding was announced, I went ahead in the queue, showing both tickets. I got off the bus, carrying the bag, and the pup was absolutely still. I showed both the tickets and climbed the stairs into the aeroplane. At the entrance to the aircraft, the air hostess asked me what was inside the bag. I told her it was my puppy and I had a ticket for him. She told me the bulky bag did not seem to carry a puppy. I opened it and showed it to her, saying it was a Labrador pup. She said it was big enough to qualify as a dog and the captain's prerogative to allow its presence inside the cabin. She called the captain out. The captain was in no mood to let the pup remain inside the cabin. He was sceptical about him remaining calm in case of turbulence and said that I should get off the aircraft. I told him I had no choice now but to travel with the pup in my present state, as my husband had already left the airport after I had gone through the security check. I expressed profound helplessness, begging him to allow me to travel, assuring him that the pup had been sedated well and would not cause any problem. Most importantly, the bag was zipped up, so there was no way he could jump out. Finally, the captain agreed to let me in as we were causing a jam at the entrance to the cabin. He told the air hostess to allow me to place the bag at my feet.
As I walked into the aisle, I saw Shri Naveen Patnaik, Member of Parliament, in the first seat on the first row. I walked past, a tad embarrassed that so many people were witness to the discomforting state that I was in. I settled into my seat in the third row, not daring to look at my father, who was in the second row with his colleagues. I imagined his fury and embarrassment at the chaos I had created. I was, however, relieved that we were finally on our way. A minute later, the air hostess came to tell me that the first seat in the first row had been vacated by Shri Naveen Patnaik to accommodate me so that I could sit comfortably with adequate leg space for the bag. He had voluntarily moved to the last row. I was stunned and overwhelmed. Busy in settling into my seat, I had not seen the tall man walk by to the last row. I told the air hostess that I would like to go and thank the Hon'ble MP for his extreme kindness, but she said there was no way they would allow me to leave the puppy bag alone. She said I could thank him after we had landed. As I walked to the first row, I whispered to my father about what had transpired. My father told me – look at the inconvenience you have created!
After all the day's drama, the journey was uneventful as Toffee, the puppy, slept throughout the flight. My mind, however, was focused on the empathy of the leader who had understood my state of distress. Living in Delhi, we hardly connected with Odisha politics, and I barely knew anything beyond the fact that Naveen Patnaik had taken over the mantle from his father. As soon as we landed, I was desperate to rush to the Hon'ble MP and thank him. Those days passengers would exit from the front as well as from the rear. I asked the air hostess if Mr Patnaik was still seated. She said that he had exited through the aircraft's rear door. With my dog in the bag, I was the last to get off the bus. I stepped onto the bus and looked around, but Mr Naveen Patnaik was obviously not there. He would have boarded an earlier bus. Getting off, I found my sister waiting for me. I handed over the puppy to her and asked if she had seen Naveen Patnaik. She said that she had seen him going out. I told her the entire story. My father said I could write a letter of thanks or meet him sometime later to thank him. Over the years, neither the letter nor the meeting happened. Over the years, as a family, we have reminisced about this incident time and again. Toffee lived for fourteen years in Bhubaneswar, adored and cared for in my parent's home. In the meantime, Shri Naveen Patnaik had become Chief Minister of Odisha. Two decades later, when I met the Hon'ble Chief Minister several times, it was no longer possible to engage in a personal conversation with him. I have repeatedly wanted to remind him about his huge act of kindness, but somehow I have held back. It is said that great men never hang on to their acts of generosity which is why I was apprehensive that he would obviously have no memory of something that had transpired ages ago. He expressed childish enthusiasm when I explained the Peregrine Falcon is the fastest creature on earth when it swoops to pick up prey. He chipped in with the scientific name of Palash when I presented him with a Palash sapling, requesting him to launch "Mission Palash" he narrated the story of a famous photograph taken on Children's Day in which he was seen seated on Pandit Nehru's lap, he has indulged the children of our school with the best chocolates and affection, and, of course, very kindly inaugurated our new school campus.

About three years ago, I was seated behind the Hon'ble Chief Minister in the aircraft. Throughout the journey, I saw him watching video clips of his pets, two playful beagles whose antics brought gentle smiles onto the face of the CM as he watched. In the last twenty-three years of his Chief Ministership, reams and reams of commentaries and opinions have been written about Shri Naveen Patnaik's personality and governance. As someone who has been personally impacted by his one act of kindness twenty-five years ago, I firmly believe that nothing about Naveen Patnaik is fake. His charm, enigma, stature and governance are his own, honest and original, deeply appealing to the masses. Most of all, his empathy is real. Small wonder then that he is the longest-serving Chief Minister and the No. 1 Chief Minister in the largest democracy in the world.

The story was published with the author's consent, Ms Panchami Manoo Ukil, and posted on Facebook on the 17th Day of October 2022. Panchami, is School Leader & Vice Chairperson, The DN Wisdom Tree Global School. Panchami Manoo Ukil is a school leader with a difference. Multifaceted, spirited, and dynamic, Panchami Manoo Ukil has an infectious positivity that reaches out to everyone around her. Passionate about children, she infuses the curriculum with her brand of original ideas, be it a celebration of our culture and roots, bonding with nature, or simply engaging with the little ones with a heart overflowing with love. She gathers everyone into a happy circle woven in with her brand of wisdom, warmth, affection and concern, an inspiration for many and a supportive motivator for the team.

Wisdom Tree School is not a part of the Good Schools Alliance. The story is all about the #JoyOfLearning.

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