As the train came to a halt, Sonu's father jumped off with one suitcase. Her mother then passed him another one, before stepping down herself. Sonu took a step closer to the doorway, putting a hand on the bar on one side.
The platform looked like a blur. People were moving everywhere. Suitcases were being carried and dragged in every direction. Some people were already busy haggling with taxi drivers.
Sonu jerked, realizing that it was her mother talking to her. She had been holding out her hand to help Sonu down, while Sonu had been lost in looking at the platform. Taking her mother's hand, and gripping the side bar even tighter with her other hand, she put one foot down on the first step. Not knowing how to put her other foot in the next step, Sonu took a deep breath and jumped onto the platform. Landing in front of her mother, Sonu stood up straight, a grin spread across her face. She always enjoyed doing that! But in the next moment, as she saw her parents begin to drag the luggage across the platform, the smile left her face. She slowly began to drag her feet behind them.
It was their yearly trip. Ever since Sonu could remember, her family had taken one holiday every year when they traveled somewhere away from home. Most of the times, that meant going to a hill station. At first (or the first that she could remember), Sonu had been excited by the idea of going to see the big mountains. She had only seen them in pictures, or in those scenery drawings that she and everyone loved to make.
But very soon, she realized that her love with mountains was not meant to be. Firstly, she hated cold weather. And mountains, it seemed, had only cold weather. She spent all her time in the mountains under four or five layers of clothing, in addition to a blanket, while her father kept telling her to come outside for a walk. It was only on those few rare days, when the sun was out, that she would step out, making sure that she was warm enough before removing one of the layers of clothing.
But all that happened after she got to the mountains. But just process of getting there...! Sonu shuddered every time she thought about it. Ten minutes after sitting in the car as they went up her first mountain, Sonu realized something was wrong. Very wrong. Her stomach started feeling queasy. Every time the car turned a corner, it felt even worse. She tried closing her eyes, but that did nothing to stop the feeling. She must have sat like that for almost half an hour before her parents realized they needed to stop the car. Jumping off, she walked to the side and doubled over. Vomit. So much vomit. Her father rubbed her back gently as she threw up. When she was done, her mother washed her face with cold water. Standing like that for five minutes, tears running down her eyes, she looked at her parents questioningly. "It happens," her father said. "Especially on hilly roads." Sonu realized how true his words were, when they had to stop two more times on the side in that 90 minute journey.
And so, Sonu decided at a fairly young age that she hated mountains. But the world didn't seem to care much for the opinions of a three-year-old, so every year, she found herself trudging along with her family on yet another hill station holiday.
Four years later, not much had changed. As Sonu walked on behind her parents, she tried not to think of the upcoming journey. As she watched her father haggle with different taxi drivers, she silently wished they wouldn't be able to find a taxi - at least for sometime. But luck was clearly not on her side, as just then, her father gestured to the family to follow him and another man towards a taxi.
After stuffing the bags into the car, Sonu and her mother got into the backseat. Her father got into the passenger seat in front. Instinctively, he reached out for the seat belt, only to find it wasn't there. The driver, noticing this, said that there's no need for seat belts here. "Upar hi toh jana hai. Apne aap body peeche hi rahegi. [We have to go uphill only. Your body will stay backwards on its own.]" Sonu giggled at this. Her mother, rolling her eyes, asked, "What about when we have to go downhill?" But the driver seemed to ignore the comment, starting the engine instead. Sonu's parents exchanged annoyed, amused looks, then decided to let the matter be.
As the car began to trudge up the hill, Sonu looked out of the window. She wished this holiday were getting over, not beginning. She knew it was going to be a miserable trip. The only bright side was that it was going to be a short holiday.
Three hours and five vomiting stops later, they reached their destination. Sonu fumbled out of that dreadful vehicle, taking deep breaths to calm her stomach. While the others took the luggage off the car, she scanned the sky. Thick clouds. No sun. Great. She closed her eyes tightly in frustration. Feeling her mother's hand on her shoulder, she looked up sideways. "You okay?" mamma asked. Sonu just shrugged in response. Smiling gently, her mother said, "It's over. You'll be okay now. No more throwing up." Sonu nodded, trying to hold on to that thought and cheer herself up. She followed her parents to the house in front and waited. The caretaker, Govind da, opened the door.
The three of them trudged in, their eyes taking in the house. It was fairly spacious. Sonu dropped her bag on a chair, and wandered around. While her parents made their way down a flight of stairs towards the bedrooms, she walked towards a door leading outside to the back. Stepping out, she stopped short. Massive mountains rose up in front of her. The view was breathtaking. Despite her sullen mood, Sonu couldn't help the smile spreading on her face. As if it had been waiting for that particular moment, the sun suddenly came out from behind the clouds, flooding the area with warmth. As the heat warmed her up, Sonu felt herself relaxing for the first time since this trip began.
A rustle in the bushes startled her. Turning to the side, she saw one of the bushes in the garden shaking. A thin brown tail was sticking out of it. Squinting her eyes in curiosity, she stepped towards it. Just then, the tail moved out of the bush, and attached to it was a large dog (well, large for Sonu, who was still waiting for her height to shoot up). Spotting Sonu, the dog barked at her a few times, and then stopped. The two stared at each other from their positions, as though sizing the other up.
He looked like many of the stray dogs that lived in Sonu's neighbourhood. He was brown in colour, but the area around his nose and mouth were black. His ears flopped on the side, and his tail curled up over his body. His tongue, like that of most dogs she'd seen, hung out of his mouth.
After a few seconds of staring, he took a few steps towards her. Sonu did the same, and then reached out slowly with one hand. When he didn't react, she took a few more steps, and then gently placed her hand on his head. His tail, which had been standing still until now, started moving from side to side. Smiling, Sonu relaxed and rubbed her hand over his head and ears and neck, enjoying the antics of his tail.
Just then, the door opened, and the dog jumped back, barking loudly. Her parents stepped out, looking surprised. "Oh! You found a friend!" her mother exclaimed, smiling at the dog. However, his barking continued. It was only when the caretaker stepped out and went over to him that the dog stopped barking. "Shh," Govind da said, petting the dog. "Don't worry," he added, looking at the father's wary expression. "He was just startled. He's okay."
"Is he yours?" Sonu asked, excitedly. This holiday was starting to look better and better each moment.
"No, he belongs to one of the neighbors," he said, pointing to a distance house on the same hill. "But he likes coming here," he added with a smile, ruffling the ears of the dog. "He spends the day here and goes back there at night."
Sonu got down on her knees and gestured to the dog. Wagging his tail, he came to her, his tongue hanging off his face. Sonu petted his neck, which he really seemed to enjoy. "He's so cute!" she exclaimed, to anyone who was listening.
"Just be careful with him," her father said. "You don't know where all he's been."
"He's so cute!" she said again, as a response to her father's words.
Shaking his head softly, her father moved to go back inside. As the others began to follow him, Sonu called out to Govind da.
"What's his name?"
Chintu ran up the slope, going past Sonu and her parents.
The three of them had taken a nap in the afternoon, and woken up to find (to Sonu's delight) Chintu also lying in the garden. They had decided to sit outdoors to have their evening tea. As the adults sipped on their tea, Sonu quickly gulped down her milk. Then, picking up some of the biscuits, she called Chintu over. Holding out one biscuit in her right hand, she watched in fascination as he picked it up with his mouth and nibbled away. She repeated this with two more biscuits before her parents said to stop and not give him too much. Sulkily, she looked down, and put back the remaining biscuits. But her hand remained on Chintu, ruffling his ears and neck.
Afterwards, they had all set off for a walk. Chintu, to her mother's amusement and her father's annoyance, went along. He bounded up the hill, sniffing away at every twig and rock. Behind him came the parents, and far behind, huffing and puffing, came Sonu. Every once in a while, her parents would stop and wait for her to catch up, but soon she would fall behind again. Chintu, on her the other hand, amused himself by running back and forth, as though suddenly realizing that Sonu hadn't caught up with him, before getting carried away in his twigs again. Every once in a while, he'd lift a back leg and pee on a spot, and then turn to pee from the other side as well, as though the first one hadn't been good enough. This always amused Sonu, who kept giggling between trying to catch her breath.
Finally, after what seemed like hours of walking to Sonu, they came to a halt. As she caught up with her parents, she looked towards the direction they were staring at. It was an amazing sight! The valley, the mountains, and the sun going down behind them. They all sat down on the side of the road, watching the sunset. At least, Sonu and her parents were watching the sunset. She wasn't too sure if Chintu quite understood why they were all sitting in a line, or what he was supposed to be looking at. Still, he sat down next to her, and she put one hand around him. The sky was a mixture of orange and red. "It's beautiful, hai na?" Sonu said softly. Chintu looked at her, panting, then back at the sky, then at her, then at the sky again. Sonu decided to take that as a yes.
"We should get going," her father said aloud, once the sun was no longer visible.
Sonu tried to protest, wanting to stay there for a little longer. But her father was insistent. "Govind said it's not safe to stay out too late. He said to get back before it gets dark."
Grudgingly getting up on her feet, Sonu asked, "But why?"
Her father shrugged. "He said something about leopards coming out at night." Seeing Sonu's eyes widen, he added quickly, "I'm sure he didn't mean that! There won't be leopards around here. Maybe the villagers here just say that. But in any case, it's better if we get back before dark."
And so, they began the trek back. Again, Chintu led the line, running ahead to sniff at anything and everything that interested him. But this time, Sonu followed him, half running down the slope. "Be careful!" her parents called out, as they watched the two figures run around and chase each other.
As they reached back, Sonu and her parents entered the house. Chintu went straightaway to the garden from the side path. Sonu tried calling him in, but Govind da stopped her. "But why?" Sonu asked.
"He's not ours. It's better if he stays outside. Anyway, he now knows not to come in."
"But won't he feel cold outside?" she asked, looking at him sitting outside the netted backdoor.
"He'll go back to his house in some time," Govind da said. "Don't worry," he added, seeing her concerned face. "He sleeps inside in their house."
"Can I go and say bye to him?" Sonu asked, not taking her eyes off Chintu.
"Of course," Govind da said, smiling.
Sonu scampered to the door, where Chintu had been sitting staring back at her. Seeing her, he started wagging his tail frantically. Sonu stepped outside and knelt in front of him. "Chintuuuu!" she crooned, and then went on to speak in a language that neither Chintu nor the adults understood, all the while ruffling his neck and head and ears. When she finally stopped, they stared at each other. Without warning, Chintu reached out with his tongue and licked her face. "Chintu!!" she screamed, falling backwards from the shock. Chintu let out a soft "Woof," as though proud of himself. Giggling, Sonu got up again, wiping her face with the back of her hand. "Eww... Chintu! It's all wet!" she complained, smiling the entire time.
"Acha now I have to go. Govind da said I can't bring you in. I'm sorry. I really wish I could. Now you go home safely. Be careful, okay? It's quite dark. You know your way home na? Chalo, now I really have to go. I love you Chintu. Bye!"
As she finished her speech, she petted his head one last time, and then moved to go inside the door. Just then, Chintu let out a soft whimper. Oh no. Not that sound, Sonu thought to herself. Whenever she heard dogs whimper, it did something to her. She looked at Govind da, who was standing inside, with a pleading look. Smiling, he shook his head. Clenching her fists, Sonu took a deep breath, and then turned to close the wooden door, trying hard not to look at Chintu and his big eyes. She heard Govind da speak from behind her, "Don't worry. He'll be back in the morning. He always is."
Sonu opened her eyes slowly, looking around at the unfamiliar room. Light streamed in through the windows. Feeling a fresh wave of sleep wash over her, Sonu snuggled further into her blanket, closing her eyes again.
Remembering Govind da's words from last night, Sonu's eyes shot open. A smile spread across her face. She jumped out of bed, and ran straight up the stairs. Govind da was in the kitchen. Shouting out a quick good morning to him, she darted past him to the back door. "Is he here?" she called out, to anyone in anyone in general. Stepping outside, she couldn't help but smile at the scene.
Her parents were sitting outside on the chairs, sipping their tea. And there, lying next to Mamma's feet, was Chintu. Hearing Sonu's voice, he raised his head and wagged his tail. Done with his greeting, he put his head back down and went back to resting.
"Good morning!" she called out, walking lazily over to them.
Her parents smiled, greeting her in return. "You're up early," her father remarked. It was true. Usually Sonu wouldn't have been up for another hour or two.
Stretching, Sonu responded, "Just. Felt like getting up and sitting outside." She walked up to Chintu and sat down next to him. Apart from his tail, he gave no indication of caring. Ruffling his ears, she pulled up her knees and sat back to enjoy the sun and the view.
They all sat (or, in Chintu's case, lay) quietly for some time, until Govind da stepped out with a glass of milk. Reaching up, Sonu thanked him for it and sipped on it. Watching Chintu looking at it, she moved it towards him and asked, "Want?"
"No Sonu!" her father called out. "Finish your milk."
Glumly, she looked at Govind da. Smiling, he said, "It's hot milk. That's not good for him. You can give him some cold milk later."
Satisfied, she went back to looking at the mountains, keeping one hand on Chintu's head.
After a few minutes, she asked out loud in a forced cheerful voice, "So. What's the plan for today?" Normally, every holiday would be spent traveling to all the local sightseeing points. Which, for Sonu, meant more throwing up.
"Well," her father started slowly, glancing at her mother. "We were thinking, why don't we just spend the day here?"
Suspiciously, Sonu asked, "You mean, here here? In the house?"
"Haan. There's so much open space here, and a great view as well. We can spend the day relaxing, doing whatever we want - reading, walking, playing with Chintu," he added, smiling.
"Yay!" Sonu exclaimed, jumping up to hug her father. Alarmed at the sudden movement, Chintu also got up and started barking. Laughing at her enthusiasm, her father gave her a big hug. "Happy, you little monkey?"
"Very happy!" said Sonu, beaming with excitement. The idea of having even one day without hilly travel was relieving. And having Chintu around was a great bonus. "Best plan ever! Chintu - stop!" she added, looking at Chintu, who was still barking away in confusion. Getting off her father's lap, she walked over to him and knelt down. "We're going to have a great day!" she exclaimed, ruffling his head extra hard. In response, he wagged his tail extra hard, though he probably still didn't know why everyone was so excited.
And so, they spent the day doing exactly what her father had said - relaxing.
Sonu got her story book outside, and sat down on the ground against a pillar. Chintu, who was playing in the garden, came scampering back when he saw her. First, he tried poking his head in between Sonu and her book. "Chintu! Move back na! I can't read. Here, sit next to me."
Next, Chintu tried sitting down, this time with his bum in her lap. "Ugh! Chintu! Not on me! Next to me!" She tried pushing his bum to the side, but it felt quite heavy and difficult. The two (Chintu's bum and Sonu) wrestled with each other for some time, with little success. Her parents watched them in amusement. Finally, Govind da called Chintu over to him in the garden, and he raced off in that direction, leaving Sonu a little disoriented with the sudden new space that was created when his bum moved away.
After reading for some time, Sonu felt her eyes drooping a little. Not wanting to go back into the cold bedroom, she put her book aside and lay down in the ground, soaking up the warmth of the sun. She had just been about to fall asleep when she felt something wet fall on her face. Opening her eyes, she saw Chintu leaning over her, his head right above her own. "Ugh! Chintu!" she screamed, getting up in a hurry and wiping her face with the back of her hand. "Stop drooling over me!" she said, wiping the icky stuff back on Chintu's fur with her hand. In response, he wagged his tail. Realizing that he was about to drool over again, she pushed his head to the side, and just in time.
"Sit, Chintu," she said trying to push his body down on the ground. "I want to sleep." But he wouldn't budge. She moved the hand that was petting his head down to his neck and stomach. Instantly, he sat down. Surprised, she smiled widely, with all the enthusiasm of a scientist having made a ground breaking discovery.
"Great! Now just sit like that. I'm going to lie down. Why don't you also lie down?" she said, stretching herself down next to him. And much to the amusement of the parents who were again watching the scene, that's where the two lay for quite some time. Sometimes, next to each other. Sometimes, with Sonu's hand around Chintu. Sometimes, with Chintu's head on her stomach, and her hand on his head.
In the evening, they all sat down to play cards. Rummy was an old time family favorite. After a little hesitation, even Govind da agreed to join in. The four of them formed a circle on the ground, and began to play. Chintu, for his part, moved from player to player, as though to give each one tips, but really just staying longer with whoever would pet him more. Once, Sonu even saw her father (who wasn't a big fan of dogs) pet him gently. Eventually, getting bored of going around in circles, he sat down between Sonu and Govind da, observing the game from the new position.
In the meantime, the game was gaining intensity. After several rounds, Sonu and her father were leading, with the others not far behind. This particular round was going really well for Sonu, who had lucked out with a great set off cards. Excitedly, she waited for the right card to be able to close the game. Just then, Chintu jumped up and raced towards the garden, going through their circle and scattering all the cards on the ground. "Ugh! Chintu!" Sonu screamed, having just picked up her card. But Chintu was off, sniffling away at the bushes. "It's probably a squirrel," Govind da said, as they all began packing up the cards.
Sonu got up and stomped over to Chintu, wanting to give him a piece of her mind. She was surprised her parents hadn't said anything. "Chintu! Come here!" she called out in her best angry voice. After a few minutes of calling, he finally took his head out of the bush. Walking over to Sonu, he suddenly leaped up with his front legs, placing them on Sonu. Hanging out his tongue, he let out a single bark, as though asking her "Aren't you proud of me?" With his tail wagging away, Sonu felt her annoyance replaced by laughter. "Chintuuuu!" she exclaimed, holding his head in between her hands. "You're so cute! I wish I could take you home with me!"
Turning to look at her parents, she asked softly, "We can't, can we?" Shaking their heads slowly, they gave her an understanding smile. "Enjoy the time you have with him here," her mother said. Heeding her words, Sonu turned back to Chintu, just in time to have his massive tongue spread all over her face. This time, there was no "Ugh! Chintu!". Instead, she giggled, which seemed to excite Chintu and have him lick her again.
"Sonu! Go wash your face," her mother's voice called out.
"Sorry Chintu," she whispered softly, and then ran indoors. When she came back, she found, she found her father petting Chintu, an amused smile on his face. Not wanting to disturb them, she stood quietly on the side and watched them.
Her mother, who had also been observing the scene silently, looked at Sonu and remarked, "Looks like your father has also got a new friend." Her father, hearing this, stepped back, shrugged his shoulders, smiled sheepishly, and said, "Just wanted to see what all the fuss was about."
Shaking her head, her mother signaled to Chintu, who bounded over. "Well, I think it's my turn now. Come on Chintu. Let's go for a walk," she said, and the two of them set off. Grinning at each other, Sonu and her dad also shook their heads in amusement, and then set off behind them.
That night, Sonu said a slightly longer good night to Chintu, trying to explain to him why she wouldn't be able to spend much time with him the next day. "Mamma and Papa said we should go out at least for a bit. It seems fair, since they let us stay at home today. But hopefully we won't be gone too long, okay? I'll see you in the morning before we leave, and then again once we're back. You can stay with Govind da while I'm gone and chase your squirrels. Okay? Bye Chintu. I'll miss you. But I'll see you in the morning. Bye Chintu!"
And with a final pet, she stepped away from Chintu and into the house. Turning to look at him, she saw that he was sitting there, tongue hanging out, staring at her. She waved at him sadly, and then closed the door. "I'll see him tomorrow morning," she said to herself, as she walked down to the bedroom.
The next morning, Sonu jumped out of bed, and raced upstairs. Pushing open the garden door, she shouted, "Chintuuuu!" Like the day before, her parents were sitting on chairs having their tea. But Chintu wasn't there.
"Where's Chintu?" she asked, looking around the garden.
"I don't know," her mother replied. "We haven't seen him this morning."
Frowning, Sonu walked down the side towards the main gate. "Chintu!" she called out, scanning the road on both sides. Apart from a few people walking here and there, it was empty. No Chintu.
Walking back into the house, she went to the kitchen, where Govind da was working. "Do you know where Chintu is?" she asked him. Looking at her over his shoulder, he shook his head. "I didn't see him come in this morning," he said. "But don't worry," he added, smiling. "I'm sure he'll turn up later. He always does."
Sonu tried to smile back, but she felt that Govind da didn't sound too sure. There were creases on his forehead, as though he was also a little concerned.
Picking up her glass of milk, she trudged slowly outside. "Chintu hasn't come in today," she said out loud in a sad voice, as she plopped down on the ground in front of her mother. Her mother ruffled her hair. "Don't worry. I'm sure he'll show up eventually. He'll probably be here by the time we get back."
Nodding her head, Sonu tried to think about what her mother said and cheer up. But even a couple of hours later, when the three of them were getting themselves into a taxi, she couldn't help but linger on the road, looking up and down, hoping to see Chintu appear on it suddenly. But he didn't. Reminding herself that she would see him in the evening, she sighed and got inside the car.
The day was...not as bad as Sonu had thought it would be. Actually, it was quite good. Instead of doing the usual travel from one spot to another, they went to a place with a great view and garden, and spent several hours there. Then they made their way for a late lunch at a restaurant with another great view of the mountains, before finally heading back in the evening. To top it off, Sonu only threw up once, which wasn't bad considering her normal record.
But despite all this, she couldn't stop thinking of Chintu. Don't worry, she tried telling herself. He's allowed to change his routine. He's allowed to not show up one day if he wants to. But she really did hope he'd show up today. They were leaving tomorrow, so she wanted to spend as much time with him as she could. Every once in a while, she found herself looking over her shoulder, half expecting Chintu to appear out of nowhere.
On the way back, Sonu started feeling more hopeful and excited. Chintu would have come over by now. She could picture him running around in the garden, his face sticking into some bushes and his tail sticking out. He'd hear the car approaching and come running outside. In fact, he'd probably be waiting right outside and jump on Sonu the moment she got out of the car. With each moment that they got closer to home, her smile got bigger and bigger.
As they entered their street, Sonu craned her neck to look towards the house. Nothing. As they pulled up in front of the house, she dashed out of the car, and ran straight to the garden from the side, shouting, "Chintuuuu!" But the garden was empty. There was no Chintu, nor any tail poking out from the bushes.
Her shoulders sagging down, she slowly made her way to the back door. Inside, Govind da and her parents seemed to be having a rushed and whispered conversation. Hearing the door open, they turned to look towards her. "Govind da," Sonu asked, "Did Chintu come?"
Govind da looked at her for a long while, before slowly shaking his head. "No, sorry."
"But you said he always comes!" Sonu whined out, feeling all the frustration of the day piling up.
Again, Govind da looked at her for some time without saying anything, as though weighing his words. Finally, he said softly, "I know. He always did."
"Maybe he'll show up tomorrow," her father said.
Not satisfied with the response, Sonu turned to look at her mother, her expression pleading for help. But her mother's words were hardly the ones she was looking for. "Sonu," mamma said. "Why don't you go and get changed first?" Frustrated, Sonu stomped downstairs, angry at all the adults around her. Why didn't they understand how important this was? Did they not care about Chintu? Even Govind da? Why was nobody saying let's go look for him? She sat on her bed for some time, trying to calm down. Chintu was probably at the other house. After all, it's not like he knew they were leaving tomorrow. Taking a few deep breaths, she decided that the best option was to go to the house where he lived. Her parents wouldn't let her go alone, so she would need to convince them. Taking a final deep breath, she stomped back upstairs, her mind made up.
Again, as she reached up, her parents and Govind da hushed up from the conversation they were having. They all turned to look at her. "I thought you went to change," her mother remarked. Looking down at her clothes, Sonu realized she was right. "Yea, I forgot," she said, shrugging. "Listen," she began, forcing herself to sound confident. "I was thinking... Can we please go and look for Chintu in the house where he lives? We won't get to see him after tomorrow."
No one responded immediately. They all looked at each other, and then at Sonu. Something strange was going on, but right now Sonu didn't care about it. "Well? Can we please go?"
Finally, her father spoke. "Sonu, it's late today. It's already dark. How about we wait till tomorrow morning, and if he hasn't come even then, we'll go?"
Sonu sat there quietly, thinking about what he said. She could insist they go now, but she knew that would only make him angry. Papa was very particular when it came to safety. And he was right... They could wait till tomorrow morning. She just hoped he would show up then. She nodded at her father, accepting the deal. Lost in her thoughts, she missed the look that the three adults exchanged.
The rest of the evening passed by really slowly, or so it seemed to her. When finally they were done with dinner, she ran downstairs to her bed, wanting to fall asleep soon so that morning could get here sooner.
When she opened her eyes, it took her a while to figure out why she didn't feel relaxed. Chintu, she remembered, and raced upstairs. This time, her parents were not outside sipping tea. Instead, they were sitting in the kitchen with Govind da.
"Is he here?" Sonu asked, stopping to catch her breath. Slowly, they all shook their heads.
Wanting to confirm this on her own, she went outside, looking at every inch of the garden, and calling out Chintu's name. Not having much luck, she walked back inside. "Can we go to his house now and ask about him?" she asked the three of them.
"Sonu," her father began softly. "Listen. There's something we need to tell you."
Scrunching her eyebrows, Sonu sat down on the empty chair. Her father looked quite serious. A part of her wasn't sure she wanted him to continue.
"There's a rumour going around." He paused, looking a little uncertain. Finally, taking a deep breath, he said quickly, "There's a rumour going around that Chintu might have been taken by a leopard."
A few seconds passed in silence, as Sonu tried to to process his words. "What?" she whispered.
"It's happened before a few times," Govind da said. "Leopards taking away dogs."
"By taking away...you mean...killing?" Sonu asked hesitatingly, her eyes starting to feel a little blurry.
Govind da nodded slowly, and Sonu closed her eyes. She tried taking deep breaths, but this time it seemed difficult. Looking at her father, she asked, "But I thought you said there are no leopards here."
Sighing, he thought for a few moments before speaking. "I was wrong. Govind da said that leopards do live in the forests nearby, and sometimes they come near the village at night."
"But how do you know Chintu was...?" she asked, hoping to find some flaw in the story.
"Someone in the neighborhood told me. They heard it from the owners," Govind da said.
"So it may not be true?" Sonu asked quickly.
Govind da said nothing. Her mother spoke up. "Yes, it might just be a rumour. We don't know as yet. Maybe Chintu just ran away somewhere," she said, looking around at the other two men to add on.
"He might just show up," her father said.
"Govind da?" Sonu asked, wanting to hear it from him.
He was quiet for some time. "Your parents are right," he said finally. "It might just be a rumour. In any case, Chintu knows how to take care of himself. If ever I knew a dog that could escape a leopard, it would be Chintu."
Sonu nodded, trying to hold on to his words. He's fine, she told herself. It's Chintu. He'll be fine. He knows how to take care of himself. Even Govind da said that. Maybe he's run off somewhere. Maybe he'll show up in a day or two. Sonu knew that meant she wouldn't be able to meet him, but right then, that didn't seem to be so important. She just wanted him to be okay. Tears sprang in her eyes, and she tried to blink them away. He's fine. He has to be fine.
Just then, the door opened, and a man walked in. It was Hari bhai. He lived in the neighborhood, and came every morning to deliver milk from his household.
Govind da got up to take the milk. Just as Hari bhai turned to go out, Sonu called out to him. "Have you heard anything about Chintu?" The others froze, staring at him.
"Haan," he nodded, his face becoming serious. "Poor thing."
"So it's true?" her father asked.
"Yes, I spoke to the family myself. They live very close to my house."
"It seems they opened the door yesterday in the morning... Around 5:00am, as always. Chintu ran out the door, probably to come to your place," he said, looking at Sonu. "It was still dark outside. You know how he doesn't take the main path. Well... Right about then, I heard a sharp sound. Like an animal squealing. A dog. I came outside, but it was too dark to see anything, and I knew it wasn't safe to go far out. So I went back. Later, I went to their house. They had heard it too, but there was nothing they could do. It must have been Chintu. Poor dog." With that, Hari bhai turned and left.
Nobody spoke. Sonu sat there quietly, imagining everything he had just said. Her eyes filled with tears again. Chintu had been running to come over to their house. To meet them. To meet her. She pictured his excited face, changing in a second to fear and pain. She pictured the leopard catching hold of him. She kept hearing his pained squeal.
As the tears fell down her face, her father pushed back his chair and walked over to her. Standing next to her, he pulled her in for a hug. Sonu buried her face in his stomach, as the tears came down faster and faster. Her breath came in short gasps. She felt his hand on her head, trying to comfort her. But even that reminded her of all the times she had petted Chintu, making her feel worse.
Pulling herself away, she got off the chair and walked out the back door. Sitting down against the pillar, she stared out at the mountains. It's not fair, she thought, remembering Chintu's happy and excited face. He was so sweet. He didn't hurt anyone. Why did he gave to die? And in such a scary, painful way? Why didn't he get to live a long life, running around and playing and having fun? If only he had left a little bit later, he would have been fine. Or if only he had taken the main road. Or... Maybe if Sonu hadn't been there, he would not have rushed out so quickly. Maybe if she had never come here and met him, he would still be alive. Closing her eyes at the that thought, she leaned her head back against the pillar, feeling a fresh batch of tears begin to roll down her cheeks.
Someone came and sat down next to her. It was mamma. She didn't say anything, but just sat there silently. They both stared ahead, lost in their own thoughts. Finally, her mother spoke up. "You know, if I were Chintu, I'd be trying to sit on your lap right now," she said, smiling at Sonu.
Despite herself, Sonu burst out laughing, as her tears continued to flow. "Yea," she choked out. "And I would be trying to to push your bum away!" They both laughed at the thought, remembering Chintu and his bum that wouldn't move.
But just then, the image of Chintu and the leopard flashed in her mind again, and of his eyes filled with pain. And just like that, her laughter died off, replaced by more tears. Her mother put her arm around Sonu's shoulders, and the two sat there quietly again.
It was another hour before Sonu moved from that spot. She kept thinking that she had finally run out of tears, when another image of Chintu would pop up in her head, and send down a fresh wave.
At some point, her mother had been replaced by Govind da. Like mamma, he didn't say much for a while. He just sat there. Finally, before getting up, he looked at Sonu and said, "At least he had a good, happy life." Sonu looked up at him, thinking of what he said. And then a thought occurred to her - she had only known Chintu for a few days. One and a half days, to be exact (though it felt like much, much longer). Govind da had known him for years. If she was feeling so upset about Chintu, how much more sad must he be feeling! And she hadn't even thought about the family that he lived with! They must have had him since he was born, and suddenly he was gone. A part of Sonu started wondering if she didn't have a right to be as upset as she was. After all, she would have left Chintu in a few hours anyway. Why did it matter?
But it did. She would have been okay if he came back even after she was gone. If, a few days later, her parents got a call from Govind da saying Chintu had shown up suddenly, she would be really happy. At least he would be back. At least he would be alive. This wasn't about her spending time with Chintu. This was about Chintu. That happy, excited dog. With his head poking in the bushes. With him sniffing around every inch of every twig. With him peeing on rocks from one side, and then turning to pee from the other. With him licking Sonu's face when she wasn't expecting it. With him destroying their game of cards. With him trying to sit on Sonu. With him lying down, his head on her stomach, her hand around him.
The next few hours passed by in a daze. Sonu had a bath, and then helped mamma pack the bags. Her parents tried to keep her busy, getting her to run around to pick up random things from the house. But every few minutes, she'd find herself coming to a halt, blinking away tears. Everyone was quiet, lost in their own thoughts. Sonu could see that even her father was upset, and that just showed how much of an effect Chintu had had on all of them.
By noon, they were all packed up. The taxi had arrived. Sonu stood near the garden, staring at the bush where she had first seen Chintu. She kept hoping to see a tail poke out from it, wagging away in all directions.
Hearing her father call out, she gave the place one last look, and then made her way to the front. The bags were already in the car, and her father was talking to the driver, while her mother and Govind da said goodbye. Stepping towards them, Sonu softly said, "Bye, Govind da." Smiling at her gently, he said, "Take care. Do come again." They exchanged a long look, before moving away.
As Sonu got into the back seat, she thought of how miserable she had been when they had started this trip. She smiled at the thought. All that throwing up seemed so unimportant now. Those few days with Chintu had more than made up for it. At the thought of Chintu, she turned her head to look out of the window. As the car began to move, she pictured him running alongside, his tail moving from side to side, barking away at the car. His way of saying goodbye.
Wiping the tears from her cheeks, she looked towards him, and whispered, "Bye Chintu."