Thomas, our Siamese cat, was rescued from Mumbai's Crawford Market at the tender age of two months. After being neutered and given all the necessary shots, he was introduced into a house with five dogs, a cockatiel, and three generations of human beings.
We were all sure he would die soon, either of some god-awful disease or from shock. The dogs, all small and bitches, were intrigued by this tiny malnourished creature, which made pathetic sounds.
Sugar, the domo bitch, was an overweight pug. She was very social and endearing, loved smelling flowers and hated small children.
Munchkin was her off-spring, a problem child as it turned out. She got every malady under the sun -- eczema, gastroenteritis, spondylitis, maggots, she had it all. Spondylitis gave her a retarded air and rendered her neck crooked, so you never knew in which direction she was bound. Just when you thought she was walking straight into a potted plant, she would somehow miss it and start shuffling off the other way.
Of course, it didn't help she was innately filthy and loved wallowing in the first available wet spot. Having Munchkin settle down on your feet felt like wet fish. But through all her woes, she remained sweet-natured.
The other three dogs were dachshunds. Bonsai, her daughter Peanut, who stayed miniature probably through some genetic glitch, and Bonsai's sister, Sable.
Bonsai was midnight black, without a mean bone in her body. We picked her from the same litter as Sable, who had a brilliant chestnut coat, after much dithering between the two. A week later the breeder called to ask if we would consider keeping Sable as well. The people who took her suspected she was a changeling and gave her back.
Sable spent the first two days in the house underneath a fitment, only emerging for hurried meals. She was neurotic from day one.
Peanut was born four years later, the smallest, loudest and bravest of the litter, a diminutive Attila the Hun. We grew very attached to her. But four dogs were enough. So we gave her to a cousin, comfortable in the knowledge we would see her every now and then.
We needn't have worried. She refused to eat a morsel in her new house and so was sent back. She immediately gave up the Mahatma Gandhi tactics.
When Thomas arrived, we kept a firm eye on things. It would have been tragic to save him from the horrors of Crawford Market only to be torn asunder by five bitches.
Thankfully, after a little initial wariness, the dogs got along fine with Thomas, and even started horsing around with him. This was a bit scary as he was probably one-fourth Peanut's size. We were afraid they might, in a particularly rowdy moment, inadvertently snap his spinal column or playfully gnaw off his head.
Looking back, they were actually quite gentle with him. And in time, when things got too boisterous, Thomas would simply whiz out of the melee, leaving them to play with each other. He was much too quick for them.
He ate, slept and played with them. And his behaviour over the years became more and more like a dog's. When the doorbell rang all five dogs would rush down the passage to see who it was. Thomas would be right in their middle.
Thomas had this weird romance with Pagliacco, the cockatiel. Every day he would sit near his cage and peer intently at him. Pagliacco started loosing sleep over it and developed massive bags under each eye before finally kicking the bucket. Whether Thomas was responsible for turning him into an insomniac is anyone's guess.
One thing Thomas always did was steer clear of dog politics. For some unfathomable reason, there was a war on between Sable and Peanut. Neurotic aunt and volatile niece were constantly exchanging low growls, sotto voce profanities no doubt, giving each other killer looks. Sometimes these rumblings escalated into full-blown vulgar brawls. One minute we would be sitting in relative tranquillity, and suddenly all hell would break loose.
It was scarier when one of the pugs got embroiled in these outbursts because of their protuberant eyes. We were plagued by the vision of a fat innocent eyeball dislodged by one of the crazed dachshunds. That never did happen and when their time came both pugs were buried under papaya trees with their eyeballs intact.
One by one, Thomas' friends have all left him to meet their maker. He stills greets us at the door, craves attention, sits in the evening sun, and usually comes when he is called.
Short of wagging his tail and barking, Thomas has preserved the heart and spirit of a dog.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh