Part I: Love & the HDU
A year after my mother died, I found a photograph I had taken of her in the HDU (high dependency unit) of the hospital she had been admitted in for the last month of her life. In the photo, she is seen mid-length, a faded blue-green hospital gown – a color I never wear - strapped around her large frame. A cross-hatch of entangled tubes surrounds her in a way that the headrest of her hospital bed is covered in them. Behind her head, propped up against five pillows is a heap of regulation hospital linen. They’re also blue-green but darker and cover the many tubes fixed to my mother that carry blood in and out of her dialysis machine. The dialysis machine looks like a common household utility machine – a fridge perhaps.
My mother frames the centre of the hospital photo – wide-eyed and beaming; her by now uneven teeth – jagged and yellow, are like broken nails badly in need of filing. As she smiles, she shows me, the taker of this photo a firm thumbs-up sign with her large white hand. A hand that is also wired, strapped, with tubes running along it carrying medication, saline, and chemo drugs into her bloodstream. Her fist, whose skin is shades of black, blue and green, not unlike the hospital linen, has faint, translucent, watercolour-like marks left behind from many failed attempts to needle and puncture it - to install an IV, a canola to try administer the 24 doses of a chemo drug, one at a time, and a shunt eventually, to clean the blood of impurities when her kidneys failed.
Her fist in that firm, raised thumbs-up, her aquamarine blue-green eyes smiling as if to say, we did it. We embarked on this mission to beat this cancer and here I am, two months into chemo, I made it. We’ve both made it – victor and victim – both guinea pig and first lieutenant. Her smile, the depth of that smile is probably the only thing that connects the mother in that photograph, to my mother, the woman who gave birth to me. The mother who would throw elaborate birthday parties at our house and later, our flat in a middle-class South Delhi neighbourhood –our dining table creaking with the weight of Russian salad, fat baseball-shaped mince chops, loaded with all varieties of Wenger’s treats. My birthday would become our birthday with my friends and cousins who would come back year after year for not just the repeat menu that never changed, but for the added bonus of my mother’s glittering company.
Birthday parties to which we added a new friend she made every year and yet, an unchanging menu. The darzi who she met on a DTC bus on her way to All India Radio for her nightly broadcast, became one of our closest friends. The elderly professor of English Literature, who – speeding around on his son’s Bajaj scooty, had had a nasty, helmetless fall while dodging a stray cow. My mother, again, on her way to work, had stopped the autorickshaw, rushing him to our house to apply ice packs and give him a strong cup of tea. Since then Professor became a daily fixture at our house. With the addition of each new friend, such gatherings went from our birthday, her and mine, to a collective celebration for us all being in the same room at the same time.
I was an absent, benumbed child prone to afflictions like pneumonia and bronchial congestion. The kind of malaise that make a young child constantly in need of nursing and monitoring, with bouts of severe bronchitis so acute that I would be bedridden for weeks unable to play, or do any of the things a healthy child could. By the time I was a pre-teen, my time at school was badly interrupted and my mother became my primary companion, playmate, and best friend.
My mother was a big-boned Russian, aged sixty-nine, who had by 2010 when she died, spent more decades in India –four and a half - than she had in her homeland, and was of the firm belief that there was no room for error in science, where everything was as dead sure as the doctors said it. Part of a generation who grew up along with the Soviet Union’s streak of successful space missions, she believed in experiments, in scientific trials, where the risks and stakes were often life itself.
On afternoons, after a languorous Sunday post-mutton lunch snooze, I would catch her reading up about stem cell therapy. When she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a decade before she got cancer, the first query to her neurologist was: what are the new drugs out there to help me lick this? She’d licked post-natal depression after she had me, but she had continued taking the prescribed dosage of Larpose (Lorazepam) every evening with her coffee for two and half decades after her doctor had advised that she stop it. Between age forty-five and her early sixties, she was diagnosed and on treatment for galloping hypertension, thyroid, high uric acid, diabetes, arthritis and finally in 2001, Parkinson’s Disease, which ran in her line of the family with both her mother and her grandmother passing it down from one to the other and to her like a treasured family heirloom.
When medical treatment failed her, she wondered aloud to the doctors, all seven of them, “I hope it will not be a case of ‘the treatment was successful but the patient has died’, would it, doctor?” By then she had end-stage multiple myeloma and it was no longer a question of saving her life with aggressive treatment –what she needed was palliative care but no one could tell her that, nor would she allow herself to hear it.
The doctors, her doctors, who were professionals working for corporate multi-speciality hospitals (purportedly private trusts) ranging from neurologist to cardiologist, nephrologist, oncologist, haematologist, and pulmonologist were products of a rigorous, humourless rut rather than a healthcare system and failed to understand her humour, or her Russian accent, and I never bothered to translate either, as I always did the other routine stuff. I was done trying to convince her that given her condition (by then she couldn’t sit up or stand –the myeloma had packed layers of protein into her bones unleashing all the calcium in them into her kidneys which had by now stopped functioning, hence the near-daily dialysis) –that, at best we could explore homoeopathy, or this new mistletoe based Swedish therapy I had read up about that, oddly enough, had an outlet close by stocking natural plant-based medicine that was, at best, not a drug. But by then, her eyes were trained on a promised bone marrow transplant by an oncologist I was convinced was more a salesman for the big pharma company whose drugs he selectively recommended for her cancer, rather than a doctor.
Whenever I look at that photograph I think of images I have grown up seeing of cosmonauts from space missions. I think of Laika, another familiar symbolic emblem from my youth. Her wide-eyed, ‘smiling’ frame, her floppy ears pointed upward.
Frozen in time since 1957 when bright, colourful posters started to fill up the narrative around space travel. Where the protagonist, the traveller to the outer reaches of Earth’s orbit, had been, never to return, but memorialized in that forever-smile perched inside a space capsule, tethered to a metal harness, flying through the Kodachrome blue sky into nowhere, into no man’s land but where a man was trying so hard to get at that time.
I think of those images on stamps, postcards, backdated issues of Sputnik magazine, of beaming astronauts raising their fists with their thumbs up for posterity. We did it, their smiling eyes seem to say.
We made it. We went up into the unknown and we conquered it. We put our flag up there. We saw what is there to see. We came back. Here we are, collectively raising our fists in a thumbs-up. My mother never came back. A few weeks after we recorded our solitary victory moment where she and I, both travellers on a medical journey of no finite end or firm possibility, of whom I was the one
present to record and frame such moments; her hand raised in that forever victory thumbs up, my mother died from the very effects of the chemo we had celebrated in that hospital bed a few weeks ago where I had photographed her.
On the day she died, I had texted the oncologist, and the haematologist, both of whom had been treating her ‘unusual case’ as it had come to be known in that hospital. Deemed a rare case of multiple myeloma, a rare cancer of the bone, that is rarest in women in India. But my mother was not Indian. She was Russian. She came to India on a whim. She married my father, who she met at university in Leningrad on a whim, but her stay in India was very much a firm decision. Because India was hope, India was real, not Kodachrome, India was progress and advancement with humanity, unlike the USSR where life didn’t seem to matter anymore. Not at any rate hers, after marrying my father, an Indian national, it had been denied access and a return path as she fought continually to retain her citizenship while having to visit the Foreigner’s Registration Office in Delhi every six months to renew her visa.
The cancer she had is common in European women. She was never diagnosed with cancer because Indian doctors couldn’t comprehend that a sixty-nine-year-old woman could have this cancer
that was only common among the young, especially agile and healthy males in Asian countries such as India. The doctor’s reply to my text when I informed him about my mother’s death was, ‘Unfortunate to hear about the loss of Mrs. Ghosh. Her test reports this week show that we have successfully reduced her myeloma cells to zero. At the time of her death, she was completely cancer free.’ There was no margin for error. The chemotherapy had been successful, it had wiped out all the cancerous cells making my mother one hundred per cent cancer free at the time of her death.
Part II: Love & Space Flight
From the late 1940s when trials for successive Soviet space missions were at their peak, Soviet scientists and lab recruiters would scour the streets of Moscow in search of stray dogs of whom the most sturdy and silent were picked for laboratory training. A cursory search on the internet for `Space Dogs’ (that’s what these dogs came to be called with several films, documentaries and even a cartoon series in their name) confirms that between the fifties and the sixties, at the height of Soviet space missions up to 57 dogs were launched into outer space clarifying that the number of dogs `was small’ because some dogs flew more than once. Some flew up to five times.
Flying into orbit for dogs entailed being packed into a constricted travel space three days before lift allowing a few inches of movement, armed with sensors and fitted with a sanitation device, these dogs had to wear a space suit with metal restraints built into containing them when the G-forces would reach up to five times above normal gravity levels.
Female dogs were used because of their temperament and a sanitation device was easier to install in female dogs. However, it must have been an unpleasant experience using one cleaved and wedged into their bodies, so that they retained the waste instead of relieving themselves on flights.
Stray dogs, rather than pet dogs were also chosen because they would be able to tolerate the rigorous and extreme stresses of space flight better. Training also involved standing still for long periods of time in simulators wearing fitted space suits.
The simulator capsules acted like a rocket after launch with high acceleration levels of a rocket launch so these dogs were kept in progressively smaller cages and fed a diet of nutritious jelly-like protein that assisted them to eliminate less and less during longer time periods inside their capsule in those few inches of space. According to the manual and records maintained by the Soviet space labs, 60% of the dogs who came back from orbit suffered from constipation and gallstones for the rest of their lives.
Why did Soviet recruiters always use stray dogs? They were hardy, no one owned them and were ideally suited for training because they could be trained to stay inactive for long stretches of time. Females were small in size and more docile. “Initial tests determined obedience and passivity.” To live in tiny capsules for days and weeks and tolerated sanitation devices that fit into their pelvic areas eliminating food waste as little as possible.
Each stray was given a term of endearment for a name. Endearments common among family, or, for pets or even nicknames given to children. Ryzhik or “Ginger’. Smelaya “Brave’. Malyshka or ‘Baby’. Bobik or `the small one’. Damka, ‘Queen of Checkers’, better known as Shutka. Zhemchuznaya or ‘Pearly one’. Damka was often called Kometka (Little Comet) or Zhulka or ‘Cheater’. Krasavka or ‘Belladonna’. Lisichka means ‘Little Fox’. Dymka meaning ‘Smoky’. Modnitsa meaning “Fashionista’. Kozyavka or ‘Little Gnat’. Belka or ‘Squirrel’ or ‘Whitey’ and Strelka meaning ‘Little Arrow’. Pchyolka or ‘Little Bee’. Mushka ‘Little Fly’. Mine was ‘Gulya’ and before that, ‘Markofka’ meaning ‘little carrot’ from when I was a baby.
Launching the first orbital flight was ‘The Barker’ or Laika, ‘fed one meal and enough oxygen to last seven days’ rode a rocket into Earth’s orbit 2000 miles above Moscow ‘involuntarily fulfilling a suicide mission’. (Alice George, Smithsonian Magazine, April 11, 2018).
The flight mission Laika was designated for had been hastily planned to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Sputnik II was six times heavier, carrying six times Sputnik I’s payload and Russian scientists believed that the rocket could go into orbit and be kept within limits if its low-weight passenger was fed only once. And would be okay not to return as it was on a one-way trip?
Though they estimated Laika to die within 15 seconds after seven days into orbit, the dog died within 103 minutes after lift-off. Alice George elaborates in her article, “The noises and pressures of flight terrified Laika: her heartbeat tripled, breath rate quadrupled. Unfortunately, loss of the heat shield made the temperature rise in the cabin. The temperature in the cabin registered 90degrees after the fourth orbit. There really is no expectation that she made it beyond an orbit or two after that.” George in her article, The Sad, Sad Story of Laika, the Space Dog, and Her One-Way Trip into Orbit also goes on to say, “During and after the flight, the Soviet Union kept up the fiction that Laika survived for several days.”
My mother was born in Soviet Russia in 1941 in a township called Tikhvin five hundred miles from Leningrad. Her mother, my grandmother, a card-carrying communist, was a teacher and propagator of the state-set communist curriculum in primary and secondary schools which were also state-run. By the 1960s when my mother, a feature writer for a socialist newspaper, the Socialistischkaya Gazeta, had already decided that she couldn’t bear the stifling oppressive environment. So when she met my father at university where both lived in the same hostel, she immediately accepted his proposal to marry him. In her words, “falling in love was my way of fleeing a secretive society where I always felt watched, alone, surveilled, isolated.”
The one thing my mother didn’t flee with, that she carried along with her was the rigid, dogmatic belief in science and its universal benefits for all of mankind. That the latest drugs, technology, regimen and treatment could cure not just treat any number of diseases. That diets and natural cures were fads not be trusted because there was no authenticity to their existence. And freedom from a totalitarian regime meant that life away from it was to be lived in every way not by living cautiously as though big brother was watching you.
One night, over a month into our stay in the hospital, a nurse and I manually fed her 48 tablets after her meal. Pills prescribed for a bouquet of ailments considered treatable by the multi-speciality that claimed to treat such bouquets even though the hospital didn’t have an oncologist on board and had to summon a visiting one to prescribe the chemo drugs, brazenly recommending the pharmaceutical company he represented using a Mon Blanc pen with their name embossed on the cap.
I recall my mother sitting up on her hospital bed, the same network of pipes and paraphernalia around her, making it impossible to hug her because they protruded from everywhere and somehow it was only possible to help her load the drugs, one at a time, into her mouth, 48 times. And yet, when less harmful alternative treatments like Ayurveda or integrative medicine came up for discussion, my mother would ask its propagators to immediately leave the room. When palliative care was recommended because the drugs had started to harm her rather than do good, she refused to hear of such treatments. Could it be that in her twenty-five years in USSR before leaving for India, her mind had steadily absorbed the scientific absolutism of Soviet propaganda, believing that, like grinning space dogs being sent into their (undeclared) death, she would live longer the more she subjected herself to prescribed drugs, procedures and chemotherapy regimens?
Part III: Orbiting in Space
With the second round of chemo to go, my mother raspily acknowledges her first day of relief. “When are they coming? What time- have your breakfast! I’ve saved the egg and toast for you from mine. Aren’t you proud of me? I had the oatmeal!” Her lungs start to fill up with water, she rasps emitting a few coughs but quickly stifles it lest I ask too many questions and set up the nebuliser. She had been on the bipap all night. “Oats on my behalf! You cunning lisichka, you.. ,” saying this, I jump onto the hospital bed displacing all her tubes and a ballooning catheter that hangs like dried fruit from one side of her bed. It has been over a month since she passed urine.
“Easy, easy – I have a lot of baggage as you know,” my mother‘s Russian accented voice is still honey glazed and smooth- she was a radio broadcaster for all her working life, over thirty-five years…Though she is still wheezing she smiles, her green eyes faded now life being leached out of them, seem awash with anxiety and panic but every
now and then become glazed with the patina of her determination to be happy– that we are alive, we are hanging in there and most of all, we manage to smile in some twisted way.
I sprawl lengthwise along the bed, my feet to one side of her head and her feet to one side of mine. We lie this way for fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes, who knows? There’s no telling what time it is in the hospital. It’s neither day nor night, more often neither. Tubelight dusks and dawns I write later in my notebook, having my nth cup of plasticky black coffee. Mama leans her head on my legs and I lean on hers. We are one. We were always, the two of us, each other’s one and only. She knew this and she knew me well but I didn’t. On days when the combination of chemo and disease was evidently killing her, I separate my body from hers but never my mind.
The door to our pocket-size room with one window facing part wall and part parking lot under construction opens abruptly and a flurry of white coats walks in. “Who is the patient here?” the doctor says mock sharply like a teacher walking into a classroom to find two children playing instead of studying. I scramble out of our comfort bubble, collapsing the railing on one side of her bed. I am dressed in home clothes. A pair of shorts and a t-shirt, and a pair of flip-flops are my only pair of footwear here. In a duffel bag behind me lie three more t-shirts and a red, black and white Espirit polka dot dress my mother insisted I wear when we left our house nearly two months ago. When we were leaving for the hospital, she had been on a gurney being carried out of our apartment but from that impossible vantage point, like an eagle who watches her eaglets, managed to spot a black t-shirt I was hurriedly throwing on. “NOT THAT BLACK ONE AGAIN! WEAR A RED DRESS. DO YOU HEAR ME?“ she yelled, lifting her head up from the stretcher as far as she could, her eyes afire lighting up the space between us.
Back to the room. The nephrologist is back and behind him is the pulmonologist. Mornings are their hours. Afternoons are for the physiotherapist and dietician and evenings are for the cardiologist the diabetologist and the general physician. The neurologist comes every other day but never says anything. Her Parkinson’s has aggravated thanks to the myeloma.
The oncologist who is overseeing my mother rarely comes to the room. He sends instructions from his chambers via the others. The nephrologist is the most engaged in my mother’s day-to-day condition. He has something concrete to do unlike the others because her organs are failing or failing one by one. He has to check her creatinine levels daily, a marker of how she failed kidneys are faring and whether they will revive or not. Whether ‘they are goners’ as Mama describes them, she has to be wheeled away for dialysis every alternate day. Today the doctor inquires if she has taken the soda (what is actually sodium bicarbonate) and she lies. Mama almost never communicates with the doctor herself directly. When asked she looks at me for an answer, I pipe up, “ I gave her a glass of it, she had half and spat the rest out.” The doctor rolls his eyes, not at her but at me. I am here formally appointed official spokesman with all the other doctors too.
Today her creatinine level is still high. No change. The doctor motions to a nurse to bring in the gurney, “Dialysis today also, “ he says looking at me but pointing at my mother. “But we just did it yesterday –last night-the room wasn’t free during the day and they took us in late in the evening .” The doctor locks his gaze on me now. “The levels are way too high, a patient needs to be dialysed” As the nurses enter the room, two male attendants come in behind them.
At nearly a hundred kilos my mother is too heavy for two female nurses to lift. The four of them surround her like four pillars and start sliding her onto the gurney. Mama screams in pain but once she is moved over to the other bed in which she will be wheeled in for dialysis, she quietens down. I search for the keys that are always on the tv-trolley so that I can lock up after us, an exercise more out of habit than need. Our valuables are in the car downstairs, two handbags, two purses with a bunch of credit cards, and keys. All the jewellery Mama usually wears were taken off the day we got here which was after two months of being in another hospital on mild palliative treatment where the doctors advised us to be cautious and avoid chemo. But my mother wouldn’t hear any of it. Brushing such comments away by the wave of one large, red palmed hand, “Rubbish. You don’t want me to live?” she’d say, rolling her eyes.
Aggressive treatment means more x rays and MRIs daily, more scans for the doctors and a central line that has been installed on the right side of Mama’s chest, in the jugular vein–essentially a goods supply and delivery mechanism for the IV, blood and medications to enter her body through a canola into which these can be injected in or taken out. A month ago the nurses brought a jug of water and a bucket and rinsed Ma’s hands and fingers so that her many gold rings, her bangles and bracelets could be removed.
One by one they took off the emerald ring she always wore on her ring finger, the gold and diamond band on the middle finger and the four gold bangles on her right hand and a jade bangle made in the Bengali style, with an ornate lion’s head meeting another at the other end of the bangle. Her gold chains –one long and one short. Her earrings, four holes in each ear, in which she wore three studs in each and a larger diamond earring shaped in the style of many moving triangles like stars on a steeple. All these were duly removed ceremonially and taken away by my father to a locker.
The only reason for me to stay back in the room is to shower and change and have my breakfast, but I prefer to accompany her posse and make sure she is settled in for dialysis before coming back to our hospital room to shower and change and have breakfast of cold egg and toast and a few nuts and seeds that I keep in the mini refrigerator in the room. Some fresh green raw almonds a friend sent from Kashmir, a bag of muesli that is unopened, apples and dry fruit. My mother almost never finishes the lean breakfast from the hospital that is usually a tray with a bowl of oatmeal, a bowl of curd, a bowl of fruit and a toast with scrambled egg, a few sachets come along –of butter, jam, salt, ketchup, sugar and pepper - that I pick away and return to the pantry on our floor before my mother
can have them. The choice picks she leaves for me on the tray I polish off –like egg or poha- to later in the day head down to the hospital cafeteria around midday for idli sambar.
In the dialysis suite, my mother is more present but in an on-high-alert, beady-eyed way as she takes in short, sharp breaths greedily sucking in all the air she can between sentences. It is close to eleven in the morning now. The two-hour-long wait in the hospital room earlier this morning feels like nothing. We have been waiting another two hours in the narrow, long dialysis ward where the large windows are never opened, their frosted glass casting a pall of gloom over the patients who are wheeled in on their gurneys one by one and either plugged in via their cannulas and fistulas to the machine or stationed in one inconvenient corner to wait, like us.
“Go… down… café… room…have.. something,” wheezes my mothers, her face flushed and red. She is sweating profusely. Her hand that now grips mine is cold. Slowly in front of my sleep-deprived eyes, the colour of her skin darkens. I can see her veins, initially a few sprigs until a network of veins begins to show itself like dark blue ink seeping in through blotting paper.I look at my phone, its half past one – nearly lunchtime. I walk to the bay where the nurses
and other medics are having chai from shot glasses and swapping notes and without realising it, I start shouting. “WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THIS? WE HAVE BEEN MADE TO WAIT FOR TWO HOURS UPSTAIRS AND NOW ITS BEEN THREE HOURS HERE. THE PATIENT NEEDS DIALYSIS URGENTLY. HAVEN’T YOU SEEN HER REPORTS? HER CREATININE LEVEL IS 9 TODAY! WHAT ARE YOU PEOPLE DOING ?!!!” Almost immediately there is a flurry of activity at the counter as the nurses’ stationery forms get into Brownian motion.
As I turn around to walk back towards my mother, who is smiling wanly from ear to ear and clapping her hands weakly, her blue face turning from purple to black as her head slumps and she falls unconscious. I run to her side to shake her but she is not responsive. The nurses are still busy trying to organise the logistics of her dialysis and don’t even notice as I holler flailing my mother’s left hand that is strapped to an IV and flops to one side. One of them walks over to us, “Kya hogaya hai ine? The bed is there, just bring her over there,” asking me in a nasal voice as though I’m one of the staff there. “Please help! I can’t lift her. She seems to have lost consciousness.“ My pleas seem to put off the nurse, a tad disgusted she turns away to look at her peers, “Madam, we are not here to lift and move patients. “
The sharp refrigerator-like hum of the dialysis machine is calming and soothing. I look at my watch and it's well past three. When my mother passed out while waiting in the hallway, I managed to raise an alarm but none of the hospital attendants trained to lift and move patients responded. My father who was on his way sped up to the floor and he and the driver and I had managed to shift her lifeless form from the gurney to the dialysis bed with the staff screaming at us all the while for breaking hospital rules by entering a closed space. “Her blood pressure dropped but it's climbing back up now,” one of the doctors says reassuringly as he ensures the dialysis is on track now. In no time, my mother comes to, her skin flushed pink and the palm of her hands, flecked with red like they always are. She opens her green eyes a slit and then more. In no time, she is beaming, “G-,You were great in there, two thumbs up… beyond proud .” Her now pink lips form into a kiss that she blows my way, her eyes closed again. I heave a sigh of relief, “Going down to lunch now,” I say gruffly, warm blood finally circulating in my veins. She opens one eye and in mock charade rolls her tube-laden fist into a thumbs-up sign and looks straight into my eyes. “Have lunch and bring me something. Even if it’s cold dessert.” “Hang on, hang on, do that again Ma,” I yank out my phone from my sling bag and retreat backwards so that I have all of her in the frame. She does her thumbs-up move, this time opening both eyes, her face breaking into a broad ‘I’m great’ smile and that’s when I capture the image for posterity on my cellphone.
Unlike the smiling, thumbs-up photo of my mother, the enduring narrative of Laika after her death is, however, uplifting and aspirational with memorial statues, postage stamps, children’s books, commemorative badges and publicity material designed in poster form in bright Soviet chroma colours showing her beady-eyed, grinning floppy face, peering out of a space capsule floating in blue skies. Like any war hero, she has her own space in the museums and haloed halls of space travel around the world.
At a Moscow press conference in 1998, Oleg Gazenko, a senior space scientist involved with Sputnik II publicly regretted Laika’s mission, “The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog...’
Yet, a discovery later that Laika was fed by a female physician just before lift-off who felt sorry for her and that Krasavka, another space dog was adopted by the same scientist, Oleg Gazenko who headed the division that took care of training animals for space flights. But the fact that Krsavka was adopted was never made public due to state censorship. Even Laika was taken home by one of her keepers and fed, a few days before she was encapsulated, the scientist later said, “I wanted to do something nice for the dog.”
Space dog biographer, Amy Nelson, in Beastly Natures: Animals, Humans and the Study of History, says that the Soviet Union transformed Laika into ‘an enduring symbol of sacrifice and human achievement’. Comparing Laika to Seabiscuit, Barnum and Bailey, she claims these animals lifted the human spirit after the Great Depression. Chris Pearson in his seminal research ‘Dogs, History and Agency’ (Vol.52. No.4 Theme Issue: Does History Need Animals?) states that “...animal agency is often entangled with human agency in reciprocal and hybrid ways’ by looking at the species-specific expectations and communication strategies of dogs and people in a laboratory setting.
In some sense, a mother’s agency is entangled with a daughter’s in reciprocal and hybrid ways in the specific expectations and communication strategies in an ICU-hospital setting.
In every case, it was known by the scientists that the dogs had little chance of safe return. In these state-sponsored and glorified suicide missions for stray dogs, dogs were physically adapted and altered to host paraphernalia on their body so that Soviet SSR could conquer the race for space and relay back the victory in thumbs-up form to its people. People like my mother grew up believing that scientific advancement could have no casualty, no price while the price was paid by strays and street dogs.
In the 2019 documentary ‘Space Dogs’ the camera follows a similar pack of city strays as they roam the cold, dank streets of Moscow by night. The publicity blurb for the film states, “Laika, a stray dog, was the first living being to be sent into space and thus to a certain death. A legend says that she returned to Earth as a ghost and still roams the streets of Moscow alongside her now free drifting descendants.”
Laika’s flight took place on 3rd November 1957. Sixty-five years after the event, public conscience and memory about her final journey of no return are now laced with tinges of regret. The documentary doesn’t directly ask, why, after such betrayals should dogs even trust humans. Instead, it gently
and innocuously revisits the scene of the crime, the original space of these events, to walk the deserted stretches of these streets along with them. As fancy SUVs, expensive cars and digitally guided taxis swoosh past in the dark, the pack of dogs, the potential descendants of Laika, follow the many trails of smells into the city’s sewers, into shop fronts, grassy patches, unlit corners of public utilities and desolate bus stops. They rush in a flash of fur towards shuttered gates where they sense another animal, protected and cared for but barking to protect its protector nonetheless. They share big red chunks of meat thrown at them by doner kebab storekeepers and maul a stirring cat and rip it apart. All these long unedited shots are intercut and spliced with state-documented black and white footage of Laika being physically prepared and mentally trained for space travel, for her final journey that would be recorded in the annals of victorious advancement of science for posterity.
The metal straps of the space suit are tightened. The heartbeat and pulse monitor that is embedded in her body is pulled and tested. The device which is installed deep in between her chest and stomach cavity is used to tether her to another device. The sanitation unit is also installed inside her anus. A few splices of film reel show her being fed a gelatinous substance in the lab. In another clip, she is being placed inside a tiny cage filled with wires and cables, heat-absorbing padding and soft foam to pack the space in between. In yet another clip, her device is being adjusted as the mass of bloodied muscle and soft tissue padding the metal device can be seen.
In all the clips we see the wide-eyed, silent and trusting Laika obediently allowing all the procedural and preparatory work with the guilelessness and trust of a freshly bathed baby. Lifting a leg to allow the harness to be placed, moving her neck so that a metal clasp could be tightened. Looked up, eyes beady and bright, to confirm that it was all working, it was all as it should be. In stark contrast, there are the wild strays of today in Moscow. Unstoppable. free, owning the spaces they occupy on the street.
The filmmakers leave the viewer to connect the dots and make sense of the contrast between these two sets of images. One black and white and state-controlled and released. The other, in color, created by an independent group of filmmakers and filmed using lenses and rigs that show the viewer the universe from the point of view of the dogs, their rhythmic irregular motion letting the viewer know that they are free. No need for any thumbs-ups here. The camera is always at the same height and range that the dogs see. Even the humans they pass are always seen from the point of view of the dog; their width, girth and height foreground such shots.
When I came across these shots, I wondered what the dogs sensed when they saw the humans they encountered. And what did the filmmakers see?
Perhaps what they saw when filming the pack is the very freedom that Laika had before she was picked up. Perhaps they saw that the itinerant freedom these dogs now have is the real legacy of Laika.
That in the freedom they have today, they have reclaimed the freedom that Laika had eventually been denied in death. That gaining her complete trust in training her for the mission and then betraying her once she was airborne, was a success in itself. The doctor’s last message to me had said, ‘myeloma cells were zero in her last test before she died’. Mrs. Ghosh was one hundred per cent cancer free at the time of her death.’
What struck me was how, in each of these archival clips, there was always a scientist, a keeper or a trainer in attendance, leaning or bending over the dog, attending gently and carefully to it. Giving it complete and wholehearted attention. No matter how stiffly it was strapped, a human was at hand and nearby to attend to it until lift off, when it would be terrified, alone. The words of Oleg Gazunov, said that the journey did not justify the learning made from it. The staffer who caringly fed Laika just before her flight. The scientist who adopted Krasavka and took her home where she had litter after litter over the next decade she was alive and staying on with the family.
As I watched the pack in Space Dogs, these so-called descendants of Laika, devour the streets of the city by night, I wondered why, after such brutal history of torture, do we humans also reach out, arms extended, at odd hours of day and night, to embrace stray dogs?
In the ICU into which my mother was finally moved, we were also a ‘we’. My mother and I - I, leaning over, tending to her. Changing her diaper, taking care that the IV was working and that the tubes, the central line, the monitor that gave me her pulse, her oxygen level was showing her levels correctly. Me, continuously relaying my relief that her oxygen level was 99 on 100, that from here on, our mission would be a ‘thumbs up’. We may be tethered to machines in the hospital but with the care, drugs and medically sanctioned treatment being administered, we were as good as free.
Part IV: Stray Dogs & My Own Brand of Soviet Socialism
It’s a cold, unmemorable winter night in Delhi, the kind Bollywood likes to recreate in movies – granular pixels of air pollution catching even shafts of light falling on a deserted residential colony. I am not supposed to be here and yet, here I am, homeward bound, emerging from a taxi, towards a now empty flat that used to be home but home it no longer is. It’s been two years since I left that ICU. As I place one sneakered foot out of the taxi, I hear the familiar thump of a heavy tail raising low-lying plumes of dust into the already heavy smog-laden air.
Once I put my bags aside, I use the torch of my smartphone to follow the thumps. The light illuminates Bella, a dog I feed intermittently on my trips to Delhi. Tonight, I can barely recognize her. Her body doesn’t seem to be curled up normally like a winter dog. And there isn’t much to curl.
There’s patchy, mangy skin and bones. What I believe are thumps turn out to be the shakes. Tremors erupt in shakes as her whole wiry body convulses with each consecutive shake. When she turns her head to look up at me, the shakes do not allow her to turn – instead, a series of circular motions occur until this black and beige coloured beautiful dog that resembles a GSD, sways like a fallen pendulum to take one sideways look at me.
Catching the light from my phone, mid-sway, I see two white orbs instead of her molten caramel eyes.
Saliva drools from one end of her mouth, her body lurching, her tail uncontrollably thumping. She has been poisoned but when, and why, by who? She is timid and docile. She rarely steps out from under a car if at all to perform her bodily functions in a corner where she hides to do them to make sure no one can see that she is a living creature that shits and breaths.
It takes two years to get Bella back to some shape. Two years for a vet to allow she to be spayed. As she recovers, her pendulum-like swaying, her white cloudy irises, her protruding bones at all the wrong angles –like cut glass shards - never goes away.
Instead, they remain the same the only difference is to her unsteady gait happens with a regimen of steroid injections. These allow her to get up and move, like a Parkinson’s patient, swaying and shaking but capable of moving from under a car towards a hidden destination to defecate, urinate returning to base to shake away unnoticed, concealed from prying human eyes who want her to be dead, disappeared, gone.
Until she is spayed, male dogs from far and wide arrive sniffing her trail, no matter how insignificant or small she makes herself, crawl with ease right to her spot below the car, to repeatedly penetrate her until she howls in pain. She can’t run away, she has no spine that can take the movement to hold her frail weight even a few steps ahead of her hiding spots are crushingly painful and she flops midway only to be penetrated by another large male who shoos away the other one, taking his position atop her on his haunches now.
Another time, another dog. Five years since my time in that ICU. This time, it’s a big dog, the mountain kind. Hulking, shaggy and the kind most people stop to pet, even a non-dog lover. He looks like a mix of Border Collie and Bhutia, I’m on my way home from yoga class. The dog is sitting on the side of the road, minding its own business, allowing the vibrations from passing cars and rickshaws to lull him into a state of semi-wakefulness. It’s not too late in the morning. The sun isn’t bouncing off anything, only making its presence felt in another distant part of the planet, not here.
A smoking tempo comes along and sputters past, disrupting my view of the dog. It leaves behind noxious fumes and trail of pungent smoke, its jarring rattle and hum still fixed to the spot it has crossed. Through the buzz and hum, I see a rising shape, its one paw now covered in blood. I hear the sound later, a good five seconds after the dead rattle of the tempo fades. The cry is human. There’s blood everywhere. The dog tries to rise but falls, its paw held the same way, as if frozen, blood spurting in all directions. I had watched my mother explode in an ICU five years ago but I pass out.
It is now ten years since our time in that ICU. Diwali shopping is at its peak. I am at the market near my parent’s Delhi house. I push my way through a crowd and fall into a scramble of makeshift stalls barely a foot off the market floor, selling diyas. I fall right next to a large furry creature lying so still that it is impossible to tell if it is breathing. When I stumble, barely missing it, it barely moves, only the eyes giving away some sign of life. A young man comes to help me up. I am more interested in the dog. “He was hit by a speeding car last night. Poor Sheru. He was the pride of our market,” the man lets go of me now that I can stand and pours water from a plastic cup into its mouth. The water becomes a stream and streaks all the way in a steady trickle over the tiles dribbling down a step or two towards a parked car. “But he is alive, “ I kneel over Sheru, stroking his head. What I feel when I stroke his head is my mother’s freshly dry shampoo’ed hair in her ICU bed. Her eyes gently, tenderly moving to meet mine. “He is zinda but he can’t move a hair on his body now. The spine was mutilated by the hit. We all took him to the vet nearby who said it’s a hopeless case. Didn’t even treat him.” My mother’s eyes blink trusting but in pain and look away. I stroke the wet fur where the water, not drunk, slides over and away towards the road. Its body is warm, the fur thick and loamy, like a mountain dog’s.
A fellow rescuer and I make a fluid gurney of an old torn sari. We move him up from one side to slide the sari in below and do the same from the other side as well. Together we carry the dog holding all four ends of the folded sari between us, placing him ever so gently on the backseat of the car. Over my shoulder, I can hear the shopkeepers shower their blessings on us.
On the ride to the shelter, we make eye contact again. This time, Sheru’s head is on my lap, I stroke every part of it the way I couldn’t hold my mother’s because of all the machines and tubes she was always surrounded by. With every stroke, Sheru looks at me imploringly to keep its life and breath safe. Somehow I have a good feeling that his spine is too damaged for him to feel anything, even pain.
At the shelter, the vet checks him up in his cage. The presence of over a hundred rescued dogs makes Sheru holler in pain. There is no space and another hopeless dog like Sheru is picked up and kept in one corner of a big cage so that Sheru can cohabit on its other side. Sheru protests as vociferously as he can. His body is useless. All he can do is flail his lifeless lower half that heaves with his weight and goes all around, rotating three hundred and sixty degrees this way and that so that his seems like some sort of lurid circus act. His hind legs going round and round endlessly like that. “No surgery can fix this. No ICU will take a stray that’s damaged this bad. You will not be able to care for him because he will never move even after surgery,” Dr. Mazumdar screws his eyes tight and shakes his head.
A couple of hours later, Sheru still performing his circus act tirelessly but slowing down out of sheer exhaustion, I watch an attendant inject the Strichnine into the tube carrying IV into his bloodstream. Before my eyes can shift away from his thigh to his eyes, I see the light going out of his. He’s peaceful now that he is asleep. Mama was peaceful like this when I found her that morning, her eyes half open, fixed on the doorway, waiting for me. There was no procedure, only pain but she let herself go when we all went to sleep.
Climate change summers arrived a few years ago. This one, this year is no different. Radioactive heat. Skin burning, flesh heating. Months swallow up the seasons. There’s been no spring, no monsoon, barely a whiff of autumn. An exhibition is in town.
Textiles are my favorite. They were my mother’s favorite. It’s been twelve years since we were in the ICU. In our home, any home I stay in, I carry along some of my heirlooms, spreading them around to
make it home. As I enter the gallery, I see a blur of black and beige. Why I stop is the convex reflector in the parking bends out of shape and context something that looks like a hole in its body. I turn around and follow it. Hiding behind a large plant pot, it shrinks away from view but seems friendly enough when I approach it. A little bit of stroking and chatting made me realize that like all living beings, this one too is showing me its ‘good side’. Its coat is beautiful, almost like a pet’s. It's only when I gently turn it around to the other side do I see that there is no other side. Instead, there is a hollow with the bones of the spine –like a film with visual fx of the inner workings of an animal's substructure visible graphically. I see an anthill, soil, and holes, entrenched in its gut. The anthill has large big ants crawling in and out of it, making the maggots seem all small, slimy and silken.
It takes two days to get the dog to the shelter. Every time some help arrives, they are spooked by the anthill, the oozing maggots, the cavity the size of a human baby covering all of the dogs on one side.
Something about it is so viscerally putrefying that no one wants to touch the dog to rescue it. We try and catch it by covering it with a cloth but each time it escapes, running away towards Kartavya Path where workers' tents line the gardens, cordoned off from our eyes. It slips in the slender gap between the tents and disappears.
Later at the shelter, surgeries and stitches, anaesthetic and shaves. Two weeks to heal but the large gash that has now been tacked up side to side now leaves a mark that fur still hasn’t had time to cover yet. On the day before its release back into the very same place it was cut open that way, with a dribble from the nose, fever, and restive red eyes. The dog dies on its own, a mess of saliva and stench when a day ago it could be released when it was well and healed.
As usual my hands clench, my jaw stiffens and my blood pressure rises. I pop a pill. It’s a familiar feeling. I’m addicted to pain, to that feeling of helplessness in an ICU where nothing helps. Neither the arrival of medical care nor the departure of a caregiver. We are all goners there. Nobody comes but death doesn’t either. And yet, every other time, things work out, a canine life is saved, and that dog becomes a part of my growing canine family. The distant glimmer of a thumbs up, no matter how distant.