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No Sense Of Place: To Learn the Meaning of Life From a Four-Legged Therapist

“My support system now is almost entirely comprised of Noah. But as the argument goes, Noah is a dog, and Noah is not welcome in most places I would love to work in.”

Noah rides shotgun. Credit: Nisarg Prakash

Noah rides shotgun. Credit: Nisarg Prakash

The city is slowly starting to stir. I jump the gate, climb up three floors, heaving my backpack clumsily despite my intentions to remain stealthy as a cat. But he has already been alerted. Maybe it was shutting the cab door, climbing over the gate, or making my way up the stairs. Or maybe it was all of them. He’s there waiting, alerted by this clumsy intruder. His head through the bars he can look scary to the uninitiated. Bushy tail swishing side to side, he’s whining softly. A sound that I’ve come to associate with the good times. I open the Noah gate and let myself in. It’s early morning, the skies are still turning light. I set my backpack down and drop to the floor. The show begins.

He is trampling me and whining (even more) and jumping and trotting all around me. My face gets licked clean and there’s some more dancing. He wants a scratch. He wants a belly rub and he’s making soft cooing sounds like a bird. The least I can do is sit with him, be treated to this celebration and tell him about my trip. Apologise for not having been around. He’s warm and furry and you would want to put your arms around and squeeze him. But dogs don’t like being hugged, so I’ll settle for the rubs and scratches and the song and dance. And then, it’s time for a walk and I see glee on his face. He’s smiling wildly, mouth open, tongue hanging out, canines gleaming. He is bounding and dragging me along. I pray that I don’t trip. Who wouldn’t want to come back to a beating heart like that?

Noah

We refer to him as The Wolf, and that is mostly his appearance. But then there was that worried response of his, furrowed brows, to wolf pups calling out from a den in a film, that wolf-like howling one cool summer night, and that solitary gaze looking out at the world that said, “I’ll watch the world go by”.

I am selfish and I don’t deny it. I went to the shelter looking to find a dog that needs a home, and in return be unconditionally loved, to keep me and my bipolar self company. That I was the bipolar self I would come to accept later with Noah by my side. There is in me a deeply flawed person. The cracks are many and deep and nothing grows out of them, not the grass or the flowering plant that the commercials and self-help books would like you to believe. It’s been seven years running, hobbling, crawling, barely swimming and walking. Noah came home a little over two years ago, when I decided to move out and adopt a dog. That would change my life.

Then, as now, I had no sense of place. I was winding up my work along the Cauvery, I was out of funds, and demoralised and devastated with professional and personal life. Noah was scared and insecure but he took to me. The initial few months were hard, with me ferrying unsuspecting victims to the local hospital or apologising for his bad behaviour. It was liberating when we ran, and having a four-legged friend to share life with, simple pleasures like intercepting a ball at the local cricket match or being woken up at unearthly hours or having the place you sleep in suddenly shrunk by half. Our walks in the neighbourhood are legendary for the commotion that follows. Almost every dog worth his wag, within howling or barking distance of us puts on his best show. I watch his back and he watches mine. I have had to extricate him from tricky situations while he fiercely guards our immediate vicinity. It’s akin to having a walking, barking shield like in superhero comics.

A reflection of the rainforest canopy. Credit: Nisarg Prakash

A reflection of the rainforest canopy. Credit: Nisarg Prakash

I grew up in Bangalore, a city that mostly doesn’t hold any sentiments for me. There were a few streets that I loved though, where canopy met canopy met canopy for a few kilometres. Sunlight filtered through, dappled, green, and beautiful. But then the protests wrapped up, concrete pillars were erected and the canopy fragmented. Then there were the bookshops I would spend hours in, owners I would befriend to find books I normally couldn’t. The only thing I remember about school was not being in school; vacations at a grandparent’s place in Coorg waiting for wild elephants to turn up for ripe jackfruit.

I remember spending nights with a flashlight, sitting on the edge of the seat, but nothing happened. By day, I heard stories from them of their chance meetings with these majestic animals. Each went their own way, mostly. I would walk down sometimes to the meadow, or go inspect the gate that was mangled by these giants. We would visit captured elephants nearby, behind stockades that impinged heavily on the wild. Those were events that would influence me for years to come, help me choose my direction and keep me going. I started off like many people I know. An engineering graduate who wanted to shun working for corporates and dirty money. I thought I stuck to it, going where work took me, to places where money didn’t matter, where educational qualifications were of no use. I was the quintessential idealist those days. I would spend the night outdoors waiting to catch a glimpse of the leopard, or follow the course of the river near college hoping to see something around the bend. I would attempt a failed campaign to save a local heronry. I would walk, run and bike where I could, sometimes even where I couldn’t.

My idealism is now dulled, blunted and dying. The feeling of vulnerability that accompanied every waking hour, preparing and protecting myself to weather the storms and from getting hurt, more often from my own actions leaves me exhausted. I have to outguess most people I meet so that I can walk away instead of nose-dive. Being on guard has worn me out, after seven long years. Sometimes, my passive self is fine with accepting blame for mistakes that were not entirely mine, only to end a confrontation from mushrooming into something else. It is easier to convince yourself that you can set things right, if you think it was your doing. When it all became too much to bear, I would pack my bag for a trip to what I called the ”heart of India” but is more like its navel. Where land and forests and people and the cord that binds them were being ripped apart to quench the thirst of corporate mining interests. In the shade of Mahua trees and the shadow of dozens of heavily armed paramilitary camps, I would feel alive for a few days.

I was here not to pick sides, but here knowing that as long as the forests stayed with the natives and not with the mining firms, they still had a chance to recover and to be restored. But this was not as simple as I just made it sound.

The forests were degraded, silent, and stunted. Hunting parties were common and birds uncommon. Large beautiful trees were girdled and slowly killed off to be chopped down later as dead wood. In this conflict between the state, the natives, and the reds, there were clearly no winners, certainly not the land and the forests. But being in the thick of things made me feel alive, being away from my comfort zone, simple meals in cups made of mahua leaves, double distilled Mahua wine if lucky. I was a vagrant here too. Flash floods had scoured the banks for forests were felled higher up, clear felled, slashed and burned, with nothing to stop the flow of a gazillion drops of rainwater down steep slopes, all succumbing to gravity – higher place to a lower place. At the end of the day, hearing stories of ordinary lives under extraordinary conditions was for me a soothing balm, something that would take my mind off itself. There was no sense of place here too, maybe a sense of purpose. I was yet to find Noah then.

Mahua trees are ubiquitous in large parts of central and eastern India. Credit: Nisarg Prakash

Mahua trees are ubiquitous in large parts of central and eastern India. Credit: Nisarg Prakash

The best therapist has fur and four legs. – Anon

Noah is my full-time therapist who demands his fee in the form of belly rubs, food and long walks and runs. In return, I get woken up at unearthly hours, licks if I don’t that finally lead to hard raps if I continue to ignore. He wants belly rubs preferably the whole day and will lie down belly up, with paws drawn inwards like a giant preying mantis. While all of this sounds happy and beautiful, there were two days that came very close to extinguishing the many fulfilling days that would come after them. The first one in June 2015, was deep and dark like the river I was sitting by. The letters were written, evidence erased, and identities protected. I was by one of my haunts hoping to see otters one last time. I sat for many hours, and finally watched them swimming in the distance – a sense of predictability that comes with knowing your favourite animals.

There were also the sand miners and, strangely that day, anger didn’t swell up inside of me like it used to. I was tired, and I had accepted that otters will get accustomed to living beside people who were slowly killing their river. What else could they possibly do? The waters looked inviting, for that was why I was there having driven three hours on my planned trip to Coorg. The sadness was deep, and there were no tears. I had no voice, for it had disappeared like many other things. I had convinced myself that there was no point in going on any further and what a fitting way to go this would be. The afternoon wore on well into the evening. I was waiting for the miners to leave, and there was a brief conversation before winding up after a hard day earning their livelihood and making the river a little less hospitable than when they started. It was time, it was getting dark, and the river was darker. I couldn’t swim, and this had almost killed me a few years earlier. The trees on the opposite bank under whose shade we often saw otters resting had been felled to take the farm right till the water’s edge. The birds were gone for the day. Water hyacinth had slowly moved in to smother the river.

While I sat there contemplating what I had set out for, something stirred, something broke, I didn’t know. Noah was under a friend’s watch back home. Suddenly there was a part of me that wanted out. There was another voice that said I was already so close, and I should see it through. I called the only friend I knew could help. I spent what seemed like an eternity there – thinking, fighting and accepting. There was no beauty in sitting by the river, knowing you cannot swim, amidst the growing gnawing darkness. He talked me out of it in the midst of a holiday with friends. He knew me well, and said he understood where I was and how I felt. I had slipped past the darkness and there were to be no ripples that day.

I thought I wouldn’t face another day like this again but the second one came only a few months later, in September 2015. This time I was at home. For more than a year, I had worked out the details and thought I had it nailed. The day had just begun but darkness fell swiftly. I was prepared, no traces but letters to the ones who mattered. The locked room, wet towels to make it airtight, and a carbon monoxide-belching camp-stove wouldn’t be enough to stop a dog waiting outside the door, waiting you would step out and take him for his customary walk. Noah in more ways than one was my life vest. This time I cried, locked inside. I also learned that it takes strength of a different kind to push a knife into your chest, however sharp its edge. I didn’t want him back in a shelter where he surely wouldn’t be up for adoption given his unpredictable nature. I would be around for as long as I could. Bipolar was not going to thwart it, and after that second attempt, there were no more. I would give as much time as I would need to climb out of this.

Noah was leading me out on a leash, tugging at it, running wildly, and whining all along. He would lead me out, even while I was blinded and consumed by the depression that almost always followed periods of mania. While I was dealing with a “wild” dog who refused to abide by society’s norms on aggression, he was dealing with a dark friend whom he had just led out of an abyss and had to watch from falling into more. I used to joke to friends that I should be awarded the bravery medal every time I stepped out with Noah for preventing the world from getting bitten. While his unpredictable streak still continues, it has greatly reduced. We walk through crowded streets to get him accustomed to people and to not view them as a threat. He is extremely protective, with tail held high, one ear alert, the other floppy, mouth wide open, canines gleaming, and tongue hanging out he looks fearsome but for his friends he is the most gentle of dogs. His strange but comforting greetings welcome his friends home. He looks vulnerable lying belly up seeking rubs.

Girdling trees to kill them slowly, even as they stand. Credit: Nisarg Prakash

Girdling trees to kill them slowly, even as they stand. Credit: Nisarg Prakash

Maybe in vulnerability is his strength. My support system now is almost entirely comprised of Noah. But as the argument goes, Noah is a dog, and Noah is not welcome in most places I would love to work in. Would things be different if he was a certified service dog? But an abused dog, on a leash who keeps one particular person going, is a real threat. He is no more a threat (to wildlife) than we are driving our SUVs, maybe far less. I sense a heavy discrimination in this, to keep me out and to keep a part of me out.  

In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the remainders
Of every glove that laid him down
And cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame
“I am leaving, I am leaving”
But the fighter still remains
Still remains

The Boxer, Simon & Garfunkel

Apart from being my friend, Noah also assumes the role of my financial advisor. One of my fucked-up principles, like a friend says, is me going for broke in everything I do. I tell him that I have nothing to lose, in more ways than one. Noah comes first (wags his tail), rent comes second, broadband third, and then I get what is left of it. Having a specialty coffee habit and a love for books all help. No life insurance because I convince myself that it’s for pessimists, while in reality I wouldn’t be able to afford it. No savings because that’s for pessimists again! No therapist either. I saw one briefly before it bled me dry. The electro-convulsive therapy that I badly needed when medication failed to work – I was keen on trying but backed out because I was afraid I couldn’t afford that as well.

I fooled friends to believe that I didn’t really need it, saying I was fundamentally against sending a pulse of electricity through my body  while knowing all too well that it could have probably have made all the difference during those difficult months. I skipped appointments and went off medication and put up a defiant, rebellious face that was against treatment, while in reality I was broke. My doctor though figured this out down the line and always made it clear that it was important for us to meet and that money wasn’t. I still go, when I can pay for treatment. Nothing he says will let me do otherwise. I always tell myself that money doesn’t matter to us. It hasn’t so far, and why should it going ahead? At the end of the day, things have always worked out, and then there’s Noah and the outdoors to fill the gaps. Noah gives me a lick in approval.

“I am here; and here is nowhere in particular.” – William Golding
A rainforest tree nursery where I spent time initially between my bouts of mania and depression. Credit: Nisarg Prakash

A rainforest tree nursery where I spent time initially between my bouts of mania and depression. Credit: Nisarg Prakash

There is no sense of place. Home is where Noah is. The river was a permanent but constantly changing feature, alive in fleeting stretches, otherwise sinking, sluggish, murky, like the thoughts. It was burnished in my mind, thoughts flowing, floundering ceaselessly, eddying and sinking. Sometimes, I feel like I am running out of breath. Some days I have no energy to roll out of bed for his walk. I set out for our run but I head back after a few minutes around the block that has left me tired. He voices his disappointment at a run cut short. The deepest darkest thoughts, you cannot tell anyone. They are yours and yours alone, I have realised. But there are those searching eyes, who sees it all, knows it all. He has a lick ready and he is by your side. It almost seems like he’s lived through all of this, loss and more.

The simple reason Noah lives is because he knows nothing else. He will take anything that is thrown his way. His beating heart took three years of abuse before being rescued. To live is his purpose, and in that there are hearts he touches. Friends drop by for coffee, but the real reason they all visit is that like me they too are broken, and in meeting him, they believe there is healing. What he loves most though is riding shotgun in a car or a long journey across the city in an autorickshaw. Head outside, barking madly, enforcing a strict lane discipline around our suddenly “all-powerful” three-wheeler. We might as well be riding a battle tank judging by the response of other commuters.

Loss

I lost a friend last month. I lost her to a tailspin that was mostly my creation. Once a thought embeds itself and I succumb to it, it is downhill all the way. It grows in size, to monstrous proportions, picking up debris, and knocking down everything. Other actions around me only seem to reinforce this thought. This exacts a heavy toll and I don’t know how it can be worth the price. Something as small as tweaking the dose of my chemical cocktail could set things off, it could be something that was said in a momentary lapse of reason, it could be anything my acutely aware mind or senses could pick up. There’s almost no stopping once I’ve started slipping. There’s a monstrous mushroom cloud that I cannot see through, there’s a struggle that won’t end, and there’s a deep dive. Everything snowballs into something else. Things that generally shouldn’t matter suddenly acquire a lot of meaning.

During these times, I am acutely perceptive and demoralisingly sensitive. There’s no running away from it. At times, you cannot reason with a person dealing with an illness. The best you can do is to listen to them, and that’s often what they’re looking for. I am reliving some of my earlier years listening to a friend live hers. Over conversations, I realise how the ones who cared for me might have felt, despite their best attempts at making life meaningful for me. It is dredging memories from the past, and leaves me not shaken but with an understanding that I would have otherwise taken for granted. If you’re going to judge me for what I’ve written and like me or dislike me for it, or feel sorry or sympathetic, it is only because you haven’t experienced the bombing raids and the tailspins, the wrecking ball and the acid rains. There’s a side of me that can be very direct, blunt, intense, rude and plain mean. A side that some have said buried them under the weight of expectations. This is something I never followed but have come to accept. I have wondered what it would be like to be the only person in the world. Have felt that way too, when close friends left to move on with their lives. While I’ve been told that there are times when I bring out the worst in people, Noah has the opposite effect.

He brings out the best in everybody he comes in contact with. He is unusually sensitive, and perceptive. It might be partly because of his traumatic upbringing, which in some way unlocked a primal evolutionary instinct to be acutely aware of feelings and emotions of everybody around. There have been times, when sensing a threat in a friendly hug he’s by my side in an instant. Jealousy maybe? There are also those times when he’s quick to spring to my defence when there are heated discussions and raised voices, followed by threats and intimidation if they continue. If I am laughed at, he’s there to tackle it. Nobody likes to mess with a dog that resembles a wolf and with a reputation to dispatch you to the nearest clinic.

A sense of place

Noah, and a giant puddle of salty water behind him. Credit: Nisarg Prakash

Noah, and a giant puddle of salty water behind him. Credit: Nisarg Prakash

Where is the sense of place in all of this upheaval? That place for me was once a remote mountain peak visible from the college I studied in. It was a place where elephants gathered in the hundreds while I worked. It was along the numerous streams I walked while completing my postgraduate degree. It was the cave I spent five days in near the Myanmar border. The sense of place was a barely flowing river – blasted and mined and piped away. That sense of place were fishing nets that failed to catch fish. It was otters that had somehow managed to master the art of survival in a volatile riverscape. Or maybe the river was tumultuous for me given my state of mind, my tendencies to overemphasise the threats and the loss, over-romanticise the spunk of animals. To the animals, everything was matter-of-fact. To the river, rains brought water and sand, fish moved up, and sometimes she never met the sea.

Working along this river, and the years preceding this when I felt battered by the waves in my mind, I had lost the sense of place. Everything was in a state of flux, like the river itself. There was no place that was home. I was a vagrant every where I went. But I once thought I had a sense of place too – a place I knew well, a place that had shown me a pack of wild dogs under the full moon, where I had seen my first large-scaled pitviper, a small-clawed otter and large rainforest trees. A place where I had cried in the rain, walked all the way home, and slept peacefully under the shade of a tree. I knew the streams, the trails, and the roads well but that wouldn’t stop me from losing touch or losing the sense of place.

I have struggled to write because there was no place to start. When it started, when it’ll end is anybody’s guess. One did not lead to the other like a flowchart or an equation in a textbook. I don’t have a date for when the neurons started misfiring or neurotransmitters started slacking off. What I did start to notice was how memory often failed me. I have little recollection of happy times spent with friends, random small talk, howling over mugs of beer or laughter over coffee, pranks I pulled and getting pranked. I feel robbed of memories. I will blame one particular element of the Periodic table – Lithium (Atomic number 3), along with its assorted compounds. While being the lightest and non-magnetic, it is still powerful enough to pull me back despite numerous attempts to get off it. I have now come to accept the fact that I will have to make do with Atomic number 3 for the rest of my life. There are tremors I cannot shake off. I joke to myself that I could do a Lithium transfusion as easy as a blood transfusion. The covalent bond between us is too strong, for now at least.

Like Noah, people are important to me. They have always been. While work is what keeps me going, I think there are times where I know people matter more. Some friends might be surprised with this revelation, but yes, I think people are always worth it. They are worth your time and they are worth some more. I worked for what many consider a liberal and progressive organisation where there was room for dissent. There was freedom in work, and there were ‘meets’ and ‘retreats’. What it lacked was any form of support for people dealing with illnesses. Mine was invisible, there were no scars or casts to see.

There were individuals though who shone through and were veritable beacons during dark hours. I have had friends wait over me, supervise my medication and make sure I had meals on time, carry coffee from NY or tea from Assam. Have had them mail letters and recipes, and even cook for me. There’s one who despite the tough I-don’t-care exterior is always looking out for us weaklings. I have learnt more about others by writing about my illness than I would ever otherwise. I have also learnt more about others with Noah by my side, for his presence gently disarms even the most guarded of friends. With friends who have broken off, I know that this is not the time to be bitter, for there’s too little time to waste on it.

Nisarg Prakash is a wildlife biologist who has been enchanted by wild spaces for as long as he can remember. He has been studying otters since 2009. Borrowing a line from Norman Maclean, he can comfortably say he is haunted by waters.