I had just sold my business and bought a house in Goa, in a tiny, picturesque town called Siolim.
‘But what will you do?’ cried my mother. ‘You have such a good business in the UK.’
‘I want to run a guesthouse and help at a rescue centre,’ I replied confidently, even though I had no knowledge about either.
I arrived in October, a great time to be in Goa, as the paddy fields, palm groves and hills were all emerald-green, covered in thick, lush foliage, following the onslaught of the monsoon.
My next-door neighbour walked in.
‘Pleased to meet you, Mr Atul, please let me know if I can be of any help?’
She was in her sixties, tall and elegant with a large round nose. Her face was framed with a Queen Elizabeth hairstyle. As I greeted her, I realized why they called her Cat’s-Eyes. She had the most striking blue-grey eyes. She was quite the vision!
‘My name is Perpetua Mavis Fernandes, but all my friends call me Mavis, or Cat’s-Eyes. I have some very exciting news!’ She beamed as if she was about to make a big announcement. Pressing her hands down on her spotless, pressed cream dress, she slowly said, ‘Siolim’s first ATM is opening tonight, and we are all invited to the inauguration. You are coming, I hope? Everyone wants to meet you!’
I didn’t think I had a choice in the matter!
Fortunately, the ATM was across the road from me. Fragrant marigold and tuberose garlands adorned the door that led to a tiny, dimly lit interior. A small tent had been set up to the side with plastic chairs in every colour imaginable. There were about thirty guests, dressed in their best attire, including the sarpanch. There was the obligatory Mirinda orange drink, some delicious samosas and sticky jalebis. This was where I first met Gopal, who was nearly six feet tall. He must have been in his early forties, with a handsome chiselled face, hair dyed jet black, oiled and slicked back, and of course his moustache, curling up at the ends, which I imagined was his pride and joy. Dressed in his neatly pressed grey uniform, he greeted me.
‘Good evening, sirji, I am Gopal, the security guard of the ATM. I am from Odisha, and very pleased to meet you. You see I have a “third eye”, which lets me see good people like you … you know, not like some of the Dilliwallas who don’t even look at me, or forget to thank me when I hold the door open for them.’ He grinned. ‘But you are a good one.’
It was then that I noticed this furry creature looking up at me. She was beautiful, a long-haired chestnut-coloured dog, with matching warm amber eyes.
‘Arrey,’ said Gopal, ‘this is Siddhi! I give her biscoots every evening. A five-rupee packet of Tiger biscoots; she costs me a fortune!’
Siddhi wagged her tail joyfully as if she could sense we were talking about her.
‘Sirji, she also has the third eye, she can tell you are a good one. She is very chalaak and crafty.’
Siddhi beamed up at me, wiggling her bottom. I could have sworn she understood every word we were saying.
As the party wound down, I said goodnight to Gopal and Siddhi. ‘I suppose you must be exhausted, Gopal,’ I said. ‘Time to go to your home and sleep.’
‘No, sirji,’ he chuckled, ‘Siddhi and I sleep here, in the ATM. I have a long cardboard box flattened out and she has a gunny sack bed. I am doing “double shift”, as I have to send much money home. The drought has crippled my family.’ Siddhi gave my hand a quick goodnight lick, as she curled up on her dirty sack.
I walked home, thinking of how many people and animals in India have to struggle to survive, and still seem happy with the little they have.
What I had forgotten was how hot October can be in Goa.
Siddhi was a regular visitor now, and her visits were the highlight of my day. If only a human could be so delighted to see me every day, I said to myself. Such unconditional love, followed by a good morning howl, and her happy dance!
But this particular morning, Siddhi was different. She looked sad and kept swiping my hand with her paw.
‘Siddhi, please let me drink my coffee in peace,’ I said. But she did not stop. I knew she wanted me to follow her. We both crossed the crazy, busy road, with Siddhi in the lead, and went to the ATM. Gopal had a very puzzled look on his face.
‘Sirji, I don’t know what’s wrong with her today. She did not even touch her biscoots.’
Siddhi kept walking. I continued to follow her down a small dirt path, off the main road, until she stopped by a huge banyan tree. With its draping aerial roots and its shiny white bark, it looked like an enormous friendly ghost. A few feet away, some ‘development’ had started, and the land was being cleared for another block of flats. No doubt illegal, I thought to myself. Even worse, a delivery of laterite stones had been placed inside a huge hollow in the base of the ancient tree.
‘For god’s sake,’ I yelled, ‘this tree is going to die!’
Meanwhile, Siddhi had begun whining and was looking into the huge opening.
‘There is nothing there, Siddhi,’ I said. But then I heard a sound.
‘Hello, Uncle, are you the doctor who has bought the villa?’ A boy, about twelve years old, sat in the tree base, in his school uniform.
‘Hello,’ I said, ‘I am not a doctor, but how can I help you? What is your name?’
‘Swapnil,’ he replied in a sad little voice. He brushed away some dead leaves and … I will never forget what I saw.
A dog lay on the ground with wounds all over her skin, dehydrated and panting, unable to get up. There was a huge gash on her neck, with maggots pouring out of it. But that was just the beginning of this nightmarish scene. Next to her lay two dead pups, covered in flies. Swapnil picked up a third pup.
‘This one’s alive, Uncle, but his leg is broken and swollen.’
The pup was gorgeous, almost like a Golden Labrador puppy, but covered in fleas. Gangrene had set in his broken leg, and he was in great pain.
‘What happened here, Swapnil?’ I asked, fighting back tears.
Swapnil started sobbing. ‘Uncle, this is Sweety. We love her so much. We used to feed her regularly, and then one day, she just disappeared. Gopal Uncle said he saw her a few weeks ago, being chased by a pack of male dogs. He heard her howling in pain, but could not find her. Siddhi led me to her today …’
‘Sterilization’ was the first thought that crossed my mind. There was only one rescue centre in north Goa, but we needed so many more.
‘She knows you will save her baby, Uncle.’
As I gazed in awe at this beautiful brave mama, her tail stopped wagging, and her eyes glazed over. She went completely still. She was dead. I went numb. I picked up the pup and took him home. His leg had to be amputated, and once he was fully recovered, I decided to keep him. He would limp around Siddhi and follow her everywhere. He was a beautiful dog and, despite his disability, was strong-willed and could be very fierce when he wanted to be. Eventually, he preferred to stay with Siddhi in her precious ATM. They both became mini-celebrities, and an endless stream of tourists and locals would bring them treats.
‘I call him Sadhu,’ said Gopal. ‘Sirji, I was amazed that Siddhi let him join us at the ATM, but I’m glad it has all worked out. Our little Miss Chalaak is getting old. New male dogs are sniffing out her territory, eager to get the prime ATM space, where food and security are available. But not with Sadhu around, he can fight off even the biggest of dogs.’
One morning, in January 2015, Gopal rang me, sobbing.
‘Sirji, please come now,’ he wailed, ‘I think Siddhi is no more.’
I rushed over to find her lifeless body on the gunny sack.
‘She was about five years old when I started working at the ATM,’ Gopal said through his tears. That meant she would have been at least fifteen years old. To my surprise, I had no tears. ‘Don’t cry, Gopal, she was a free spirit, and had an amazing life. She is definitely smiling at you now from heaven. I always meant to ask you, Gopal, how did Siddhi end up at the ATM in the first place?’
‘I am not sure, Sirji, but Prashant the shopkeeper said a foreigner was looking after her, but had to leave the country. She left ten thousand rupees with a family and lots of food to look after her, but they threw her out. She started sleeping outside the shop, which then became the ATM. I was the one who named her Siddhi,’ Gopal said, his eyes beaming with pride in his tear-streaked face. ‘It means perfect … fulfilment, I think.’
How appropriate, I thought.
Fifteen years later, Welfare for Animals in Goa (WAG) is one of the largest rescue centres in the state. We have a gaushala (cow sanctuary), where we have rescued over five thousand cows. We also run a rescue clinic, where we have sterilized over five thousand cats and dogs, as well as organized countless adoption drives and rescues.
I would like to think that Siddhi inspired me, but in fact, as usual, she was ‘one step ahead’ and actually showed me the way.
Rest in peace, my dear friend; I will never forget you.
Atul Sarin is the founder of Welfare for Animals in Goa (WAG), which rescues and rehabilitates as many stray animals as possible. Atul also pioneers new programmes towards enhancing animal welfare, which include free sterilization and ensuring sustainability.
This excerpt from Atul Sarin’s story ‘Siddhi: Queen of the ATM’ from ‘The Book of Dog’, edited by Hemali Sodhi, has been published with permission from HarperCollins India.