I still miss Bertie

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2009-10-27

I was driving home the other night, and I noticed that a car ahead of me at a traffic stop had a small white head sticking out of the passenger window, with round black eyes and a nose peering through a fringe of frizzy fur. A newspaper boy walked past the car, smiling broadly at the friendly little Lhasa Apso who sniffed at the evening paper, neck outstretched and front paws braced on the window-frame.

In the eighty-one seconds that remained on the red light, I remembered the terror that Bertie used to inspire at traffic stops, even behind a closed window. People selling newspapers or cellphone chargers and kids begging for change would all go out of their way to squeeze past other cars so that they wouldn't have to pass mine. I would see them in the rear-view mirror, standing at a respectful distance but daring each other to go closer. Once in a while, a particularly brave or foolish one would succumb to peer pressure and tap on Bertie's window.

Usually, all he had to do was turn his head, and they would beat a hasty retreat. If not, all I had to do was roll the window down. Bertie rarely needed to expend any further effort. (Sometimes, though, he would take a strong dislike to someone and snarl at them, perhaps even bark if he was particularly annoyed. Nobody ever stayed around long enough to find out if he would really have bitten them.)

But Bertie used to get smiles too, at least when the car was safely in motion. A friend who once followed our car home once told us about all the people who turned to see his big head sticking out of the window, tongue hanging out and ears blown back by the breeze. Once, a shepherd in Garhwal ran alongside the car, yelling happily, It's a Lion! It's a Lion! Bertie must have approved of this sentiment (which was expressed by many people), because he would always be at his calm and dignified best at these times.

Sometimes, on the rare occasions when I wasn't driving, Bertie would wedge himself between the front seats, balance precariously with his paws on my leg, then hop over into my lap, all forty-five kilograms of him. He would drape himself over me as best he could, and I would hold on tight, my face full of fur, squeezed between the seat and his bulk. Every few minutes, he would slobber over my face, or rearrange himself by trampling on delicate parts of my anatomy. He often sat in the front seat by himself when I was driving (but he usually preferred the back). I even put the seat belt on him a few times, but he didn't like it much.

Once, on a particularly foggy morning, someone pulled up beside the car (on the passenger's side) and asked him for directions. Bertie turned his head a little, but remained still. I replied without leaning over to the passenger's side or even moving my head much, and the man nodded his thanks and drove away.

It's been two years since Bertie died. It feels like yesterday.