One November afternoon some years back, our daughter Priyamvada, convinced us to stop over at a pet store in Santa Monica just to look at the pets, not get any. We didn’t know then we would leave the store with Tara in a cardboard box with us.
We browsed through the store, looking at the puppies and the kittens and at their vast collection of exotic fish. Then, Ram, my husband, stopped in front of a big cage.
“What do we have here?” He looked inside curiously.
“These are Russian dwarf hamsters. They make great pets.” We were informed.
“Yes, but what’s the matter with them?” Ram asked and all of us huddled to look.
The cage looked quite empty, save for one tiny hamster, a fur-ball no bigger than an inch. The igloo at the center was stuffed with more furry creatures and in its only entrance – a circular hole a couple inches in diameter – were crammed five or six hamster butts.
Hamsters being nocturnal animals, these little critters were sleeping, it turned out.
“Looks a little inconvenient in there,” Ram muttered.
We turned our attention towards the hamster that had not joined his buddies ‘in bed’. He had been running the wheel. Seeing us, he had stopped and now, he was looking back at us. It seemed weird that he could see that far. He seemed smart and curious and not shy at all. I don’t know what came over us. We made a unanimous decision to bring him home.
In one quick look the store-owner ascertained our hamster was actually a ‘she’. In the car, we christened her Tara and at home Alice’s three-storied cage awaited her. Alice, a gerbil, much bigger than Tara, was our son, Bheemsen’s pet many years back.
Tara’s investigations began as soon as she was placed in the freshly-prepared cage. She understood each nook, every corner in no time. She sniffed every article present, sifted through the little box of grains, bit every piece of wood that was left to be bitten, sipped at the water-bottle and finally settled on the wheel. Just the hamster cereal bar she left untouched.
We spent the evening around the cage, watching her. And at night as we waited for sleep to come, a smile was pasted on each face thinking about this wonderful addition in our family.
Ram is the first to wake up in the morning. He put the coffee on and went to the toilet. As, sleepily, he sat on the seat he got his first “good-morning” of the day. Tara was nibbling at the little toe of his left foot.
“What are you doing here?! Out of your cage, early in the morning”
Peering behind the toilet bowl he found Tara’s stash. The granola-bar she had feigned disinterest in was broken in little pieces piled in a neat mound. Tara had spent the entire night relocating to her new address.
Saying, “You can’t live here, you silly rodent!” Ram put her back in the cage.
While we ate breakfast, Tara sulked and stayed inside the igloo. She came out only when the children left for school, rebellious. Although the grills of the cage were closely spaced, the bars on the corners were wider. She squeezed out from one corner and scampered towards the toilet at the opposite end of the house as Ram followed her. I must get a new cage for this parcel of trouble, I was thinking as carefully I tightened the sides with wires.
Inside the cage again, at first Tara made a search for a gap wide enough to squeeze through. Her tantrums began when she found all routes of escape blocked.
She was frantic and started to climb up the grating of the cage. She banged her head in frustration. She climbed to the third floor to come at eye-level with us and banged her head some more. She pushed the wooden biting chunk that was nearby in anger. She clutched the grid of the cage and shook it hard. A creature so small, causing such ruckus! We could not believe our eyes. I was worried all that emotion would make her sick, so I covered the cage with one of Bheemsen’s shirts lying nearby.
A few years later, when I was 46 and my children had left for college I started to feel the restlessness that Tara had displayed that day. I left Ram. Dumping my practice in psychiatry, I set out for Bhopal to find Zulfi, the lost love of my youth.
Peering behind the toilet bowl he found Tara’s stash. The granola-bar she had feigned disinterest in was broken in little pieces piled in a neat mound.