Karan Shah’s helper Mukeshbhai leaves at 8 am after giving him a bath. Then, Angel takes over. The golden-haired, brown-eyed Labrador fetches Karan his shoes, grabs his phone from the cabinet, picks up a basket, and stands by the door, ready for a morning walk. Just as they are about to leave, Karan straps on the halti collar that helps him control her. Angel holds the little basket in her mouth; in it is a short stick.
All set, the duo leaves for a stroll at Worli seaface. Along the way, at an Aarey stall, a milkman plops a bag in Angel’s basket, placing it right next to the stick. Bidding him goodbye, Karan and Angel begin their walk back. If they spot a stray, Angel stops. She gently plonks the basket on Karan’s lap, grabs the stick with her teeth and hands it over to him. It’s her way of saying, “Do your job now. Save my ass!”
As they are back home, Karan kicks off his shoes and Angel pulls off his socks. If he wants a change of shirt, he points to the cupboard and she pulls it open with a rope tied to the handle. He then points at a shirt and she gently grabs and brings it to him. The socks and dirty tee are dutifully taken to the laundry basket. She gets him his phone and then settles in for a well-earned breakfast. Karan pets Angel’s head as she eats. Her morning shift is done.
In the afternoon, Angel is going to help Karan with a training class for dyslexic children. But before that, it’s time for a cuddle.
When I go to meet the famous Angel, she is being a total goofball. She’s pressing her nose against a training switch, trying half-heartedly to flip it but it seems so damn hard. She jumps at me and begins to gnaw my wrist, slobbering all over my hands.
The 24-year-old Karan grins sheepishly from his wheelchair. He has just spent the last 45 minutes explaining to me with a straight face that Angel is his super-smart, super-efficient helper. He has shown me videos of her pulling his socks off, listening earnestly to commands, and generally being so deeply angelic that I half-expected a Labrador with a halo around her head. But Angel adamantly refuses to be typecast.
Karan has Type 3 spinal muscular atrophy. He’s been in a wheelchair all his life, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that. A bright and articulate youth, he doesn’t have a speck of self-pity. Angel (when she’s behaving herself) is his loyal sidekick and an eternally helpful dog.
The idea of an assist dog was as far-fetched as a service cyborg to Karan and his traditional Gujarati family. “It was my brother’s idea,” says Karan, when I ask him how he picked Angel as a help.
His brother Mihir, also born with spinal muscular atrophy (Type 2 in his case), was attending a dog show one fine morning at Bal Vidya Mandir, a school in Mumbai, when Magic caught his attention. A sleek black Labrador, Magic, was India’s first assist dog and she dazzled Mihir with her intelligence. He returned home tremendously excited after he learnt about renowned canine behaviourist Shirin Merchant, who trained dogs to be helpers for the disabled. He tried to convince his mother, but had no luck –he might as well have proposed a pet lion. Animals were a strict no-no in the house, and besides, she didn’t really need the added responsibility.
When Karan talks about Angel, his face lights up. If I ask him now if Angel can split the atom, I’m sure his answer will be an emphatic yes. Abhinav Sharma
When Karan talks about Angel, his face lights up. If I ask him now if Angel can split the atom, I’m sure his answer will be an emphatic yes.
Mihir suddenly passed away one morning in 2011, while his parents were bathing him. The shattered household plunged into a dark silence and the subject of a dog was never brought up for eight long years. The aftermath of his brother’s death was an emotional rollercoaster for Karan, with irrational upsurges of anger. He would pick up fights with people twice his size and abuse torrentially at the slightest provocation. His mother was at her wit’s end, until one morning, a close family friend came home with a surprise gift. Out of the basket popped a frisky one-month-old pup, a beige ball of belligerence, barking her little head off. Enter, Angel.
Angel came and lifted the mood of the house that was still reeling from the loss of a child. His non-dog-loving mother was floored by Angel’s sheer goofiness and the change she saw in her depressed son. But above and beyond the infectious happiness the pup was spreading, she was also showing signs of extreme intelligence. Mihir’s words began to come true. “When she was barely three months old, I pointed to my mobile phone one night and she immediately grabbed it for me. I knew then that I have a shot at an independent life,” recalls Karan.
Now, after a year of training with Shirin Merchant, Angel has taken charge of Karan’s day. When he talks about Angel and her intellect, his face is alight with conviction. If I ask him now if Angel can split the atom, I’m sure his answer will be an emphatic yes. He tells me how she helped a dyslexic child. Whenever the child would start murmuring during the course of reading, Karan would give the “Kiss command” and Angel would begin to lick him. The slobbering encouragement worked and the child began reading with more confidence.
I feel bad for all the Labs who are still furiously chasing their own tails. Angel is not making them look good.
But today, Angel is not turning the damn switch on. Karan tells me it may take a month to get Angel to achieve her new task, but when she does, it will be an accomplishment indeed. She will be able to switch off the reading lights at night. She will be able to switch on the fan. Ring the doorbell. Call the lift. If that switch flips, it’s one more step towards independence.
“Angel, switch,” commands Karan, picking up the training switch once again. At this stage, all she has to do is nudge it. The next thing is to teach her the difference between a light and a fan switch and the difference between turning it on and off. It’s a tall order, but Karan has no doubt that Angel can ace it. She now looks at him with a more determined expression on her face, almost as if she’s heard the lofty ambitions he has for her. She steadies herself and this time goes at the switch with some more conviction. Her cold nose makes contact and snap! She flips it.
A proud Karan swoops down and embraces Angel, as if she has indeed split an atom. She takes in all the affection and then looks up expectantly. He slips her a little doggy treat, which she gobbles up in a second and looks up at him again. Surely, flipping a switch deserves more, her expression seems to suggest. Karan agrees and treats her to three more rounds.
He grins at me as I watch Angel wolf it down. “I can teach her anything in the world, but I don’t think she can ever get me food. I wouldn’t be able to trust her with my sandwich,” he sighs.