There were no cats in the city I was born in. Or so it seemed to me. My home and neighbourhood otherwise abounded in all kinds of bird and animal life. There were cuckoos, bulbuls, bee-eaters, and sunbirds in the guava, pomegranate and custard apple trees in the garden, and whole colonies of noisy squirrels on the jamun and mulberry in the backyard. A family of chameleons lived in an old, gnarled champa beside the house-door. Troops of monkeys routinely whooped their way through the mango and neem and shirish trees lining the street, and peahens nested in the empty lot behind the house. Cows wandered down the street in the evenings and we fed them the first chapatis set aside at every meal. A bitch littered every year in a sandy patch at one end of the street and my mother cooked halwa for her, rich with ghee and spices meant for new mothers.
My nanny kept a couple of goats for milk at the back of our house. I was allowed to caress their large-eyed, soft-eared kids. My father, a bird-fancier, kept budgerigars and assorted song-birds in a large cage. I helped him put out bird-seed, fill earthen pots with water and break bits of cuttle-fish bones to scatter around the cage.
But cats were entirely absent from this parade of birds and animals. No one mentioned them, or kept them as pets. The only cats I had seen were in my colouring books. They looked up from the printed pages, gambolling with colourful balls of yarn, so impossibly round-eyed and furry that I knew they couldn’t be real. To me they were imaginary creatures or, at least, creatures who lived in other places, where children, unaccompanied by adults, picnicked on hills overgrown with heather and ate pies and drank ginger-beer, that is to say, charming beings found only in story-books.
It was my mother who told me the story of the young woman who kept a cat despite the opposition of her entire family. Why did no one want the cat, I asked, was it because she ate the cream off the milk? By then my views about cats were coloured by a story I had read—‘Prayashchit’ by Bhagwaticharan Verma. The story in Hindi, written sometime in the early twentieth-century and an all-time favourite of every children’s anthologist, was about a naughty cat and a harassed daughter-in-law. In the story, the cat regularly licked the cream off the milk and caused trouble for the young daughter-in-law of the household.
No, this cat did not steal milk-cream, my mother answered, but cats are considered inauspicious, people do not keep them in their homes. I was puzzled. Are animals inauspicious, I asked? Of course not, my mother replied, we worship all nature, and that includes animals. You know that Durga ji rides a lion and Ganesh a mouse and we pray to the lion and mouse when we pray to the gods. We even give sweetmeats to crows which feed on garbage and to tiny ants which crawl everywhere. It is only cats that are considered bad omen. My confusion mounted. If every creature, from rats to lions, was worshipped, even plain crows and ants were fed ritual meals, why then was there no place for cats? Why were cats alone considered inauspicious?
My mother sighed. Don’t you want to hear the rest of the story, she asked?
This cat was a model pet, she continued, she ate whatever scraps the young woman gave to her, crept quietly under her bed at night, never soiled the house and even pressed the woman’s limbs as she slept. The cat always kept out of the way of the men-folk when they left for work, as if she knew she shouldn’t fall in their path. My mother’s large eyes softened as she spoke. I was awed by the cat’s numerous perfections and felt sure that everyone must have eventually come around to loving her. Did everyone love her when they saw how nice she was, I asked? No, my mother shook her head, no, only I loved her, she said softly.
I puzzled over the story of the virtuous and yet unloved cat for a long time. What more could she have done to be loved by all?
I found the answer many years later one afternoon in one of the many small alleys leading to the tank of Banganga in Bombay and it surprised me. Banganga is an incongruity in the heart of the mega-city, reminiscent of the narrow streets of Banaras rather than the leafy lanes of South Bombay. The tank, fed by an underground spring, is ringed with temples and a cluster of dwelling-houses. There are shops and food-stalls and hawkers selling bangles and knick-knacks. The narrow lanes are always filled with people —temple-goers, washer-men carrying loads of washing, vegetable vendors, sellers of fried goodies. Men and women go about their chores, groups of transgenders pass by talking loudly, bands of monks sing hymns. Children swim in the tank’s green waters and old women sit on the stone steps oiling and braiding the hair of young girls.
As I walked down a lane one late morning, I noticed an unusual number of cats. They lay about in the dusty street and on stoops, prowled along the low walls and peeped through the rusty gates of a municipal school. They seemed too purposeful to be a random congregation of strays. There was a strange, expectant air about them. A man wheeling a bicycle entered the lane and a ripple went through the assembled cats. Ears pricked, tails gently swaying, they watched his every movement keenly. Whistling, he leaned his bicycle against a wall and undid the bundles tied to its carrier. A strong smell of fish filled the lane. The man threw pieces of fish to the waiting cats who caught them neatly in their mouths. It appeared to be a well-drilled routine, all was as orderly as can be. There was no jostling or pushing or mewling or swarming. As he moved amongst them, giving bits to the smaller ones, occasionally he reached down to stroke a bent head or a raised back. When the food was over, the cats dispersed. They did not cluster around the man or rub against his legs, they simply licked their mouths, sniffed at the few fallen fish-scales and went their way. The entire operation, from start to finish, took no more than fifteen minutes. I couldn’t contain my curiosity. ‘You feed the cats every day?’ I asked. The man nodded. ‘On your own or someone helps you with buying the fish?’
He looked at me. ‘I am a tailor, I have my shop up the lane. I make enough money to be able to buy a handful of fish for the cats.’
‘Of course,’ I said hastily, embarrassed at my tactlessness, ‘but why do you feed them?’
‘Why? Because they need the food. Why else?’ He retrieved his cycle and wheeled it away. At the head of the lane, he stopped and turned. ‘Sometimes there is no particular reason for doing something, the act itself is its own reason, I feed the cats, that is my dharma, the cats eat the food, that’s theirs.’ I marvelled at his giving the ancient Gita a new shake.
I have, since, witnessed cats performing their cat-dharma with elan across the world. Draped on roof-tops in Hong Kong and resting in the doorways in London’s inner city, I have seen them watch the swarms of rushing office-goers without judgement, curled up in dim cosy shops on the peaceful islands in Greece, and in old houses in Spain’s white villages they have been aloof but tolerant of caresses, outside spotless restaurants in Tokyo and Kyoto, they have crouched with politely averted eyes, cleaning their paws assiduously. Sometimes as I look up at the full moon, I have a strange conviction that the markings in its brilliant disc are actually a cat watching the sleeping world, watching endlessly.
I came across Mao in the cavernous underground parking-lot of an office building in Nariman Point. She was cowering in a corner, her stringy tail aloft, her thin body trembling. There was no sign of a mother cat or siblings. The place smelt of hot metal, petrol fumes and staleness. Sounds of footsteps, slamming doors, revving engines bounced off the concrete walls and echoed all around. I picked her up. She fitted in my two hands and had enormous, leaf-shaped ears. Her tilted eyes glowed golden in the gloom and when she mewed, her tiny face wrinkled and her eyes closed. I could feel her heart beat inside her fragile chest. Leaving her there wasn’t an option. I brought her home.
I wondered what she made of the transition from the noisy parking lot to the quiet apartment, I wondered how she managed to nestle in the hands which, with the slightest pressure, could crush her tiny skull, I wondered how she could look at me unflinchingly, close her eyes and fall asleep. I wondered at her ability to forget, to trust and accept.
At the vet’s, she remained still as the young doctor probed and prodded her with gentle fingers, opening her mouth, peering into her ears. But when I picked her up, she buried her needle-like claws into my sleeve and clung to me. In the car, she crouched in my lap and evacuated her bowels, her heart hammering in her chest. I felt her fear, held her, and soothed her.
At home, I watched her and marvelled at the gradual assertion of her personality. She climbed into my lap to peep at the laptop and paw at my books. She tore holes in the blanket I fluffed up for her and slept on my knee instead. She trailed behind everyone and mewed loudly to remind us of her presence. She had clear preferences—she did not like kitten food, she liked bits of bread moistened with watered milk, she loved eggs.
It was always clear that Mao was going to be an outdoor cat. She adamantly refused to use her litter tray for anything but to sit and gaze around and relieved herself discreetly in corners. She preferred the garden and freedom of the yard downstairs. She liked climbing up into the champa tree and then mewing till someone helped her down. She chased after bugs and squirrels, lost count of time and forgot to return home for meals. Neighbours called to say they saw her in the back-garden or sitting in a window opening or stalking the croton borders. Once someone found her in the lane behind the building and brought her back.
There were other cats in the building—a couple of hulking toms and an often-pregnant calico. Mao had had her ear chewed by one of them and hid for two days in a shoe cabinet kept outside the gym in our building. When I finally found her, she had made a nest among the shoes and was fast asleep. As I moved the shoes to retrieve her, she came awake, twitching all over and taut, ready to flee. She did not resist being carried and did not wince when I cleaned her ear with alcohol. When I put her down though, she immediately retreated to the shoe-cabinet. After her ear healed, she accepted the boundaries and ventured no further than the large, spreading rain-tree in the driveway. She learnt to not be tempted to follow the bigger cats. Often, as evening light faded, I found her perched on the compound wall contemplating the lane behind the building where the street-cats played and fought. She made no attempt to join them and was satisfied with watching.
Mao sits on the grey mat in the abbreviated lobby of our building, her limbs elegantly together, tail held aloft at an angle. Her white and orange fur lies smooth and she lifts the small triangle of her face towards the sun over which clouds are now streaming.
She watches the world, curious but not eager. The gaze of her yellow eyes, the colour of summer sun, seems inscrutable and detached.
An insect flits by, its green body iridescent in the sun. A roosting bat shuffles among the ashoka trees. Kicked by a careless foot, a pebble rolls. Her ears twitch. She is aware and unafraid. She chooses not to engage. She sits still and fulfilled like a Buddha.
Someone bends and scratches her under the chin. She stretches out and accepts the pleasure unabashedly. She is inviting and independent. The scratcher rises to leave. Work waits or an errand, banal urgencies of everyday life. She watches the person leave, silent and unmoving. When they return, she won’t be here. She knows the futility of waiting. She knows how to want without being weighed down.
Someone passes by gingerly, avoiding even the shadow of her sleek, furry body. She surveys the avoider with wide-open eyes. She does not move or shrink. She occupies her space, easeful and assured.
She contemplates the trees through the curtain of fast-falling rain. When it stops raining, she rises and stretches her limbs, the lines of her body flow and compact. She steps out daintily and sniffs the sweet-smelling air. Gold coin-like leaves are falling from the rain-tree and bulbuls are singing. Children returning from school cluster around her. She pauses among them for a few moments and then saunters off. She is not indifferent; she is not attached. She is present and composed.
She has attained equipoise.
The Big Warm is hiding. It is nice when the Big Warm is looking at me.
Wet has arrived. It was hovering above in the dark just before light and I knew it wouldn’t wait there for long. The Wet is not-friend, it is greedy, it wants everything, it won’t stop till it has covered everything.
I look out at the Wet and wait.
Soon the Fast comes as well, howling and lashing at the Big Greens. ‘Hello!’ I call out to the Fast, ‘It isn’t their fault, they haven’t done anything!’ And they hadn’t, till the Fast began to thrash them. Then they hit back of course, throwing their shaggy heads about and whipping the Fast with their long arms. The Fast yowls and chases after the Wet. I know it will never catch the Wet. The way to catch the Wet is to sit still, absolutely still and let it come to you, I have explained to the Fast often.
The Fast is friend, it makes leaves turn round and round and the buzzing things spin and the flying things tumble and flutter. But it can’t be still and it can’t let the Wet be. It is difficult to be the Fast.
I am happy to be Mao. I don’t want to be the Fast or the Wet. I can sit here and watch them and the others. I don’t want to run after them. I don’t want them to run after me. The Wet should stay out, the Fast should slow down. I can then go and see if there is something in the holes I found right where the mud lies banked up along the path.
A door opens. I know the foot-steps. It is Food-mother.
No, I don’t want to sit on the soft thing the Food-mother has brought. It smells of strange smells, not of Food-mother or mud or crushed snails or dry leaves. When the Wet goes away, I will take the soft thing outside and roll it about in the mud and the moving things that live in the mud. Then I will sit on it. Till then I will sit right here, it is hard and cold here and I cannot roll about but it will do.
The Fast has come yelling back and is among the Big Greens again but the Wet is retreating. There are patches of light in the dark. Soon the Wet will be gone.
I must lick and clean the places where the Wet has touched me.
Flying things are coming out of the Big Greens. The Wet is lying outside on the ground. It is quite done and tired.
‘Be still,’ I scold the Fast, ‘be still now.’
The Fast is crying. It is difficult to be friend of the Fast.
The flying things are chattering everywhere. It is light and the smells are just right.
There are moving things all around, they are slipping and slithering and skittering.
There are many sounds of dripping and trickling and gurgling. The furry things are clicking and calling and chattering. The Wet is leaving.
It is the Small One. It is friend but this is no time for scratching or patting. I don’t want to stop here anymore. The Wet has left. I need to find out where the hopping thing has disappeared. There is something peeping from under the leaves. There are sounds—crunching, ticking, rustling. I need to check them. Ok, just one last time, here, below my chin. It is difficult to be friend of the Small One.
I must go and look for the Big Warm now. I know he is out there somewhere.
Anukrti Upadhyay has post-graduate degrees in Management and Literature, and a graduate degree in Law. She writes fiction and poetry in both English and Hindi. Her English works, twin novellas Daura and Bhaunri and novel Kintsugi have been published by 4th Estate imprint of Harpercollins in India and have been nominated for awards. She has been awarded the Sushila Devi Award for the best work of fiction written by a woman author in 2020 for Kintsugi. Her Hindi works, a short story collection, Japani Sarai, and novel Neena Aunty, have been published by Rajpal and Sons. Her writings have appeared in Scroll.in, Kitaab.sg, The Bombay Review, The Bangalore Review, The Bilingual Window and several Hindi publications. She has worked for global investment banks, Goldman Sachs and UBS, in senior positions and now works with Wildlife Conservation Trust. She divides her time between Mumbai and the rest of the world and when not counting trees and birds, she can be found ingratiating herself with every cat and dog in the vicinity.
Devapriya Roy is the author of three novels , The Vague Woman’s Handbook, The Weight Loss Club and Friends from College, and one book of narrative non-fiction, The Heat and Dust Project, co-written with husband Saurav Jha, the story of a mad journey across India on a very very tiny budget. In 2018, she published Indira, a graphic biography of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in collaboration with artist Priya Kuriyan. An alumna of Presidency College, Calcutta, and JNU, New Delhi, she is currently obsessed with translating Tagore’s Gora.