Today I formally complete a year in the active service of cats — a year that feels like a lifetime because, thanks to COVID-19, a better part of it was spent at home in their company. It was on the night of 8 January 2020 that I found two cats, not more than four or five months old, peeping into my verandah from the grille gate.
At the time I only had Dude, who was more of a visitor
than a pet — which is how he still is. Sometimes he would come every day,
sometimes he would be missing for days, even weeks; if I happened to I spot him
on the streets, he would sometimes make a noise in recognition and sometimes
look through me. When he came home he never expected to be fed; he just wanted
to spend some time and enjoy the attention. It was in his company that I wrote Aimless in Banaras.
Dude was home when these two kittens showed up exactly
a year ago. Hearing me make welcoming sounds to them, he sauntered out to the
verandah to take a look. He wasn’t quite amused by the visitors, but at the
same time remained indifferent. I got some milk for the two tiny ones, and that
was that — they stayed on. I named them Chunnu and Munnu.
The wife, when she noticed them a few days later,
renamed them Tinni and Minni, which worked out well because soon the two were joined
by their sibling, who was conveniently named Rinni.
So there was Dude; and there was the trio of Tinni, Minni and
Rinni. I began to order cartons of Amul milk from a neighbourhood shop and
Whiskas on Amazon. In no time the three were joined by their mother, who was
promptly named Linda by the wife, who strictly adheres to the convention of
giving English names to pets.
Cats being cats, while they liked to be fed by me,
they wouldn’t allow me to touch them. They remained suspicious of me for a long
time in spite of my giving them food and cleaning their poop. Eventually they
came around, one by one. The most joyous moment was when Minni — the most
beautiful and expressive of them, the most
beautiful I’ve ever seen — allowed me to stroke her. As the proximity with them
grew, I discovered Linda wasn’t their mother after all: she had testicles. She
was renamed Jason.
One fine afternoon I discovered that Minni, my
favourite, was pregnant. The bulge in her tummy was growing by the day. I cushioned
a carton with rugs to make things easier for her, but the night she went into
labour (precisely when Modi was making his atmanirbhar
speech), she left home, with her siblings following her.
The following morning the rest of the cats returned. I
was hurt that Minni had chosen to deliver elsewhere. The same evening she too
returned, her stomach no longer bulging. She began sticking to me longer than
usual, and that made me wonder whether she indeed had a kitten or kittens lying
Then, on the morning of May 20, just hours before
Cyclone Amphan hit Calcutta, she bought a kitten in her mouth. At first I
thought it was a mouse and began chasing her out, but she pleaded with me to
let her stay. This encounter was as human as it could get and even today fills
me with guilt. The moment I realised it was her baby and not a mouse, I lifted
them both and placed them in the carton, which I hadn’t dismantled.
Minni, however, was too small herself to be a
responsible mother, and two days later the kitten died. The death was followed
another discovery, that Tinni was now pregnant. The culprit was none other than
the one we thought to be their mother: Jason.
Tinni, unlike Minni, wasn’t the emotionally dependent
kind; therefore I didn’t find the need to set up a carton once again. On May 28
— yes, I remember the dates by now — I saw Tinni on my bed, feeding her
newborn. It was so tiny that I instinctively named it Chhotu.
Each morning I would walk down into my study wondering
whether I would find Chhotu alive. I would exhale in relief when I found that
he has. Chhotu was exactly two months old when Tinni, his mother, disappeared. Fortunately,
he had begun eating solid food by then, but he was suddenly lonely. He wanted to
play with Minni, his aunt, but she was pregnant once again and didn’t appear
inclined to indulge him. But over time, she adopted him and when she once again
delivered — three kittens this time — on August 18, Chhotu was the happiest. He
had not only got new playmates but he was also getting to drink Minni’s milk.
She would feed him and lick him as if he too was her newborn.
Ila, Bella, Stella — these were the names given to the
new ones. When they were a little over two months old, Ila and Bella
disappeared. Stella, who was bonding with Chhotu, stayed put. Then one morning,
Chhotu, about seven months old by now, also disappeared: only the night before he
had been extra cuddly.
By the time I left for Banaras the day before
Christmas, there were only two resident cats: Minni and Stella (renamed Steven
once it developed genitals). There was, of course, Dude, who likes exclusivity
and now prefers to spend time upstairs; and there was Rinni (the sister of
Tinni and Minni), who regularly came for food. From Rinni’s belly, I could tell
she too had given birth and was still feeding her newborn(s): I was curious to
take a look but, after all the emotional rollercoaster, was glad that she had
given birth out of my sight.
The morning after I returned from Banaras, as soon as
I opened the doors of my study to let in sunlight, I found a tiny and
exceptionally hairy kitten curled up on the bed I’ve created for the cats in
the verandah. It was Rinni’s kitten. When I stroked its head, it woke up and
looked at me in alarm — the most beautiful kitten! It sprang out and went out
of my reach and regarded me from a distance: “Who the hell is he!”
Rinni, who could never fully overcome her suspicion of
me, had obviously brought the little one here in my absence because she felt it
safe. But now that I was back, the kitten could no longer occupy the verandah
and at the same time not go back to where it had come from. As a result, the
tiny thing caught a cold and once the condition got worse, it surrendered. I
arranged for oral drops and a nasal spray and handfed it boiled fish. Today, about
a week later, the kitten who ran away from me insists on sitting on my lap.
In fact, both are sitting on my lap as I write this: Steven
and the little one. These are all I have at the moment. I am not counting Dude,
who remains a visitor, and Minni, whose behaviour has suddenly changed after my
return from Banaras; she’s overnight become quiet and withdrawn and hardly
comes anymore; the primary reason, I suspect, is the presence of the tiny one.
As the two cousins sit on my lap, I am trying to enjoy their warmth
as much as I can. One doesn’t know how long it’s going to last. That’s the
thing with cats: you can never be sure. Unlike dogs, they have a mind of their
own and do their own thing, and sometimes, in doing their own thing, become
vulnerable to circumstances.
But I’ve learned to live with these uncertainties. All
thanks to Banaras. In the earlier days, I would rely on the maid for the poop
to be cleaned. On most days, I paid her extra money for this unpleasant job.
Then I told myself: “If I can feed them, why can’t I clean their shit. The
person I am asking to clean is also a human like me.” I realised that I was
doing a far better job than her. Why did I say Banaras? Because Banaras teaches you that
nothing is too disgusting, and that life gives you both: flowers and shit.
And then, Banaras also teaches you that life is all
about arrivals and departures — it is not in your hands to restrict either, you
can only learn to live with them. The cats don't belong to me anyway; I didn't go looking around to adopt them, they came to me. Our common maker has merely assigned me the job of feeding them and cleaning their shit as long as they are with me. So here I am, glad that I could put some of
the learning to use.