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 somewhere else.
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.