Paws for thought

Could feeling for one stray cat foster a community in our oft-hard hearted city?

By Gauri Sinh


Come to think of it, I cannot even recall his colouring. He came into my life by chance, suddenly and without warning, as things of significance often do, and his coming marked a paradigm shift in perspective, though I didn’t know it then.

It was Taru who was the catalyst, as she always is somehow, for irrevocable, immense change in my life. “She has only three legs, mamma,” she announced one day. “And she still manages to walk properly.”

I was only half listening, as so often parents do, who have schedules and deadlines and important things to finish (by yesterday!), though really what could be more important than what moves your little one in the now of existence, and how little we realise it.

“We fed her today, Zara and I. And we’re calling her Kitty Meow,” Taru continued, quite used to my loving neglect, the watchful if silent spectre of preoccupied attentivity. “Do you like the name? She’s not got a home yet. May we adopt her?

It was the last sentence that galvanised my direct attention, the real possibility of yet another addition, willy-nilly, to the Sinh household. We were already willing parents to a very old beloved Labrador, one who, incidentally, was the subject of my first book. And unwilling hosts to various creatures of interest shall I say, depending on Taru’s whims and the boldness of said creatures. These included two fat pigeons who thought my home was theirs and I was a temporary if offensive guest, by the alacrity with which they laid an egg every mating season on my cabinet roof.

Then we hosted a fruit bat in the summer, which ate bananas from our kitchen at night, hanging determinedly upside down on the tree facing our verandah in the day. We were in his line of vision 24/7, such a furiously loyal well-wisher, my child believed, even if his rapt interest was somewhat vested.

Also, a chuchundari on odd occasion, to my abject horror. She had managed to find a hole in the washroom drain and used to arrive into our home through the dank secret passages of the building pipelines. She would lovingly help herself to remnants of the labrador’s meal before eating the blue soft pumice stone in the washroom, leaving evidence of her visit by delicate smatterings of blue on my pristine white tiles.

And the huge black raven which arrived through the kitchen window and waited patiently for his share of meat whenever there were mutton preparations to partake of. His arrival always unnerved me, those piercing eyes and that hawk beak, more powerful than the regular crows who were also rather frequent, if unwanted visitors.

To add a cat, that too a stray one, to this mottled menagerie was quite out of the question. “Absolutely NOT,” my tone with Taru had already acquired the slivered-ice proportions that meant there would be no crossing me.

“Okay,” Taru said, unfazed. “I’ll adopt her then. She’ll be my cat in the building.” And that, really, was that.

Taru’s attraction to animals, especially wounded ones was legendary, since birth. I let it rest. What could it matter, feeding one stray cat in the building?

How little we know of this brand of love – it comes in mysterious ways, but it grows and fills and spills, till it permeates everything and everyone in its vicinity. Changes all.

I had allowed Kitty Meow a tiny space in our lives. But in the days and months to come, that grew to encompass a larger universe. Taru fed the cat regularly, cat food was included in our shopping list, as if routine, like dog food. She bought it bowls, for water. Even made it a cardboard box to sleep in, and was singularly chagrined by its utter ungratefulness in choosing the same tree it always did, to sleep in, rather than her tissue-lined comfort box.

In time Taru discovered, to her utter consternation that the ‘she’ was actually a ‘he’. “We realised it when Zara was giving him milk,” she narrated animatedly to me that evening. “But he’s like the dog, ma. He comes up and rubs himself on us when called.”

I began loving these conversations about Kitty Meow (his name itself was quintessential Taru – both comic and wise in its onomatopoeic simplicity). They gave me an insight into her little world, untainted, magical, always surprising. Kitty Meow did that − brought us together more. Not just us, I was to learn.

After dropping our children to the school bus in the morning, I watched Zara’s mother fetch her tin bowl from the building garage. “Kitty Meow’s milk,” she said, as if the most natural thing in the world. And just like that we started discussing how very unique he was, this anomaly of a cat who survived God-knows-what accident at birth, rendering him legless and limping, but ever feisty, still undefeated-valiant on three legs.

Kitty Meow flourished. Under the combined attention of the children and by inclusion, their parents, he grew. Powerful, healthy…doted upon. It was not to last. Two weeks ago, Taru came running up, distraught. “He got into a fight with the next buildings’ cats. He came for the milk but ma, his eye is gone – it’s been torn out. And he had cuts which are bleeding. You have to help…!”

My first thought was – he’s a stray he can take care of himself. Then I wavered. If the injuries were as bad as Taru said they were, then he needed help. How could I refuse? I followed Taru downstairs.

But Kitty Meow nowhere to be found. As I searched, galvanised by my child’s deep anguish, I realised there were other families searching alongside me. “We used to feed him biscuits,” the lady from the 6th floor holding her toddler told me. Zara’s mother was already down. It was one of those nights in Mumbai meant for a movie’s vivid climax. Unexpected rain, furious, and flooding everywhere. Traffic snarls. Animal helplines unanswered. Drama, despair, the gnawing, terrible grief of children.

Finally my husband, trying animal helplines even from the distance of his office, got through to one. Which sent help in a van. But we had to catch Kitty Meow. Desperately injured, frightened Kitty Meow, unwilling to respond, despite all attempts. We searched for hours, under cars, in building garages, in the garden cubby holes, anywhere we thought he might have taken shelter. We searched in the ferocious driving rain, the clanging of bells in the distance − the Elephant Headed One taking leave of the city − somehow upping our urgency.

We searched. Strangers, impersonal if polite, on any given day. Representative of the disconnectedness of any big city, drawn together now, as if a community − one voice, one heart, one love – to locate a three legged, badly injured animal. When did he become so important to us, city-hardened, impatient building dwellers? How were we softened so, this transferred affection of our  involved offspring such a great leveller, to be hunting this way, together, as one body, for long hours, in driving rain?

We never did manage to catch Kitty Meow. Two days later, he was discovered by the building watchmen, dead from his injuries. Hygiene in mind, they disposed of him. The children indeed, even us, we were informed much later. Which brings me to the end of my story.  Or does it?

A three-legged cat, disadvantaged from birth. Hunted and bloodied in battle, fierce and ruthless, the fights of turf war. Grievously injured by his own, resulting in untimely demise. A death, badly mauled, wet, frightened, alone – indeed, what could be worse? What karma did this animal have to atone for, that he was put through so much, in one lifetime? And yet.

The whole is often more than the sum of its parts Body weakened by circumstance, Kitty Meow’s spirit was not weak, we all knew this. Even on three legs he managed. He managed to survive, to thrive, his disadvantage an advantage, once it attracted what most of us spend a lifetime seeking – a pure love. Generous, untainted, transformational – the love of children. It touched him and them and by default, us.

It transformed us then, enough to knit together a group unconnected, uncaring, save for that thread, that precocious, indeterminate thread that binds each to a higher call, a higher cause for maybe just a fleeting moment in time. This cat, in all his disadvantage of existence managed to evoke that feeling − and in so many. I don’t know what you’d call his life, given it was so hard. But recalling our efforts that night, I’d call it one fuelling great love. A love that permeated every barrier, united all it touched. Can there be a higher calling?