The doorbell rings, and we stiffen.
It’s a regular morning at our home in Mumbai. I’m getting ready for work, R has already started tapping at his laptop, and we’re discussing how we’re going to coordinate our schedule to reach the venue where we’re producing a comedy show that night, by 7 PM. When we hear the bell, we give each other a “Did you order anything?” look. No, we hadn’t. So, who was ringing the bell at 8 AM?
R and I had moved in together a couple of months back. We’d found a tiny apartment in a calm and peaceful locality and were paying more rent than the flat deserved. That sounds like every Bombay story, I know. What also sounds like every Bombay story is that we had really struggled to get a flat.
We weren’t married, and we had freelance jobs. We were on a pretty tight budget. We had exactly a month to figure everything out, or at least one of us would be homeless. We’d somehow convinced R’s ex-landlord to give us one of his flats – he liked to think he was progressive and hadn’t batted an eye at the “live-in” situation.
The building society secretary, however, didn’t like the word progressive. Somehow, we had convinced him that the wedding was in December that year (shubh mahurat and all that) and got the house. But we still felt anxious every time the doorbell rang. Was the music too loud? Had they seen our friend leave at 4 AM? Were they checking how the wedding prep was going?
I opened the door. Building uncle was standing, twirling his white moustache, frown so permanent that the creases were a part of his face.
“Aap log billi ko khilate ho?” he growled.
Good morning to you, too, Uncle. And what billi?
“Yahaan billi kyu aata hai? Aap khilate ho?” he asked again.
I peeped outside. There was no billi. Sure, one cat sunbathed in the society garden often and did love to rub himself against R – but no, it wasn’t anywhere near our door, and no, we hadn’t fed it, had we?
“Hum kabhi kabhi paani dete hai,” R conceded. I glared at him – why would he admit it, ugh? In my head, which deals only in extremities, we will be thrown out of the house now. This very moment, in fact. Building uncle had probably rung the bell because this was all one big conspiracy, and he had definitely got police for backup.
While I spiral in my imagination, R glares back. The Mumbai summers have been atrociously hot, and he’s been thoughtful enough to leave water out for the cat every day. R is empathetic like that and very kind. I’m the one with the self-preservation instinct in this relationship.
Uncle isn’t impressed, either. Clearly, kindness is not something he looks for in young men or potential tenants. He’s more concerned with how much these young men earn and how much they’d be willing to donate to the Building Ganpati Puja Fund. R is kind there too. I don’t want trouble there either.
“Paani mat do,” he finally says. “Billi roz aayega. Woh potty karega toh kaun saaf karega?” he asks before he storms off, grumbling under his breath.
The cat literally lives in the small garden within the building society! I’m assuming some families feed him, and some pet him, and if he does potty in the society grounds, someone cleans it. Why do only we have to bear the brunt of Building Uncle’s wrath?
But we don’t leave water outside for the cat again. It’s not a battle we can afford to fight at the moment.
Living as an unmarried couple has made us compromise on all sorts of things. Living in building societies that don’t encourage (or are plain unkind to) animals is just one.
That’s what you get for not following conventional norms in this country.
This is not to say that I’ve always loved cats and wanted one ever since I was a child, or had lots of cats growing up. In fact, far from it. A regular lover of Enid Blyton stories, my fondness for dogs grew with every story I read of Timmy and Scamper and Buster and my favourite, Loony. Kiki even made me consider getting birds, and Bill and Clarissa’s love for horses had made me go through some awkward phase of horse appreciation as well, but not cats.
The only cats I ever loved were Macavity and Gus and that too, at the ripe old age of sixteen, when I first discovered Eliot. In my childhood fan- tasies, I envisioned growing up, having lots of friends and lots of dogs. Cats were noticeably absent. A bit weird, really, since my first friend was a cat.
One of my earliest memories of childhood, one I can picture perfectly in my head, maybe because it was repeated so often as I grew up, was of a stray cat who appeared every day during lunch. Moturam was what the help at home, Mashi, called it – it was either a reference to its size, which I don’t remember, or it was a reference to the way it waited while I sat in my high-chair being fed rice and fish. The leftovers, and the fish bones, would go to Moturam.
I was a lonely child – there were no kids of my age in the neighbourhood, and Moturam was my first friend, friends in a way only people who share food are. Mashi, who had a vivid imagination, spun tales describing the life of Moturam, as I ate – a new adventure every day.
Moturam in search of food, Moturam with his friends, Moturam defeating all the thuggish dogs on the street through his sheer courage and grace. At night if we heard cats wailing, Mashi would say See, Moturam is fighting again or See, Moturam has come to say goodnight, if she desperately needed me to go to sleep.
Moturam had a charmed life; years later, when I read Old Possum’s Book of Cats, so many reminded me of the stories of Moturam. Moturam taught me to share food; Moturam’s was one of the first stories I fell in love with. Yet as I grew older and created my own world of imaginary friends and imaginary dogs, I had no Moturam-equivalent. For a long time, the only cat I knew and loved was Moturam.
Many years later, R and I were asked to cat-sit for friends. I knew nothing of cats, R didn’t either, but his innate kindness somehow won over the otherwise grumpy cat. As we snuggled on the couch, the cat somehow found a way to join us. Left without its humans and clearly suffering from abandonment issues, he followed us into the bedroom at night and perched itself comfortably on my bedside table.
It stared with wide eyes as we undressed and caressed each other, never taking its eyes off us as we made out. The lights were off, but I could feel its penetrating gaze. “It’s a kitten!” I wailed at R. “It’s like making out in front of a kid. We should stop.”
R stilled. We held each other, hoping the cat either went away or went to sleep or at least looked away. It didn’t. Much later, when we’re sure we’re not going to be able to make out more that night, and I’m drifting off to sleep with our clothes still jumbled up at the foot of the bed, I feel the idiot-cat jump on me.
Excerpted with permission from Cat People, edited by Devapriya Roy, Simon & Schuster India.