It is evening for everyone else, but morning for Fatima and Noor. First, Noor stretches, one limb at a time, shakes her head to clear out foggy thoughts and dreams still lingering, and then begins on her toilet, washing her face, her eyes still half closed. In a minute, she will awaken Fatima, who is still a lump under a sheet – outside, it has just stopped pelting rain, and it is the brief half an hour before the next rain begins – and Fatima has stopped snoring, which means, Noor knows, that she’s on the verge of waking up. Noor regards the lumpen sheets, the immovable body, and sighs. She shakes her smoked grey behind and leaps on to the bed, practiced movements that mean her paws land next to and not on, Fatima, who, for all her virtues, hates to be woken up. She threw a steel plate at Noor once, and Noor dodged and retired to a spot Fatima could not reach her, listening to Fatima coax from below, “Please come out, my Noor, my jaan, I promise I’ll never do that again.” Eventually, Noor appeared, green and gold eyes on Fatima and accepted the piece of fried fish that Fatima held out, but since then she’s been wary of waking Fatima too roughly.
She butts her head against Fatima’s forehead and lets her throat throb with purrs. It is the most gentle way Fatima will be woken up, for if she isn’t ready and dressed soon, the madam will appear and pull her roughly out of bed, saying things like, “I don’t spend money for you to be a maharani and lie in bed all day!” Fatima’s breath is hot and moist, tinged with sourness, and Noor knows that she is sick again, what kind of sick, she cannot say, but she knows that when Fatima’s breath smells like this, she is slower to move, slower to react, and her hand on Noor’s back will be clammy with sweat lurking just beneath the surface.
“Mmmf,” says Fatima, her eyes fluttering, like a half-dead fish Noor once saw which had fallen from a basket. Noor had watched the fish thrash a bit on the muddy sidewalk, quite close to the gutter near which she stood, and when it gave its final throe, she had reached out and delicately bit its head off. Thinking of this makes her hungry and she gives an experimental “prreow?” to see if Fatima has anything to feed her. The fish flutter again and then open, Fatima’s large brown eyes, still rimmed with kohl from the day before look at Noor and Noor looks at Fatima. Then Fatima says, “All right, all right, greedy, I did save you some bones from yesterday.” She leaps out of bed – at sixteen, Fatima has not grown into her body as much as the madam would hope, still being gangly and skinny in the wrong places, but she has an energy that people, specifically men people like – and unwraps a newspaper bundle. It is fish bones with a little rice, which Noor accepts;
The first time they met, Noor and Fatima, Noor was just a kitten, alive for about forty five days, and “with less sense,” her mother always told her.
The litter lived, like their mother, in the corner of the market, close enough to the sometimes sympathetic fish ladies to forage, and far enough that the local cats wouldn’t get jealous. Noor’s mother had once been a pet herself, a cat with a flat furry face and small high ears that the fisherwomen tried to catch and sell, but she wouldn’t have it. Noor doesn’t remember much of her mother, but she remembers her mother saying humans were fickle and that cat should depend on upon itself and its own four paws. “Beg from them for food, they are sometimes good for food,” Noor’s mother used to say, licking her kittens from head to paw, “But keep yourself outdoors as much as you can, learn how to catch your own food.” When she purred them to sleep, she’d sometimes tell them stories of houses that were set high in the sky, furry things to sleep on and food whenever you wanted it, always ending with her own warning.
Fatima had been thirteen, newly bought, from Dhaka to Bombay. She had been walking through the market, under the watchful eye of an older girl to see that she didn’t run off, and she had spotted Noor, sticking her inquisitive nose out of their shelter. “Oh didi!” Fatima had cried, grabbing the kitten before Noor could escape, “Oh didi, I had a cat at home! Can I take this one?”
Parvati, who still remembered her own abduction and subsequent beatings at the House, knew also how hard it was to find joy in the poor lives that they led. She is a kind woman, who sometimes lets Noor sleep in her bed, and because of her kindness and vestiges of beauty, she is a popular woman, especially with the young men. The interesting thing is that Parvati has never actually been beautiful, she just looks like someone who once was. This works in her favour, making her appear to be some kind of fading noblewoman, all high cheekboned and well mannered. “Madam might say something,” she told Fatima, “So, hide the little one under your blouse when we get back.”
Noor cried a little about leaving her littermates, but Fatima cried too, loud enough that one of the other women shouted out for her to be quiet and stop “mewling like a kitten.” Parvati had produced some milk and bread, and this they fed Noor, until she had enough, her stomach round like a drum, satiated, she crawled into Fatima’s lap and learned about her new life.
The first thing she learned was who was friendly and who wasn’t. Some of the women drew up their feet when they saw her, “Ai hai, a cat, they’re bad luck! Who brought one in here?” Some, remembered old childhood pets, and gave her a stroke if she happened to put her nose in their rooms. The woman they called Madam had good moods and bad ones. In the former, she’d let Noor settle down for a nap on her desk at the front of the house, where she sat, watching the women and the men who came in and out. In the latter, she’d hiss, much like a cat herself, “Not one of you turning a profit, and there’s this cat also in my household! If I could whore her out, I would, but never let me see her again!”
It was in Noor’s second month there that the men began to come for Fatima. She could feel Fatima’s nervousness all day, her weeping notching up to higher and higher decibels, her refusal to eat or feed Noor. “Don’t be like this, Fatima,” said Parvati, stopping to stroke Fatima’s head, and then tickle Noor’s hungry stomach, “It happens to all of us. What do you think they brought you to Bombay for?”
“I thought I would be a maidservant, didi,” Fatima said, weeping, “They said I’d be a maidservant. I was studying at home, and my father made me go with the man, but he didn’t touch me, so I thought he would keep his word.”
“So much. There was very little work in the village.”
“It is the same story for a lot of us,” Parvati sighed, “For me, it was a lover, I was foolish, but he said he would marry me and bring me to a big city. Pah! Instead I was drugged and woke up here with my legs tied to a wall.”
Fatima wailed louder and Noor jumped off the bed to hide under it.
“It’s a man’s world, Fatima. We just live in it. Who knows why god made us women?”
The madam came in just then and frowned at them. “Fatima, you have to work. Go get ready immediately. Parvati, don’t just sit there, there is someone for you in the back room.” Noor put her head out hoping someone would feed her. “Feed the cat,” the madam said, “It might bring you good luck.” This made her laugh, a throaty chuckle, which came out sounding burbly because of the paan in her mouth. “You’ll need the good luck. Go get ready and come and see me.”
Noor was carried away by Parvati and fed by the kitchen window. “Ah cat,” said Parvati, obviously in no hurry to get to her appointment, “Cat, you’re perhaps the luckiest one here.”
As darkness gave way to Bombay’s dirty dawn, muezzins’ calls echoed through their lane, and Noor woke up from her nap to have Parvati scoop her up and carrying her through the rooms till they came to Fatima. Fatima smelt different to Noor, an undertow aroma of something deeper and more dangerous. “There will never be a first time again,” said Parvati, putting Noor down by Fatima, “And you’ll get used to this life. Now, name your cat. Her kismet is yours.”
“My younger sister was called Noor,” Fatima managed.
“Noor then. It’s a nice name. Feed her and go to sleep.”
“Good night yesterday,” someone says to Fatima.
Noor is sitting at the head of the stairs, from where she can see everything, and washing her back. Her suede-like ears swivel to catch ordinary and extraordinary noises. Someone has left the radio on, it’s crooning Bollywood dance. Somewhere a tubelight is fizzing with power. The rain has begun again, tapping out a rhythm on the tarpaulin placed over a section of the balcony to make a room. In the last three years, business has picked up, but the house hasn’t, it’s still pokey and small, but maybe it just seems small to Noor who has been everywhere and seen everything. Now Madam insists on having Noor around whenever she can be contained, because she is a well fed, sleek cat, with her mother’s bushy tail and long fur and her unknown father’s china painting colouring, all slanty lines and brush strokes.
Fatima emerges from the shared toilet, a toothbrush stuck into her mouth, her hair unbraided and hanging loose about her shoulders. She sometimes plays with Noor with this hair, lies Noor on her back like a kitten and sits above her, curtains of hair dangling on either side of them. Noor is too dignified for games now, but this one she likes, especially when it’s just her and Fatima, and she can rub her face against Fatima’s chin, feeling for the small scar at the base of it.
“I’m not feeling well,” says Fatima, through her toothbrushed mouth, and the other woman says, “What?” and Fatima spits and repeats herself.
“You want to be careful, sister,” says the other woman, “This weather is full of fevers.” As if to ward one off, she pulls her sari palloo around herself a little tighter. “I got sick two weeks ago, and I’m sure I gave it to every man that came along.”
“Small comfort,” says Fatima, and they both laugh, but bitterly.
Fatima has been in the house for three years now, and even though she is no beauty, she is regarded as a steady earner by the madam. She reminds the men of some woman they left behind in their youth, still soft around the edges, with a vulnerable mouth and eyes that beg you to look after the owner. She has a sudden honking laugh that makes her a great favourite at parties, where she goes with another woman to entertain a group of five or more men, splitting the money after. No one is really a beauty in the house, the madam doesn’t have enough money to buy a girl from a village known for its pretty girls, so they all make do with what they have.
“Come, Noor.” Fatima picks her up the way Noor likes to be picked up, buttocks supported by her thin, strong arms. “Let’s go say our salaams to Abida-di, and begin our day.”
Abida-di is the oldest woman in the house, and is also dying of AIDS. She may not even be that old, but she has been in the house since the madam took over, which gives her seniority over all the others. She can no longer earn enough to pay her keep, but she has a daughter who works at a house a few doors down, who contributes a little to her mother’s upkeep. In return, Abida-di works as the maid, sweeping up in the morning and cleaning the house, although she has been bedridden for the last two weeks and Noor has heard the women whispering that she might soon be thrown out.
“Hello, Abida-di,” Fatima pauses at the doorway to the storeroom, where Abida-di sleeps, waiting for Abida-di’s croaky, “Fatima? Is that you?” And then she enters, placing Noor at the end of the bed. Noor hates the smell of death, and it is rich in this corner of the house, but she makes herself go forward like a well-mannered cat, and receives a soft benediction on the top of her head. This duty done, she paces to the end of the room, examining it for mice. It is her job to keep the pests away, and this is a duty she follows faithfully.
The women believe it is good luck to be blessed by Abida-di before they begin working, good luck and it will keep the disease away. There is a big jar of condoms in the main room, by Madam’s desk, but that’s more like a suggestion than something they can force on their customers. Other women pop in and out, and Fatima, who remembers Abida-di’s hurried kindness to her as a child, lingers by the bed. “I’m not feeling well,” she grumbles, and Abida-di coughs and says, “For a long time?”
“No, no, just today.”
“Don’t worry, child. Have some milk and haldi. It’ll help the cough.”
“No cough,” says Fatima, “Just fever.”
“It will help the fever then.”
Noor decides to leave them to it, and hops on a table towards the window, which is latched shut against the monsoon. She meows, and Fatima comes over to open it. “Off then?” Fatima says, in the loud, jokey tone she uses for Noor around Abida-di, as if joking will make the room a little less heavy, “Done your salaams? Go, go. May you have good business.” The window creaks open and Noor jumps out on a window ledge and into the night.
First she must walk past the dirty back street they are on, which she picks through, paw by paw, so that her fur doesn’t get wet.
She avoids the heaps of trash, even though other, lesser cats forage there for food, Noor doesn’t lower herself to garbage diving, no matter how delectable the garbage smells. Leave that to the rats and the crows and the stray cats with one eye and scabby bodies, stray cats who don’t know the pleasure of being stroked firmly or being able to jump onto a soft mattress with cotton feet.
At the end of the alley, she pauses and waits, and sure enough, the little boy she is expecting appears in the window, his face behind the iron bars looking lined and worn. But he smiles a gappy smile when he sees her, his front two teeth are triangles, and he says, “Cat! Milk!” This is the place where people live in rooms and there’s always a smell of cooking, but not pleasant cooking, and the men who come back to it in the evening are usually not the same men who visit Fatima, they are tired and stoop backed and do not even have the energy to kick out at a cat. However, in this tall house with many rooms, there are a few children, and it is for one of them that Noor makes an evening call, and here he is now, bearing a little steel dish out in front of him with two hands, carefully so he won’t spill it. He calls her “Pari,” for “fairy,” and he’s not like the other children who will stroke her, but roughly, this boy has gentle hands, as if he was the fairy not her. The meals he feeds her are poor substitutes for what she normally gets, or even what she can forage, but she stops anyway, because he gazes at her in adoration, and rubs the tip of her nose when he dares, and all cats need adoring by at least one person.
Today it is a cold potato, a scrap of roti and a tablespoon of milk over the whole thing. She licks at the milk, ignores the potato and takes a nibble at the roti before twining herself through his legs. He stands very still, not daring to believe his good luck, but when she tilts her chin to look up at him, he bends at the waist and lets her go back and forth beneath his sticky palms. Then she moves away, licks her back fur into shape and jumps on to a wall. “Bye Pari,” he says, holding the dish, and she glances back at him long enough for him to see her pupils dilate in farewell and then bounds away.
Now she is approaching the market, now her ears swivel for sounds of snacks frying, people walking past rapidly, a taxi splashing through puddles. She hears the shouts of men telling people to move out of their way, and stays out of their way herself, passing by doorways where women and girls huddle because of a power blackout, watching the street. The rain has slowed to a grumbling drizzle, there are people darting around under black umbrellas, but mostly, in her neighbourhood, they move bareheaded. The first day of the rains, everyone is delighted, children dashing into the street, people smiling wider and wider at each other, but this is now the sixth week, and people are tired of the mess, the smell that gets into everything, the mould and the mud.
Up the stone frets now of a house that looks abandoned, but isn’t, the insides filled with human presence – she passes a room with a glass showcase and a great crystal chandelier, and a bedroom with a deep, maroon carpet, a girl plucking on a sitar thoughtfully, a man blowing on his saucer of tea, children watching TV in one pile on a mattress on the floor, like kittens, eating off plates brought in by another woman. Noor balances on a window sill, rears back and up and she is on her favourite roof, locked from the outside, full of moss and saplings of trees that threaten to take over the building, crumbling sides that will fall off in grey ash if she brushes against them too hard. Here she contemplates the lights, coming back on now to a great “ah!” from the people in the street, and the distant hum of the city, like an enormous cat in itself.
Soon, from the edges of the building, others begin to emerge, their jewel eyes narrowing and then widening, and they surround her as she sits on her mossy throne, ignoring them all and just gazing off into the distance. Then, slowly, she leaps off and makes her way to the water tank, beckoning with her tail to the large ginger male, one of her favourites, who follows her. She braces herself for his spiked organ, and they yowl a cat’s love duet together: meow-ow-ow-ow-ow into the night. After, he licks her with his rough tongue and another black and white male comes forward, bearing a large fish bone with some scraps of fish still attached. This, Noor examines with the very edges of her whiskers, and then, the same tail movement, the same cat duet, repeated with another smaller ginger, and a black cat, who bring half a piece of kebab and a small, fresh rodent respectively. As soon as they have mated, they leave, and the pile of food in the corner grows bigger. Noor has also buried some of her previous earnings for later, and she examines all the corners to make sure everything is there. Her ginger tom keeps away any cats who might discover her store of food, and in return, she shares with him. Not for her a life of fighting with the street cats. She could, but her dainty paws are more suited for jumping noiselessly onto things, instead of swiping out with claws.
She eats the head of the fish, leaving the tail for later, and then settles in for a long nap. Her ears twitch slightly, but there is no cause for alarm. This way of making her evening meal is not new—it is something she has been trying since she observed the women at work at the house she lives in. Her very first heat, when her body felt consumed with the need to mate, her insides burning, her tail twisting, her mouth constantly open in a call for anyone to take her, she didn’t think of using it as a commodity. Then there was a black one-eyed cat who took her on top of a wheelbarrow in the rubbish pile. It was only afterwards, when the burning stopped, when she was able to contemplate the meaning of it all, that she realized that she was giving it away for free. Her mother had once whispered into her ear about the folly of having kittens. It was another piece of advice Noor barely remembered from her long-ago kitten days, but it resurfaced as she watched the buttocks of a man work furiously between Fatima’s legs. She saw Fatima’s head every now and then, rising and falling, heard Fatima’s theatrical moans, resisted the urge to jump on the man as he groaned and moved more furiously. And when he left, he placed a few notes by her bedside table—“just for you, rani,” he said, with a smirk—before he wandered downstairs to pay the madam. Fatima had recovered quite quickly, and pulled up her salwar, sitting cross legged on the bed, counting the tip. She had seen Noor, and patted a spot next to her on the bed for her to jump up on. “You see, Noor,” she said, “Soon, we’ll have enough money to leave, you and I. We’ll move to a village where no one knows us, and I’ll make chicken curry every day, and maybe we’ll get a buffalo to keep us company.” Fatima had been telling Noor this story since they were both kittens. Sometimes the buffalo was a man, a nice man, Fatima would say, the kind of man who would treat them both like princesses. “He will insist that I always cover my face in front of strangers,” she sighed to Noor, “He will buy me real gold bangles, and maybe we can get you a little collar made of silver. And when I die, our sons will bury me, and everyone will mourn the passing of a pious and noble lady.” Sometimes Noor wondered if Fatima ever realized that there was no life beyond the one they had, that happiness could be had by just a long nap after lunch, or that you were lucky to make it from one day to the next alive. She doubted it. Humans didn’t have such foresight.
It was that evening that she set out to the market, her usual walk, when she saw a white and grey patched male who indicated that he wanted her by sniffing her tail. Very deliberately, she moved away from him and gestured with her whiskers towards the fish stall. He didn’t understand immediately, but she refused to go anywhere with him until he walked confused to a basket full of fish. Now she darted up to him, curling her tail like a question mark, and he tried to follow her again. Again, she hissed to detract him, and slowly, indicated the fish. He picked up a piece of fish and followed her, and now she chirped at him, leading him under a parked car, the most private place she could find. Now she licked the fish, hissing at him if he came too close, and when she was reassured about the quality of it, she licked him, and finally let him mate with her. This process was repeated with the other cats who showed an interest, and in signals, they passed it on, so she was always well fed and full of suitors.
Kittens, ah, Noor could tell people a few things about being a mother. She rolls over on to her back, begins to extravagantly groom her stomach. The first set of kittens she ever had was from the first mating, she was barely six months old herself and didn’t know how to look after them. They were small, hairless, blind things, and she killed two herself by sitting on them. One was carried away by a kite when she wasn’t looking, and the other attacked by a territorial tom. The one that was left grew into its blue-
Noor has been having her kittens quietly and privately now in various parts of the neighbourhood. She finds a house that looks like it could use a kitten – usually where the inhabitants point her out as “such a beautiful cat” and she lives under their stairwell or on their terrace, with her litter. If she calls enough at a door, someone will put out a bowl of milk or some bread – she takes as much as she can to her kittens and shows them how to wash themselves, how to butt their heads against human hands to show that they need petting, how to roll on their backs and wave their paws—claws retracted, of course—to show how vulnerable they are. When they are ready, she drops two of her brood at the door of the flat that has been kind to her, they will be her present. The others she takes to a public area, and observes them jumping around from a distance. If someone seems cruel, she darts out and hisses at them, if it is a woman who stops, and it is usually women, she watches, as the woman coos over the kittens, and then Noor bounds out weaving in and out of the woman’s legs as the woman picks one up. Sometimes humans think she will miss her kitten, so they leave without taking any, and in these cases, Noor calls after them, again and again, till they pick up a kitten, and then she purrs deeply and loudly, so they’ll know they’ve made the right choice. Some of her kittens live close by, and she’ll amuse herself by landing on their windowsill. They don’t all recognise her and then they’ll hiss, but she likes to see them wax fat and cheerful. All but one have happy homes in the three litters she’s brought forth, and that one is a starveling nine month old, but she cannot interfere, her job is done, and apart from a vague sense of achievement, she feels nothing for them at all. Far greater is her attachment to Fatima, who cries every now and then, who needs Noor to lay the whole length of her body across her and purr till she’s soothed.
The lights are coming on, one by one across the street, tubelights flickering, strings of coloured balls aglow, pulsing with heat. The sounds from the road are louder now, there’s music playing as the bazaar gets ready, hawkers announce their wares and cars honk at the build up of pedestrians. It is almost time for Noor to make a round of another area, not far away, but with a different set of cats and food.
Once, she had not had a good month, and her fur was falling out, and her throat was hoarse from meowing. Fatima too had not had a good month, and the madam had thrown a glass at her and Noor, telling her to “get rid of that cat, for once and for all.” That once Noor had been on the streets, unable to go back home, and finally, she lay down underneath a car to die. Out of the darkness, she awoke to find herself on a steel table, a man lifting up her tail to check underneath her and a woman’s hand stroking her back and forth and back and forth. “Poor little thing,” the woman had said, in a low, lovely voice, and Noor discovered her purr again and turned it on for this new woman. The man injected her with something, and it was sleep again, blissful long sleep, and when she awoke, she was inside a house very different from her old one. Here there were low beds and cushions that no one shooed her off and a bowl of food always full. She examined the new stitches across her belly and licked and worried at them, till the woman came in and made her stop. Here there was a brush, a soft bristled brush, that the woman used to tease at her fur till it grew long and smooth again, and many people who came and went, but who did not stay. Here there was always someone to rub underneath her chin, stroke that sweet spot till she extended her neck and closed her eyes. Noor learned to respond to Lysistrata, her new name, and learned to sit behind a warm laptop, body and legs extended while the woman typed away, occasionally reaching out to stroke her. There were no more excursions, no need to forage for food, and Noor spent her days ticking off the regular schedule, waiting for the woman who cleaned the floors and sang to her, waiting for her woman, who sometimes went out, but always came home and rubbed her behind her ears.
But then the woman went away, and Noor had examined the suitcase the woman placed on the bed, not understanding, and the woman had said, “I’ll be back, darling Lysistrata,” but humans lied, they lied all the time, and when it was two days and the woman wasn’t back, even though the other woman who swept the floors made sure to keep Noor’s bowl full, it was time for Noor to make her own living again. As soon as she could slip out of the bathroom window, she did, and made her way jumping from ledge to ledge, and oh, this wasn’t right, this wasn’t where the woman went, but Noor’s instincts led her down two roads and across another, until she was in front of a door, and another woman was coming out and she gasped, “Is that you, Noor?” and Noor realized it was Fatima she was searching for all along.
She still sometimes thinks of the other woman, but she does not know her way back there, having never left and returned.
By the time Noor is back at the house, it is almost morning, and she climbs into Fatima’s bedroom window knowing that she will be almost done.
Fatima is, in fact, done, she is combing her hair with a black plastic comb and rubbing oil into it. She sees Noor and smiles, and Noor wanders over to be stroked, firmly, from her head to the tip of her tail, just as she likes it.
Fatima says, “It was a good evening, Noor,” and Fatima unwraps a piece of newspaper and places two pieces of raw chicken kidney on the steel plate, which Noor eats, and Fatima refills her bowl of water, and after Noor drinks, she sits on Fatima’s lap and closes her eyes.
“When we move to the village, you’ll have chicken every day,” says Fatima, rubbing between Noor’s ears, “And you’ll have fresh milk from the buffalo. What shall we call her? And we will both have husbands – of course I’ll find you a husband! – and you and I shall raise lots of children together.” Noor has not had any kittens since she left the woman, but she doesn’t disagree with Fatima.
“Where will the village be, my Noor? I think we should go to Kerala, that’s far away from here, and Sunita tells me in her village they have coconut trees that belong to everyone, so we can have coconut milk in our fish whenever we like. And maybe we’ll be by the sea, a nice sea, not like this dirty Bombay one, and maybe my husband will be a fisherman, but a rich fisherman, who goes to Dubai and brings me gold.”
Fatima’s eyes are closing. Noor purrs louder. “Maybe,” Fatima says, sleepily, “Maybe he’ll come here tomorrow and he’ll whisk me away, and I’ll say, ‘Not without my Noor.’”
She is asleep. Noor closes her eyes too. They dream of far away.
Excerpted with permission from Before And Then After: Stories, Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, Westland Books.