Saturday, June 2, 2012

This Procession

Yaksha: Kimashcharyam? (What is the strangest thing?)
Yudhishthira: Every moment people are dying all around, yet man thinks he is immortal.

We called her Mini. Mini is a generic name in Bengali for all she-cats, just as Hulo holds for all Toms. We did not feel the need to give her any specific name. One just needed to call her: “Mini Mini . . . tch tch tch . . .aay aay aay”, and within a few seconds our milky-white cat would come running, from wherever she had been – her salt-n-pepper tail held high in anticipation.

She was very pretty, in a motherly fashion. A soft, full, round body, but not plump. With a sweet meow. The face was round, the eyes bluish grey.

She was a real lokkhi cat if there ever was one, but then you might not know what lokkhi means. Lokkhi means goodness, contentment and right conduct -- all these things personified, just what you would expect from the goddess Lakshmi. Lokkhi chhele (good boy), lokkhi meye (good girl), like that . . .  Unlike the other cats we had at various times, Mini never displayed that catlike urge to stealthily grab a piece of fish or mutton from our plates and run away. She would take her usual place by the right side of Father and wait patiently –– until Father would reward her with a morsel or two. The picture is still vivid in my mind’s eyes the way Mini would take up a very tidy posture at the time of eating. There was nothing cumbersome or disorderly in her manner. The tail nicely tucked to one side of her body, the arms and legs drawn closer, the pink tongue vigorously active. We were lucky to have her among us.

Have you ever seen a cat sitting guard over fish that has just been brought from the market? Mini would do just that. Mother would just had to admonish her: “Mini, I am going for a few moments, don’t touch the fish in the bowl”, and Mini will silently consent.

Mini had nothing of the arrogance and aloofness that is so typical of cats, even of the pet ones. One would not often find her walking over the wooden rafters of the roof and looking down at us disdainfully. Even when she took that walk over the rafters, she did it with the express purpose of chasing a mouse, or shifting her cubs to a safer place.

Shifting her cubs was one thing she had to do often. But before I tell you more about that, I must add that I was between five to eight years old at the period when Mini graced our lives by her company. Now, coming back to the point, Mini’s laying cubs was a big occasion in the house. Either Mother would discover this and tell us, or it was the other way round. For a kid like me, it was every time a novelty when after waking up in the morning the first thing that entered my ears was the soft meow of the kittens. It was a matter of minutes to find where the mother kept the kittens. My greatest urge was to touch and pick up one or two of the cubs, primarily to investigate if like all the other kittens, this lot too had their eyes shut (they take a few days to open up, you know). Mini was so good that she would even allow us handling her cubs to a certain extent, and that was quite a big concession considering the aggressive protectiveness that is intrinsic of all cat-moms nursing their newborn cubs. But mind I said ‘to a certain extent’. Even our Mini had a limit of tolerance, and when we crossed that, she would shift the cubs to another secret place.

The main reason for shifting cubs frequently, of course, lay elsewhere. There were many tomcats in the vicinity and that was a real danger. Now you know, nature has ordained the male cats to seek to kill the newborn cubs – a cruel but universal phenomenon. Thus the initial days of the cubs’ lives are very demanding on the mother – she has to protect, feed, train and discipline them, and at the same time also manage to sneak away for a few minutes to feed herself.

There was this guava tree I must mention here, otherwise my story will not be complete. It grew just by our puja room and I had spent, along with my friends, a considerable part of my childhood atop this tree. It was also a favourite spot for Mini to sharpen her claws. From top to bottom of the trunk, the bark was covered with scratch marks made by her.

Inconspicuous to us, Mini was getting old. She lost some weight and her gait was not so easy. She would prefer to lie most of time in the sun and ate less. Mother told us that twelve was a good age for a cat to live, and perhaps it was time she would die. When a cat dies, she usually tries to move afar from the house where she has spent her years. This is quite a mystery. But before this was to take place, something else happened which still sits like a stone on my chest and perhaps is the reason for writing this story here.

It was an autumn evening. The days had become considerably shorter and our playtime in the evening too had shortened. I had just returned home at dusk and after washing had heard a rustling sound in the darkness coming from the guava tree. Were a flock of parrots destroying the fruits – something that should be prevented? I walked to the tree; nothing could be seen in the darkness. I gently shook the tree and it swayed. More rustling sound from up there, as if something was struggling to keep its hold. I shook more vigorously. A white something fell from the height of about ten feet on to the disused wooden table that was lying just beneath the tree. Oh God, it was Mini! I fervently hoped nothing would happen to her. After all a fall of just ten feet is nothing to a cat, isn’t it? Mother and sister rushed our hearing my scream. Everybody was anxious, on the verge of crying. Mini was not able to move much. Mother brought some water and fed her with a spoon. Mini was leaving us. She was going to heaven where her place was sure to be.

In a couple of minutes Mini died. Her death came holding these very hands of mine, someone who loved her so much. To this day I cannot fully make peace with that. This blog, perhaps, is an attempt towards atonement?

It was my first acquaintance with death in all its starkness. Someone, with us just a few moments back, and now, gone, forever. The eternal procession – neither with a beginning nor with an end – had displayed at that very moment a glimpse of itself to me, but I was perhaps too young to fathom that. Later, as I grew older and encountered more deaths, the more the turmoil I felt on each occasion. Now, at 53, it strikes with great force every day that some time, unobtrusively, I too have become a fellow traveller in this procession!