She’s the fog that curls to sleep in T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and springs to the role of composed fence-sitter in George Orwell’s world of warring animals. Grinning, unnerving philosopher in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland; symbol of motherhood in J.M. Coetzee’s The Old Woman and the Cats, and the reason Dick Whittington becomes a millionaire in Puss in Boots. Not quite literature’s best-kept secret, but the cat may well be its most underrated muse.
While man’s best friend has faithfully stuck to either trotting alongside picnic baskets in children’s fiction or playing brave rescuer, the cat has gone from innocent kitten to ultimate Machiavellian. From nursery rhyme, to nonsense verse, to social commentary to political allegory, the unfettered feline, for decades, has walked off with all the cream.
Feline charm: Cats, the musical, ran for 18 years on Broadway. Effie/Wikimedia Commons
Eliot, who debated extending his classic Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (which inspired the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats), to include dogs as well, told Paris Review in 1959 that dogs “simply didn’t lend themselves to verse quite so well, collectively, as cats.” Old Possum’s Book is a delightful window into the schizophrenic world of cats, in all their narcissistic, lovable, lazy, fiendish glory. It goes from pondering the naming of cats to the tale of “fiend in feline shape”, Macavity.
“There’s a certain naïveté you associate with dogs, which is why having a dog in the story makes it an obviously children’s story,” says Pallavi Aiyar, whose recently released Chinese Whiskers has two cats, Soyabean and Tofu, as protagonists. “Cats, on the other hand, work wonderfully for cross-over fiction that lends itself to a variety of layers, and can be read differently by children or adults,” says Aiyar, whose book is an allegory about a rapidly modernizing Chinese society. “Cats slink around, watch from treetops, hide in garbage bins, eavesdrop in conversations, pick up on the air of changes: You can impute a richer psychological world to the cat,” she adds.
The cat is perched between domesticity and the world outside, a pet that is its own master. This duality may explain why it has simultaneously been worshipped (as in ancient Egypt) and considered a symbol of evil (black cats were associated with wizardry and witchcraft in Pagan Europe). Authors have paid generous tribute to this mystique with almost “every second cat in literature being extremely powerful, or magical (with the “vanishing act” being a recurrent theme), or a combination of both,” says Ajanta Dutt, lecturer of English Literature at Delhi University. Carroll’s Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland is inexplicably powerful (even more than the king and queen, and prone to sudden disappearances, although uncomfortably enough, his grin always remains. The Carroll-inspired Sukumar Roy’s Hojoborolo, a Bengali children’s short story, has a cat appearing out of a handkerchief, and slipping back to being the handkerchief at the end of the tale. Bengali poet Jibanananda Das’ poem Bedaal describes a cat that gathers darkness and pats it into balls with its paws—that’s how night comes about. “The subtext, in all these references, is that of an animal that is all-powerful, even more than the humans around him,” says Dutt.
“Cats, like authors, are solitary, and they love their independence, which is why they are a great pet for the author,” says Aiyar. The point however—and authors would agree—is that the cat seems to like the author back.