Paw in hand, we explore the unspoken, unfathomable depths of our relationship with our animal companions
We didn’t choose the cats; they came to us, one by one, drawn by some mysterious thread.
I will never understand what makes animals trust, and risk, approaching humans. A friend and I discussed this once and she said, laughing, “Just like people leaping into their romances."
But it isn’t the same thing at all. There is a look you see in the eyes of animals who have been hurt by humans, of baffled dread and acceptance. It is common to maimed kittens, beagle pups still bandaged from research experiments, chickens waiting for their turn under the butcher’s knife, an elephant recovering from bullet wounds in a Sri Lankan orphanage, tonga horses whipped down to the bone.
If the human question in the face of suffering is “why me?", the animal question is: “Why did they do this to me?" The risk for strays who trust the wrong person is that they might lose a limb, or their freedom, or their lives.
Tiglath was about seven months old when he made his decision, though we had known him almost from the time he was born. His mother, a delicate beauty with impressive spitting skills, brought him along to join the conga line of the strays we used to feed on the balcony. She was a firm believer in bringing up kittens by smacking them soundly. If Tiggy was dawdling, she would whack him across his bottom so that he shot in like a startled, striped ginger ball, sometimes collapsing the conga line like a row of dominoes.
He watched our cat, Mara, who held herself aloof from the balcony cats, for many weeks before he made up his mind. Tiggy is by nature a bouncing, bounding, friendly fellow, but in those days, his expression was often solemn, his whiskers raised in a petition that we pretended not to understand.
Until the day he stepped firmly across the threshold that divided the balcony from the house and explained to us that he was now our cat. Mara was not pleased, but Tiggy craftily employed a Buddhist approach, surrendering abjectly to her, lying at her paws with his belly exposed until she acquiesced.
A week after he had come to us, Tiggy changed his mind. He scratched in such desperation at the door that we let him go. He shot out, joyously, making for a familiar roof, and I thought he’d never return. A day later, he shot back in, bedraggled, his ginger fur sticking up in punk spikes. He let it be known that he was never going out again, thank you very much, and that was that.
In his cheerful, accommodating company, Mara became more of a cat than she had ever been; she had come to us as a kitten and been perhaps too strongly inflected by human behaviour. In Tiggy’s company, she could bound at sparrows and pigeons, and they could sharpen their claws on the furniture together. These were areas where we were sadly deficient, and after one or two polite invitations, Mara accepted that we were neither bounders nor sharpeners.
The night she died, Tiggy kept vigil in the bedroom along with me and my partner. He had been steadily more gentle with Mara as her illness progressed. On that night, he didn’t nuzzle her—any touch hurt her by then—but he sat where they could see each other, closed his thoughtful green eyes and breathed in tandem with her until she shifted slightly in my arms and let out her last breath. He was quieter than usual for the next few days, but accepting of her death, as animals tend to be.
Bathsheba adopted us some years after Mara’s death, by which time Tiggy was a senior citizen. She had been found in a car-wash bucket by a neighbour’s driver in urgent need of a bath, which prompted the name we gave her. She tried to fight the bucket, the car and the driver, swaggered into our house when he brought her upstairs, and successfully fought a table leg, my toes and the watering can.
Bathsheba was tiny for her age, but she didn’t seem to realize that she was a very small creature. We took her to Friendicoes SECA (an animal hospital and rescue centre in New Delhi) since we weren’t intending to adopt more cats, but the vets explained that she was too young to have much chance of survival in a shelter. I prevented her from trying to fight the vet, the shelter dog and a grim monkey, and took her back home. In the car, she attacked my ear and my wrist, habits that have unfortunately lasted.
“She’s a classic beauty," said my besotted partner.
“Mmm," I said, eyeing the puncture marks she’d left. This has more or less set the template for our relationship—equal parts love and love bites, both delivered by a furiously independent creature.
Two years later, when I’d just finished writing The Hundred Names Of Darkness, Lolakitty arrived, startling us with her resemblance to the black-and-gold tortoiseshell from the book. She was starving and injured, but she radiated a rare sweetness. She had all the signs of a cat who had been accustomed to people and then been abandoned, for whatever reasons, and she charmed everybody from the neighbourhood children to our vets.
Bathsheba has now spent years trying to fight Lola in an attempt to persuade The Other Cat to leave. Then she confuses all of us by following Lola around obsessively, wailing if Lola refuses to play with her, sleep with her, cuddle her, or otherwise be Bathsheba’s toy.
Three strays, three companions: they couldn’t be more different from each other. The differences between individuals from any species are probably much wider than the distinctions between one kind of mammal and another, including humans.
We had both quit our jobs to work from home somewhere in between Tiglath and Bathsheba, so we had ample opportunity to study the cats (and vice-versa). I often watch Tiglath, wanting to trace what’s going on in his mind when he jerks his head to follow the movement of black kites, or allows the two lady cats to use him as a large pliable playground.
One day, when a friend dropped by, I saw Tiggy settle down in a corner of the room. For the rest of the afternoon, Tiggy tracked our friend’s movements and conversation with immense fascination, as though he were spending a very pleasant day at the zoo. He is a people-watcher; Lola is a people-pleaser; and Bathsheba, predictably, is mixed up.
She loves visitors; but she is wary of them. She runs growling from the room when strangers arrive; but she laments when they leave. She can’t retract her claws, so she doesn’t understand why people cry out when she affectionately kneads their knees into ribbons.
I don’t treat cats as children. Cats are cats, companions if you’re lucky, but very much their own selves, not to be used as child-substitutes. But on one occasion, I understood a little how a parent must feel when their child suffers rejection. Friends had come over, and Tiggy and Lola, always sociable, had strolled across to be cuddled and petted. I noticed Bathsheba sitting quietly at the door, and called to her, but she growled and would not come.
The other two lay around in the living room all afternoon, basking in the chin-scratching and admiration. Some hours later, I got up to make coffee and realized that Bathsheba was still there. There was longing in her eyes—animal longing, which is completely unconcealed, openly displayed—and she was making soft, barely audible distress calls.
This is where the barrier between humans and a creature, however beloved, from another species is erected. At first, I assumed Bathsheba was sad because she would have liked to have been cuddled, but was prevented by fear. But perhaps, in her feline mind, she saw her friends being taken hostage by strangers. Or, more simply, it might be that she smelled outsiders in her territory, and didn’t like the intrusion.
Over the years, the other three cats—Mara, Tiglath and Lola—had shown us how easy it is to cross the divide between animal and human. Attentiveness and empathy bridges most communication gaps. This turned out to be applicable to many other species, from elephants and stray dogs to dolphins, frogs and mongooses.
But Bathsheba teaches me respect for the distance between humans and other animals. Spending time with her, I have understood that she has her own particular, intense loves, joys and sorrows. She went exploring once and was lost for three days; when we found her, she was shivering and terrified, curled up on a neighbour’s roof. For months afterwards, she yelped in her sleep, cycling her paws frantically, but I cannot know for sure what shapes stalked her nightmares. You may be privileged to share part of your world with animals, but their interior lives are just as unknowable, and sacred, as our own.
Nilanjana S. Roy is the author of The Wildings and The Hundred Names Of Darkness.