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The egret dipped her wings and sheered away from the red roofs. She flew over the village every evening on her way back to the paddy fields, soaring over the tiny bakery, the football fields, the peaceful houses. The rain fell steadily, in heavy silver sheets, but the egret was used to it.

She saw the flash of movement before she saw the cat pad deftly across the slippery red tiles. The egret changed course, calling once to alert the other birds. The rain streamed through her feathers, and the massed grey clouds in the sky told her that the monsoons would take over the night.

That wasn’t going to stop the most ferocious hunter in the village of Paolim. Flying back from their evening sorties across the amber hills, the emerald green fields, the egrets stayed well away from the crumbling house with the faded blue shutters, and the ones next to it, knowing that Magnificat owned the rooftops that night.

Though her fur was the blazing white of the feathery clouds that studded the skies over the River Chorize just after each drumming downpour, Magnificat moved with such speed and ease across the roofs that it was hard to spot her. If the birds had only known it, they were safe from the cat. Goa’s most famous Sender was on the hunt, but not for birds, or even fat palm squirrels. The previous night, Magnificat had attacked and killed her second cobra of the year, taking on the powerful snake fearlessly, mindful of its venom and yet intent on making her strike. The cobra’s mate had slithered away when it saw the blood speckling Magnificat’s white-furred jaws. The cat had seen his black scales gleam as the snake sought shelter on these roofs. If she didn’t kill the snake, he might bide its time. But he would come looking for her someday, and she couldn’t take the chance of being caught off guard. It was yet another round in an ancient war. The snakes of Paolim and the cats who patrolled the fishing boats and launches of Chorize had hunted each other for generations in a deadly dance of predator and prey, where the roles could change in a second.

The Hundred Names of Darkness: Aleph Book Company, 313 pages, Rs 495
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The Hundred Names of Darkness: Aleph Book Company, 313 pages, Rs 495

The cat knew the boys wouldn’t hurt her, but she didn’t want to be petted this evening. She loved being cuddled, especially by some of the more animal-friendly inhabitants of Paolim, but she would lose her assassin’s edge if she allowed herself to be stroked just before a hunt. She curled up, using her large, fluffy tail as a comfortable seat. Her tail never got waterlogged even in the worst monsoons; a gift from her father, who had been a Bengal swimming cat of some distinction.

The boys chatted, and soon the village priest joined them, and then the baker. Magnificat watched the bats flutter out and whirl around the jackfruit tree. The roar of the monsoon rains played a tabla beat on the roof. The bats would not go out to dance above the old well and the paddy fields tonight; the storm was breaking over all their heads, and the last of the evening light shimmered out of the grey skies. Night hovered on the horizon, stretching black shadows towards the village.

Then the boys got on their bikes, and in the sudden light of the headlamps, Magnificat saw the cobra’s sleek head skim the stubbled green spikes of the jackfruit, his tail flicking as he shot into the upper branches. An overripe jackfruit fell with a dull thud onto the glistening road below, the fermented sweet stink rising from its innards making her pink nostrils twitch. Then there he was, faster than she’d anticipated, his hood rising out from the broken slates in the gutters.

She was up, her paws and claws digging into the red tiles, her whiskers and the long fur on her face quivering in fear. The tiles were so slick with rain that she didn’t dare risk moving downwards towards the snake. If she tried to go back up the roof, she’d be at a disadvantage, allowing the cobra first strike.

The wind picked up speed, howling in Magnificat’s ears. The cobra’s hood gleamed in the light of the street lamps; she could see only the angry spectacles, and the tiny black eyes like the pebbles at the bottom of the river, not the rest of his tail. His tongue flicked in and out nervously, and the cat realized he’d come up too fast. Snakes had poor eyesight, so it was unlikely that he had seen her on the roof. Instead, he must have planned to lie in wait along the tiles. Now he had her scent, and knew she was there. The snake hissed, rearing up, and Magnificat had to stop herself from skittering away across the slippery tiles.

Before he could rise to his full length, Magnificat screamed, letting the battle cry ring out over the roofs of Paolim, and scrambled sideways, seeking the edge of the roof. The cobra had been about to strike in her direction, but he hesitated, weaving back and forth, uncertain of his next move. The Sender calculated her chances. She could make a run for it—a long leap to the balcao below, then a dash across its broken balustrades towards the palm tree. And if she did, the stalking would have to begin again, the long mornings and days of near-sleepless vigil, the nights of hunting as each of them tried to find the other one first. This was a bad place for a fight, but Magnificat had learned as a kitten that you couldn’t choose the battleground, the time of battle or even the opponent. The speed of your paws, the swiftness of your attack—only that was in the hunter’s control.

But she had let too much time go by in reflection. The cobra lowered his hood, his tongue jabbing at the air, and Magnificat’s whiskers flared up, the long fur on her face prickling despite the rain’s steady beat. She caught the snake’s jet eye, and realized that he was thinking the same thing. If he flattened himself against the roof, the cat would lose the biggest advantage she had over him: sight. Night had dropped over Paolim silently, and there was only a half-moon in the sky, the light of the street lamps lapping only at the edge of the rusted tin guttering.

The snake would use his tongue to scent the cat, and Magnificat would have to rely on her whiskers and her instincts. The white cat growled softly, her teeth baring as she considered her position—out on the very edge, she would have to hope that she sensed the cobra before he reached her.

Her whiskers bristled unpleasantly, as though an unseen bat had flown by and touched them with its leathery wings. Through the coldness of the rain, the air shimmered with sudden heat; it seemed to the hunter that the winds themselves were parting.

‘...This blanket is too heavy. Curses! Will no Bigfeet rid me of this meddlesome razai?’ The mews came right out of the storm, as though a cat was riding the clouds. Magnificat, her tail fluffed, her whiskers humming with an unpleasant electricity, erected her fur and screamed defiance into the winds.

The storm dropped. The cat was trembling; the clouds had never mewed at her before in a stranger’s voice. But Magnificat was a hunter, she snapped back to the cobra—where was he? Had he already slithered up the tiles?

‘That’s much better, thank you, such happiness to be able to breathe again. Ugh, there’s wool stuck in my throat, mustn’t swallow… Oops, too late! Morning hairball alert, Bigfeet!’ said the voice again, making Magnificat’s paws curl up, her claws scraping at the roof.

The hunter stared as an orange cat shimmered in and out of view. It appeared to be suspended above the red tiles, rocking in a bed placed just above the roof of the old house. It was a small cat, half her size, and by the look of its ruffled fur, half asleep. Magnificat found the way its paws appeared to hover just above the tiles extremely disconcerting. She yowled, her green eyes catching the light, ready to attack the beast.

A cold fury had begun to replace Magnificat’s terror. ‘My roof!’ she snarled. It didn’t matter how the intruder had got here, the noisy stranger was going to have to leave. She spat, viciously, and swung into attack stance. The orange cat yawned, and turned over.

But before Magnificat could do anything about her unwanted visitor, she heard the rustle on the roof. Even in the dim light, the black, curved head stood out, a sinister silhouette rearing up behind the tiles.

The cobra’s strike was precise; if she hadn’t moved just then, it would have got her on the flank. She was sliding towards the end of the roof, she would sail over it and land hard on her belly on the balcao below—she had to turn. Her claws found purchase, and Magnificat spun around, balancing on her forepaws almost entirely. She could smell the serpent’s slick scales. He was coming up fast, and instead of trying to see him, the Sender of Paolim closed her eyes, relying on scent and instinct to see her through.

The hunter hooked her left front paw onto the tiles, using them as a slider to let herself swing more to the left. She heard the snake strike again, to her right, the sound reminding her of the way the mangrove roots sprang back when she brushed through them on her long hunts. The cobra was up rapidly this time, but Magnificat had found her balance. She used her left paw as an anchor, and felt the rain beat down hard on her whiskers as she let her claws scythe out. Before the snake could sway in her direction, she had made her first strike, her paw ripping down the length of his throat. It was a bold move, and a dangerous one; it allowed the snake to make a swift strike at her paw, but she was out of danger by the time his head bobbed down.

The hunter struck again, and again, two lightning strikes with her claws, crushing his windpipe and ribs, and the snake collapsed, his tail twitching as he died. The snake opened his mouth and hissed once, the venom dripping uselessly off his fangs. ‘Ssssswift you were,’ he said, ‘ssstealthy and sssstrong.’ A last twitch, a death-twitch, ran through his massive length, and then he lay still.

Up in the clouds, a small snore emanated from the stranger cat. One of her paws was out, curled around her long white whiskers.

The fur on it was neat and dry, her whiskers calm. She was a young queen, probably no more than two winters old, her eyes as green as the hunter’s.

‘I’ll deal with you now,’ said the hunter grimly, but the orange cat snored with greater intensity. Slowly, the little stranger winked out of view, fading until only the clouds were left where she had been. Magnificat, her paws glistening with blood, was left alone in the night.

The white cat settled back on the tiles, puzzled. She let the rain patter down on her; her fur was so long and so thick that it was only in the most ferocious of the Paolim storms that she felt uncomfortable. She began grooming herself, cleaning the blood off her whiskers with one practiced paw. She was a fastidious hunter, and preferred her fur to be free of mud, or blood, or any of the other detritus of the hunt.

The air grew heavier, and a familiar crackle lit up the clouds, until Magnificat felt the tug on her whiskers. The swollen rain clouds shone, and parted like gauze, to reveal the solemn, worried faces of a calico cat called Begum, and Umrrow Jaan, a half-Siamese, half-alley cat with slightly crossed eyes. Concern dripped off their fur as they peered at the Sender of Paolim, their outlines shimmering and re-forming in the sky.

‘We’re so sorry, Em!’ said the half-Siamese. ‘We didn’t dare send until the battle was over. I was so scared that if we popped up suddenly as well, you’d slip and fall on those wet tiles, plunging to a horrifying, tragic death like a splattered jackfruit, or that the cobra would weave his wicked way under your guard, plunging his venom into your poor heart...’

‘Umrrow Jaan,’ said the calico sternly, her whiskers managing to radiate disapproval even though she was just a formless shape in the clouds, ‘what did we say about not letting your paws run away with your sense of drama? Shut your whiskers for a moment, will you? Em, we’re terribly sorry. By the time she’d started sending, you were already dancing with the cobra, and we couldn’t warn you without risking your life.’

Magnificat combed her whiskers, bewildered. ‘I don’t understand, Begum,’ she said. ‘Who in hell was the orange cat? And what does she have to do with the Delhi Senders? And why was she on my roof?’ Her massive, fluffy tail was beating a quiet tattoo on the roof. A loose tile rapped on its fellows and went sideways, letting the rain pour into the old house through the skylight.

The calico sighed. ‘That orange cat,’ she said, ‘is the new Sender of Nizamuddin. As far as we can make out, she has more power in her whiskers than all of the Senders of Delhi combined.’

‘Oh yes!’ said Umrrow Jaan, her ears standing up in sharp points against the clouds. ‘We could hear her all the way across the Yamuna and over the dreaming spires and havelis of Old Delhi even when she was a tiny kitten! And then she made friends with the tigers, and she brought one of them onto the link, and you have no idea how panicked we were; I ran helter-skelter all the way through Chandni Chowk and didn’t stop until I’d reached the Ridge, and even there, the barbets and woodshrikes were almost falling out of their trees!’

‘A kitten? And a tiger?’ said Magnificat, curling her fat tail around her in puzzlement. ‘But I saw no tigers on my roof!’

‘Umrrow Jaan!’ said Begum sharply, switching her tail. ‘Put a paw in it, do. I can see we’ll have to explain about Mara.’

‘Yes, do,’ said Magnificat, with a slight edge to her mew. ‘I thought I knew all of the Senders in this land, but until this evening, none of them has leapt out of the clouds, disrupted a major battle and disappeared again without so much as a basic introductory miaow! The manners of an alley cat!’

‘If this was not a sending, Magnificat, you would be able to smell my regret and our apologies on our whiskers,’ said Begum, shimmering among the clouds. ‘Indeed, we are sorry. The problem with the Sender of Nizamuddin is that she doesn’t know she’s sending.’

Another ripe jackfruit fell from the tree, and the bats swooped out, chittering to themselves. The rain was slowing now, driving in the other direction as the Sender of Paolim stared unblinkingly at the Sender of Purani Dilli.

Magnificat hissed slowly. ‘But how is that possible?’ she said.

‘She of the long whiskers—the longest we’ve seen in three generations, mind you—has been sending in her sleep,’ said Begum. ‘The worst part is that while we can hear her clearly, the Sender of Nizamuddin is very young, and despite all our efforts, we haven’t been able to reach her.’

‘Except in her dreams,’ said Umrrow Jaan. ‘But she thinks we’re nightmares and she bats us away. She looks very cute, na? With her paws cycling, just like the oldest kitten from my sixth litter…or was it my fifth? You know, the litter I had with that dashing Daryaganj tom…or was he the small striped thug from Civil Lines? It’s so hard to keep them straight, after a few litters I forget which kitten was born when, except for the first litter I ever had, remember, at the back of the hakim’s shop in...’

‘Umrrow!’ said Magnificat and Begum simultaneously.

‘Oh, all right!’ said Umrrow, managing to convey that she was sulking even though her image was, like Begum’s, a little blurred at the edges, as was normal for sendings.

‘As Umrrow said (before she started mewing on and on about her endless litters), the Sender hasn’t yet joined our circle,’ said Begum. ‘And while Beraal—you know her, don’t you, Magnificat?—has trained her not to send to the world at large when she’s awake, Mara’s whiskers are completely out of control when she’s asleep.’

The white cat’s tail swished, tapping to the beat of the rain on the tiles.

‘You’re telling me that Delhi has a Sender of such immense power that her whiskers can bring her all the way here? In her sleep?’ said Magnificat. ‘And she has no idea that she can do this?’

They had no trouble understanding her meaning. The long-whiskered ones were special. A cat who was not a Sender was confined to the limits of its clan’s territory: their whiskers would not go further than the boundaries they marked with their scents. But even for the long-whiskered, there were limits to how far they could travel.

Begum could send to all of the cats in Delhi, but her whiskers would not reach beyond the city’s outskirts without the help of the other Senders. Magnificat was Goa’s most celebrated Sender, and at her most intense, she could send her image dancing in the skies along a fair distance—ten, perhaps twenty villages. But unless the Senders were linking with one another, letting their whiskers carry them longer distances, no cat could travel so far on her own.

Only a few cats were Senders; in any clan, only a handful would have the ability to transmit their thoughts—and their very selves— so strongly that they could cross space with ease. Their abilities travelled from mother to daughter. Though Senders often produced litter after litter of perfectly normal kittens, every once in a while, a Sender would give birth to a kitten with longer whiskers than usual and know that her daughter was just like her. There was never more than one Sender in any clan, often fewer than four or five in any generation of cats in a large territory. None of the Senders Magnificat had met would have been able to travel from Delhi to Goa on their own. This one, untrained, just two winters old, had made the journey in her sleep.

Begum caught the drift of Magnificat’s thoughts. ‘She has travelled further,’ said the calico. ‘She startled the monastery cats the other night; the Rimpuss was shaken out of her usual equanimity and had to take an extra meditation session. We think we should be able to reach her very soon. She has had a long kittenhood, and unlike the rest of us, she had no Sender to train her—Tigris, the last Sender of Nizamuddin, died shortly after this one was born.’

A savage gust from the storm sent the cobra’s body rolling down to the edge of the roof, where it stayed, limply wedged. The Sender of Paolim looked out into the rain, her eyes straying towards the river.

‘You’ll have to find a way to contact her soon,’ said Magnificat. ‘We can’t have a rogue Sender roaming the seven skies. You must train her, or else her whiskers must be trimmed.’

Begum’s whiskers bristled. The orange stranger’s sendings seemed effortless, compared to the steady concentration it took Delhi’s entire Circle of Senders before she and Umrrow Jaan could make the difficult journeys to Goa and other places as they followed Mara’s erratic wake.

She spoke with finality, washing the last specks of mud and cobra skin off her tail. Begum and Umrrow Jaan made their farewells, and shimmered out of view. Begum thought, just before they pulled back from the clouds and sped away across the emerald fields, skimming the beaches and the palm trees on their way back to Delhi, that the Sender of Paolim was right. They would have to do something about Delhi’s rogue Sender before she became a threat to them all. Besides, Begum was growing more than a little tired of having to summon the Delhi Senders for one emergency meeting after another so that they could apologize to startled Senders across the land, following the erratic, unpredictable wake of Mara’s whiskers.

Excerpted with permission from Aleph Book Company. The Hundred Names of Darkness is out this month.

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