The Wildings: Mara’s story
She was an orange kitten with deep green eyes, no bigger than the palm of my partner’s hand. Mara had been rescued from a drain in Sujan Singh Park by my cousin, and was temporarily living with them and their three dogs.
“We have to find someone to adopt her!” said Kamini.
“Yes,” I said sympathetically. “She won’t be safe with the dogs around.”
“It’s the other way around,” said Kamini with some feeling. Mara had discovered a wonderful game—she would hide on the top of the bookcase, waiting for an unsuspecting dog to pass by, scoot down, smack him on his nose and scoot back up before he’d even seen his tiny attacker. So we rescued the dogs from Mara by adopting her.
I’d never lived with animals before; a close family member had asthma, and though I smuggled pigeons, kittens and puppies in, they all had to be relocated in short order. Mara, inquisitive, intelligent and fearless, opened up a parallel universe. She was friendly, unwilling to share the two of us but curious about the strays—cats, dogs, monkeys, birds—who lived in most Delhi colonies. In time, other cats joined our family; and our indoor cats attracted a horde of visiting strays who had designs on their food bowls.
The inside cats and the outside cats watched each other with avid curiosity. When we cuddled Mara, the eyes of the visiting strays would widen in incredulity. But if we were lucky, they were more inclined to trust us, even let us cuddle them, once they’d seen us with the inside cats.
Seen from a foot off the ground, Delhi is a different city, Nizamuddin a richly alien neighbourhood. Books on cat behaviour confirmed what I’d begun to suspect: cats were extremely social loners, extrovert-introverts if you like. Most cats lived in loose but protective clans. The queens—the female cats—dominated the clan, but
there was always an alpha tomcat or two backing up their reign.
In 2007, I wrote a short story about a kitten with deep green eyes who lived indoors with humans because the outside world felt too large and scary for her. It was fun to write. I began to write another story, set in the same world, and two cats strolled into its pages. One was a wise Siamese whose blue eyes told me she had stories to tell that I couldn’t even imagine, the other was an alpha tom, loved by the other cats of his clan.
Then Mara got sick, with feline diabetes. Over the next few months, our little orange warrior lost weight until she was down to fur and bone, but she took her illness stoically, not protesting the visits to the vet, the many injections, the drips, the pain. At night, she curled up between us, her thin ribs rising and falling in shallow breaths; but every morning, she wanted to be on the verandah, and her eyes would follow the cheels, the sparrows, our other two cats.
She died in my arms, shortly after. She took a long, slow breath, her green eyes closed, and though I listened for a long while, she did not take another. I put the stories aside.
In the winter of 2010, the driver from downstairs handed us a bucket. In the bucket was a white kitten, smaller than the palm of your hand, with the well-travelled air of a seasoned explorer. Young Bathsheba Balti was the only survivor of a tragic massacre. She could eat her weight in fish, had the manners of a thug and the swagger of a professional goonda. One day, I came back to my desk to find that Bathsheba had walked across the keyboard, opening up the file that contained those old short stories. This is what she had typed: “ggggbbb,,,,????????????????”
I looked at the line of question marks. “What happens next?” they asked me. The answer is here, in The Wildings.