The Feline Hour
I saw an approximation of Catwoman on a hoarding—the omnipresent Deepika Padukone, with collum and thorax area on lavish display, showing plenty of cleavage—and it occurred to me that a real dominatrix would not let her décolletage plunge: she is meanness and power, not Monalisa smile and nude eyeshadow. Dumbing down this rare female anti-hero is unfortunate. Catwoman’s rich back story includes a mother’s suicide and a father’s alcoholism. Her foster mother teaches her to steal. She escapes and turns to prostitution. When she returns to stealing, it is in cat costume, which, under the circumstances, is an empowered and conscious choice. What is it about the figure of the cat? From the ancient Egyptians on, humans have been in thrall of the feline.
This was brought home to me once more when I read The Wildings, Nilanjana Roy’s debut novel. Here is a simple yet rich tale that may be read as a crushingly cute children’s story—it is, after all, about a kitten, and what can be cuter? But the book’s characters steer clear of the mawkishness of Pooh and Eeyore. The choice of setting, the South Delhi neighbourhood of Nizamuddin, is both familiar and surreal, a feline Eden, a forgiving place with few natural predators, where prey—mostly arboreal or rodential—is plentiful. As in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the two-feet, or co-inhabiting humans, are not to be trusted; though they are not predators, they are unpredictable. And while the wildings, a community of neighbourhood cats, can’t stand their constant ‘bukbak’, they tolerate their frequent kindnesses.
Enter Mara, an orange kitten that can ‘send’ and ‘link’—or communicate—across time and space with birds and quadrupeds. Entire worlds are telecast to her mind’s eye in real time. She can sense danger and make contact telepathically across vaster distances than any wilding. This is Roy’s central magical invention, and like Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility, Mara’s powers come with responsibility. The humans are clueless, so Mara must be coached by her own kind if she is to reach her full potential. The plot of this layered coming-of-age tale hinges on this central vision. Not much can be said about Mara’s guardians. Like the other bipeds in the story, they are referred to only as Bigfeet, a name that disembodies them and makes deeper characterisation unnecessary. The Bigfeet, with their untrained eyes, see the cats as cats, but readers learn the animal’s world has an evolved social system, with customs, ancestries and hierarchies. The wildings never wander near the Shuttered House, a dreaded place infested with feral cats, vermin and the smell of death and sickness. The ferals’ leader, Datura, the villain, and his lusty cohorts are portrayed as dangerously uncultured. The difference between them and the wildings is that the latter teach their young not to be wanton with smaller creatures, to kill cleanly and quickly, and not to over-hunt.
Parenting is a recurring theme. A fearless adult wilding, Beraal, is entrusted with the mission of breaking into a Bigfeet house to kill Mara. But on meeting Mara, unexpectedly a kitten, Beraal is charmed. She wishes to adopt her, a move opposed by other wildings. The animals’ struggles are ones we recognise: Mara’s dislocation, the confusion of her ‘caste’, given that she is born ‘outside’. Safe indoors, Mara thinks it is beastly to hunt and is happy to eat catfood given by her Bigfeet. There is fun and play, until the ferals, ignorant of feline honour and foraging, are set loose upon Nizamuddin.
The book weaves a fast-moving plot. Like all good literature, its scope is universal, an allegory that explores hunger, survival, parenting and freedom. This world will remain invisible to readers unless they tap into their noble inner cattiness—a big ask for some adults. It is also possible that some nuances of the tale may elude younger readers. But Roy’s achievement is intense. She has looked so carefully at the feline world, at the way they wash and move and speak, that the reader’s idea of cats will be altered forever. More importantly, The Wildings is the creation of a fully formed imaginative world that carries great allegorical resonance. Roy is, in essence, a moralist.