this was for the Capital Letters section in Outlook City Limits’ new issue
In A Dream of a Thousand Cats, Neil Gaiman wrote that cats ruled the
worlds before humans did, and could dream themselves back into power –
if only a thousand cats could dream of the same world at the same
time. Cats being cats, this is unlikely to happen in the near future,
but it is a commonly known fact that cats live in a parallel
dimension. They see more than we do, their goals and ambitions are
completely distinct from ours, and possibly much more evolved.
Cities, too, have souls; they are complex organisms of steel and
concrete and plastic and blood, evolving messily towards heavens knows
what future. And as they grow and mutate, their essence leaks into
their denizens – humans, by and large, are excellent indicators of
their cities’ evolution, but if you really want to understand the soul
of a city, you need to look further. Not much further, though, because
an answer to all your queries is found in that most sophisticated of
sentient urban life-forms – the not-so-humble domestic cat.
In Calcutta, I was owned by a cat named Ao. Ao was a gentle
rice-eater, slothful, beautiful and utterly loveable. Summers she
spent in the garden, casting coquettish looks at bumbling, earnest
neighbourhood toms. Winters she was found curled up on blankets and
voltage stabilizers, purring Rabindrasangeet and only stirring a
muscle when offered fish.
I was recently acquired by a kitten in Delhi. A tiny, helpless,
grey-black striped bundle who won my heart completely by chewing
gently on my finger within a minute of getting to know me. Since
then, she’s driven me completely mad. Now about two months old, Sherpa
(climber of all, daughter of tiger, biter of foot) is cocky, brash,
violent and greedy. She’s noisy, dirty and unfazed by cold water,
yells or dogs. My entire flat, myself included, has been chewed to
bits. My guests have been assaulted, my newspaper articles defecated
on, and my flatmate’s family-creating potential possibly destroyed.
And yet Sherpa remains the most adorable kitten I’ve ever seen – she’s
graceful, bright-eyed, wild and utterly lovely, and now I can’t
imagine what life would be like without her. As I write this, she’s
toying with the remote, changing channels and waiting for the
opportune moment to take a flying leap and land on my keyboard.
What would she type, if I let her?
I’m Delhi, she would say. Deal with it.
It’s not much of a theory, as theories go, but there’s something to
it. The only Bombay cat I know is pure Bollywood. He’s called Mithun
and is the essence of all things disco – he’s glamorous, promiscuous
and clearly has underworld connections. There’s really no end to
discovering cities, or cats, both smug in their infinite complexity,
both sublimely aware that you need them more than they need you. If
you’re thinking of changing cities, visit in advance and spend a few
days observing cats – they might choose to tell you everything you
need to know.