Home is Where the Cat is

Home is Where the Cat is

“Go away! Shoo!”

The man shot me a look of pure revulsion. I bristled and hissed back at him. He pelted a stone at me, causing me to scurry away as fast as I could. 

The things I have seen, the escapades I have had. I must have used up eight of my nine lives. 

In a bid to escape my tormentor, I stumbled into an unknown alley that was full of garbage cans. It had rained the previous night, and there were puddles in the pothole-ridden road. I glanced at my reflection. Ah, what a beauty! My eyes glinted green in contrast to my coal-black body. I didn’t want to sound pompous, but there was no denying that I made one handsome cat.

Too bad, not many people could see that. What do human beings have against black cats? It isn’t my fault that I was born black. Imagine discriminating against someone, just because of their colour. Who does that?

A fellow stray once explained to me that black cats were considered inauspicious. Humans considered themselves doomed if a black cat were to cross their paths. If only that were true, I thought wistfully. There were a lot of humans whose paths I would like to cross, including my persecutor from the previous encounter.

My tummy rumbled. Time to rummage the bins for scraps. If I were lucky, I would get pieces of fish. I was about to dive nose-deep into the trash when I heard a noise, a soft sobbing sound. I lifted my head to find out where it was coming from.

Sitting by the corner of the bins, was a little human. Was he hungry? Did he want to eat from the bin too? I didn’t like sharing my food! The child was shaking and moving back and forth uncontrollably. My curiosity was piqued. I’m wary of children. Once, one came too close and pulled my tail. After that incident, I have major trust issues.

This one here seemed different, as though he was intent on ignoring me. He wouldn’t look me in the eye. I settled myself at a safe distance from him and decided to groom myself. After what seemed to be an eternity, he lifted his gaze. His face was red with tears. The rocking continued. Who was this stranger who was unaffected by the rubbish bins and their putrid odour?

He seemed to be in distress. I wanted to ask him what was wrong and tell him that it would be OK. So, I mustered the courage and said…. “Meow.” I’m a cat, remember? 

I was interrupted by an anxious voice. 

“Advay! There you are!”

A woman appeared on the scene. Upon seeing the boy, she heaved a sigh of relief. That must be Advay’s mother. He had gotten his brown eyes from her. I got ready to make a hasty exit. Let’s just say, adults and I don’t gel well.

“Oh! What a sweet kitty!” she exclaimed.

Flattery can get you everywhere. I appreciate a human that understands that.

She dipped her hand into her bag and took out a packet with some pieces of bread. Bread isn’t my favourite food, but to an empty stomach, even meagre crumbs taste like a feast. Wait, was this a trap? 

I advanced slowly and sniffed her hand. It smelled of some flowery scent. I gulped the breadcrumbs. She gently stroked my head. Nothing more rejuvenating than a head massage.

Soon after, a man joined us and expressed relief. Must be Advay’s father. Gosh, was the entire family going to enter like this, one by one? Nice meeting you folks, got to go.

Advay spoke for the first time.

“Black cat.”

Wasn’t that obvious? The parents seemed bewitched by the fact that their son had said something. 

“He likes the cat,” the woman continued. Stating facts must be a family hobby.

“I know what you are thinking. But remember, the time we got Advay a dog? He got overwhelmed, and we returned the pup to the shelter,” the man cautioned her.

“This is different. He is bonding.”

“The cat is a stray. You don’t know what disease he is carrying.”

I meowed in indignation. I spend half of my day grooming myself. I have the highest standards of hygiene. How insulting!

The woman continued pleading with the man.

“Let’s adopt him.”

What? My feline brain screamed ‘run’, and I listened to it.

***

My species is known for death by curiosity. There is even an idiom to this effect. Whether it was my inquisitiveness or some strange sense of solidarity, I returned to the garbage bins on yet another day. To my delight, they were there. My little stranger and his mother. The woman had some pieces of mouth-watering fish in her hand. She handed it over to her son.

“Advay, do you want to feed the cat?” 

I took hesitant steps towards him, both of us wary that the slightest misstep might destroy each other’s trust. The fish melted in my mouth. I purred loudly with satisfaction. This was the first of many such trysts.

On one such visit, the woman took out a basket and kept it in front of me. I treaded like a cat on a hot tin roof, taking wary steps towards it. She looked at me beseechingly.

My decision was made. With one deft movement, I jumped in.

***

They named me Oreo, after a black cookie. I always thought my name was Shoo. That was what I had been called so far. But Oreo had a nice ring to it.

I started thinking of the couple as Mummy and Daddy. Mummy took me to a pet store. She got me cat food, a bed, and toys. I loved my squeaky toys. It was high time someone pampered me like this! Daddy took me to a vet, who gave me my shots. I didn’t like that at all, but that was the only bit of unpleasantness that I had to encounter. 

I explored every nook and cranny of my new home, marking my favourite spots. Of course, my preferred place, paws-down, was with my brother, Advay.

Advay was different. He wasn’t like other children. He didn’t speak much. Most days, he tended to be aloof. He went to a special school. I waited for him to return every day, my heart bursting with joy when he walked through the door. Some days, I would snuggle up to him and ask him for a tummy rub. On other days, when he needed space, I kept my distance. 

He didn’t like change; it upset him. Yesterday, Mummy messed up Advay’s routine. Instead of carrots, she cooked pumpkin. He had a major meltdown and lay on the ground, screaming and sobbing. I couldn’t bear to see him this way. He was scared and didn’t know how to express it.

I treaded cautiously and kept my paw on his shoulder. His body heaved. His hands reached out. I snuggled against him until he stopped sobbing. I got you, buddy. 

It was just the two of us, in our warm cocoon, shutting out the rest of the world. He settled down, but still clung onto me. When he finally let go, Mummy swooped in and hugged me. I’m awesome, I get it. Don’t smother me!

Mummy told Daddy later, “I have never seen Advay calm down so quickly. Oreo is a Godsend.”

My chest puffed up with pride. 

That night, Mummy tucked us in, Advay in his bed, and me in my basket, at the foot of his bed. As soon as she shut the door, I jumped out of the basket and settled next to him. My brother was a restless sleeper. He usually tossed and turned. But when I cuddled next to him, he slept peacefully.

Additionally, the lord of the house needs a large bed for his blissful slumber. The basket was good only for catnaps. 

The next day when Mummy came to check on us, we were still in bed, warm and snug. She scolded me, but her eyes were smiling. You aren’t fooling anyone.

***

Advay and I were similar in more ways than one. We both hated water. I hid whenever Mummy searched for me during bath time.

I lick myself clean. Cats aren’t meant to be washed!

 

Advay too threw tantrums during his bath time, but Mummy would have none of it. Too bad he couldn’t lick himself clean. I perched myself gingerly on the edge of the tub and meowed loudly, expressing solidarity. With the passage of time and my presence, he gradually adjusted to water, learning to like it eventually.

That’s when Daddy had a brainwave.

Advay isn’t afraid of water anymore. Let’s take him to the swimming pool in the housing complex. I can engage a coach to teach him swimming. Oreo’s presence might persuade him to take the plunge!”

They did not stand a cat in hell’s chance of getting me anywhere near the pool! 

Mummy, the resourceful one, waved a few treats in front of my nose, and I succumbed. That woman thinks of everything! I reluctantly accompanied them to the pool, taking care not to be splashed. I was sure that I knew how to swim, but I didn’t have to prove it to anyone. Getting into the water would mean ruffling my carefully groomed fur. 

I watched Advay tiptoe hesitantly. He got into the pool and stayed there for a few minutes, with Daddy by his side. I meowed encouragingly. You can do this, buddy!

Was he going to jump out? On the contrary, he seemed to be enjoying himself! He splashed around with joy. It was a bittersweet moment. I felt a little betrayed, and at the same time, proud that he was overcoming his fears.

After the class, Daddy patted me on the head.

“Thank you.”

I wasn’t entirely sure what it was for. 

When someone gives me credit, it must be because I did something great.

***

Every story has a villain, the guy who causes trouble in paradise. My villain popped into the picture soon enough. His name was Mr. Dharmaraj or Mr. D for short. He was the neighbour, with whom we shared a wall. A man with a jiggly paunch and an unpleasant attitude.

One day, I sat on the wall, soaking up some sun and licking myself when I heard,

“Shoo!”

That name again? You would think the collar around my neck was enough to obliterate the ostracization I faced and establish legitimacy, but no! That day marked our first meeting and the start of our cat and mouse game.

Mr. D was a real pain. He bore a constant curdled-milk expression on his face. He considered me to be a bad omen and hurled curses galore. I hissed back potent cat cusses. They cannot be translated here, as this story is meant for a family audience.

Once, Mr. D was out in his backyard. It was dark and my body blended with the rest of the night. I couldn’t resist. I lunged at him. All he saw were a pair of green eyes coming for him, out of nowhere. He screamed and rushed into his house. I almost died laughing.

The next day, Mr. D retaliated by throwing a pitcher of water at me, narrowly missing by an inch. No aim, no game!

On another day, Mr. D barged in and complained to Mummy that he suspected that I had knocked the milk down in his kitchen in a bid to steal the cream. Oh please! The culprit was most likely his son, who had a penchant for both mischief and cream.

Mummy politely and coldly refuted all allegations and shut the door in his face. 

Good riddance!

***

Ting tong! I was annoyed. Who dared interrupt the nap of his royal highness, King Oreo?

It was Mrs. Acharya, the secretary of the resident’s association. She was collecting funds for the upcoming children’s annual sports meet. Mummy served her tea.

Mrs. Acharya exclaimed. “Thank you for your kindness and your generous contribution. The event is next week.”

“I was thinking that this time, I would like to register my son for swimming.”

That was a good decision, I thought. Advay was getting much better at swimming. His coach kept praising him.

Mrs. Acharya seemed a little taken aback.

“Is that wise? I’m sure there are swimming events for children with special….”

I meowed loudly. It translated to, “back off, or I will claw your eyes out.”

Mrs. Acharya glanced at me nervously.

“Does it bite?”

“Oreo? Depends on whether he likes you or not!” Mummy smiled sweetly.

Mrs. Acharya left in haste. Mummy scratched my chin fondly.

“Oh, Oreo! If only Advay could have a spot under the sun for once.”

Oh Mummy, if only I could tell you, he is my sun, my moon, and my universe!

***

It was early. My family was still asleep. Resuming my favourite spot on the wall, I peeped over to the other side. No Mr. D. My morning couldn’t have started better.

That was when I saw a squeaky toy on the ground on the other side. Without thinking twice, I jumped. I was about to grab it in my mouth when I felt a sack fall over and darkness surround me. It was a trap. Mr. D had kidnapped me!

I hissed and clawed at the sack. But it was too late. I was bundled up and could barely breathe. I felt my nemesis climb up the stairs. Bump, bump, bump.

“This will teach you a lesson, nasty piece of work!” he said menacingly and pushed me into a narrow attic. It was dark and dingy, with hardly any space to swing a cat. The trapdoor shut, and I heard his footsteps recede.

I let myself out of the bag, howling at my sorry plight. Soon, I realized that it was futile. I better conserve my energy. Mr. D probably wanted me to tire myself out and die. I couldn’t let him win! I had to get back to my family.

Wait, wasn’t today Advay’s big day? But how was he going to swim without me? I had to get out!

***

“We looked everywhere. No one has seen him. It’s almost time for the competition,” Daddy said in despair.

“Do you think Advay is going to swim without Oreo?” demanded Mummy.

“Let’s go the police if he doesn’t turn up by evening. Sometimes cats run away.”

“Oreo isn’t like every cat. I hope he isn’t hurt,” sobbed Mummy.

“Oreo is a brave heart and a survivor. I’m sure he is OK. Let’s take Advay down to the pool.”

“Do you think Mr. D had something to do with this?”

“We don’t have any evidence.”

****

I had spent several hours confined in this narrow space and still hadn’t found a way out. I thumped my tail against the tiled wall in frustration.

Wait, did the tile become loose?

I pounced on it with both claws. It gave away. Finally! Light flooded through the attic, numbing me for an instant. A tiny hole. I squeezed myself through it. Thank God, I was nimble. Sweet freedom! I climbed out and landed with a thud onto a parapet.

Good lord! I was high up. The attic had been on the topmost floor. I frantically paced up and down the parapet. Adjacent to it was a tree. If I jumped, I might make it to a branch. Cats are supposed to be good at these things. Still, it was a dangerous plunge, but one I had to take. 

One, two, three! I was airborne. My claws dug into the bark. I had made it, escaping a fatal fall by a whisker. I climbed down the tree, overjoyed. As my paws touched the ground, I gave a victorious meow. And then, I ran straight into he-who-deserved-to-be-suspended-upside-down. Mr. D! 

“You!” he shrieked.

He had been doing Yoga and was barefoot. This was my chance. One swipe with my claw and blood spurted out of his leg. Take that!

He howled in pain and chased me with a broomstick. I jumped over the wall deftly. He came after me. I had to run away from the house to escape this devil. Once I had given him the slip, I could return to my home in peace. I gave Mr. D quite the chase. He ought to thank me for burning the calories. More effective than Yoga, any day.

I sensed safety in numbers, so I headed towards what looked like a gathering up ahead. A crowd had assembled by the pool. Were they looking for me? Then I realized; it was the competition venue. My family would be here!

What a sight we must have cut. I, running for dear life, and Mr. D behind me in hot pursuit. Panting, I reached the edge of the pool. I noticed children in swimsuits standing at the opposite end. A whistle sounded, and they jumped into the pool with noisy splash sounds, creating giant ripples. Well, all but one jumped. Advay! He didn’t even look up. His gaze was firmly planted on the ground.

I meowed at the top of my lungs.

“Oreo!” Mummy and Daddy screamed together.

Mr. D caught up with me at this precise moment, armed with his broom. He was about to bring down the broom on me when realization dawned. He was a public spectacle now, earning the dubious distinction of assaulting a poor innocent. I made my eyes extra big to bring attention to the innocent part.

Daddy’s face had grown thunderous, and Mr. D cowered and stepped back. Justice would be meted out. Right now, I had to focus on more important things like getting my brother to swim. 

The race required the swimmers to complete one lap and swim back to the start. Some were halfway already. Advay stood transfixed at the other end. There was only one thing that could be done to break this trance. It would need me to make a sacrifice. Without a second thought, I plunged into the pool. Mummy shrieked.

Just as I thought, my brother jumped into the pool from the other end. He swam towards me with determination. Love does strange things to you. I leaped in to get him to swim. He followed my lead to save me. 

Turns out that I didn’t need saving. Cats are instinctive swimmers. I was a little out of touch, and a bit ruffled, but faced no risk of drowning. Aren’t I amazing?

Daddy covered the length of the pool with his rapid strides. He bent down and fished me out. Advay reached our end of the pool. He was one of the last swimmers. Daddy held me up to him.

“Cat,” he said, and held out his hand.

 I meowed reassuringly. Go, brother, go.

He turned around to complete the swim. The entire poolside started cheering, “Advay, Advay!” My meows joined the joyous shouts.

Mummy held her hands together, her eyes filled with tears. This was her son’s moment of glory.

***

The prize-giving ceremony commenced. Advay finished last because of his late start. Not that I cared. I snuggled in his arms and felt every bit a winner.

Mrs. Acharya took to the podium.

“I have a special medal for someone who demonstrated courage and empathy. The award goes to Advay!”

We went up to the podium. Advay refused to look at Mrs. Acharya. In the end, she put it around my neck, which in my opinion, was also a good choice. 

Daddy threatened Mr. D with legal action if he were to come anywhere near me. I saw him slinking away, humiliated. When we got home, Mummy treated me to milk, tuna, and treats. I was exhausted but happy to be back home, the place where I belonged.

***

A few months later

Mr. D shifted out of the neighbourhood. He was tired of people taunting him for kidnapping me. 

Advay swims a lot nowadays. He has started winning prizes. I accompany him to every competition but have never jumped into a pool, not after that day. My swimming days are behind me.

Everywhere I go, I hear people use the words ‘special’ or ‘different’ to describe Advay. ‘Special’ I agree, but different? If this is being different, I choose different every single time.

I thank the fates that I turned into that alley that day and bumped into my little stranger. A stranger who didn’t see me as unwanted or as bad luck. A stranger who showed me that imperfections can be beautiful too. And that you don’t have to be born with family; you can create one on your own.

For everyone who has been reading my story, I hope you meet your stranger and get your happily ever after, just like me.

***

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10 thoughts on “Home is Where the Cat is

  1. This one is already a winner for me. I own a black cat too and this story was totally relatable. Loved each and every word. Kudos to you.

  2. Humour and wit does go hand in hand in this story. The intelligent way of weaving the prompt in a first person narrative is indeed noteworthy.

  3. This is such a mind-blowing story Lalitha. I have always been a big fan of your writing skills and this story, which looks beyond the obvious, is just amazing!

  4. Lalitha, I am feeling short on words to praise this story. The flow was so smooth, I finished it in one go. Although I am not a big cat lover but the story was put in such a way that I might start liking cats. Flawless.

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