A long time ago, when life was tolerable, almost good, he had two cats that kept him company. How old was he? Seven? Eight? Before his father began to question the worth of his existence. Back then, presumably, he was cute, almost as cute as the tabbies. He never knew what happened to them but they disappeared, both of them, all of a sudden, and he was left only with an inconsolable sadness.
He had searched for themfar and wide – the backyard, abandoned shed,park and in the streets. But no sign. He had brought them as kittens, from Aunt Sarita’s house, when her cat had birthed. And had nurtured them ever since. However, they had exited his life like a bullet, without even a proper goodbye.
Thereafter, things had happened so fast that it seemed like a blur. His father, along with a few others, lost his job as part of the cost-cutting measures of the company. They moved to a neighbourhood where the men gawked openly and the women talked loud enough to appear discordant. Despite sincere attempts, his father failed to get proper full-time work. He had been a receptionist all his life, and had secured his job at a time when knowing Bengali and Hindi were good enough. He could comprehend English and speak it too although haltingly and with a heavy accent. But this had not acted as a disadvantage until then, when there were younger, smarter, fluent English-speaking Indians to compete. He could not keep up.
His father did odd jobs such as an extra helper at the grocery shop when it was the holiday season or as a salesman for cosmetic products. However, it was difficult to make ends meet and his father moved on the downward spiral to depression. Due to lack of attention, his studies suffered so that when he failed in the second standard, his father entrusted him to St. John’s Orphanage for a better well-being. He had said that it was a temporary arrangement but that was the last he saw of him. The capacious years ahead had waited in stealth, never forgetting to remind him of the man and of what might have happened to him until much later whenhe learnt that he had committed suicide within a year of giving him up.
When he was in the fifth standard, a middle-aged couple, the Mitras visited the orphanage and chose him for adoption. They took him with them to Mumbai, away from the humble suburb near Kolkata. From then on, his life changed – what with storybooks, cartoons, toys and a school that had a football field and a swimming pool. It was as if a magician had waved his wand over him, producing incredulous occurrences that left one spellbound.
Apart from his father, his mind often strayed to the cats he had earlier. How he would love to have another pair, cuddle and fuss over them. But Mrs Mitra was allergic to animal fur and hence, there were no pets in the house. He waited for the day when he would be able to keep his own cat or cats – the fondness for whom had never waned in his heart. The cats, for him, were a reminder of the small but peaceful home in which his father and he would play board games together in the weekends and where the feel of the rush mat at the entrance ushered the feeling of security.
In fact, after he lost the cats, he could not bring himself to draw, which was one of his favourite pastimes. He had tried a couple of times, but failed miserably. It was as if his fingers disobeyed him, refusing to accurately translate what his mind intended so that, at length, he abandoned all attempts. This was the reason why despite Mr Mitra’s encouragement, who was an architect himself, he could not bring himself to participate in the “sit and draw” competitions at school.
As one year gave way to another and the calendars changed swiftly, he grew up to be a young man. He graduated with law from one of the most prestigious institutes in the country and eventually became a corporate lawyer employed in a multinational company. At office, a young software engineer caught his fancy. She was pale complexioned, street-smart and exuded an air of confidence. He approached her gingerly and soon they began courting.
One evening, at a restaurant, she randomly spoke about her love for dogs. “I had a terrier as a kid,” she reminisced. “I was heartbroken when he died.” Did he have any pets? But he swallowed the words that were supposed to be said. How could he tell her he loved cats? It was girls who usually adored them. Besides, the cats he had when he was young did not die a natural death – they had simply disappeared from his life, in all probability run away. He was afraid that depicted him as a negligent pet owner, and he was not going to give it away to the woman he wanted to impress. So he lied, claiming that he liked dogs too but did not have the chance to keep one. “It’s great that we both love dogs,” she smiled.
When autumn arrived and the leaves turned from green to yellow, he proposed to her with a diamond ring. Amidst tears of laughter, their wedding was fixed. It took place the following year in January – the grand Indian wedding that they had always dreamt of. And he swept her off her feet.
As they sank in conjugal bliss, the cats and their memory receded to the background. Until that night when he started from sleep on hearing a sound. There was a baby crying somewhere. A long drawl that continued. He turned over but could not shut out his mind. Next to him, his wife lay in deep slumber, oblivious. On listening carefully, it occurred to him that it was no baby but a cat that was crying. Stepping out from bed in consternation, he went over to the window. To his amazement, he noticed two cats in the backyard. One of them was making the whimpering sound.
An old feeling pricked him. The cats, why they looked exactly like the ones he had! Could it be...? He raced down the stairs and opened the backdoor. There they were, unmistakably, undeniably, the cute white tabbies of his childhood. He gasped.
Some minutes later, his wife stirred in bed. “Sweetie?” she called but there was no response. Rubbing her eyes, she went to the washroom and then checked the other rooms. No sign of him. A sense of uneasiness crept inside her. Had he gone out? But what for, at this hour of the night? Had there been an emergency phone call while she was sleeping? Perhaps he did not want to disturb her at the time. But surely he would have left a note or something to intimate her. Or was it meant to be surreptitious on purpose? The questions made her dizzy and she poured herself a glass of cold water.
Pacing near the window, she dialled his number. Then suddenly, she froze. He was out in the backyard – bare-bodied and in his pyjamas, as he had been when he went to bed. And he was crouching. She hurried to the door. It was ajar. She flung it open and stepped outside. His back was turned towards her and he was making cooing sounds.
“Honey?” she said, “What are you doing out here?”
He turned to her. “Oh...it’s you. Didn’t see you coming.”
Then he smiled. “You won’t believe what I found!”
He cautiously stood up with his arms cradled and turned towards her. She could see nothing in particular.
“What...what is it?” Her tone was nervous.
“Why, these are my cats. I had them as a child. They had disappeared one day...I looked around everywhere but just couldn’t find them. But...” Here he chuckled. “They’ve come back now. Can you believe it? After all these years, they’ve finally returned to me!”
She stared at his bare arms, confounded, feeling as if she had been struck on the head with something heavy.
“Aren’t they adorable? You’ll get to know when you hold one. Here, take one from me...”
A static-filled pause followed as neither moved.
“Come on now, hold out your hands...” He cajoled.
Lifelessly, she lifted her palms. He came near her and tilted his hands towards hers.
“There,” he smiled. “How does it feel?”
She stared at her empty hands and then looked at him. He was gazing expectantly, waiting for her reply. And for once, she who had prided herself on being quick-witted and eloquent, felt robbed of her voice. As a gust of wind blew past, the door creaked behind her – beckoning her indoors, threatening to swing shut. Yet she remained transfixed, unable to move, unable to speak, her dilated eyes searching for the cats that were not there.