“We must remember. They are a part of us, aren’t they – those we once knew?”
This line from M G Vassanji’s elegiac The In-Between World of Vikram Lall keeps coming back to me and now – I’m not sure why, maybe it has to do with the torpor-induced melancholia of a quiet Sunday afternoon – I’ve been thinking about Sandy. About how it’s been over 10 years since he left us, whether he might still possibly be living somewhere in one of Saket’s colonies, not too far from our house (or, for all one knows, miles away in another part of town – for cats have a knack for travelling long distances under duress, and little Sandy was very frightened that night in early 1994 when he shot out of our house for the last time, driven away by our older cat Kittu, whose exclusive male preserve he had begun encroaching on).
But on the off-chance that he is alive, he would be very old in Cat Years, and that’s a thought I can’t bear – Sandy being old. I’m still only 27 myself! It wouldn’t be right.
Sandy entered our lives yowling sometime in June-July 1993 (haven’t checked my diary for the exact date). My mother and I were visiting relatives and had just hailed an auto to go back when we saw this little ginger-coloured thing, not more than 20-25 days old, looking up at us through astonishingly bright, intelligent eyes. Lots of things about him were surprising: he had a remarkably bushy tail even at that age, and an incongruously gruff, guttural voice for such a beautiful, delicate-looking kitten. Picking him up and taking him home was an instinctive move, and came more out of our concern – there were cars tearing about on the road at the time – than anything else.
There were breaking-in problems. On getting home and actually thinking about what we’d just done, we worried about how Kittu might react, but things went off surprisingly well on that front (there being no threat to Kittu’s sole-bachelor-in-colony status at the time). We fed Sandy milk with a dropper and initially fretted that we might have separated him from his mother when he was too small. When he started teething, I happily offered him the entire length of my left arm as a chew toy (for weeks, all you’d see on that limb were several parallel red lines and fang marks).
Have you heard of a cat on a leash? We weren’t yet ready to let Sandy go out by himself the way Kittu freely did; but he was a stray after all and needed to explore the wild occasionally. So every morning (very early, 6 am or so, before I left for school) and every evening I would take him down for 15-20 minutes on a very long leash (a couple of them tied together). I even gave him his first rudimentary lessons in tree-climbing; okay, that’s an exaggeration but I would goad him up the trunk of the solitary tree of note in our park and watch (still holding on to the leash) as he cautiously tested branches.
Would it be too sentimental to admit that I learnt a lot of things about responsibility and care during my time with Sandy? When Kittu first came into our lives a few years earlier, he was almost entirely my mother’s responsibility – except for the tummy-rubbing, which I helped with – and it mostly stayed that way. With Sandy, I had a coequal role to play: in the feeding, the walking, the providing of general entertainment, the collecting/disposing of sand for the kitty litter. I’m not comfortable with the idea of using a fixed set of experiences to conveniently explain a human life, but I think I did grow a lot as a person during those months.
I’ll rush through the rest of it. Once Sandy was a few months old and started going down by himself, it became obvious that a dangerous rivalry was fomenting between him and Kittu. Things reached a point where if they were both in the house at the same time, they had to be kept in different rooms, which caused much tension for all of us. Eventually, there came an evening when we had guests over, someone got careless, the two cats had a brief scuffle in the living room and we hurriedly allowed Sandy out the door while keeping Kittu locked within. Sandy never returned. I spent 15 minutes each morning for the next two months or so scouting all the familiar spots where I used to take him walking, but with no luck.
Sandy was with us for only a few months compared with Kittu’s 8-odd years, and it might seem strange that I feel a greater ache for the former. To a large extent, it has to do with the lack of closure. Kittu was with us for a cat-lifetime, or nearly that. We watched him progress (?) over the years from being a reasonably lithe young cat into an undignified, burping mound of corruption and laziness; gluttonous, hang-jowled, scruffy and torn from the occasional tom-fight. And when he died (in 1998, from a kidney ailment) we knew about it. I found the body, buried him in a spot just outside the house. There was completeness, and a sense of a life full-lived. None of that with Sandy. His time with us was so ephemeral, it’s still easy to wonder whether we dreamt him up.
Anyone who believes it’s possible to be as close to an animal as to another human being will know that it’s completely pointless trying to explain or defend the feeling to someone who can’t empathise with it. So I’m leaving countless things unsaid here. Suffice it to say this is a more personal blog than I ever intended to post on this forum. But it just happened, and I’m sort of glad it did.