Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Kitty litterateurs: on Suniti Namjoshi's Suki and other cat books

[Did this for the magazine Democratic World]

There was an email forward doing the rounds recently, a comparison of hypothetical one-page diary entries written by two house pets – a dog and a cat. The dog’s entry was short, semi-literate and full of sunshine and cheer, with such exclamations as “Oh boy! A car ride! My favourite!” and “Oh boy! Tummy rubs on the couch!” while the cat’s was written in full, elegant sentences and was sardonic and world-weary: the very heading read “Day 183 of my captivity”.

Anyone who knows the two species well should agree that this is a good summary of their broad personality types. And anyone who knows professional writers – at least the ones who brood for hours over the construction of a paragraph or sentence – will agree that temperamentally they tend to be cat-like: mostly reserved, unsocial and irritable, but willing to purr for a short time if a satisfying turn of phrase has been achieved, or a deadline more or less met. There are also practical reasons why writers are more often “cat people” than “dog people”. Dogs are dependent on human attention, needing to be regularly spoken to and taken down for walks, but cats are more self-sufficient, and hence suitable companions for people who spend much of their time in fierce concentration.

In this light, it is interesting to consider the difference in tone between books about dogs and books about cats. The former – especially the ones about life with a pet – tend to be sentimental and emotionally demonstrative, whereas cat books have a certain coolness built into them. And this can be the case even when they belong to the Motivational or Self-Help category. Take David Michie’s very engaging The Dalai Lama’s Cat, told in the voice of a kitten who is rescued by the Dalai Lama at a traffic signal near Delhi and brought to Mcleodganj, where she soon settles into the temple complex and becomes known as His Holiness’s Cat (HHC).

HHC – alternately known as Snow Lion and, to her dismay, “Mousie-Tung” – spends much of her time in the company of the Buddhist leader, soaking in his presence (“had he recognised in me a kindred spirit – a sentient being on the same spiritual wavelength as he?”) and listening in as he discusses the conundrums of existence. Each chapter follows a broad format where a human character discovers the need to rethink his attitude to things, and the cat then applies some of these teachings to her own situation, with varying degrees of success. Thus, an insight about how self-absorption can make one sick and unhappy (a valuable lesson for writers, as it happens!) is linked to our narrator coughing up fur balls after spending an inordinate amount of time grooming herself. She realises that a period of self-pity combined with fear of exploring a new setting cost her precious time that she might have spent getting to know a new friend; and she is even inspired to deal with her gluttony, a by-product of being pampered silly.

As an old cynic wary of quick-fix advice and pat life lessons, I am not really a fan of this genre. But The Dalai Lama’s Cat worked for me because even in times of emotional epiphany, the cat nature retains a certain distance. At one point HHC overcomes her feelings of distaste for a new arrival, a dog named Kyi Kyi, when she learns about his sad back-story. “We reached an understanding of sorts,” she says, but then she quickly adds: “I did not, however, climb into his basket and let him lick my face. I’m not that kind of cat. And this is not that kind of book.”

Such emotional reticence can make brief, unexpected flashes of sentimentality very effective. Suniti Namjoshi’s recently published Suki, a tribute to her deceased cat, takes the form of conversations between human and feline. They talk about such things as morality, social injustice and hypocrisy, and the tone is mostly droll, faux-philosophical and chatty (or catty). But there are deeply affecting moments too. At one point in the middle of a casual conversation, the ghost-cat remarks that towards the end of her life it had been painful for her to open the cat-flap to go outside, and the author responds with a spontaneous cry of “Oh, Suki!” And another exchange, where the cat mentions that she would have liked to meet the author’s family (who were not animal lovers), should cut deep for anyone who has ever had a special, intense relationship with an animal and been unable to share it with their human world.

At the same time, one knows that these conversations are fictional, that Namjoshi is imagining things about the cat’s inner life and rendering them into human language. And so, the book becomes as much about the author herself – it is a form of therapy, a way of examining her deepest feelings, including love, grief and regret. This is also a reminder that there are many types of cat books. Cats can be used to examine a particular milieu as in Pallavi Aiyar’s novel Chinese Whiskers, in which the adventures of two Beijing cats give us a window into aspects of Chinese society including insularity, city-dwellers’ prejudices against migrant workers and the materialism of the young. Or they can serve purely representative or symbolic purposes: Art Spiegelman’s brilliant graphic novel Maus depicts the Holocaust by drawing Jews as mice and their Nazi oppressors as cats, but there is no pretence that the book is about animals.

Even overtly cat-centric books like The Dalai Lama’s Cat don’t always try to provide a detailed picture of the feline world and its tactile sensations, which is why Nilanjana S Roy’s delightful The Wildings, and its sequel The Hundred Names of Darkness, are such unusual additions to the kitty-lit corpus. These novels try to imagine what the world might feel like to a cat, from the furniture and carpets inside a house to the smells and textures of the outdoors, or the visceral knowledge that a predator is stalking you in the darkness. And an important plot device is the concept of “linking”: the feral cats of Nizamuddin, Delhi, can transmit whisker signals to each other across vast distances, allowing them to form a network that humans around them are oblivious to. 

This should resonate with anyone who has long-suspected that there is something otherworldly about cats; that they aren’t letting on everything they know; or that they are, like the cat in that diary entry, plotting something diabolical. “When my cats aren't happy, I’m not happy,” the poet Shelley said once, “because I know they’re just sitting there thinking up ways to get even.” Or to telepathically work themselves into the next book or poem.

[A post about Suniti Namjoshi's The Fabulous Feminist is here]


  1. Guess that's the reason Naipaul also had a cat. He even looks like a cat with salt and pepper beard, muffler and hat. On a serious note, I have bit of problem with camera the way Murakami uses animal in his narrative. I am very keen to read Wildings.

  2. Nice post, Jai :)

  3. Great post! Please write a bit more on dog books. (I remember a post you'd written on Steven Kotler's book)