LET’S face it. I am not a cat person. I don’t like their slinky walk, the way their bodies eternally keep their tough, wary muscle tone even when they are rubbing themselves against you, or their unblinking Egyptian gaze. Cat crap stinks, they have very sharp teeth, and sometimes they mew without a sound, which can be very unsettling.
The thing is that Nilanjana Roy, through her inspired writing, has channelled the feline world to create cat-people. Not people who love cats but cats who are basically people, complete with faults, foibles, whimsies, dreams and nightmares!
There’s tiny orange Mara, the linchpin of the story, a Sender’ of great power, capable of using airwaves to communicate with the whole tribe of cats who inhabit the streets, gardens and by lanes of Old Delhi’s Nizamuddin. This is a place space with great skill, a place of tombs and trees, treacherous old bungalows and mean streets lined with houses filled with ‘Bigfeet’. That’s us, humans, on the margins of the story, forming the backdrop on a stage where the spotlight is resolutely on Beraal, Miao, Katar, Katar and little Southpaw, a perfect scamp of a boy kitten with a penchant for getting into serious trouble.
In the zoo not too far away, Royal Bengal tigers Rani and Ozymandias make serendipitous appearances, accompanied by a completely different cast of characters, including their cub Rudra (the Great and Powerful Son of Ozymandias) and Tantara the langur. The last two have been more or less thrown upon each other and learn to make the best of a situation where friends are not to be sniffed at.
‘Appearance’ is the right word, though not for the tigers. It is Mara who has the ability to teleport herself through her extraordinary sensory ability over considerable distances, an ability, she is learning dismally, that separates her from her kind, putting her more firmly into the company of Bigfeet. That is well enough and their unfailing kindness and love keep Mara happy most of the time. But the cat world will not let her be, and as a Sender, the biggest event of her young life is looming, when a battle must be fought, a kind of feline Kurukshetra that must be won by the tribe of Nizamuddin if their world is not to be taken over by the evil, demonic, twisted, perverted Datura and his cohorts, Ratsbane and Aconite, all living in the Shuttered House which looms over the landscape in its own wildly overgrown garden like the castle of Dracula in the Bram Stoker book.
It’s a rousing work and the author makes sure you stay glued throughout the skilful development of the story to the final conflict. She has every nuance right, every movement setting off a word picture that confirms everything you may have unconsciously imbibed about cats, so that when the last page is turned, you are ready for the sequel.
Overall, it is an ambitious book that only a cat person could write, with the illustrations a labour of love by Prabha Mallya. I still don’t like cats, but at least I am now willing to read about this lot, again and again.
By Nilanjan Roy,
Published by Aleph, 311 pages