Literature loves its cool cats. The felines score second on the list of characters — even a notch above the dog — in literary sagas with their uncanny human characteristics. They are feline and hence “prone to clawing mischief and feminine capers of a kind which very few living species can replicate”.
Spinners of spiels often use them as metaphors in acutely human tales to describe this mortal world of the lean, mean man — in his myriad incarnations. The cats in the history of world literature run in an endless list – both as characters and as inspirations.
In the modern Indian literary canon, humorist, poet and master of black satire Sukumar Ray (father of film maestro Satyajit Ray) has been the first to create a magical superhero of the feline – in his handkerchief-turned-cat, who stalks the natural world with the arrogance of a spook. His book (HaJaBaraLa a vernacular classic in Bengali) — “HJBRL: A Nonsense Story (translated by Jayinee Basu)” — is a magical fable about a complex adventure in which a handkerchief becomes a cat and draws the animal world in a conversation about “intractable math and its implications about the geographical locations of species other than humans that populate the everyday world”. Each character has a defining human trait — linking the man and the animal world.
Writer Nilanjana Roy takes off from Sukumar Roy’s absurd oeuvre to create a parallel world of “powerful cats” in the capital’s historic Nizamuddin neighbourhood – where the grand Mughals meet the spiffy apartment dwellers of hip Delhi amid the stray contingents of cows, cats and dogs, who make up the quaint mix of urban throng in a changing India.
In her novel, “Wildlings” and its sequel, “The Hundred Names of Darkness” (the former won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize), Roy follows a small band of cats in the “labyrinthine alleys of Nizamuddin, who live and hunt on their own terms with scant empathy for the residents of the area”. The army is led by “Miao, a wise Siamese clan elder, Katar, loved by his followers and feared by his enemies; Hulo, the great warrior, Beraal, the beautiful queen and Southpaw, a kitten whose curiosity always gets him out of trouble”. They are carefree till “a terrified orange kitten with green eyes and remarkable powers, Mara, rescued from an adjacent residential neighbourhood, change their lives”.
In the sequel, “The Hundred Names of Darkness (published by Aleph Book Company and released in Dec 2013)”, the tribe of Wildlings (cats) add heft with Doginder, a friendly neighbourhood stray dog, Hatchet, a kite who is afraid of heights, Thomas Mor, an affable peacock and Jethro Tail, the mouse who roared. The book ends on a note of filial nostalgia — with Mara, daughter Monsoon and father Southpaw bonding as a family while the animal farm flourishes in bliss along the verdant swathes of the Delhi Golf Course — a stone’s throw from Nizamuddin.
Not every day does a writer look at the brood of stray animals surviving in the capital’s outhouse alleys — scavenging on offals or bitching about the pampered pets, the more privileged class in the capital’s menageries. But Roy claims that “the idea came from her sheer love for the stray animals of Delhi”.
Cats are a species in itself – almost human, Roy points out. “I think cats are the original Punjabis (residents of Punjab) in Delhi — the car wars are like the Khanna vs the Shettis,” the writer says. She endows cats with distinct regional characteristics. “Each region – province or state — has its own cat. The Goa cats eventually make their way to Bombay in its spirit of enterprise. The Kolkata cats are large and round. But the Delhi cats make their way everywhere,” Roy explains.
“Cats as a motif occur in Indian arts as well,” Roy says about her inspiration from Bengal’s modern art maestro Jamini Roy, who used traditional imagery from the Kalighat Patachitra (folk painting of local legends on scrolls, clay pots and ‘chala’ – small rattan frames), showing a “mischievous cat with a lobster between its teeth”. “You find it as visual icon almost everywhere,” Roy says.
The cat was a way of life in 19th century feudal Bengal – haunting the kitchens for fish, the staple Kolkata diet with rice. Pawns, lobsters and crabs in sweet-water Bengal were loved by the fat Bengali cats, the “idyllic Bengali babu-bibi” and the mistresses, as well. The cat had several allusions in the journey of Bengal tradition of art.
Roy’s obsession with cats — to such an extent that she steps into their pelt to feel their emotions, passions and even their minds (her cats are virtually telepathic) — is not unfamiliar to the history of world literature. Nobel Prize winning writer Ernest Hemingway had this little nook for cats in his heart. He had reared a posse of 23 cats by 1945 – and a foreword in “Hemingway’s Cats: An Illustrated Biography” says the writer and his fourth wife Mary called the cats, “purr factories” and “love sponges”. Literary historians say when one of his cats Uncle Willie was knocked down by a car in 1952, Hemingway was distraught and “wrote” letters of lamentations grieving the loss.
The modern cats of literature trace their lineage to “Alice in Wonderland” in which a Cheshire cat baffles Alice “with philosophy”. When the cat is sentenced to death by the king and queen of Hearts, it appears without a body triggering an argument between the executioner and king whether anything that does not have a body can be executed. In the “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”, the anthology of feline poetry published in 1939, poet T.S. Eliot describes “cat whims and philosophy” in nonsense verse that begins with “The Naming of Cats” — a rite by which cats choose their names.
The collection inspired the Broadway and Hollywood musical, “Cats”.
Composed by Andrew Loyd Webber, the musical based on Eliot’s anthology tells the story of “Jellicle Choice” — about a tribe of cats and their “sacred ways” which is so different from humans.
Cats inspired an illustrated volume of children’s stories by James Joyce – — The Cat and the Devil — which he penned as letters to grandson Stephen. Paul Gallico and Stephen King use cats “as icons of magical realism” — in one as a boy turning into a cat spirit after an accident and as a real time memory ghost who returns in death — to explore the feline supernatural.
But the cats, we are most familiar with are Garfield- the orange animated terror, Crookshanks, the cat owned by Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter novels and Snowbell of Stuart Little. However, the cat that wins hands down — courtesy his bullish ways — is “Tom”, the grey and white domestic short-hair cat from the animated “Tom and Jerry Cartoon Series”. The serial went on screen with “The Midnight Snack” in 1941.