The cat attracted their attention on a particularly empty day when they were running out of conversations. It was not the same cat that was roaming inside the house and outside till now. It now appeared like a new life washed in fresh light. It would turn its head and look, when called out as Meowdi. Fire shone in its eyes. The cat’s cries sounded like the music of a violin. Their eyes and ears were rejuvenated.
Nobody had expected the Covid lockdown to draw out like this. Few days, a couple of weeks. One could stay back at home, take some rest and watch all movies left unwatched. Mangasuri was excited at the prospect of nurturing the plants on the terrace she had so lovingly bought; at the thought of having relaxed conversations about things that she had always wanted to talk about. But it did not turn out that way.
There were rumours that the virus was also air-borne. They closed the windows and stayed at home. The groceries they had bought a day before the lockdown through the mad rush will last for another six months. Tomatoes and onions were, of course, an issue. But it was possible to cook without them. They made sure that one person did not breathe over the other.
The daughter studying at school was content with her laptop and cellphone. Almost always, she was in her room. Mangasuri worked as a teacher at a private school that had monthly examinations. She would often be exasperated by the answer sheets. She had dreams of being suffocated in a pile of words. The Covid had given her a major release from it. She celebrated it by making moong dal kheer. The daughter laughed. “World is mourning, but we are having kheer.” “Do not think about it, enjoy your kheer,” Mangasuri said. “Wouldn’t we not be reminded of the monkey when having medicine?” her husband asked. They laughed together. The lockdown indeed had a beautiful start.
Her husband was a clerk in a government office. He couldn’t take leave even for a day. At home too, he would be immersed in office work. She thought he would be stressed. But he was not. He slept for a long time. He went to sleep after every meal. It appeared as if he was making up for all the sleep he had lost since his birth. He would speak loud over his cellphone to several people. The daughter would come out and chide him for speaking so loud. Then he would take a walk on the terrace. His time was thus passed.
She was piled with housework. She had to do all the work since the domestic worker couldn’t come. She felt the house was dirty. Everyday, she cleaned a part of the house and arranged things. The daughter and husband gave different ideas about it. She would arrange things after they arrived at a consensus. The living room now appeared spacious. They now discussed beautifying it more. The daughter suggested things that were expensive. She let it pass.
Little Soul by Shormii Chowdhuri Mixed tempera on silk
She cooked lunch and breakfast in the morning, and had light dinner. The husband washed the dishes. They had long conversations during meals and in the night. The conversations were about relatives on both sides. The bias, cheating and treachery of the relatives came to light. The couple had different opinions sometimes on these issues. They spoke in support of their relatives and opposed the relatives of the spouse. The conversations were not peaceful either. Either of them raised their voice. Sometimes, it turned into screams. In some time, they made peace with each other as if nothing had happened. The daughter emerged out of her cave and complained about the monotony in their actions.
One evening, they went to the terrace. There were human faces on all the terraces. The moon had risen early that day. Their conversations changed tack. She spoke about her school and parents. He spoke about his colleagues at work. The daughter was surprisingly part of the conversation. “You are happy, but look at me. I am worried about exams” she said. She has to appear for her final examination. There was confusion about examinations—whether they will be held and if they are, about the format. The conversation was now about comforting the daughter.
For a few days, they kept going back to the terrace. They could see all the houses on the street from there. They spoke about the residents of the houses. “Why are you angry about them?” the husband asked her. It was evident that he camouflaged his ignorance about the neighbours in the question. She pointed to a terrace four houses away and asked: “Tell me, who lives there?” “Why should I care? Let it be any dog,” he said, and walked back into the home banging the stairs. She stayed back at the terrace for a long time.
The impact was still felt. They did not talk to each other. The daughter realised what was happening and spoke to them, separately. She acted as a go-between, telling aloud to one what the other said. A huge silence enveloped the house. The daughter’s voice was sometimes heard. One day when they were having lunch, with just the sound of vessels clanking, Meowdi slowly walked in. It stopped next to Mangasuri’s chair and looked at her. Suddenly, it took a leap and landed on her lap. She smiled, her heart was warm and she opened her lap for the cat.
She was proud that the cat chose her when there were three human beings there. “I keep petting you always, but you go to my mother instead of coming to me?” the daughter asked. The cat was now lying on her lap comfortably. “Where did you roam around to get this tired?” Mangasuri asked the cat, and caressed its head. It closed its eyes. The husband smiled a bit. “Look, it demands comfort” he started the conversation casually. She smiled back and responded. When the daughter left, she twitched the ear of the cat. “Jealous,” Mangasuri said. “Wouldn’t she be?” the husband asked.
The cat came on its own to their house. It was a kitten four or five months ago, when it was sitting in their yard. The daughter saw it first and gave milk to it. The cat was initially petrified, but smelled the milk and hesitantly tried it. Mangasuri was annoyed. “Why this now?” she asked. “Poor thing, amma” the daughter said and convinced her mother. It would visit often for milk and then leave. They were not sure if it was a male or a female cat. The daughter was certain that it was a female cat and named it Meowdi.
Meowdi did not stop with the yard. It slowly stepped into the house. “Look, how brazen it is!” Mangasuri said but did not chase it away. “If the cat sheds its hair, we might get asthma,” the husband said. “We can clean them,” the daughter said. “Will you?” Mangasuri asked her. “Haven’t I? I sweep the house every time the domestic worker is not here,” she said. The daughter picked Meowdi and caressed it. It did not fuss much and got along with the daughter. “Who knows where it has been and what it eats?” the husband said.
“Hmm, who can be as clean as the cat? It would even cover its own shit. It cleans its legs and mouth after eating something. We take a bath once in four days. Can we even speak about cat’s cleanliness?”
He wouldn’t take a bath on holidays. It was evident that she was pointing it out. He didn’t say anything after that. Meowdi would walk in and out of the house anytime. If it had to leave when the door was closed, it would let out a specific cry. Someone should open the door. The daughter had also created a path by removing a part of the mosquito net on the windows.
With the cat in the house, the lizards hid themselves away. The rats were nowhere to be seen. The shrew mouses changed places. The cockroaches too had disappeared. She fed the cat with curd rice. When they cooked meat, she kept aside some pieces for the cat. She even bought some dried fish from the market and often gave it to the cat. She competed with the daughter in feeding the cat.
The cat was now part of the house. During the lockdown, it remained inside the house and slept on the loft inside the daughter’s room. It hardly stepped out. Maybe because there were humans in the house and there was no scarcity of food. Or maybe because it was afraid of the dogs that roamed abandoned streets. She thought that the cat was inside a cave, just like her daughter. On the day it leapt to her lap, she felt an overwhelming love for the animal. And tended to it more.
When she was on the dining chair or on the sofa in the living room, the cat got onto her lap. It did not go to the daughter’s lap despite her cajoling. “You have no love for me,” said the upset daughter. The cat listened to her, opened its eyes and merely looked at her. It seemed to have understood what she said.
When Mangasuri was busy in the kitchen once, the daughter screamed: “Amma, amma come and look here!” The cat was on the daughter’s lap. She had never seen her daughter so excited. She thought the cat would jump onto her lap if she sat on a chair. But she decided against it and moved, merely expressing her surprise. The daughter remained seated, till the cat left her lap. It sometimes sat on the husband’s lap too.
It became a game between them and the cat. It would come in when all three were there. They would together call for the cat–Meowdi. It would look at all three, fake a leap in front of everyone and would suddenly land on someone’s lap. The three would make noise in excitement. The cat couldn’t stand the noise, it would jump down. Then they decided that they wouldn’t make noise if the cat went on somebody’s lap. The house was not silent any more. There was no fatigue on any face. Conversations began with “Meowdi”. The daughter spent more time outside her room.
The cat’s presence changed everything. Mangasuri chatted with the cat while cooking. They spent time talking about the cat and looking forward to its visits. They were astounded by the beauty of its jumping on a lap and sleeping. They loved how it used its own hand as a headrest. It jumped on each one’s lap at different times. When it chose one lap, the rest were disappointed. “I will teach you a lesson when you come to me,” they said.
They had just sat down for lunch on that day. The cat walked into the room. The three exchanged a secret smile and kept their laps open. The husband was on one side, Mangasuri and daughter on the opposite. The cat jumped onto the lap of the husband. He was very proud. He caressed its head and opened his lap. The cat somehow felt uncomfortable on the lap, it jumped out and went on to Mangasuri’s lap. “Wouldn’t you come to me?” the daughter asked.
The husband’s face turned red. “You gestured it to come to you,” he accused her. “When did I gesture? It came on its own. Animals can sense love in fingertips that caress them,” Mangasuri said. “Are you saying I don’t love it enough?” his voice was loud now. “Don’t you know?” Mangasuri asked back. “Ah, you have all the love” he screamed and threw the plate away. He threw the vessels on the table. Mangasuri and the daughter ran out of the room. The husband was now breathing furiously like a chimney and went to his bed.
Afraid of the commotion, the cat ran away. It never came back.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Meowdi")
Perumal Murugan is a Tamil writer