Poetry & Prose : CAT AND KITTEN

Anjana Basu

CAT AND KITTEN

The kitten was not quite new born but wide eyed and curious. Its paws were always leading it in odd directions. Over banana peels, behind a flapping string or a toss of flying paper. I found it lost mewing by the corner of a lamppost with its mother nowhere in sight. It draped itself over my shoe.

The dusky rose shawl slid over her shoulder, close enough to her cheek to lend it a glow. Her kajal* was smudged giving her the dark rings of a sleepless night at four thirty on a winter afternoon. Complaining of incipient fever, she had brought her poems in a notebook to the adda*, determined to read only two, certainly not the one about the summer breeze caressing the curve of her naked back. What would they think, she asked, widening her too wide eyes. I wondered if it was with intent — she had already compared me to her mother, Judi Dench, Meryl Streep in Prada devil guise. My box 1940’s bourgeois Bengali house had been transformed into an English manor by some stroke of wish fulfilment.

The wind poem, in its lustful ease, was by far the best of all the moaning over love scrawled in the short sms text I hated. But it vanished from her wall to be replaced by the tale of Bettina’s assortment of body parts with numerous men. Presumably it was a parable of herself and the men on the wall, or perhaps I was just getting old.

She caught me looking and wriggled self-consciously caressing a ringlet of hair. The gesture attracted the eye of the men sitting hunched on hard chairs riffling through their poetic thoughts, and they pressed her to read, to open her lips and let her smoky voice stroke their senses. But all she did was smile and stroke her ringlets twice more before reading those two poems and no more. By then I had stopped looking at her, though out of a corner glance I could see that limpid trail of her eyes.

The next morning the chat box popped up Ashimaaaa where are you I have fever..want to read Enid Blyton and drink hot chocolate

Before she read her poems, I had left trying to attract as little attention as possible. What was I scared of, that she would cast herself in a trail of rose and ringlets at my feet begging me not to go, wiping my feet with her hair like another Magdalen? Asking me whether it was her poems I hated that she would never, never read anything I disapproved of.

The poem on the wind’s stroking hands had vanished from her wall because she thought it was lascivious, though she would never use that word. Her Facebook fans were already hailing her as the new Anais Nin. Anais Nin? was my answer to the miaow in the chatbox. The box abruptly closed with no answer. She had a habit of doing that and never would phone, though I had given her my number, thinking she had more things to say than could be accommodated in a chatbox. But I was wrong, I suppose, because the chat box opened over and over again but the phone never rang.

The kitten hooked its claws in the edge of my trailing shawl and went dangling. I felt it bumping against my heels and stopped to try and untangle it. She thought it was a fishing game and began twisting and turning against my hands, patting them, occasionally turning her claws into fish hooks so that I was the one caught. Between us, the shawl was in danger of being totally unravelled and was almost a fishing net by the time I separated it and the kitten. Oh well, it was the wear-at-home shawl and beginning to fade from its rich maroon.

‘I am sad’ said the next general Facebook post, drawing comments like ‘Why little darling?’ All from men of course with an occasional bewildered woman commentator. They’re all respectable and in their seventies, she back chatted defensively, when I asked. I toyed with the idea of hiding her newsfeed – she would never know after all.

The kitten was tumbling over its own feet and mine. Hearing the noise of the door opening, it streaked behind the sofa in a flash of tail, while the maid grumbled, “Didi just dirtying the place!” Within a few days I’d named her Anais, though it was a hissing issss for the maid’s benefit. For all the attention she paid I could just have well called her Beral.

I am no airhead...I am a furry ball of kitten miaaaaaaaow. She was forty going on nine with Marilyn Monroe as her profile face. The real thing was divesting itself of a fur ball at my feet. She looked at me with great satisfaction once the heaving was over, and licked her paws.
“Didi after a few weeks all the para hulos* will be after her,” grumbled the maid, cleaning the floor – luckily there was no carpet to complicate matters. I looked at the kitten and didn’t think she was old enough to go mollying around, but who knew?

She was divorced. In between the purring and the poetry she had divulged that much. The husband had been, she said, spectacularly abusive at weddings, ripping chains from around her throat or earrings so that her lobes dripped blood instead of rubies. Her parents had been alive then and had allowed her to take him to court — since most of Calcutta society had observed those wedding rampages. How many years ago that had been, I had no idea, but she had taken to wearing masks on facebook, with a peekaboo for the men, as opposed to a miaow for me.

She insisted it was non provocative, punctuating her chat with giggles and emoticons. I am pretty, I am so pretty giggles…wasn’t I pretty when I was twenty? That was on the trail of some man who had proposed to her in 2009. Or was it the one who had proposed when she was 20?

 I never knew her when she was twenty. But what I saw now was exasperating. Sometimes I pitied the abusive husband driven to desperation by giggles, shaken ringlets and tinkling bangles. But then there were those poems neatly pinned to her Wall which displayed no Sylvia Plath symptoms, barring the undertow of sex.

In mid-afternoon a cat yowled its love song from across the garden wall. We had a strange neighbourhood, roosters crowing at 3 pm, the cats yowling and, in-between, the call of the muezzin from the bazaar. Anais would listen intently whenever she heard any of it and then turn her unfathomable eyes on me. If it was in-between Marilyn’s sashaying on the web, I would shake my head and let her leap up into a ball of warmth on my knees. A living stress buster.

Marilyn-Anais would never talk to me at those poetry readings, just swivel her eyes to the chair where I sat and back again with a certain contented smugness that I never understood. Online was where she lay in wait with her stories of the day, a stolen phone at school and all the sms-es from and to various men read out in the staff room. And as it happened, a few erotic ones too, though the one that was the most important was never understood.

“If our flirtation is ever consummated, I suspect we will end up making love like porcupines very, very carefully.” ‘Did you understand what he meant?’ She asked. This time it wasn’t a walled out man but one of the proposers whom she had allowed into her solitary home presided over by a sombre cook. He had sent her that  sms after some grapplings that had not quite gone all the way.

“Was that read out in the staffroom?” I typed.

Anais in pure femme fatale mode, launched herself from my lap to scamper after the jharu* as it swept the floor, ignoring the maid’s ‘shoo! Shoo! Ja!’

But, the other one refused to go away. What did he mean? She persisted ignoring the staffroom question. I don’t know, I typed.

Ashimaaa are you a feminist?

What I wondered did that have to do with porcupines and their inability to consummate? Presumably they did consummate somehow, otherwise the porcupine species would be in danger of extinction. What do you think a feminist is? I asked.

Anais the cat hissing and spitting at the para* mongrels from the safety of the verandah? They would stand below with their muzzles lifted, barking in angry chorus, just you wait you fur ball, one day we’ll get our teeth on you!

She did not answer, possibly because she was looking up the appropriate information. Something stuttered up in the chat box with a giggle at its end. The cat heard the soft explosion and leapt up onto my lap pawing at the screen. That would be a conversation I thought, Anais and Anais miaowing at each other. If I had had a microphone I could have skyped them together.

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Glossary:
Kajal: Mascara
Adda: A form of intellectual exchange among members of 'middle-class intelligentsia' in India. Satyajit Ray (in his film Agantuk) ascribed the origin of the tradition to the regular intellectual dialogues in Ancient Greece at the time of Socrates or Plato.
Jharu: Broom in in Hindi language.
Para: neighbourhood / hulos: tomcats (hence para hulos)
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The author: Anjana Basu is an author and advertising consultant based in Calcutta.Her poems have featured in anthologies by Penguin India, Writer’s Workshop and Authorpress. The BBC has broadcast her short stories. In addition, she has five novels to her creditand has been a Hawthornden Fellow.

Illustration: Masked Manniquin, photography, by Ishmael Annobil

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