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Short Story by Meera Ganapathi

Apparently, Hitler was afraid of cats.

He was an ailurophobe, that’s what they’re called –these people who fear cats. Napoleon and Gengis Khan are a few other suspected ailurophobes. A pattern of cruel dictators who loathe cute furry animals sounds too convenient. But if it were true, how did Daadi* like them so much?

Haha. Hahahaha.

You don’t mock the dead. I know, I know. But how did I get stuck with her cat? Why aren’t you here?

Remember how Daadi hid stuff under her pillow? Actually, I’m not sure if she hid her things or just kept them there for easy access. But with her, who could tell? I made a list of the stuff she kept under there. I’m sharing it with you for a reason, you’ll know at the end of this mail.  

Stuff she kept under her pillow:

1: Glasses 
2: Pills
3: Les Misérables (Remember the way she said “Jeen Val Jeen”?)
4: Hairbands
5: Mobile phone
6: Sunday’s supplement
7: Empty chocolate wrappers 
8: Kibble
9: Daadaji’s* gold ring
10: Good Knight mosquito mats

The pillow should’ve been lumpy and uncomfortable, but she always slept well didn’t she? Daadi shoved all that was awkward and painful right where everyone could see it and feel it, but somehow none of it affected her.

So, last night was Cheeni’s second night here. I was surprised at that name, I would’ve expected Daadi to call her cat something pompous like Cleopatra. Besides this one looks like anything but a Cheeni. Far from being sweet, she’s a rough-edged street cat, with a dull black coat, thinning in patches and unblinking yellow eyes. She lies under the couch all day, ignoring me, which suits me just fine. She only stirs when it’s time to be fed. I know this because she makes a sound that’s strangely similar to a little child. It’s a disturbing sound. The first time I heard it, it sent a chill up my spine and I instinctively looked out of the window for a distressed child. But it was just her, right behind me, with her odd mew. I can’t stand it.

She’s all black, so I guess no one wanted her.

Anyway, last night I was fast asleep when I felt a crushing weight on me. Like I’d been hit by a football, hard and fast, knocking the wind out of me.

I woke up to find a pair of yellow eyes peering at my face. I threw the cat off me in shock and she’s been hiding ever since. It’s better this way, honestly. She is clearly a moody and oversensitive cat.

(Now who does that remind you of?)

While I was annoyed by her strange behaviour I was also surprised at her sudden desire to be physically close.

But now I realise she was looking for her kibble under the pillow! This is how Daadi made Cheeni love her— a bribe —under the pillow. Are you surprised?

I’m fixing the puzzle of Daadi through this Cheeni.

Hey. Listen. What do I do?

Daadi’s lawyer called me again. She left me nothing. I know that much, because after she died, they called me solely to inform me that I had to take the cat. Yes, I asked about the house, even the old Morris, even her embroidered hankies. But they said, no, she’s left you the cat.

Besides there was that incident from ‘94. Of course, we were just children then but it confirms that I will have no financial gain from this proposed meeting with her lawyers.

You won’t remember the incident, but it’s important so let me tell you.

When Pappa was around, we still went to the big house nearly every summer – a miserable time for all of us, even him if you recall. You were too tiny to play then so I took to wandering around the house by myself, absorbed in all its musty, dark corners. I loved the old room behind the kitchen, the one with the giant wood burner for heating water. I often sat there by myself, reading. And the store room, where I told you I once found snakeskin (that was a lie, by the way). But none of these places seemed half as interesting as her room.

She was secretive even then. She never let us into her bedroom remember? We had to ask for her permission before entering. “Knock twice and say excuse me,” she’d say. And if we ever happened to walk in abruptly, she’d shut her almirah* really quickly. So naturally, I was desperate to investigate her room, especially that almirah.

One afternoon she’d taken Pappa to meet “family”, of course we weren’t allowed. No one was home, I can’t remember where you were. So, I took a chance and walked up to her room to look around. It seemed almost unbelievable but, in her hurry to leave, Daadi had left her almirah door slightly ajar.

I ignored the rest of the room and went straight to the almirah. I opened it wider very, very softly, afraid, so afraid of even a single creak! We were terrified of her then. She didn’t even have to be in the room but we still anticipated her every reaction, didn’t we? But no fear could stop me from trying to understand her. So, I stuck my head in and jostled with her silks, I still remember the scent of her perfume mingling with a dizzying scent of naphthalene as I looked for the secrets she hid, until I hit gold!

She had a will.

I was around 12 then, so I knew what wills were. But now when I look back, it was an absolutely idiotic will. And she was perfectly healthy back then, so why did she even have one?

She had scrawled the will on a piece of lined notebook paper that seemed to have been torn hastily, its edges were rough and uneven. Both the torn paper and her unwieldy handwriting seemed to suggest something sinister, as if she feared for her life. If she HAD dropped dead then, it would’ve looked like she’d grabbed whatever she could find and written her desperate appeals on it. It had that hurried quality of a person asking for help.

Despite that her language was impeccable. You know she always wrote like a proper lady. I can’t remember the exact words she used, but I remember the tone of her writing being formal and severe.

Here’s a gist of what I remember of the will:

To Whom It May Concern:

I, Mrs Aparna Tyagi, of sound mind and body, desire to leave my home and possessions, in case of my untimely death, in the hands of my surviving son, Mithun Tyagi and no other family members. Upon his death, my home and possessions may be sold and the money from the sale distributed amongst the priests at our family temple, in Vakil Street, Ashok Nagar, UP. I would further like to commission a bench to the temple with the words, “Donated by Mrs Tyagi and family” to be inscribed on it.

“And no other family members.”
She was pretty clear.

I should’ve got nothing but instead she stuck me with her cat. So why do these lawyers want to meet me I wonder? Is it even legal to pass on the responsibility of a pet? I doubt it.

Anyway, coming back to real life, Cheeni has stopped that awful mew. I think she missed Daadi and was pining for her.

Last evening, I was watching TV in the hall when I saw her leap onto the window sill and look out intently. She then poised herself for a jump, all set to leave the house. I was quick to shut the window but I can’t be sure if she’s a house cat or she goes out sometimes.

I know I shouldn’t be bothered and perhaps it would be great for me if she left. But everyone here knows Cheeni belongs to me –a black cat tends to attract attention.

My neighbour won’t stop telling me she’s bad luck.

You won’t believe this!

The lawyers gave me a letter from Daadi. It’s so much like her weird will. We’ve never received any written correspondence from Daadi, have we?

Obviously, I’m delighted. Not because it’s a heartwarming letter (imagine that!). But I need a laugh. And this letter is very promising. A wonderful distillation of the finest personality traits of our beloved grandmother in a letter addressed to- me! Not “to whom it may concern”, but me!

To Zahra,

Allow me to begin by thanking you for accepting the responsibility of my beloved Cheeni. I have had no regrets about leaving this world, but my only worry has been Cheeni. She deserves a loving home as she has been my only companion in the dusk of my years.

And whose fault is that, now?

And a good companion too –a title that cannot be deferred on many.

Aha! First zing.

Cheeni came to me on a cold, winter afternoon in November, five years ago. She was hobbling in pain, outside our gate, mewing piteously and calling out to us, to anyone. My maid, Sheelu, insisted on taking her in. I must admit that I was not for it, back then.

Not surprised Daadi. You didn’t take in your own grandchildren.

But Sheelu had these superstitions that the lower class often do and I indulged her. We cared for Cheeni who had injured her paw, broken a tooth, was running a fever, and was heavily pregnant to boot. Care, attention, and a nutritious diet restored Cheeni’s health and by the time she gave birth to her four kittens she was a robust cat, missing nothing but a tooth. The litter was soon dispensed with, as I could not tolerate the constant fighting and smells, but Cheeni, I allowed, I had gotten fond of her ways. She was so like me.

She takes time to warm up to people. But you know that about me, don’t you Zahra? I take my time, but eventually I do relent. And then, only the very special ones are let into my world. Cheeni does not take to everyone either, but whoever she loves, she does so almost illogically. I urge you not to be sharp with her, as she is a sensitive cat.

Sheelu may have told you about her food preferences, the timings, the portions, and such. But she may not be privy to the secrets Cheeni and I shared as friends. What is not a secret is that Cheeni is a flirt and a group of pining toms would routinely hang around my house in shifts. She gets pregnant far too often and I find myself unable to restrict her brood from becoming an army.

There are five here now, as you may know. But I care for none of them except Cheeni, she reminds me of myself.

Of course.

Now for the secrets.

Cheeni does not like most men. She snarls and hisses at nearly any man that enters my home. I can empathize. Historically, men, be they husbands or sons, have always let me down.


Cheeni likes to sleep by my bedside, she might sleep by yours too, one day.

If I bribe her, sure.

Cheeni is bound to disappear for weeks at a time if she finds new love. Allow her. I did not allow my children many things, but by Cheeni I did right.

For some reason, this, finally this…infuriates me. And I had only wanted to laugh. I can’t add the whole letter here, because it goes on for four long pages about Cheeni’s minutest details and I can’t help but feel cheated. Even now.

You would’ve been so much better at this, Resham.

I suppose it’s a gift but I can’t be sure.

There’s a dead cockroach outside my door.

The dead cockroach was not a gift. It was just a dead roach. When the pest control people came by to take stock of the situation today, I realised Daadi’s man-hating theory was correct. Cheeni took one look at the poor man who entered my door and hissed at him with all her strength and fled!

It was almost comical. Like a weak, half-hearted defense raised by a losing army. The last display of courage before running away with one’s tail between one’s legs.

I wonder what will happen when I bring a guy home? If I bring a guy home…

Cheeni is strangely like Daadi, Resham.

She does not acknowledge my presence. And yet, she expects my subservience.

I forgot to feed her one night and the next morning I woke up to a terrible scent in the air, like sulphur and rotten eggs. I traced the scent to the living room only to find a dark, damp circle in the middle of my divan. She had peed to punish me.

When Daadi was diagnosed with cancer, I was surprised she called me. Later I realized that she had had no one else to tell. But if a person has never bothered to share their joys, why must they burden you with their sorrows?

I want to find the strength to give away this cat, where she won’t remind me of the uncertainty of our childhood, of Pappa being broken…and of you not being around to take Cheeni away from me.

I suppose the cat is my only family now, an inheritance I did not want but the only one I have.

My therapist told me I should stop writing to you. It’s unhealthy, apparently. I disagreed.

I said, “Look! It’s almost like therapy. I write down my thoughts like I’m speaking to her and it gives me clarity about my own behaviour. It helped me understand just why I can’t seem to get rid of the damn cat!”

She said, “Zahra. These are all signs of you refusing to let go.”

She’s right. But I miss you and it hasn’t been that long since you’ve been gone.

Let me tell you about something funny instead.

I was feeling generous one evening and decided to buy Cheeni a cat tree. It’s one of those contraptions with varying levels where a cat can jump from one platform to the other, much like an actual tree. I reasoned that a cat used to a big house, would probably be unhappy within a 2bhk like mine.

The delivery arrived last night and I fixed all its bits and presented it to her, by leaving it beside her spot near the couch. She didn’t even sniff the thing. Instead she crept into the empty delivery box and made her home there. She and the cardboard box have been inseparable ever since. 

I have thrown out the tree.

Yesterday was your birthday and I missed you so much that I went out and had a few drinks with him. I just…I wanted to take my mind off things. Besides, he used to know you too.

When the bar closed, he wanted to come over and continue drinking. I agreed, I also wanted him to come over.

A mistake which was immediately brought to my notice by Cheeni who spat at him! She hissed and spat. I was sure she’d run and hide like she had earlier, but she would not relent. He bent down to pacify her and she nearly leapt at his face. He refused to come in after that.

I can’t tell you how glad I am this morning.

Cheeni has a boyfriend.

I haven’t written to you in so long, I know. Maybe this is a good thing? 
I’m sorry, I feel guilty for telling you that.

Work has begun in earnest, so I’ve been quite busy. And, the other day, I kind of met someone nice.

But I will never know until I bring him home to Cheeni, will I?

Speaking of Cheeni, I’m considering getting her neutered. The neighbourhood has begun to complain about the sounds of horny tomcats that gather around outside my apartment whenever she’s in heat. The din, the sexual tension in the air…it’s all very overwhelming. And because I’m on the ground floor, it’s even harder to ignore.

I feel sad to have to deprive her of what nature has clearly blessed her with –an abundance of charm. But it must be done or I will go insane. Or worse, I will be asked to leave the apartment.

Last night I couldn’t help but think how ridiculous it is that Daadi compared herself to Cheeni!

If Cheeni is like anyone, she’s like you Resham. She’s easy to like and quick to forgive. If I’m not careful, I might also write a lengthy letter about her one day; four pages long and brimming with madness addressed to my embittered granddaughter.

Got her neutered. Got him home.

There’s a connection between the two sentences because, she did not spit at him.

Does this make him a good man?

Or has she lost some of her spark?

I’m sorry Resham, but my jaded heart tells me it can only be the latter. Still, I have decided to give most things in my life more of a chance.

He is kind to me. And he’s nothing like him. He and we haven’t spoken since that incident with Cheeni.

Cheeni allows this one to pet her. Something that he taught me to do as well.

“Scratch her behind her ears, cats like it,” he said.

“Your grandma sounds like a prejudiced old bat,” he said.

I can’t help but like him. He also has the kind of nose we both admire, proud and sharp. I also like his Adam’s apple, it bobs when he talks.

No kibble under my pillow and yet Cheeni sleeps next to me.

I don’t like to overdo the affection, I don’t want to invest too much in anyone, anything. But her presence in my bed is comforting. I allow myself a little warmth, how else will I go on?

It is your anniversary today, the bad anniversary, the one that should be mourned, not celebrated, not yet. He’s not been in town for a few days. Maybe I don’t even want him here. I don’t know Resham, this day, I have only known it twice before, and I don’t know how to deal with it.

It’s easy to use the word ‘death’ with people you don’t care about. But with the ones you cherish, it’s less painful when you make their departure sound casual. They haven’t died; they’ve simply “passed”, “left”, “gone.”

The other day I heard my neighbour’s house help describe the death of her mother in the unforgiving language of Bombay, “meri mummy off ho gayi”–my mother went off –like a light. Also, a sort of casualness, I suppose. Makes death seem less final.

Cheeni was there when Daadi died. I was around when you passed. We’ve both seen death up close, but I’m not sure how cats interpret it. Still, I heard Cheeni mourn Daadi in her childlike lament, that awful sound of a lost child. I find it funny sometimes that Daadi of all people found it in her to love a black cat. Don’t superstitious Hindus fear black cats?  But I don’t want to dwell on these thoughts anymore. My preoccupation now is only with letting go.

But I still hold onto you in this pathetic string of emails you will never read. Cheeni however, has moved on. In fact, on the fourth day she stopped looking for kibble under my pillow. In two months, she began to greet me at the door. These days she sleeps next to me and just like that Daadi is forgotten, by both of us.

I no longer think of her when I see Cheeni. I only see a cat I have grown to like.

daadi – Paternal grandmother
daadaji – Paternal grandfather
almirah – Cupboard