“Oh you are vile, vile, vile, disgusting. Stop staring at me you mangy, malevolent little beast,” screamed Dr Veena Sharma, assistant professor of English at a government college. Her 17-year-old daughter, alarmed, ran into the kitchen and put a steadying arm around her mother’s shoulders. “Mummy, he’s just a poor, hungry little cat.” Veena shrugged Manju’s arm off and spat: “Just look at his eyes, that evil, basilisk gaze. Oh he’s a rat in disguise and the disguise isn’t WORKING. Vile, vile.”
She threw a saucepan at the ugly, brown tabby, who was known as Brownie by those who did not regard him as a horrific Mephistophelean apparition. Caught off guard, the unsuspecting harbinger of misfortune and death yowled gutturally, but stayed.
“What a vile, vile, vile, disgusting thing.”
“Look mummy, I’m putting him out. Now just go relax. Go read the Danielle Steele in my room and get angry over that instead,” said Manju in a quivering attempt to sound light-hearted.
Nobody who knew Dr Sharma outside of her home would have thought her capable of even the gentlest reprimand. Smelly, half-literate boys from the sports quota would jump up on their desks and howl at the ceiling; sincere students with taped glasses would ask her intelligent, absolutely irrelevant questions about the politics of the postcolonial female body; quiet, well-behaved first benchers would gaze at her with an uncomprehending, glazed stare when they weren’t scribbling copious amounts of gibberish for notes; worst, half the benches were always empty because her classes were known to be unbearably dull.
None of that seemed to faze her. Her husband, Dr Ravindra Sharma, who taught physics at the same college would rib her about it. “I never thought the day would come when the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle would have more dramatic momentum to it than Hamlet. How do you drive them away darling? I want to try the same thing in my class. Push out some of the more sub-evolved ones.”
He left her tongue tied, she whose business was words. But the words, when they did come out, were slow and halting, both spoken and on paper. Still, she had many qualities that endeared her to others and made her good-capable, rather-at her job.
She was kind, gentle, empathic, generous. These things counted for a lot in this government college where education really wasn’t as important as dispatching the students with valid degrees-she was lenient too. Never made a hue and cry about the hideously written papers she marked. Though sometimes, secretly, she’d purposely award the would-be postcolonial theorists lower marks. It was the one wicked thing she did.
“No no, make him stop. Ask that fucking troll to shut up. I’ll tell him. SHUT UP.”
“Get out, get out, get out, I never want to hear your voice again, you filthy little demon. You filthy stinky demon. You stink of railway-track shit you do. Low-class labourer shit. Yes. That’s what I should feed you, you shitcat.”
Classes at the college got over at around five in the evening. The two professors would usually meet outside the gate at about five-thirty and climb into their boxy little car. The drive to their home in the suburbs took about one hour. An excruciating hour for Veena, more often than not. Oppressive silence was not the problem; her husband’s supposedly light-hearted banter was.
“How was your day, Veens? Mine was a spectacular success. At least six of the cretins bunked. They didn’t go to your class for a nap now, did they?”
“I don’t think so. I would have noticed.”
“Perhaps they lay down on the bench where you couldn’t see them. A free hypnotherapy session, I suspect. Ever thought of recording one of those tapes? I think your rendition of Edward Lear’s limericks should have the same effect as The Raven. You’ll have no shortage of material.”
“Why are you being so hostile?”
“No no, I was joking darling. It’s a good thing that you make every poem ever written sound exactly the same. Consistency is a virtue after all.” He giggled in his disconcertingly schoolgirlish way.
“Can you please stop going on about this. I don’t need to be mocked right now.”
“Now now, don’t be angry darling. I didn’t mean to upset you. I was just pulling your leg. Come, let’s go to the Golden Pig and get some nice, tasty Chinese food. What do you say? We’ll get whatever you want.”
“Yes, I’ll boil your milk, I’ll make slivers of chicken for you and you still won’t shut up, you nauseating, greedy little hellion. Shitcat. Where is he? Manju, have you seen that diabolical sewer monster anywhere?”
“No mother, I haven’t. And I’m sick of seeing you rave and rant like this. Why do you feed him if you hate him so much.”
“Guilt. Add up truth, justice, and light, and it won’t get you anywhere. But guilt, yes. It’s the answer to everything, to world peace, to good marriages, to shitcats.”
“I don’t want to listen to this nonsense. You need help.”
“I was only answering your question.”
“Come to freeload some more have you, you despicable beast. Here’s your chicken. Will that shut you up?”
“I’m going to skin you, make gloves from your fur or whatever the hell it is that covers you, and wear them, and strangle you. And there’s no fucking cat police, so nothing can stop me.”
“Mummy! What is wrong with you? What happens to you when you’re with this poor thing.”
“Answering your questions has never earned me good reviews. Now darling, I’ve made a nice little dish of kheer for you. It must be cold enough to eat by now.”
“Great. So will we go shopping today?”
“Why not? Your sandals look like they were gored by a bull. And I need a new pair too.”
“SHUT UP. I will kill you.”
“Maybe you should read him The Cat in the Hat. He’ll be comatose by the third page, dead by the sixth.”
Ravindra parked the car and they walked into the slightly sleazy little restaurant.
“Here we are darling. The Golden Pig.”
“I’d never have guessed.”
“Ah sarcastic. Our little Veena is very angry.”
“No, I’m not. Let’s order.”
“It’s your choice tonight.”
“Mmm…ok. I wouldn’t mind that kung pao chicken.”
“Really? They do a far better chicken in hoisin sauce.”
“I really like the kung pao.”
“Trust me on this one. You won’t regret it.”
“You said I could order what I wanted.”
“Fine fine. I was just trying to be helpful. Why not order the best on the menu is all I’m saying. The kung pao here is very inferior. Very inferior. The hoisin is fantastic.”
“Ok, hoisin it is.”
They were half-way home when a truck, hurtling towards them from the wrong side of the road, struck the car.
“Hi Smriti, can you talk?”
“What’s going on Manju?”
“It’s my mom.”
“Is she still acting different?”
“Only at home. It’s crazy. She’s obsessed with this stupid cat.”
“That kitten you rescued?”
“Well, he’s not a kitten anymore. And I don’t think my mom is my mom anymore. It’s like she gets off on flying into these rages. Sometimes. Sometimes when she’s yelling and throwing things, she smiles.”
Veena resumed work three months after Ravindra died.
She’d emerged from the accident virtually unscathed. His head had rolled off. Almost. A tendon kept it on.
She swore off Chinese food for life. Her grief was unbearable. It was confusing. She plodded through work, the same as ever. Then the cat came. He was so irritating, so very irritating. It was a familiar feeling. It was like having Ravindra back.
“What are you staring at me for, you awful THING?”
“I’ve fed you. What do you want? What do you want? You vile, vile, vile, disgusting creature. You selfish, mean little shitcat. You rat.”
“SHUT UP Ravindra.”
Manju stood outside the kitchen doorway.
“What did you say?”
“You don’t like my answers, so I’m not giving you any.”
“Did you just call the cat by daddy’s name?”
“Well, I can communicate a lot better with the cat.”
“The cat doesn’t talk.”
“That’s true. That’s very unlike your dad. But like your father he doesn’t listen either. The good thing is at least I can say what I want to. He’s smaller than me.”
When Manju left the kitchen, Veena stood still for a moment.
Her daughter must never know that every time the cat said mmmmeeeoooowwwrrr, she could translate it into,
“Wake me up when you finish that sentence.”
Or “Great pulao Veena. Of course, a touch of saffron would have made all the difference, but never mind. It’s quite edible even now.”
Or “Isn’t Sunita Zaveri the most sparkling, witty woman, you ever met. I was laughing the whole time, she’s so bright.”
That cat said a lot of things.
Veena picked the animal up by the scruff of his neck and tossed him into the courtyard.
The cat looked her in the eye, and said, “You haven’t seen the last of me, that’s for sure.”
He scampered towards the garden wall and scratched e=mc2 on the concrete.
He winked and said, “It’s all relative.”