She was an orange kitten with deep green eyes, no bigger than the palm of my partner’s hand. Mara had been rescued from a drain in Sujan Singh Park by my cousin, and was temporarily living with them and their three dogs.
“We have to find someone to adopt her!” said Kamini.
“Yes,” I said sympathetically. “She won’t be safe with the dogs around.”
“It’s the other way around,” said Kamini with some feeling. Mara had discovered a wonderful game—she would hide on the top of the bookcase, waiting for an unsuspecting dog to pass by, scoot down, smack him on his nose and scoot back up before he’d even seen his tiny attacker. So we rescued the dogs from Mara by adopting her.
I’d never lived with animals before; a close family member had asthma, and though I smuggled pigeons, kittens and puppies in, they all had to be relocated in short order. Except for a brief stint babysitting a mongoose, I’d spent much less time with animal companions than my husband had—his impressive credentials included looking after a pig, a monkey, a very gentle python and a carnivorous rabbit who liked hamburgers.
Mara, inquisitive, intelligent and fearless, opened up a parallel universe. She was a friendly kitten, unwilling to share the two of us but otherwise curious about the strays—cats, dogs, monkeys, birds—who lived in most Delhi colonies. In time, other cats joined our family; and our indoor cats attracted a horde of visiting strays who had designs on their food bowls.
The inside cats and the outside cats watched each other with avid curiosity. If we picked up Mara and cuddled her, the eyes of the visiting strays would widen in incredulity. But if we were lucky, they were more inclined to trust us, even let us cuddle them, once they’d seen us with the inside cats.
Seen from a foot off the ground, Delhi is a different city, Nizamuddin a richly alien neighbourhood. Books on cat behaviour confirmed what I’d begun to suspect: cats were extremely social loners, extrovert-introverts if you like. Most cats lived in loose but protective clans. The queens—the female cats—dominated the clan, but there was always an alpha tomcat or two backing up their reign.
The toms swaggered across the neighbourhood, brawling, yowling, always in trouble; the queens were often ferocious hunters, and both toms and queens were surprisingly caring parents. If there were too many kittens in any given season, the toms would cull them ruthlessly, but otherwise the toms were endlessly patient with the kittens who tumbled around in their wake, and the queens were stern but loving mothers.
I learned other things: cats seemed so often to be silent, not mewing or purring except in occasional bursts of conversation, but they were constantly chatting. Their whiskers and their noses brought them all the news of the world they needed. I began to wonder: what if there was a cat who had longer, more sensitive whiskers than usual? What if she could roam wider and further than any of the other cats, just using her whiskers? Would the clan love and protect a cat like that, or would she be cast out for being different?
In 2007, I wrote a short story about a kitten with deep green eyes who lived indoors with humans because the outside world felt too large and scary for her. It was fun to write. I began to write another story, set in the same world, and two cats strolled into its pages. One was a wise Siamese whose blue eyes told me she had stories to tell that I couldn’t even imagine, the other was an alpha tom, loved and respected by the other cats of his clan.
Halfway through telling those stories, Mara got sick. The vet told us she had feline diabetes. Over the next few months, our little orange warrior lost weight until she was down to fur and bone, but she took her illness stoically, not protesting the visits to the vet, the many injections, the drips, the pain. Our second cat, Tiglath, watched for her to come back from the vet; we’d find him at the head of the stairs, mewing. Mara had groomed and washed him when he’d come to us as a tiny kitten. Now he spent his evenings grooming her ears, her tail, her fur, washing her as gently as she had once washed him.
At night, Mara curled up between us, her thin ribs rising and falling in shallow breaths; but every morning, she wanted to be on the verandah, and her eyes would follow the cheels, the sparrows, our other two cats. She died in my arms, shortly after. She took a calm, slow breath, her green eyes closed, and though I listened for a long while, she did not take another. I put the stories aside until 2010.
When I read them again, it seemed that I had captured only the tiniest corner of Mara’s world. Where were the cheels who seemed to have arrived at an interesting and complex truce with the cats we knew in Nizamuddin? Who was responsible for the brawls we heard at night on the rooftops at the dargah, those dark dramas of yowl-and-counteryowl? I waited impatiently for someone else, a real writer, to write the book I wanted to read, until it began to dawn on me that there might not be too many writers out there fascinated by the secret life of cats. Aliens, yes, vampires, yes, daemons and demons, absolutely. But cats had few champions. This seemed grossly unfair.
Though I read everything I could find on cats and feline behaviour, the real research required getting out of the house and walking for as long as I could. The more I walked around Nizamuddin’s grand sprawl, the more cats I met, hurrying to the dargah, taking their kittens for a walk on the canal road, gingerly sidestepping us humans or the stray dogs.
But the book didn’t really start until the winter of 2010, when the driver from the house downstairs handed us a bucket. In the bucket was a white kitten, smaller than the palm of your hand, with the well-travelled air of a seasoned explorer. Young Bathsheba Balti was the only survivor of a tragic massacre, and had strayed, mewing, into the driver’s empty car-wash bucket. She could eat her weight in fish, had the manners of a thug and the swagger of a professional goonda. One day, I came back to my desk to find that Bathsheba had walked across the keyboard. This is what she had typed: “ggggbbb,,,,????????????????”
I looked at the line of question marks. “What happens next?” they asked me. So I sat down at the computer, and did my best over the next two years to come up with an answer. That became The Wildings; and two years after that, in 2013, the fictional Mara grew up. You can read what happened to her in The Hundred Names of Darkness.
(A version of this was carried by Elle in its August 2012 issue)