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Chapter 4


At the third footstep which he took downwards, it seemed as though Long-whiskers hesitated: he seated himself down in the middle of the stairs as he had sat upon the windowsill: his front paws stretched out, his head erect or gracefully bent down: looking up, at the moon, and then down, into the dark, silent courtyard. Who knows? Perhaps he would not have gone down at all — not on that night, at least — if something had not happened.

He suddenly saw Heliodora’s tall, white form walking along the verandah towards the winding stairs; towards him. And she was calling him: “My puss! My beautiful one!” She wanted him to come back. She was aware that something unusual, perhaps something tragic, something irreparable was about to happen. And she was trying to prevent it. She now saw the splendid cat upon the third step of the stairs, seated like a sphinx in full moonlight. She could not help stopping a second to admire him. He was a beauty, — that ordinary gutter cat that she had picked up as a starving kitten, over a year and a half before! It was, in a way, a pity to disturb him; to call him back against his will (no one knew better than she did that cats have a will of their own); to draw him out of the dreamlike phosphorescent light that he seemed to be enjoying. And yet . . . suppose he did go down and get lost, and have to seek his food in the dustbins, as his mother once used to, after all these months of comfort and security. That would doubtless be worse than being forcibly drawn away from his moonlight contemplation! So she walked towards him, determined to catch hold of him and carry him back.

First she called him once more in her most loving voice: the voice he had so often answered by rubbing his big round head against her, and purring. This time, he heard the sweet voice, but he neither moved nor purred. Those soft intonations of the two-legged creatures’ speech were, — had always been, as far as he possibly could remember, — connected in his feline consciousness, with all the life which his inner urge was now precisely prompting him to forsake. To listen to their call and turn back was to renounce


the new life in moonlight and freedom, in the vastness of the unknown earth. “My puss! My beautiful puss! My purring velvet!” the voice repeated. The round, glossy head looked up to the familiar two-legged form, for there was a fascination in that voice. And had Heliodora then stood still, who can tell? Perhaps the cat would have slowly got up and walked back, against his deeper urge, to the home where he was loved. But, in her haste to keep him from running to his ruin, she continued walking towards him and stepped onto the narrow landing. Then she stooped down and stretched out her arms to the moonlit feline. Long-whiskers suddenly ran down the winding stairs, as fast as he could, as though panic-stricken. Heliodora ran down a few steps in pursuit of him, but soon came up again. She knew she could not run as fast as a cat — especially as Long-whiskers; it was no use trying.

She remained a long time leaning over the low verandah wall, looking into the dark courtyard where the cat had disappeared. “My poor, beautiful puss,” she kept on thinking; “you don’t know where you are running!” An insurmountable feeling of powerlessness oppressed her. “Every animal, every plant, has its destiny, like every person and every kingdom,” she reflected; destiny, its destiny: the mathematical result of millions of former lives, that nothing can change. I have done my best. Now go your way, my poor furry sphinx! Go your way, since you must — in order to live and learn, as we all do!”

And she suddenly remembered the war that was taking a bad turn — now in September, 1943 — and she thought of the thousands of men and women of good Nordic blood, enemies of National Socialist Germany, who were also “going their way,” the way of perdition, deaf to the Führer’s call. And tears welled up to her eyes as the feeling of utter powerlessness grabbed her once more.

On that night, after many and many weeks, Sadhu came and stretched himself at her side and purred and purred as she stroked him. But she thought of poor Long-whiskers wandering along the lanes, further and further away from the peaceful home, towards some nightmarish fate, and she thought of the immeasurably broader world-tragedy that she was equally unable to prevent, and could not fall asleep.

Long-whiskers at any rate, was at first most happy. As he bad reached the bottom of the stairs, he had


heard a noise and been afraid and gone and hidden himself behind a heap of empty cases in the corner of the yard. But he had soon decided that it had been but a “false alarm,” and walked out. The yard was closed. At the lower edge of the door, however, a part of a plank was missing. The cat crept through the hole, ran along the passage that led into the street, turned left, and found himself in another, no less broad artery: that self-same Dharmatala Street along which Heliodora had carried him, a thin, half-starved kitten, over a year and a half before. He wanted to run across it, to the opposite footpath. A car that came rushing by made him change his mind. Long-whiskers did not remember ever having seen such a thing as a car (or any vehicle, at that) and therefore he was scared. He ran into the dark lane, past the go-down in which he had once so desperately mewed and mewed in answer to his mother’s repeated calls — and passed the house in the back yard of which, in a cowshed, he and his brother and two sisters had come into the world, on a night like this. As he realised that there was no danger, he gradually stopped running. But he continued to follow the lane at a fairly fast tempo. The white parts of his coat gleamed whiter than ever, and the black ones blacker and glossier by contrast, as he walked through patches of moonlight. The air was cool — it was in September1 — and sweet-scented, in spite of the occasional heaps of refuse that one came across as one went. The smell of trees, of grass, brought by the wind from distant Chowringhee Avenue, and from the Maidan; the smell of incense from some house window or from some shop not yet closed (where a few sticks of it were burning before some crude picture or painted statue of Goddess Lakshmi or of elephant-headed Ganesh); the smell of the earth itself prevailed over every stench. And Long-whiskers experienced a feeling of well-being, of power, of intensified life, as he walked along — free! — into the Unknown: a feeling that he had missed during his long months of sheltered life in Heliodora’s room or in her lap. He crossed quite a number of emaciated cats such as his own mother had once been, scratching about in the dust heaps for a fishbone or some clot of putrid rice buried in ashes and rotting banana peelings. But he did not notice them: felines are confirmed individualists. And days were yet to pass — many days — before he was to compete with these wretched ones in the struggle for life.

He was free — inhaling the cool air on a moonlit night

1 At the end off the rainy season.


. . . and not yet hungry. Loving Heliodora and her quiet, cosy room were completely out of his consciousness.

* * *

He walked and walked; crossed another broad street; went into another lane at right angles with it. Then suddenly, from some place, a smell of fish reached him (he was now in what the Two-legged ones call the New Market). It was an appetising smell. And for the first time since his departure from Wellesley Street number 1, where Heliodora lived, a memory of the old home rose in him: a plate of boiled fish and, next to it, a plate of creamy milk set before him. After chewing the fish, he would lap the cream. (Heliodora generally used to give her cats fish mixed with rice. But some of them, such as Sadhu, Long-whiskers, and one or two others, had become finicky after a few weeks and would eat nothing but fish alone. And the woman was weak enough to grant them their desire.) But this was but a fleeting memory. Something else soon attracted Long-whiskers’ attention; something . . . or should we not rather say somebody, for it was a young she-cat, half his size, but lovely: lithe; serpentine in her gait; and as black as night itself when there is no moon. Her eyes were of a pale, transparent yellow, like those of a panther.

She was sitting upon her hind legs, apparently calm and composed, in front of a door. But as Long-whiskers came nearer, it seemed to him as though she released a faint mew — a mew that meant: “The night is beautiful; and here I am!”

It was not the first time he had courted a she-cat: there were plenty of them in Heliodora’s room, and he had known one or two intimately — an eighteen-month old “tom” is no longer a baby! But it was the first time he was alone with one in the moonlight. (The very drawback of the old life in the peaceful home was that one never could be alone. There were too many cats there, and there was no privacy. Long-whiskers had — like all felines — an inborn love of privacy and freedom.)

He went up to the reduced black panther who was looking at him invitingly — so it seemed to him. But no sooner was she within his reach, than she sprang up and fled. Long-whiskers ran in pursuit of her. They ran — two graceful shadows, one after the other — right through what the Two-legged ones call the New Market and across the square that stretches before it, and along Lindsay Street and across Chowringhee Avenue, straight into the immense


“Maidan.” Oh! what a splendid place, this Calcutta Maidan! There was grass there — grass, grass, and still further grass. And the place was limitless.

Long-whiskers caught up his lady-love and fastened his mouth to the back of her neck, to keep her down. But she struggled herself away from his hold — a feline lady-love is not so easy to conquer! She ran a few footsteps away from him and then . . . mewed an unmistakable mew of solicitation and rolled herself in the grass before him so as to say: “I am beautiful; I am desirable. Come!” “Prrrrr!” answered Long-whiskers. And he came. The miniature black panther was lying upon her back. Long-whiskers licked the soft fur of her belly. But just at that moment the coquettish she-cat jumped up and ran away, only to stop again some twenty yards further and again to roll in the grass, calling for love, — and again to run away as soon as the lover was about to take her. At last, however, — after many an unsuccessful leap and further and further galloping in the moonshine, — Long-whiskers overcame her faked resistance and possessed her . . . far away from the city and its night rumours; far away from other cats no less than from the Two-legged species; right in the middle of the grassy “Maidan” under the bright round Moon and the hardly visible stars. He forgot himself, and she — his black silky panther — forgot herself. Their individualities ceased for a while to exist, and in him, the eternal He-Cat, Creator and Lord of everything, and in her, the co-eternal, sphinx-like, dark Feline Mother, Lady of all Life, once more mingled their opposite polarities and took consciousness of their double Godhead, as they had been doing for millions and millions of years. And once more the divine spark — the creative Lightning — flashed through their furry bodies, and the daily miracle took place: there was life in the female’s womb. Sixty-five days later, two, three or four more baby-cats would be born to struggle and misery — to the horrid life of the Calcutta street animal. They would know practically nothing save hunger and fear; no love, save that of their unfortunate mother, for a few brief weeks. And yet . . . they would fulfill the purpose which the divine Cat had assigned to them from all eternity: they would in spite of all carry Catdom a generation further — secure its everlastingness.

* * *

Long-whiskers woke up in the ditch in which he had spent the rest of the night, — fast asleep after his exhaustion.


He stretched himself and got up. He must have slept a long time, for the sun was hot. He felt hungry. But there was, within his reach, nothing he could eat: not a mouse, not a mole, not even a lizard or a cockroach. Of course, he could have tried to go back to the home of plenty where he had spent all but the first six weeks of his life. There was a lot of nice fresh fish to be had there; and a comfortable lap to lie in, when one wanted to rest and was in a mood to be stroked. He still would have found his way back. But the home of plenty had walls. And he had just had the taste of wild life — of real life — in limitless space. His tame-cat’s inner voice told him: “Go back!” but his wild-cat’s inner voice said: “No! walk on! The world is wide. And there is adventure!” His tame-cat’s consciousness had awakened hardly four thousand years before. But his wild-cat’s consciousness was a hundred or perhaps a thousand times as old as that, and had, therefore, a stronger grip upon him. He let it take the lead of his life. And he slowly started walking, apparently without an aim, as the free cats, his ancestors, had walked through the high grasses and ferns, in the days in which there were yet no two-legged mammals on earth.

He went along the road that leads to Kidderpur, — for how long? Who can tell? He walked and walked, but found nothing to eat. The sun was hotter and hotter. And Long-whiskers felt the pangs of hunger, more and more. He was also beginning to feel tired: he could hardly lift his paws. He lay down in the grass on the side of the road, to rest for a while. Had Heliodora passed by at that very moment and stooped to pick him up, he would have, without resistance, let her carry him back to the old home — and no doubt purred in her arms all the way. Perhaps he was making up his mind to try to walk back there, even now, in spite of all. He was so hungry! For the time being, however, he lay in the grass. He had never yet walked such a long way in all his life, and his paws and joints were aching. He would start his return journey in a few minutes, when he felt better.

But just then three or four children — boys ten or twelve years old — came walking past. They probably would not have noticed him in the grass had he not, in his innocence of this wicked world, gone out of his way to call their attention. But he was hungry, as I have said already. And all these months he had known no other Two-legged ones besides kind and loving Heliodora. The fears and hardships of his far-gone kittenhood he had completely forgotten. And so, not knowing better, he held Two-legged ones in general for helpful creatures. And as he saw the children


coming nearer and nearer, he mewed — a feeble, discrete mew that meant: “Do give me something to eat!” — on hearing which one of the boys (a nasty brood, the lot of them) shouted: “Oh! a cat!” and, picking up a sharp stone, flung it at Long-whiskers. A shriek of pain followed the beseeching and friendly mew. The stone had hit the cat on the back of his neck and opened a deep wound in the glossy coat. The children laughed as Long-whiskers — now a wiser cat in his estimation of the two-legged species — fled from them as fast as he could. For a long time, wherever the cat went, drops of blood marked his passage.

In the happy little room where she had been feeding the other cats, Heliodora was thinking of Long-whiskers; praying that no harm should happen to him. Since his departure, she had been thinking of him all the time. And as she recalled the callousness and cruelty of most human beings — of those of the inferior races at least — towards animals, she uttered for the millionth time the prayer she had been addressing the heavenly powers from her earliest childhood onwards: “Treat men, individually and collectively, as they treat animals: strike those who hit them; torture those who torture them; kill those who kill them. Also work Thy divine vengeance upon all those who consider crimes against innocent life — against beasts and trees — with approval or even with indifference. And help me to be an instrument of Thy justice!”

* * *

Long-whiskers wandered for days and days, with his bleeding neck. The wound was hurting him more and more. He could not lick it, and flies would constantly sit in it and worry him to death. In addition to that, he was always hungry.

He now avoided the Two-legged ones as much as he could. He would run and hide himself under a waiting cart or motorcar; in a gutter between two houses; up an occasional tree or staircase; or upon a roof, if there happened to be one within his reach, and across other roofs, till he found a crack to slip into — as soon as he saw one of them who seemed to him as though he were walking towards him. And he soon learnt that the young devils are even worse than the elder ones. However, this distinction was not rigorously reliable. It was prudent to keep out of the way of the whole horrible brood, and to wander in quest of one’s food in dead of night, when its specimens are mostly asleep. So, four days after his first tragic adventure, Long-whiskers had managed to jump into some


ground floor kitchen between two and three a.m., and there, to push off the lid of a saucepan and to lap as much milk as his famishing belly could hold. He had then slept — in the space between the inner wooden beams and the outer corrugated iron roofing of the kitchen, — a sound, dreamless sleep, not broken by pangs of hunger: his first happy sleep since the night he had left Heliodora’s room. But when he had, on the following night, crawled out of his hiding place (which could only be reached from outside) jumped upon the dustbin in the courtyard, and from there tried to get into that kitchen once more through the window bars, he had found the shutters closed. And as there was no other way of getting in, he had roamed about the next day and night; he had come back to the kitchen window and again found it shut; he had roamed and roamed until, at last, he had found some scraps of fried fish in a dust heap. The fish was good, but it had been thrown upon decaying vegetables, sour rice and other kitchen refuse. It was half-covered with ashes. Yet Long-whiskers — who in his months of plenty would never have touched such food, — gulped it down greedily . . . and felt better.

He gradually got into the habit of searching for his food in dustbins and refuse heaps. Once, a kind old man who was sitting in front of a sweet shop, called him — “Billi, billi, billi1 . . . pss, pss, pss . . .” — and offered him a little milk in an earthen cup, on the floor. Poor Long-whiskers smelt the good warm milk, but was afraid to come near. The old man looked harmless enough. But there were other people about the place, and among them young boys going in and out the shop and walking along the footpath. The cat, — that now had a scar at the back of his neck — remembered the sharp stone, the pain, and those other boys’ devilish laughter . . . and he ran as fast as his legs could carry him. And this was not the first time that fear had proved itself in him even stronger than hunger — fear, that everyday experience of stray animals, in cities and villages where human beings have lost their sense of duty towards other creatures, or never had it: that curse of innocent life in a man-ridden world in which man is a devil . . . most of times.

Within a few weeks he had become skin and bone, — like most of the Calcutta street-cats. His coat, once so thick and shiny, had become matted and dull. The hair would not grow again over his scar. Had Heliodora been able to see him, it is difficult to say whether she would have recognised him or not. His only happy moments were

1 “Billi,” in Hindustani, means “cat.”


those during which he was courting some she-cat, as thin and miserable as himself, and possessing her upon some roof or in some lonely back yard in the moonlight, or . . . those which he spent in the unconsciousness of sleep.

But worse times were still in store for him. One night, he caught a rat: a big, fat gutter-rat that would have provided the best meal he had managed to secure himself for a very long time. But it was not as easy as it looked to kill such a huge creature outright. The rat, even after he could no longer run, struggled bravely till the end and, before dying, stuck his sharp teeth into the cat’s lips and tore the flesh asunder. Bleeding, Long-whiskers had to let go. The rat expired at his feet. But the cat could not eat him. He could not open his mouth, for pain. His lower lip that the rat had torn in two, was swelling. He remained all night in the gutter, shivering with fever, by the side of the dead rat, and, as morning dawned, tried to drag his prey into a hiding place: a narrow space between two “walls” of corrugated iron; a sewer between two rows of “houses” practically touching each other, in a “bustee”1 not far from the three-storied stone house where Heliodora lived — his many wanderings had brought him back there, three months after his departure. But before he could succeed in doing so, a daring kite came and snatched the dead rat away from him. Poor Long-whiskers snarled and spat, but could do no more. He retreated into the malodorous “corridor” — which was cool and quiet at least (the entrance was too narrow for Two-legged ones to come in) and remained there the whole day, crouching against the rusty “wall,” hungry and in pain.

Hours passed. The cat did not move. Pain was stronger than hunger. Fleeting impressions — greater or lesser noise behind the metallic “walls”; greater or lesser heat; more or less light from the sky above — gave the cat a vague account of the course of the Sun in heaven and of life in the immediate surroundings. But pain remained the overwhelming sensation: the one that Long-whiskers could neither dismiss nor suppress. He grinned and bore it in silence, as only animals do, besides those men who are more than men. And the colour of the sky above changed. The metallic “walls” became less hot. Another evening was coming. Long-whiskers was still crouching in the same place.

Then, something unusual occurred: he saw several cats walk past him — first, a fat, aggressive, stripy “tom”; then a she-cat who walked heavily, for she was expecting half-a-dozen kittens; then another she-cat — a lovely,

1 An Indian slum.


young black velvety creature, like the one he had possessed on that night in the moon-lit “Maidan,” his first night out — then, two more “toms,” one white and yellow, the other all white but for a touch of grey on his head and on the tip of his tail. Never had he witnessed such a procession of felines — and all well-fed ones, not poor wretches like himself, with every bone jutting out under a dull, scanty fur. They all seemed to be going to the same place, as though they had an appointment. What place could that be? One in which there was food every day? Or one in which pain no longer existed? Poor Long-whiskers was so hungry — and his torn, swollen lip was hurting him so much! As though some new, happy destiny were guiding him from within, he made an effort and got up, and followed the privileged cats.

The narrow passage along which they walked led to a low stone wall surmounted by a railing. One had to jump up and go through, and jump down again. The way beyond smelt of wood. It was, in fact, bordered on both sides with heaps and heaps of fresh-cut planks. And one could hear noises — sawing and banging — as one went along it, although one seldom met a Two-legged creature and never saw any of them at work.

Long-whiskers had followed the cats more than half the way when he noticed that they all suddenly took to running. Somewhere, far away, one could now distinguish the sound of a voice: “Puss, puss, puss; my pussy, pussy, pusses! My silky ones, my furry ones! Puss, puss, puss!” Long-whiskers could not understand the human speech. Yet the tone of those words when not the words themselves worked upon him like a spell, stirring deep, forgotten memories long buried in unconsciousness. He looked inquiringly at a huge ginger “tom” whom he had managed to, catch up with, as though to ask him: “Where are you all going at such a speed?” In the meantime the voice was heard again: “My pussy, pussy, pusses . . .” The huge ginger-coloured “tom” leaped forward with a peculiar mew of joyous affection. And Long-whiskers, — who was well-versed in feline language — seized the meaning of that mew: “We are going to the Two-legged Goddess. Hark! She is calling us!”

His heart filled with a vague anticipation, he leaped in his turn over the dilapidated stone wall and into the path that so strongly smelt of timber, and finally reached the courtyard, into which it gave access. There, in a glow of sunset, actually stood a tall white female figure: a Two-legged one, admittedly, but not one like most of them. Some twenty cats had already gathered around her, mewing and


rubbing their glossy heads against her legs. The big ginger “tom” had even seated himself upon her shoulders! She put down two huge dishes out of which came an appetising smell of fish. The ginger tom at once jumped down, and took his place at one of these, along with over a dozen other cats. Then, out of a jug, the woman poured milk into a number of earthen bowls, and watched the cats drink. Now and then she would stroke one of the felines, or pick one up (one that had finished eating and drinking) and press him in her arms. Her face was stamped with an infinite sadness which was far beyond the animals’ understanding, and which they therefore did not notice. But they did feel the love that poured from her dark eyes; her particular radiance, which stilled all fear; and the magic of her touch, which made a cat wish to seat himself in her lap and purr himself to sleep.

Long-whiskers who had, at first, remained crouching in a corner, aloof from the other cats, got up and walked towards one of the dishes of fish and rice (Not that he could eat. with his torn lip! But perhaps he would try, all the same. He was so hungry, and the fish smelt so nice!) But the cats growled at him, — the newcomer. And the huge ginger tom, so healthy and strong that he gave the impression of a miniature tiger, even slapped him upon the head with one of his heavy paws. The woman then took a little food out of the dish and placed it apart, upon a slab of stone, for him. Long-whiskers saw her two hands stretch out to catch hold of him. Automatically, he made a move to flee. But no; he could not. Something invisible, stronger than the old fear of the two-legged species, kept him on the spot. He merely put back his ears and crouched, as the hands picked him up and gently put him down near the appetising food. He smelt it. He even started purring. But he could not eat. His swollen lip ached. He turned towards the woman his great transparent green eyes — all that was left of his former beauty — and gave out a faint mew. The woman looked at him intently, and took him in her arms. In the wretched skeleton which he had become, she had not at once recognised her splendid Long-whiskers. But she now considered his face: the regular black markings round the eyes, separated by a white, spear-like patch, were the same. It could not but be he. But in what a state! Tears welled up to the dark human eyes that looked into his, and the human lips put a kiss upon his poor, whirling head. The cat felt an overwhelming tenderness pour into him from that strange two-legged being . . .

Something was taking place within his dim consciousness.


It was not the awakening of a clear memory such as those which human creatures have; not the thought of “her” — kind, loving Heliodora; for it was she indeed, — whom he had found again after those three months in the hell of hunger and fear, but the feeling of her; the coming to life of the old sensation of pleasure at her touch and of safety in her lap: a certitude of his flesh that hunger and fear were over, over forever, because she — the “Presence” of all-powerful Love — was there again. Well did those street-cats that gathered every day in that and other courtyards to eat the fish and rice which she cooked for them, call her, in their inexpressible language: “the Two-legged goddess”!

* * *

Long-whiskers relaxed in the loving arms. He now felt he was moving: — being carried away. While he stretched himself across Heliodora’s breast, he had the impression of fleeting lights and shadows, and patches of colour passing by before his half-closed eyes. It was just as when — long ago; before those hellish weeks had seemed to have put an end to the old life, — she had been carrying him in the same position up and down her room, until he had purred himself to sleep . . . He felt, with indefinable delight, that the old life was mysteriously beginning again — or perhaps just continuing, after an awful nightmare. And he purred louder, as the woman pressed him more tenderly to her bosom, whispering, now and then, in a subdued voice that melted his heart, (he could not make out why): “My poor, dear cat! My beautiful furry pet! What have you become?”

She was now walking upstairs, still with him in her arms. The lighting, the smell of the old wooden staircase were the same as long ago. Yes, it had all been a dream, felt Long-whiskers as Heliodora stepped at last into the old, familiar room full of cats, and closed the door behind her.

Every trace of his great adventure now faded out of his consciousness, completely. There was nothing more to remind him of it, save his aching lip — and that was rapidly healing. Not being a Two-legged one, Long-whiskers did not connect the occasional pain with his whole recent past, but merely with the rat that had bitten him. And even that rat was becoming more and more shadowy, more and more remote, and was soon to vanish into oblivion . . . while old sensations and old habits set in again.