The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Padding quietly about in that mysterious dream-space

Cats live in our building. They live in the spaces that have no definition, in the shadowy corners of the garage. Sometimes, deep in the night, you hear them quarrelling; as Durga, in Pather Panchali, half-asleep when Apu was born, thought she heard a kitten mewling, we can sometimes mistake the sound for a newborn crying inconsolably, and, looking at our sleeping four-year-old, be thankful that the parental bewilderment of those months, which seem not so long ago, has passed. By morning, that nocturnal passion is spent; when they are visible in daytime, or you are present, the cats will never give you the benefit of losing their self-possession. Strife and hysteria are their domestic affair; for the public — and you are the public — only an icy stare and an indifferent composedness are appropriate. Cats cultivate privacy and escape the human gaze in a way that celebrities no longer can.

The cat is an enigma. It often inspires distrust and dislike; but, unlike the serpent, occupies no transcendental position in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It is neither good nor evil; it existed before that historical moment when, in many parts of the world, the human consciousness bifurcated into heaven and hell. Since then, the cat’s eluded almost everything, including theology; its home is the folk-tale and the proverb. The Bengali saying, “The cat is the tiger’s paternal aunt,” suggests that — if the tiger represents Nature, in its energy and splendour — the cat is older than Nature, if related to it. The cat is not quite of Nature, then: is it, then, partly construct' But whose construct, and in which language' The great human inventions — gods, demons, angels, devils — have outlived their uses; they have had their day. But the cat continues to puzzle: we still haven’t accounted for its appearance and disappearance in our lives.

The cat, on the whole, is seen to be a feminine enthusiasm; and the enthusiasm is one of the reasons why women are slightly unfathomable to men. Passion for cats gives, among other things, women their oddity — not in a comforting, but in a disquieting way. It’s this sense of disquiet that moved Arun Kolatkar to write a poem called “Woman”, which begins with the observation: “A woman may collect cats read thrillers/ Her insomnia may seep through the great walls of history.” (The poem’s itself a perpetration of feline deception and hide-and-seek: when it was first anthologized by Dilip Chitre in an anthology of Marathi poetry in translation, it was noted it had been translated into English by the poet. The second time it was anthologized, in a selection of Indian verse in English, the editor, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, pointed out “the Marathi version has never been committed to paper”.)

In the second stanza, Kolatkar returns to the disturbing obsession: “a woman may name her cats/the circulating library/ may lend her new thrillers”. It’s women’s nebulous private culture that’s being speculated upon here, as it is in the disjunctive litany that ends the poem: “a woman may shave her legs regularly/ a woman may take up landscape painting/ a woman may poison/ twenty three cockroaches…” Men play and watch cricket; they drink beer; they preach religion; they kill each other. What do women do' There is fear and curiosity in this question, the ancient uncertainty of being cuckolded; and the cat is part of the woman’s dream-life, of the perpetual possibility of sexual betrayal, that the man can’t quite encompass.

The cat, it has to be said, had slightly different registers in European and Indian modernity. Some time in the nineteenth century, it seems, the cat became, in Europe, a figure for social polish and bourgeois artifice. Since social polish was associated, in England, almost exclusively with the French, the cat became a symbol for Gallic pretentiousness and self-absorption. The cat is not quite of Nature, as we have seen; and, in the nineteenth century, the dichotomy of Nature and Culture was rewritten, in the cat, in terms of Anglo-Saxon directness and roughness, on the one hand, and French polish and obliqueness, on the other, the cat coming to become synonymous with the latter; and becoming involved, then, in its subterranean way, in both a national debate and an aesthetic one.

Thus, Baudelaire, devoted flaneur and dandy, the first poet whose inspirations came almost entirely from the artificial world of the city, rather than from the “natural” universe, dedicates a poem to his muse, the harbinger of artifice: “A fine strong gentle cat is prowling/ As in his bedroom, in my brain” (Roy Campbell’s translation). Many years later, Ted Hughes would revise these lines in his early poem “The Thought-Fox”, replacing the French cat with the English fox, and, in doing so, enter the familiar Nature/artifice debate: “…with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox/ It enters the dark hole of the head.”

With this, the first poem in his first book of poems, Hughes would position himself as a poet of landscape rather than of the city, and inaugurate a visionary career in which he would set the rough, Northern, Anglo-Saxon consonant against the soft, cat-like padding of the French and Southern English vowel, the “sudden sharp hot stink” of English against the “sweet perfume” (“So sweet a perfume seems to swim/ Out of his fur both brown and bright”) of France. Hughes’s “Englishness”, thus, is an altogether more combative and embattled affair than, for instance, the English identity that the feline Eliot would embrace - Eliot, who began as a Francophile, a French poet, and aimed not for Wordsworth’s “real language of men”, but a fastidious diction “nether pedantic nor vulgar”. There is a cat-like distaste for Anglo-Saxon directness in Eliot; and his homage to artifice would come, even as he was composing the high moral sequence of Four Quartets, in a slim book of “light” verse about cats.

In India, the line dividing Nature from Culture isn’t always clear. In contrast to Europe, the cat, in India, is neither entirely a domestic nor a wild animal; there is an intermediary space in our society, occupied by scavengers and parasites, and it’s this semi-official, parallel space that the cat inhabits. It’s also a space inhabited, in India, by certain paradoxical figures of authority, who are at once appeased for their power and reviled in private: the Brahmin priest, for example, and, increasingly, a certain type of politician. Western modernity is all about doing away with this intermediary parasitic space; its elimination, however, is accompanied by an anxiety about whether the socialization which comes with modernity is a good or a bad thing, and the cat is often at the centre of this anxiety.

In Indian modernity, this intermediary space has been kept alive, and even given a political function. Those great chroniclers of our emergent democracy, the Kalighat patuas, appeared to realize this, and, to commemorate and record the fact, painted full-length portraits of a cat with a stolen tiger-prawn in its mouth. It is a deeply political picture: it presages the fact that our democracy would be less about the politics of right and wrong, or of substance, than of survival; that the politician would be partly a parodic figure. Not the official, recognized, and educated figureheads and sources of politics, but the surreptitious snatching of the initiative by the parasitic that the cat with the tiger-prawn represents — this, the pat seems to say, is the form and shape of our democracy. The cat prowls about in the nation’s dream-consciousness as that elusive, partially shunned, but ever-present initiative to enfranchisement.

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