The Wildings By Nilanjana Roy, Aleph, Rs 595
The thing about reading The Wildings is that if you have cats (or a cat), it doesn’t take long for you to spot them somewhere in the pages. And if you don’t have one, then you are likely to concede that Nilanjana Roy has made a cat lover out of you. Roy draws you into a cat’s world — not a world of cats — and she does it without any superciliousness (a failing that cats are often, erroneously, accused of). If you’ve had the good fortune of butting heads with anyone from the feline species you’ll know that everything Jean Cocteau, Colette and Muriel Spark said about them was right.
The wildings are a clan of “outside cats” that inhabit the alleys, roofs and trees of Nizamuddin in Delhi. They lurk, stalk prey and play, following a strict code of conduct in order to co-exist with other clans and species peacefully. One day, the Nizamuddin wildings get a shock, as their “linking” — a psychic method of communication through whiskers that the cats use to stay in touch with one another, and which will have you nodding vigorously if you believe that cats are mystical, never quite letting you in on their secrets — is disturbed by a tiny orange ball of fur. The intruder is Mara, a wide-eyed “inside” kitten who is preternaturally talented, even for a cat. She is a Sender, a cat capable of such powerful astral projections that she can go on “walks” all around Delhi and even visit tigers named Ozymandias and Rudra without physically moving an inch from the home of her Bigfeet (catspeak for humans).
The wildings are uncomfortable with Mara — not only is she oblivious of the fact that she is linking with them powerfully (it is tough to concentrate on catching slippery prey when your head is throbbing with an amplified voice that squeals “Oh look...! Two butterflies! Maybe I can catch both if I leap up with all my paws out in the air at the same time — oh! mrraargh! — bad idea!”), but the wildings also know that Senders are only born when there are bad times ahead. Led by the wise Siamese elder, Miaow, the young queen, Beraal, and the warrior toms, Hulo and Katar, the wildings decide to deal with Mara while trying to keep the disaster-prone kitten, Southpaw, out of harm’s way. Beraal goes to kill Mara, but ends up bonding with the little kitten and convinces the clan to accept her. She trains Mara to control her telepathic skills in preparation for a looming calamity that the wildings can sense. That danger reveals itself in the form of Datura and the vicious ferals — cats who have gone mad after being trapped indoors for years — who emerge from the sinister Shuttered House to kill everything they can after their Bigfoot dies. Mara and the wildings, along with the cheels, must fight the ferals to save Nizamuddin.
Apart from Prabha Mallya’s fabulous illustrations, the best thing about The Wildings — especially since animals have hardly been represented in literature beyond blatantly anthropomorphic fiction — is that the cats are cats, not humans in feline form. Roy does get cutesy about Mara, and there are hilarious references to a rooster named Sunte Ho, the squirrels, Aao and Jao, and two cats from the Supreme Court clan, Affit and Davit, who solemnly converse with each other in legal jargon. But The Wildings is Roy’s attempt to envisage a cat’s real world, governed by instinct and wisdom, with all its Bigfeet, cupboard-and-roof-tops, predators and prey. Because it is such an enjoyable read, one is loath to overanalyse it. Yet, there are quiet insights about the likelihood of solidarity between natural foes, heroism and cowardice, and the wisdom of never grabbing more than you really need. It is also a book for every human who is tired of the careless arrogance of his own kind.