Paul Klee, Cat and Bird
They were the stuff of fiction, the two men who came to our house to kill our cat. In their knowledge of death, of cruelty as kindness, they had the faces that some great writers have. We never got to know their names, so I think of them as Coetzee and Carver. Masters of cutting and carving. C&C.
Stray dogs and traffic make our street lethal for cats. Ours tried to cross the street, got hit by a car, which crushed its jaw but did not kill it. It came back home looking a mess, and we realized that it could not eat any more. It sat in the garden, under the falling night- jasmines, feigning a sort of noble indifference to the saucer of milk near him. I had read somewhere that cats have an unusually high pain threshold. They don’t make a fuss. They just sit it out.
The vet — another ‘character’ — came to take a look. The eccentricity of vets could be the subject of another piece — their unsentimental and, when you think about it, mysterious love for wordless creatures; their equally mysterious lack of greed; their dishevelled funniness; their battered old bicycles and sandals; their way of sipping tea after looking at, and talking to, a hopeless case. St Francis and the birds, I thought.
This case was indeed hopeless, he said. Better to put it to sleep. He called his men from his Neanderthal mobile phone, and gave them instructions in a few clipped sentences. They often overcharge, he warned my father and me on his way out, so be tough when you bargain with them.
Enter C&C. The cat, by that time, had moved from the garden into the pump-house under the frangipani tree. It wanted to be left alone in the dark, but on the edges of a familiar place. C&C explained that they would first give it a sleeping injection, and then the poison shot. They asked for an old towel and a piece of rope. Then they crept towards the pump-house, calling out to the cat in their gentlest voices, keeping up a soothing flow of trust-building talk. Coetzee entered the low pump-house on all fours with towel and tranquillizer. Carver waited outside with the rope.
I sensed a brief scuffle inside, and the cat sped out into the garden. Something had gone wrong. We had mistaken its stillness for weakness. I recall what followed like an adult returning to a nightmare scene of childhood. There was a fiercely vocal struggle between Carver and the cat in the flower-beds. But the deftly-tied noose on his rope broke in no time. The cat strode across the grass (not bounded, but strode, as if in slow motion, growing into some terrible, fantastical creature to our eyes with each step), climbed up the rugged garden wall, took one backward look at us and disappeared among the neighbouring rooftops, never to come back again. “Doesn’t want to die yet” were C&C’s last words as they packed up, pocketed a hundred-rupee note, and left — masters, now, of deadpan departure.
There is a famous philosophical essay, called “What is it like to be a bat?”, which asks whether it is at all possible for us to imagine into another existence. What are the limits to human empathy, and therefore to our knowledge of other beings, human or animal? I have often tried to imagine what kind of knowledge and memory of us — of C&C, and of my father and me watching behind them — the cat had carried away in its head as it strode out of our lives that afternoon. Do animals understand human motives and intentions, or do they simply sense what these motives and intentions are going to do to them and then improvise, in an unthinking instant, what needs to be done to carry on living? Every time I have tried to think through the cat’s last moments (am I wrong to interpret its disappearance as death?) I have taken cowardly comfort in our inability to fathom animal inscrutability. Sometimes, woken up just before first light — Bergman’s “hour of the wolf” — that inscrutability comes back to me as judgment, of a particularly unbearable kind.
But nature is larger than terror or loss. I was growing accustomed to the strangeness of a catless garden, when, one day, I felt again a pair of eyes on me. A kitten, identical to the one our cat used to be, was looking at me intently through the clumps of weed on the garden-wall. And then, the kitten’s mother, a double of the departed, crept into the garden too. They sniffed around the places where our cat used to sit, looked at me from time to time with blank but wary eyes, and slipped out quietly. They began to return almost every day, snoop around (as if on a hunch, as if word had wordlessly got around of our garden’s sinister history), and disappear without touching the food we put out for them.
Then, a few weeks ago, I woke up in the morning to a new music in the garden. I went out and saw that the birds had returned, singly and in pairs, the sparrows, robins, bulbuls and a woodpecker, darting about everywhere, singing and chattering in fleeting shreds of brilliant, neurotic sound, building nests or gathering stuff for them, swinging on the clothesline, rootling the flowers with their beaks for nectar. What I had lugubriously begun to call our “catless garden” had turned suddenly into a place of building, calling and feasting, of being alive and present and free.
I remembered the rustle among the leaves that meant the hunting of a bird, or the robins panicking around their nest, built foolishly low, as the cat stared them out. That peculiarly tense silence, broken by nervous chirping and predatory swoops, was gone. A pair of doves was pecking elegantly at the fallen jasmines, like ladies of leisure eating sushi. And the busy little shrieks coming from the upper branches of the frangipani tree turned out to be a squirrel — exactly like the one that was eaten up by one of our toms years ago. (How absurdly replaceable animals are, I thought, simply because they do not mind looking exactly like one another. Substitution is a guilty pleasure with human beings — but not with, or among, animals.)
Human beings have always depicted a parliament of fowls as some sort of an allegory. As I looked at the garden in all its din and bustle that morning, was it perverse and unnecessary to look for a ‘meaning’ in the strangely exhilarating transformation of loss it was presenting me with — in the cat going away and the birds coming back? Keeping and killing turning into freedom and flight; the continual doing, undoing and redoing, the endless arrivals and departures, of winged things: was there something in this for me?