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Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Whitey was her name...

You may remember this cat in my lap when she was just a kitten. She was part of a pair of kittens, but after her sibling -- Patches -- succumbed to a most gruesome illness that I've mentioned before. Well, here's the slightly-older "Whitey", as we call her, being her usual self, but a very different self in a lot of ways. Whitey was the more watchful and wary of the two kittens, and when she used to come within five feet of us, any attempt at crouching down with an out-stretched hand to try and offer her a snack would set her running in the opposite direction. Sometimes, it was almost as if we wouldn't see her for a couple of days between snacks. Having said that, however, it's been an interesting role to play, that of "observer" in the development of this little kitten into not just another adolescent/adult feline, but into another living organism that is trying to make its way in this world, making a little more sense of things with each passing day. Let me start you off with a picture of one of her current activities.

This is Whitey in a loft that I set up a little after she and Patches arrived. Don't get me wrong, I didn't set it up for her, but she, like most feral cats that have wandered through a house, don't need to have things made especially for them. In fact, they seek to make the most out of what's there, with specific regard for places and things they must not end up perched upon, no invitations necessary. This is an old refrigerator box that I turned upside down so that we could throw in any unsightly odds and ends that we ended up accumulating, to help keep them out of sight. I thought it was an ingenious way to apply the old "under the rug" approach to junk, but as luck would have it, Whitey figured out a way to sink past all the wire, clothes hangers, and the God-alone-knows-what-assortment of gadgets to get to the bottom of the box and indulge in what I can only imagine to be a game of try-not-to-lose-an-eye-in-this-dark-confined-space. That's pretty crazy, considering the fact that this cardboard box that the refrigerator came in stands at least five feet tall, meaning she was essentially burrowing down into the nether realms of our junk. Such unbridled curiosity meant that I had to block her entrance into this magical world, lest we end up finding interesting objects that resemble 'leavings' from years gone by the next time we decide to inventory the junk. Furthermore, whereas I thought it cute initially that she was entertaining herself this way, the alternative to which is her getting on my nerves because she wants to do something but doesn't know what, one night my roommate Daya discovered a tom cat -- one of the suitors trying to woo Whitey into a few nights of passion, the end result of which is probably a lot of work for us at home, attempting to raise more feral kittens than we originally bargained for -- playing some strange game, but creating an unholy ruckus at the bottom of the box. This led to me taking an old, worn out bean bag and placing it in the box, blocking out what remaining space there was at the top, forming a flexible cover that would move and mold itself to anyone or anything on top, but never giving way and allowing them to get through. First day after this addition of a cork to keep all the junk in the box, and all the nosy people who wanted to be like Scrooge McDuck and swim in a vault full of gold out of it, I noticed that Whitey was doing a thorough search and analysis of the edges of the box. She was trying to sniff a crack, a tiny gap, any chink in the unassailable seal formed by the aged bean bag, gravity plus a teenage cat jumping around, and an I-was-this-close-to-throwing-it-out box that once housed a refrigerator. With no such chance being made available to her, thank God, she quickly settled down to a nice long nap, five feet in the air and nestled cozily on top of a bean bag in a box. If this was ice cream on a cone, she'd be the little white, cherry on top. See how she peers at Daya who took this picture, with an air of unmistakeable "Leave me alone!"

The most interesting thing about Whitey, is how unlike Patches, she always shied away from any sort of human contact, keeping a safe distance at all times to rule out even accidental contact with us. And, we were okay with it, not really forcing her to have to come to us to get her food, for example. I would speak to her and Patches like I would children, strangely enough, children who understood my Malayalam, which is so wrong on so many levels I can't even dare to get into that. Alright, briefly, my own Malayalam has been a source of much debate every time I'm around another speaker of the language, and especially when I find myself back in my home state. The way I speak is a horrendous amalgam of what I perceive to be words and sounds that I've heard others utter, often missing the mark completely, stretched out painfully over an English Grammar framework that more often than not has people making weird faces as their minds try to overcome this barrage of what could well be insults and other assorted expletives. With the cats, and this being the state of Andhra Pradesh with it's state language being Telugu, I'm sure they have a hard enough time trying to make out the local language -- because it is yet another human language -- without having to deal with my madness and foaming at the mouth. Both Patches and Whitey have just stared at me as I've harangued them about doing something or not doing something, half amused, and only long enough until a yawn diverts their attention to better and more restful things. When it came to being able to pet them, it was only Patches who would come running up to us if we called, jumping into our laps and purring with gusto. That was until the day that she fell ill and left us. However, and most strangely enough, a couple of days before Patches fell ill, Whitey, from out of the blue, came up to me as I was sitting on the sofa with Patches asleep on my lap, and seemed to request that I make a little room for her too. I didn't get it at first, but as she stood there staring at the sleeping Patches, occasionally looking up at me nervously before placing a paw on my lap in hesitation, trying to make it obvious that there wasn't enough room for both Patches and her, it finally dawned on me what she was trying to do. So, true to form, I just pretended to be the best piece of furniture that I could be and sat back and watched what she was going to do. It took the better part of 15 minutes, but Whitey first managed to get comfortable with walking around on a living mattress with slightly wobbly skin and flesh concealed under a lungi. Once she mastered this, it was only a matter of nudging her sister aside and claiming a spot for herself. With Patches unfortunate demise, Whitey had my lap all to her self. Now, I say "my lap" at this point because she would never dare to jump into anyone else's lap. In fact, she didn't let anyone else touch her, often "running away like the Dickens", to use that expression. And I didn't think it to be a particularly special things for me to be able to be the only one to pet her, I don't know, she didn't really seem comfortable coming up to me either. I mean, of all the time she ended up spending on my lap, there were only a few moments when she seemed genuinely happy to be there.

This is one of those moments when she was being a little coy and requesting a brushing. A little bit of history about this, Daya had donated a hairbrush to the cause of grooming the cats, and with some initial coaxing, I had managed to get Patches used to the idea of a brush with individual bristles doing the work of one of my fingers, multiplied by 50. Once she got used to it, it first became an addiction for her when every waking moment became a trip to the brush to see who would brush her, finally turning into a way of pacifying her if she was feeling a little naughty and looked like she was setting up to commit minor acts of damage around the house. And this was exactly how it went with Whitey, when she eventually replaced Patches as the "Guardian of the Hair Brush". From my side, I didn't mind either of the kittens, or any other kitten since Panda Kutty sitting in my lap. When I think back to a year ago, I remember Patches waking me up in the morning by scurrying up from near, or on, my feet where she was just sleeping, to right on my chest, only inches from my nose. Then, with some well-aimed purring, and lots of patience, she would slowly begin to hypnotize me out of my slumber. I always thought it adorable how much like "Puss" in "Shrek 2" with his large, dilated-pupil, Awwww-evoking eyes, I would often wake up to find Patches almost nose-to-nose with me, with large saucer eyes mounted on a sad, little face staring, yearningly into my soul. She didn't do this because she loved me, but because filling me with a sense of almost-guilt for potentially being behind this sad face with big eyes would have me scampering around to serve her breakfast of my own accord. I didn't really mind it, and don't mind it still, but I do admit that until I had a better handle on this, it used to frustrate me to no end. So, although in some sense Whitey had certified me "safe" to interact with, as far as non-felines went, she was still very tentative, like she never really trusted her decision. For example, one day she came back all dirty, looking like someone had physically rolled her in the dirt, or worse, in a pile of ash somewhere.

Try as I might, I couldn't get a piece of cloth, any cloth including a rag-like handkerchief, close enough to her to start wiping her off. Every time I tried, it was out the window, or under the couch. If you noticed in the picture, the black background is my lap, shrouded in the black lungi I was wearing at the time. It took a couple of days of Whitey grooming herself, and me brushing her every now and then, to get her looking like she used to. And, while I was normally used to her skittish ways around everyone, including me on some days, there was one thing that I never really got used to. Remember how I described Patches making me feel guilty about not feeding her on time? Well, with Whitey, there was more than one occasion where after endless meowing and coaxing me to give her something to eat, making it sound like she had been wandering the vast emptiness of the Deccan Plateau in search of food, she would take one look at what I was offering her for lunch, and without a moment's hesitation, turn around and walk out of the house, without a sound. A couple of these times, I remember I was quite ill, struggling to try and feed myself, let alone being able to move around at all. And when, after some life-and-death struggle kind of effort to put something together for Whitey alone, usually because I was feeling too nauseous to even think of eating anything, she'd pull the same not-interested stunt. And that's when it dawned on me. Well, it dawned on me that I was trying to be like a surrogate mother, firstly, which was more than just strange, but also, I was expecting her to behave a bit more like a pet, and a little less feral. And that, was just a recipe for frustration, if nothing else, simply because it meant that I was just one more source of food and shelter in the vast expanse that was her territory. This was very different for me, who had invested energy and time in trying to chase away other cats that would hang around and try to harass her off her property, whatever time of day or night. And so, one fine day, after she pulled her trademark I'm-in-the-mood-for-something-else, turning around nervously to see if I would throw something at her (and I have to admit that I have thrown things at her before when she did this, not to hit her, but just to let her know that what she was doing was not appreciated), but I didn't. I waited until she had made her way out of the window – the window that we left open permanently so that she could go in and out of the house at will – and closed it. That was the end of the Whitey chapter.

This happened almost six months ago. I saw her a couple of times in the first few days after I locked her out of the house, but she looked at me like I was a stranger or a hideous beast, and ran off. The last time I saw her was a month ago, and she seemed to be doing well for herself. I spotted her climbing over the neighbor's wall, a couple of houses down from ours, and though I didn't call out to her, she turned around to make eye contact. It was a brief instant of eye contact before she turned her head back around and completed her journey across the wall. I wasn't saddened at all. In fact, I smiled to myself, mostly because although I didn't understand it completely yet, this is what it meant to try and support a feral cat's existence, enhance her survival so to speak, and although there may have been grand overtures of emotion when she was in my lap, at the end of the day Whitey, like her sister Patches, or any cat that had ever come sashaying up to me, was just trying to get me to cough up a few morsels of food. And that's just the way it was. I'm thankful for the realization, or at least, for finally allowing myself to understand and accept my role in Whitey's life, or any other cat or dog's life that I've had the occasion to influence, whether directly or not.

To me, this was a much awaited lesson in letting go of the illusion of control; that I controlled their fate, and that if I didn't do something like feed them, they would die of starvation. If I had understood this earlier, I would have easily noticed my own tendency to get extremely disappointed and frustrated at things not going according to plan, like having Whitey reject an otherwise tasty meal, which was really a small part of whatever I was eating. Also, placing these kittens into some sort of “poor little waifs” category in my head, I was doing them and myself a great injustice. I was expecting them to behave like domesticated cats, when they weren't. And, I was adding to my own sense of annoyance by expecting such behavior, when on the other hand I was making all sorts of arrangements for them to still have access to their freedom, like leaving the window open so that they could go outside of their own free will. Lesson learned, in part at least. I don't know where she is now, but wherever she is, I wish her well. I'd like to leave you with a picture of Whitey sitting on a bike parked outside the front door, trying to get some early morning sun after a cold winter night. Her pose, looking at something so that her head is perpendicular to the rays of sunlight hitting her on the opposite side of her face, seems almost philosophical to me. Like she always knew. And now, time to keep ticking on until the next time I find occasion to care for a stray animal in need of a home and shelter. Love, affection, and a human doormat free. ;)

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