Tia watched her father Robin Datta’s face break into a smug smile as he brushed Nuri, sitting in the open, red oxide-floored balcony. The mild winter sun kept the frosty floor warmed as a half-heated tawa would a samosa from losing its freshness. Tia was seated on the armchair far across from her father ― the distance between them being the definitive feature of their relationship. Tia, at 11, harboured no illusions of it. She watched furtively as Nuri’s dark grey striped fur coated-spine arched in pleasure with the gliding of the small, pink brush over her back, leaving tingles in its wake. She turned on her dark back to reveal a milky-white furry underside and nudged Robin Datta, her paws stretched, claws out in delight, to run the spiral of pleasure down her front. Robin Datta complied happily, his smile turning more indulgent now, saying: ‘How spoilt are you, you rotten thing!’ The cat responded to this comment with her face turned up, eyes shut in a pair of neat little slits, mouth shaped like a bow, which if one were into cats, would interpret it as a smile.
Nuri was no ordinary cat. She came to the Datta household one April evening made wet and alarming by the seasonal Kalbaisakhi. Tia hung at their first-floor balcony watching the big fat drops of icy rain descend in a torrent from a black sky, forcing the giant mango trees that surrounded the periphery of their two-storeyed house to drop their yellow buds and unripe fruits. She watched quietly as the neighbourhood women poured out of their homes covering their heads with the ends of their saris and dupattas calling out to their young, gully-cricket playing sons to stop what they were doing at once and return to the safety of the concrete structures, lined with the suffocating supervision of their overbearing mothers, they called homes.
As Tia followed the commotion play out before her eyes, a shrill mewling pierced her ears. At first, she stood on her toes to get a better look beyond the latticed gate of her home but couldn’t spot a thing. As the storm raged and the roads emptied, Tia continued to hear the kitten’s desperate and angry mewling and searched for it, her impatience growing. Finally, she ran down the two flights of stairs, unlatched the lanky iron gate and stepped out to look for the screeching kitten. It took Tia fewer than five minutes to locate the animal that was to become Nuri. It was crouched, in an otherwise dry drain that ran past the Datta home, damp and glistening from the rain, its eyes black and bigger than its dark face, lit like a crush of diamonds. Tia felt a twitch in her heart as she spotted the tiny kitten, crouched by the drain and lifted it, her hands trembling. The kitten continued caterwauling, its tail a malnourished pointy stick, its body the size of a potato, fitting right in Tia’s small palm. Tia had no special fondness for animals. But she had read and heard stories about how rescuing helpless animals made one magnanimous, and walked back into her house holding the kitten, sensing the first pricks of its fresh claws in the flat of her hands.
When Tia’s mother, Sraboni, returned home from work and saw her daughter squatting next to a kitten drinking from a bowl of milk in her perfectly kept kitchen, she gave out a yelp of shock and demanded, with her eyes growing bigger in alarm, that the creature be shown the door now that the storm was over and gone. ‘It’ll find its mother and siblings on its own if you let it go,’ she rasped when Tia protested saying, ‘It’s so small and alone.’
‘If you let it stay and give it food, it will grow used to the comfort and never leave. And I simply don’t have the time to take care of you, your father, this household and a stray cat now just because its “small and alone”,’ she thundered.
Sraboni Datta was not one of those women who stayed at home all day to feed their teenaged children rice and fish curry, sometimes with their own hands, and commiserate with other mothers as the sun travelled from the east and settled in the west. Tia’s mother went to work as a clerk at a bank in Dalhousie, unlike her father, who managed a grocery store, an inheritance.
An only child Tia was accustomed to whiling away her days by herself imagining impossible towers and castles that she would go on to build after she became an architect when she grew up and left her rule-governed house for good. It was only during the holidays that she grew restless and wished for friends like the boys who played cricket outside her house but never acknowledged or invited her to join. And Tia was too proud to ask. The fact that her father maintained a quiet, unfeeling attitude towards his only daughter added to Tia’s self-consciousness.
Robin Datta and Tia would barely talk beyond the everyday exchanges of ‘Tia, get the newspaper from the ground floor’; ‘Tia, where is your mother’; ‘Tia did your mother say if she would be late returning home?’ Their exchanges were limited to the straightforward volleying of monosyllabic yes-es and no-es, rarely developing into a conversation.
But as Tia’s exposure to the world outside grew, she started noticing, in particular, what her friends and anyone who resembled her height and age shared with their fathers. She heard stories about these fathers travelling to Japan or Qatar and bringing back colourful gifts, sometimes a many-chambered pencil box, at other times roller skates and stuffed bears. She never missed a conversation that surrounded fathers―how strict, how loving, how talkative they were―and Tia would think about her own who barely spoke to her, who averted his gaze and walked right past her if they were to pass each other on the street outside their house and she would feel her body become stiff with anger and sting with shame.
The only exception to this indifference that defined Tia’s relationship with her father was their mutual fondness for Nuri. Robin Datta was a self-assured introvert. He managed his shop, earning what he thought was enough to get by and had no ambition beyond collecting old vinyl records, which he played each evening before dinner. The gramophone was an inheritance from his father’s pre-Partition abundance and as the only surviving son of Mahesh Datta, he took jolly good care of the device cleaning, polishing, playing it, and rushing it to a mechanic on need as one would a newborn to the doctor over a hiccup.
As Tia implored her mother to let the kitten stay just for the night, Robin Datta returned from his shop to witness another storm, this one threatening to blow over the kitchen, and possibly his dinner. ‘What’s the matter with you two? One Kalbaishakhi wasn’t enough for the day,’ he said making little effort to mask his irritation. Then as he turned to go, his eyes fell on a blob of dark fur in the kitchen corner and he stopped. ‘Where did you get that cat from,’ he asked bewildered.
‘It was mewling outside, on the street, in the rain, Baba. I brought it in and gave it milk, but now Maa wants to throw it out. The rain can return in the night. Where’s the trouble if it stays for the night and leaves tomorrow?’
Tia wasn’t expecting her father to relent to her entreaties when her mother had already taken such an extreme stance. She looked on at her father with an uncharacteristic nakedness in her eyes.
Robin Datta looked at the still shivering kitten hiding in the shadow of the spare Bharat gas cylinder, then looked at his wife and said, ‘It’s just a matter of one night. Let it stay,’ turned around and left the room.
And just like how things go a certain way in the world, the next morning never quite arrived for Sraboni, or Tia and most importantly, for Robin Datta.
Sraboni left for work the next morning with a threat to her daughter: ‘I don’t want to see that creature in this house when I return, Tia.’
Tia followed her mother’s fast-disappearing back from the staircase, past the iron gate, into the street and vanish. She then turned on her heels, spurred by the leftover rage from her mother’s refusal to show any kindness to the kitten, and marched to her room, retrieved the kitten from a shoebox that she had stashed under her bed and carried it to the dining room where Robin Datta was still reading his Anandabazar over his morning tea.
He looked up from his newspaper and watched his daughter enter the room, the kitten protectively held in the crook of her left arm as if it were a baby. Robin Datta couldn’t help but smile at his daughter’s new-found love and said, ‘Why don’t you give it some milk?’ Then stopping to think for a moment he stood up, walked to the refrigerator, brought out the milk container, poured some of it into a small bowl that Sraboni reserved for serving chutneys and held it out to Tia. Tia lowered the kitten and observed as it drank hastily from the bowl, spilling milk over the floor and almost drowning its face into the pale liquid occasionally making a stuffed noise and taking its face out of the bowl to shake off the milk that was now dripping from its long, fine whiskers. All of this was too new for Tia to take in at once ― the adventure of rescuing a kitten in the middle of a storm, her mother’s brazen hostility to the creature and, most surprisingly, her father’s uncharacteristic indulgence towards the stray. Tia couldn’t tell what it was she found more shocking ― her mother’s unexpected malice or her father’s sudden show of tenderness.
The night before Tia had woken up intermittently to keep watch over the kitten ― she feared that it would escape. But the kitten had slept through Tia’s anxiety, quivering every now then in its Khadim’s shoebox as if it were in the middle of a nightmare. Watching over the sleeping kitten Tia felt something small inside her turn warm and yielding. She decided to keep it against her mother’s wishes.
‘Look at it, Tia, it’s the size of a stone you find on a river bed in the hills,’ said Robin Datta as he watched the kitten nearly swim in the bowl of milk, its movements growing slower, its hunger calmed. Tia looked at her father and agreed smilingly. ‘And look how it has spilt milk all over the place. Maa would throw me out if she were to see this,’ she giggled with a conspiratorial air.
‘Don’t worry about your mother,’ said Robin Datta with a chuckle, ‘she’ll come ’round.’ ‘We just have to make sure that she’s not bothered with any of the responsibilities that come with this thing,’ he said looking over the kitten, who was now seated at a distance from the empty bowl of milk, licking itself clean, its bright pink tongue appearing and receding from view as it went about its job.
‘Nuri is what we should call her,’ said Robin Datta. ‘Just like a pebble ― smooth and grey,’ he said with a note of joy in his voice, patted Tia on her head briefly and hurried off to his shop.
Tia wasn’t used to holding her father’s attention beyond the mundane, and the morning’s encounter filled her with a rush of glee.
Gradually, as one day rolled into another and Sraboni eventually came around to accepting Nuri as a household pet on the inviolable condition that Tia was to do all the cleaning up after the cat, matters settled down in Tia’s world like soft clouds resting atop a low hill. She spent her summer vacation watching Nuri grow into a heathy tabby, her coat shining in the afternoon sun, her emerald-tinged, marble-like eyes glinting with interest as she threw sundry items for her to fetch. She enjoyed her quiet presence by her feet under the dining table as she sat doing her homework or eating her meals. Sometimes, when the summer air turned cool after a spell of evening rain, Nuri would abandon the naked red floor for the warmth of Tia’s laps and at other times, when Tia’s thin frame didn’t prove comfortable enough, she would climb onto the table and fold herself over the pages of an open book that Tia might have been using. In short, Nuri had established her hold over Tia in the way wildflowers colonised a neglected garden.
As school reopened, Tia got swept into the rhythm of routine homework, exams and music lessons. She was no longer available to spend long contemplative hours following the cat’s inimitable nonchalance, her constant presence by her feet as neither Tia nor her cat had the luxury of staying suspended in a bubble that echoed with contented purring of an uncommon companionship.
Just as Tia got busy growing up, so did Nuri. Watching the world go by from the safe distance of the concrete ledge, Nuri was slowly honing the skills of the hunt. No longer a frightened kitten abandoned in a summer storm, she was now given to leave the safety of the Datta household, wander the neighbourhood streets for hours and occasionally return with a dead sparrow or a limp mouse held in her jaws. Once on a Sunday while Sraboni was cooking the ritual mutton curry for lunch Nuri had sauntered into the kitchen with a dead chick between her teeth, scaring Sraboni to almost upturn the wok on the gas.
‘Tia!’, screamed Sraboni, her right hand resting on her chest so as to calm her beating heart, ‘this depraved cat of yours is going to kill us one day! Look where it has dragged in a dead bird from! I want to see this cat out of the house!’ ‘Today it has brought in a chick, tomorrow it will walk in with a dead rat. Then all of us can die of the plague!’ She shooed the cat out with a fierce screech and Nuri disappeared into Tia’s room still holding her prized catch.
Over the months Nuri’s hunting instinct was threatening to turn her into a wilding ― a change that was starting to bother Tia as she loved the cat more than she had on Day One and was equally scared of Sraboni’s disapproval towards the cat’s growing taste for killing, which would certainly lead to Nuri’s banishment. Despite her docility, Nuri was now an adult with independent traits. Though she would still snuggle against Tia’s feet at dinner and disrupt her studies by occupying her books, she would be gone for hours. Tia eventually discovered that when not attacking unsuspecting rodents and birds her beloved cat was whiling away the day snoozing at her father’s feet in his store down the street.
Robin Datta had taken over Nuri’s care once Tia returned to school and found an unexpected fulfilment in the cat’s presence by his side when he walked back home, ate his lunch and fed the cat. All through the years since Tia started school and Sraboni took up the job in Dalhousie, he had returned to an empty house, heated up his food and eaten sitting at the table staring at the afternoon news on TV. He didn’t mind any of it. After lunch he would grab an hour-long nap and then walk back to his store at 4 O’clock to reopen his grocery. He found this rhythm of his days rather suitable and liked it very much. But then Tia went back to school and Nuri wouldn’t stop demanding her lunch. She dropped in from what appeared to be nowhere and was standing right next to him, her dark tail upright, green eyes fixed on him. And then she began her meowing. Unrelenting, she went on until Robin Datta had to stop eating, take out the cat’s bowl and ladle some rice and fish and set it down for Nuri and watched with pity as she immersed most of her face in the rice and ate hungrily. ‘Poor girl,’ he said, ‘You must have been hungry.’ Thus began an afternoon ritual that Robin Datta started to look forward to. What Robin Datta wasn’t expecting was the cat’s willingness to accompany him to his shop every day after Sraboni and Tia left home.
Nuri tailed Robin Datta as he locked up the house and stepped outside to walk 200 metres to his store. He noticed the cat sit at a distance as he undid several of the heavy locks that held down the steel shutters. Once the shutters rolled up with a loud clatter, the cat moved nimbly about and disappeared in the jumble of boxes and sacks and tins that held rice, wheat, flour, bread, biscuits, chips, and sundry other articles that his customers returned to him for. Robin Datta was aware that the store housed a few mice but let it go thinking which grocery or house in this country doesn’t have a mouse problem!
Between attending to customers and reading his daily stack of newspapers, Robin Datta would sometimes look up to find Nuri sitting by his chair, rolled up in a comma, napping contentedly, or washing herself with the vigour of a cleaner struck with a bout of OCD*. On the back of the rituals of noon-time feeding, morning walks and man-to-cat one-on-one, Robin Datta could sense his attachment to Nuri swell when a sharp needle of anxiety pierced his heart each time the cat didn’t turn up for lunch or had vanished from the side of his chair for hours. Tia, though half-relieved that she didn’t have to be the sole carer for Nuri, was beginning to resent the cat’s growing bond with her father. Nowadays, instead of keeping her company while she studied, Nuri would disappear into her father’s room. It would only take her father one word to get Nuri out of Tia’s lap in a hurried leap. Tia had started to sense the sting of losing a friend and began to roil in this new-found pungent jealousy. Her hurt and his indulgence had rebuilt the wall that had almost crumbled during the hot summer days.
Then in the depths of one wintry evening, when Robin Datta and family sat down to dinner, Nuri remained absent. ‘Where’s Nuri?’ he asked his wife and daughter, brows furrowed in worry. ‘I haven’t seen him all evening,’ said Tia.
‘It’s a cat. Stop fussing so much and finish your dinner. I’m tired and can’t heat the food all over again,’ snapped Sraboni.
‘You don’t have to do anything. When have you ever cared for anything that has caused you even the slightest bit of inconvenience?’ Robin Datta sniped at his wife and walked out the door.
It was early December but the night felt unseasonably chilly. Robin Datta pulled his sweater tight and walked about the dimly lit neighbourhood calling about hoarsely for Nuri. He looked under stationary scooters, irresponsibly parked cars, and bent over dry drains running along the streets looking for the cat. After a good 40 minutes Robin Datta felt his stomach rumble with hunger and remembered that he hadn’t eaten dinner. The cold air made him shiver in his cashmere cardigan but he refused to abandon Nuri to the abyss of the night ― something his wife had always wanted for the poor, orphaned cat. Thinking of Sraboni’s cold-heartedness towards the cat, Robin Datta’s anger flared up, warming the tips of his chilled ears briefly. He wandered about the dark alleys calling for Nuri, each passing minute filling his heart with fear for the animal. In the end, he returned to Tia’s anxious, waiting face, heated and ate his dinner in silence before pulling out the folding sofa and giving into exhaustion.
The following morning Robin Datta hadn’t walked five steps from his house when he found a dusty, severely injured Nuri limping towards him, her face bearing a bleeding cut, her right paw visibly broken, pendulous. He gave a cry of horror mixed with relief and swooped the cat up into his arms, turned on his heels and headed back to the house.
And thus began Robin Datta’s unforeseen transformation into an obsessive cat owner. Overnight he started fussing over every little detail related to Nuri’s recovery. He took her to the vet, applied the ointment three times a day over the scar, took care of the cast over her broken limb, cleaned out her litter box, fed her generous portions of fish and rice and milk all the while talking and cajoling the tabby as if she were his soulmate, his perfect child who had only just materialised.
Tia watched her father doting on the cat with a disdain that shocked her. What made matters worse was Nuri’s complete indifference towards her. Some mornings when Nuri would be sunning herself in the balcony, Tia would approach her ever so quietly to not startle the cat but Nuri would move away and perch on the ledge further off or snuggle her soft head against Robin Datta’s legs where he sat reading his Desh. Watching the cat reject her for her father infuriated Tia. Her rage grew coiled and hard with each small instance of her father’s affection for the cat and the cat’s clear preference for her father that she started keeping an account of it.
Some days it seemed to her that the bitterness would burst forth and brim over and on other days she felt she was strong enough to tolerate their betrayal. Increasingly, the weight of seeing her father being joyous with the cat was becoming unbearable. The wound was starting to fester and Tia turned desperate for a cure.
One afternoon Tia found Nuri curled up on the sofa asleep, alone. She looked around the house for her father but he wasn’t about. Tia didn’t waste a minute. She ran to the kitchen, took her mother’s jute shopper, lifted a purring Nuri off her cushioned seat and dropped her inside the bag, zipping it up, leaving a tiny opening unlatched so as to let the cat breathe. Then she walked out, still dressed in her white-and-blue chequered school uniform. She traversed the back alleys of her neighbourhood, feeling the weight of the nervous cat inside increasing as she walked. At one point she stopped to catch a breath and heard Nuri’s frantic yowling just like the one that had driven her to rescue her on the stormy night more than a year ago. She clutched the moving bag to her chest to minimise the cat’s protests and sped up until she reached the mouth of the marketplace where fishmongers were still noisily going on about their business, trying to make that last sale of the day. Then slowly, avoiding the thinning crowds, the naked glare of halogen bulbs over her head, she found a quiet corner, ripe with the smell of dead fish, the stony floor still glistening with the blood of choice cuts. And there she lowered the bag, gave the shape of a captive Nuri one last pat, turned on her heels and walked on without a glance backwards.
Robin Datta spent days stalking the length and breadth of the neighbourhood crying ‘Nuri, oh Nuri,’ until he got used to eating his lunch alone again.
Debashree Majumdar is a writer-editor from India, currently living in Switzerland. Her writing on travel, culture and food has appeared in National Geographic Traveller, Mint Lounge, The Hindu Business Line, Open Magazine and The Bombay Review among other publications.