Nilanjana Roy’s debut is a fully realised, fully imagined novel about Indian street cats.

One of my professors at Madras Christian College was the legend Robert Burns. Outside class, gossiping with his students in the tea kadai off campus, he was just as erudite, witty and snarky. But when he spoke of his cats, all 12 of them, he was full of tenderness. This bachelor, who lived with his aunt and many cats and knew T.S. Eliot by heart, was just as fond of literary cats. He was, though, very particular about the kind of cat literature he read, often lecturing us on what made for a good story or poem about cats. He rued the lack of anything like good animal literature, since Kipling, in Indian fiction. There were many times I thought of Burns while reading Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildings: about how much he would have admired, welcomed and delighted in this fully realised, fully imagined novel about Indian street cats.

Moving saga

The Wildings is a beautiful book in every way. Beautifully written, beautifully illustrated, and beautifully designed. I’m a dog kind of fellow myself, but dog lovers and lovers of every other thing, including humans, will find themselves entranced, gripped and moved by the saga of the Nizamuddin cats. This is the most satisfyingly illustrated Indian novel I know: Prabha Mallya’s work is beguiling, masterful and unforgettable. It compels you to take in the book twice — once to read and once to simply revel in the illustrations. (A favourite is the saintly fakir with the four cats in the dargah). And Bena Sareen’s glinting book design strikes again.

Among Nilanjana’s many accomplishments here is creating a narrative that children and adults will give themselves to completely. I came to care for these wildings more than I have cared in a very long time for people in a novel. The Nizamuddin cats must now be counted as some of Indian literature’s most memorable characters. Beraal and the other cats of Nizamuddin — Hulo, Miao and Katar, Qawwali from the dargah, Abol and Tabol from the canal — are shocked and disturbed to discover a Sender lurking in their territory; a cat with the rare ability to transmit its thoughts in the air, along a bandwidth that the other cats can pick up along their whiskers.

The Sender, to everyone’s surprise, turns out to be not a vicious veteran but an orange-coloured kitten called Mara. A Sender can not only broadcast thoughts but transport herself along with them and soon Mara is off, racing through Humayun’s tomb, the playground, the market, running smack into the zoo and a Royal Bengal tiger.

The tiger, surprised out of her wits, growls, “I’m Ozymandias, the king of kings. Who in hell’s name are you and what are you doing in my head?”

“I’m just me,” Mara stammered back, “Just a Mara.”

‘Justamara?”

Mara cries, “I want to go home! Don’t like this Ozmanydiwhatever…”

The humour is deeply and subtly woven into the narrative and you find yourself surprised into laughter as the story unfolds. Earlier in the same section, I found myself laughing at a scene that rang both funny and true. An ambling, ruminating cow distracted from eating by the spectre of this kitten turns again to the market stall “but the sabziwalla had tucked the cabbage smartly out of her reach. Philosophically, she sniffed at a discarded garland of marigolds instead. She tended to take life pretty much as she found it, kittens or no kittens.”

This is also the story of the other wildings, big and small, in our streets and neighbourhoods — the dogs, rats, squirrels and birds — that share this impoverished, unfriendly, menacing roofless habitat of pavements, streets, drains, gutters, pipes, garbage, and blistering heat these animals call home. In constant danger, constant hunger, constant fear they struggle to just survive; living is only for the lucky few. These wildings are free but freedom here is just another word for homelessness and orphanhood.

And yet out of such deprivation and meagerness, Nilanjana Roy finds and shapes enchantment. These wildings have a full, rich life we don’t sense or see. As someone who has cared for the wildings in our cities, I am grateful to Roy for imagining their world for us, for taking us deep inside their souls, and allowing us to go beyond their daily misery and hardship and emptiness to the fun, the daring, the loveliness, the excitement and the mysticism of their wild, unbound lives.

Unsentimental and accurate

Roy’s account is not cute, fey or twee. The telling is unsentimental, honest, accurate and full of observation. Though I spend my days and hours among these wildings, it had never occurred to me to look at the ones in my own street as being part of and coming from a long, continuous generation; the children of several generations that have inhabited the same locality.

All wildings I have observed to be determinedly territorial, so I know this is so. They mark and share turf. Yet I didn’t make the connection that Roy makes for us: the revelation (and it is nothing short of that) that these wildings should never have — and now can never be — viewed as strays. They have more roots, deeper roots, than most of us. Her wildings also mirror and summon up the wildings we see (and interact) each day in our own neighbourhoods.

In the best tradition of true animal fiction, the novel is not a political or allegorical work mirroring humanity. The world of the wildings is their own, and I would hate to have readers think this animal fable mirrors the human condition. However, I would like a reader to see this as an allegory of the animal condition: to sensitively, compassionately and politically imagine (in the brilliant way the novel does for us the world and a life for the wildings) a full life and a rich world for our factory-farm animals and birds. As creatures they are as soulful, intelligent and sensitive as the wildings but its hopelessness, pain, torture, cruelty, confinement and slaughter they stare at, day after day, moment by moment.

Little Mara’s profound sadness and bewilderment at killing the moth, and her question ‘What if we don’t want to kill anything, ever?’ is too complex for an answer but it did make me think not only of the untold horrors — the daily holocaust of domestic animals — at these factory farms and at our dairies and hatcheries, but also of why choosing to be vegan feels increasingly like an ethical, just and compassionate response to make towards (and for) our marvellous and wondrous fellow creatures and companions.