Nilanjana Roy must have spent hours observing cats in her neighbourhood.
Ask a dog-person to think of a cat, and he or she will promptly (and gleefully) say ‘Pussy’ or ‘Kitty Galore’! Ask a dog-person to review a book about cats and…
But then, cats—especially wildings—are tigers in miniature and you can’t help thinking of swashbuckling Puss in Boots in Shrek without grinning. Cats are well, really cool and keep their counsel. They show their affection in a detached diffident sort of way, unlike those slobbering dogs that fawn and ingratiate themselves in a completely sycophantic manner—intriguing and independent and interesting.
As, so too are the cats that inhabit The Wildings. Nilanjana Roy sets her story in Delhi’s Nizamuddin, a neighborhood as familiar to her as are the cats that live there. The plot is straightforward: a strange orange orphaned kitten (called Mara) makes her appearance in a neighborhood house and the Nizamuddin cats must decide what to do about her. More so, because little Mara is a ‘Sender’, a cat that (according to her mama) ‘can travel without using [her] paws’, whose whiskers take her everywhere. A Sender can see and hear more than other cats can, she can project holographic-like images of reality… Mara being different (and unaware of the extent of her powers) is treated with suspicion before being reluctantly accepted by the Nizamuddin veterans. She does make a friend, another (normal) kitten Southpaw, who is constantly getting his bottom smacked by the elders. Her most influential, and ‘virtual’, friends however are a couple of zoo tigers, and their cub (and an attending langur).
The Nizamuddin clan, live in peace—apart from the occasional brawl—hunting rats and bandicoots and keeping in touch with other neighborhood clans as well as other creatures—the kites, crows, mongooses and squirrels living in their area, including unpredictable human beings, who the cats know as Bigfeet. But a threat looms…
The ferals living in the off-limits ‘Shuttered House’ have never been outdoors. They have turned rogue and vicious and are restive because their human caretaker is sick and dying. Led by the merciless Datura (well-named!), they are cruelty personified, their insular, fanatic minds can’t go beyond killing (after preferably torturing) the weak and helpless. (We know so many Bigfeet like these!). Southpaw has a narrow escape, but then, the caretaker of the Shuttered House dies, and the blood-crazed denizens of the house are let loose. They far outnumber the Nizamuddin clan (whom they call ‘meat’), are ruthless and not open to negotiation. A battle rages, and the Nizamuddin cats begin to get routed… I can say no more!
Roy must have spent hours observing the cats in her neighborhood, and drawing up characters. Apart from Mara, there is the smoky Siamese Miao, the wise clan elder, Karat, the battle-hardened pro, Hulo, and the regal queen Beraal, amongst many others. There is equality amongst the sexes, and a queen will fight a tom on level terms. The cats communicate in slightly archaic English—none of that modern slang nonsense—keeping their dignity intact at all times. Indeed, at times, they seem rather British and the story could well be set in a neat English or Scottish town or village! But locales and scenes have been described in fine detail. The story moves with just the pace required in order to keep you turning the pages and the writing is neat, compact and as circumspect as any cat would appreciate. No histrionics or melodrama, there’s a cool detachment that conveys the horror of the happenings even more powerfully.