It is never the bulk of the cat that counted or even the speed of the paw, the sharpness of the claw, as much as it was the ability to conquer one’s fear”— Miao.
Miao, a wise blue-eyed Siamese elder cat in The Wildings ruminates while monitoring a very young but overenthusiastic and prone-to-get-into-trouble tomcat, Southpaw, on his first hunting expedition.
Set in Nizamuddin, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Delhi, the debut novel by literary critic and journalist Nilanjana Roy has a predominant cast of cats with adorable names like Ghazal, Dastan, Katar Hulo and Beraal — all of whom follow a strict code of honour and who live in a brutal world, not unlike our own.
The cats, mostly strays, find themselves in a fierce battle pitted against feral cats, who have lived cushioned lives as pets all their lives and after the death of their Bigfeet (all humans are called Bigfeet by the cats) decide to step outside.
The ferals led by a sadistic Datura follow absolutely no code — they prey not to feed their hunger but for making merry and are happiest when they could torment smaller creatures. They kill not out of blood lust but because they could.
The storyline follows the young abandoned orange kitten, Mara, with “monsoon grey eyes” and super telepathic powers, who can go beyond what normal cats can do. That is, she, a ‘Sender’, cannot just “link” with other cats through her whiskers but has the ability to travel huge distances while physically being present in one place.
The author has attempted to touch upon the themes of the reality of growing up, finding the courage to face evil, on love and friendship, heroes and heroism and on compassion and integrity, among others.
Some of the cats have such witty names — Ghazal, the mother of Qawwali, and Dastan are the dargah cats, Affit and Dafit are the Supreme Court cats and Abol and Tabol, the canal wildings. As you can see some of them are named after Bengali nursery rhymes! There is the giant Royal Bengal tiger Ozzy and his queen Rani and their son Rudra, who is friends with a Tantara the langur.
The cats while engaging in fights speak in verse.
The rules, then, for all cats to hear; this fight will be blood-filled and chilling.
But the rules of open throat are clear;
There shall be no killing.
First blood can be drawn, so can a third;
Bleed too much, and I may give word
To stop the fight, however thrilling.
Other species find representation too — there are the cheels, Stoop and Conquer, and Tooth and Claw, the vicious murder of crows includes Blackwing, Brightbeak, Bitterbite, Bakbuk and Breakbone, the sparrows Spackle and Grackle,the owls Hootem and Hutom, JethroTail the mouse, the squirrels Aao and Jao. The most witty description, I must say, goes to the seven sisters — babblers — named Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Ni and Dha.
All the animals and birds speak Junglee — the generic tongue of the wild. That is how they understand each other.
There is an edge-of-the-seat thrilling fight in the end and while good triumphs over evil, the perils of what extended isolation can do for the soul is also dealt with in a non-preachy way.
The book has a sequel, The Hundred Names of Darkness, where we are introduced to a further cast — Doginder, the friendly stray dog and Thomas Mor the peacock, among others. It is indeed a delightful read, and beautifully illustrated too, if only to understand the world of cats. The book is slotted in the Young Adults category but can be enjoyed by all age groups.
(From this Sunday on Reading Room, we are introducing this fortnightly column on memorable characters)