‘Oreo, come, dinner time,’ I hear uncle beckoning as he walks out of the store. He brings with him a pleasant gust of air from the cool interiors. I lift my head up gratefully. I can’t wait for uncle’s hands to stroke my head before he empties the food into the bowl.
Crushed by the galloping summer, I have been lying listlessly by the kerb since evening. There isn’t much I can do these days. It isn’t like old times when I could dart across the melting tar and chase a rat before making a meal of it. The limbs aren’t relenting these days. And the bulk of my body has become a nasty burden. So I bide my time here all day, watching the world pass by in between my snoozes.
This is a period of brief reflections in my life. That’s what one probably does after years of chasing rats, purring at people and spending a cool cat’s life in the alley: indulge in thoughts that put things in perspective. Thoughts of all kinds fill my old, grizzled head now – from sane to bizarre to comforting.
The other day I was thinking of my life as a street cat. It was triggered by the sight of a fluffy poodle being walked by its owner on a leash. I envied the dog’s life with every bristling hair in my body. To be a pet in someone’s life, to be fussed over and treated as if he were a baby, to be groomed and decked, to strut around with pride – it hurt me that I should have been denied all these privileges.
I have also heard of cats that grow with human families. I could have been one too, if my fate had so desired. But I was born on the street and growing up in the street has no glamour attached to it. Unless, of course, you have thuggery in your blood.
A stray cat is always a pariah in people’s eyes. When I was much younger, a little girl out of her love for cats came running towards me before her mother’s loud reprimand struck a sledge-hammer blow in my heart. ‘Don’t touch the cat. It is dirty. You will catch some disease.’
When the girl moaned in protest, the mother retorted, ‘Okay. Then I will you leave here and go home. Sleep with the cat on the street.’
As she was dragged away, the girl looked at me with a longing in her eyes that I haven’t yet forgotten. I wanted to go after the mother and scare her with a violent screech from behind for denying us our share of love. But I let it be. What do people know of genuine, unconditional love, after all?
I have regarding people’s kindness towards us as extremely self-serving. The utmost that people did for creatures like us was buy tinned food and leave them on the kerb, as if they did it out of obligation than love. I should have been grateful for the gesture, but I found it very demeaning. I hate handouts that were bereft of love. A cat has unbending pride, no matter what his status.
My resentment for a world that fed us to wash its guilt than with love cemented with time. Age and sickness, that no one took notice of, only deepened my indifference. I became a non-entity, shunned by most, left to live and die as a street cat, filled with unwavering envy for the home pets and loathing for the people who spoiled them rotten.
But then, deviations occur. God creates exceptions. Things change. Happiness pops up at unexpected times. And it transforms lives. Like it happened when uncle came along and gave me a name. Oreo.
It was a defining moment in my life. It’s amusing that my christening should happen towards the fag end of my life. That my soul resurrected when the body began to perish. There aren’t many years left in my bones, and I wonder how many more summers I will survive. But I suppose it is never too late for one to acquire an identity.
I polish off all the meat stew that uncle served to me, as I ruminate on my life. I curl up next to his feet in contentment and melt under his tender touch. He isn’t afraid of catching a disease. I feel a deep love for him.
‘Did you eat well, Oreo, old boy?’ he asks pouring some water into the dish. I merely meow and look at him with gratitude. He smiles as if he understands.
I ask him without words, ‘Why do you care for me so much when you could have had a fluff ball at home to cuddle with?’
And he replies with his eyes, soft behind the thick glasses, ‘A pet is loved for one’s own sake. But I love you for your sake.’
I close my eyes. My head reels and my vision blurs. If I were to die this moment, I want to be a cat on this street again, to be fed and fondled by someone who loves me unselfishly. I know God must be listening. We all pray in varying tones of silence, but get answered in one unmistakable voice. As uncle’s footsteps fade away, I gently put my head on the ground and wait for the voice to rise in my heart. Strains of gospel songs drift in from somewhere, and I slip into a cat nap again.