I am no cat person. In fact, a cat would be the last thing I adopt, except for maybe snakes and tarantulas. I find cats intimidating, their stares judgemental and their snarls ominous. But Joshua was an exception. He entered our lives in the most unexpected way and left just as gracefully. He was the first and will probably be the last cat I will ever adopt.
I named him Joshua for two reasons- one, I think of him as a fighter. He had fought death before finding us. He deserved a real name. Secondly, names like kitty, smokey, Misty, spotty annoyed me. It was a disgrace to him and an embarrassment to me.
It was the 1990s and the beginning of the unforgiving monsoons in my hometown. Those were the days when the town slept soon after sunset and power cuts were a given during heavy downpours.
It was one such evening when our little tiled-roof stone-brick house was drowned in darkness except for the light from the oil lantern that my mother had placed in the living room. I had my own lantern which I hung in my room as I sat down with my copy of Ruskin Bond’s The Blue Umbrella.
I had hardly reached the part where Binya, trades her old leopard claw necklace for a pretty, frilly blue umbrella when I heard faint meows from outside my window. At first, I ignored it, assuming that a litter of kittens had gotten under the cover of my dad’s Chetak, a scooter as old as I. But when the meows did not stop for over an hour, I got suspicious.
I walked out of the house and returned five minutes later with a tiny ball of dripping wet fur. It was a kitten, barely the size of my palm. Although not very fond of cats, I could not let it die. It was alone under the scooter, with no trace of its mother. I felt sorry for it.
It was my maternal aunt, Priya, who guessed Joshua’s age to be no more than 4 days. She had come to stay with us for the weekend. Aunt Priya, having adopted several cats herself, swore she could read their mind. She was the family’s cat lady. She was also the one who told us that Joshua was a ‘he’. Well, that I suppose, needed no expertise in the cat department.
She also approved of us keeping him for the same reason. “You will not have to deal with a houseful of kittens in the future. Tomcats are easy maintenance” she had said. Apparently, gender favouritism was not unique to humans.
When we found him, Joshua had not yet opened his eyes and was incapable of eating or licking food off a plate. So keeping him alive was a challenge. Mother and I tried spoons, candy-sticks and even rags dipped in milk but nothing worked with Joshua. He did not trust us.
It was then that Aunt Priya suggested using an ink-filler. She said it worked most of the times with most infant animals. Now, the challenge was to keep Joshua alive until the dawn when the shops would open for us to buy an ink-filler.
That night for the first time in my life, I did not sleep for even a minute. Neither did mother. We took turns checking on him. The meowing had stopped after a while. I assumed he was exhausted.
It was only after two days that we learned about Joshua’s origin. Our neighbour Mrs Patrao said that she had seen a cat with six young ones live under a broken roof in the backyard. The cat might have been killed by a stray dog while shifting the babies to a new place, she said. A common occurring in the cat world, Aunt Priya confirmed. Poor Joshua was the last one to be shifted and was unfortunately left out.
When we finally got an ink-filler the next morning, Joshua still refused to drink milk from it. We had bought five different types just in case he turned out to be a fussy eater. Which he did. Finally, I had to force feed him. Eventually, he made peace with the rubber ink-filler, eliminating the other four options. For several months after that, mother and I took turns to feed him this way, five times a day.
Joshua grew up to be a weakling. He only ate what we fed him with. He was smaller than most cats his age and found it really hard to catch a mouse by himself. Our garden back then was filled with rodents the size of bears. Joshua stood no chance against them. He feared anything that crawled or walked on fours and one time I think I saw him shriek and run for his life from a snarling garden rat.
When Joshua fell sick one day, the vet told us he was too old to survive on just milk. He had to be fed meat. I think mother almost fainted in the clinic that day. We were the only surviving vegetarians in the family and to my mother, it was a matter of pride and honour.
To our relief, Mrs Patrao, our neighbour volunteered to feed Joshua with the remains of the fish that she got for her family. Joshua seemed to grow healthier after that. The fish was doing him good. But there was another problem now. Joshua, with his new found strength, felt stronger and would often venture into the neighbourhood. The neighbourhood where every house had at least one pet dog and some four.
I think if cats had palms, we would see a long lifeline on Joshua’s. He was a pro in escaping death. He was also an aspirer of near-death experiences. But that one time, I think, it went out of hand. Joshua had sneaked into our other neighbour Mr.Dutta’s garden and had tried threatening Danny, his pitbull.
Mrs Dutta had saved his life just in time. “His yelps were heart-wrenching” the old lady had said while narrating the incident. She said she had never seen her ten-year-old boy growl so violently at anyone before. The poor dog had almost lost an eye and Joshua had paid for it with a limp hind leg that took three months to heal.
I vividly remember it was that day, after Mrs Dutta’s departure that we decided to send Joshua away. He was growing. He needed more space. We could not keep him confined to our house. The neighbourhood was not safe either. Danny was waiting to seek vengeance.
It was Mrs D’souza who suggested we leave Joshua at the fish market, a kilometre and half away from our house. She said he would be well fed there and have other stray cats to keep company. After much discussion, mother and I decided it was the best for him. Joshua too, I think, was relieved to hear about it. He was tired of us hovering around him all the time. He needed to move out and taste freedom.
When Aunt Priya heard of our decision, she assured that we had nothing to worry about. Joshua would forget us in a couple of weeks. Cats were like that, she said. It made me kind of sad.
After Joshua left, life did not change much, except sometimes out of habit, Mother would keep a bowl of fresh milk under the stairs which would go stale a couple of days later.
It was one fine day that I happened to pass by the fish market. There were nearly a dozen cats gathered around a dumpster filled with fish scales and other inedible parts of the fish. The cats were having a feast.
It did not take me long to identify Joshua in the litter. He was the smallest of all, but much bigger than he was when he had left him there. I think he too recognized me, for just a few seconds he turned around and looked at me and I think he even meowed a ‘hello’ before promptly going back to his half-eaten fish bone.
Now, even after five years, mother and I sometimes walk past the fish market hoping to see him. At times when we are lucky, we find him wagging his tail, standing on his hind legs, waiting for one of the fish vendors to feed him. He never misses to turn around and acknowledge us.