I remember I loved reading George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’. I remember I loved seeing all those wonderful, animated films where animals speak a language that we humans understand. There is certainly a charm where the human mind tries to get into the mind of an animal and reasons. Nilanjana has done the same, though she went exploring the mind of cats mainly. The cats of Nizamuddin. The tame ones and the wild ones. There are other animals too in the stories that come together as a cohesive whole in a charming feline way!
No, the novel isn’t really a political commentary on the times and none of the cats get around discussing the current economic scenario of the country, nor do they pretend to ferret out solutions to any complex problems that we humans may be struggling with. The cats remain busy trying to understand all that happens around them and are happy unravelling what some snooty philosopher may consider simply mundane inanities of the daily grind! The book makes us travel and explore rather exciting lanes and bylanes of the relationship between animals and humans, as Mara, the cat analyses: Most cats wanted to know the how of killing, not the why; and the how was complicated enough. The world was divided into predators, prey and Bigfeet, and what made it hard was that all three could change places at any time.
The cats in this novel are many and it isn’t easy to keep a track of them if you are the sort who reads chapters in a sequence determined by the randomness within you… well, I did it thinking animal stories can be read from anywhere without letting confusion set in. I was wrong… this book isn’t just a set of stories that just happen to be arranged in a sequence, because they’re all following a defined one. The book begins with a kitten being slowly made to realise that it is special to the world of cats because it is a sender…
Being a sender means you can travel without using your paws – your whiskers will take you everywhere. And you can see and hear more than most cats can.
Yes, she does want to know what a sender is… even I was a bit curious, and Nilanjana makes one of cats ask this vital question: ‘What do senders have to do?’ We’re slowly introduced to the simple lives and the simple concepts that cats prefer to surround themselves with:
‘Senders guard their clans; every clan hopes they will be lucky enough to have one, especially when times are hard.’
Thus we are also told that this kitten has a rather steep learning curve ahead of her…
A sender who didn’t know she was sending, who wanted her mother, who didn’t know how to receive signals or understand a cat network – because she was just a kitten, a wet behind the whiskers brat who’d sent an entire neighbourhood of cats into a frenzy.
The story does move fast and, as Deepanjana Pal, another reviewer, has written in her review: “Roy is a cat-, cheel-, mouse- and mongoose-whisperer and this is the animals’ story, unhampered by human interference.” The author takes us right into the midst of all the anger, frustration, love, friendship, and confusion that a cat’s mind experiences. There is clarity and turmoil meandering through conclusions and a zesty wilfulness to step into the unknown and come out wiser… these cats of Nizamuddin certainly come out alive in Nilanjana’s stories. Just look at the way how a cat observes, discusses, and then concludes how and why things are what they are…
One of the Bigfeet stooped to pick up a stone, and Katar tensed, his ears pricking all the way back. His instincts told him to run; he turned, and felt a sudden, dull pain on his flank. The Bigfoot had thrown the stone at him, he realized, his tail dropping all the way down. he put his ears back and fled for the safety of the wall. From its height, he stared at the Bigfeet, wondering why they had tried to hurt him. He could see the hostility on their faces, and it worried him.
He took his worries to Hulo that evening. The black tom listened, his unkempt head alert. ‘It happened to me too,’ he said when Katar had finished. ‘A Bigfoot ran yelling at me, flapping his hands like a cheel. they thinkwe’re part of Datura’s bunch.’
The stories, at times, do tend to drag on and the pace does suffer a bit. Moreover, Nilanjana introduces just too many feline characters besides the other animals and it isn’t easy to wade through them without having to stop and rewind a bit… unfortunately such rewinds are not because of textual brilliance. There aren’t too many sentences or passages that readers would want to copy and quote… unlike the famed Orwellian phrases. Thus phrases that impress the mind are few and far between and a reader needs to remain happy cuddling cats that have no ambition to load you with metaphysical or analytical gems like this one: ‘When your prey speaks next, listen to it for as long as you choose, and then kill it as swiftly as you can. That is the only mercy, little one.’
However, when it comes to stoking the emotions within, the cats and, obviously Nilanjana, have a certain degree of expertness. Read this short passage where Southpaw, a dog is being mistreated by his owner and a cat watches and empathises:
The Bigfoot smacked the pup hard across his nose. Southpaw ducked back behind the dahlias and rested his whiskery chin on the flower’s soft petals. He didn’t like dogs, but it was hard to hear the pup’s sorrowful little whines without feeling sorry for the creature. Hulo was impassive, but his fur stood up just enough for Southpaw to think that perhaps the Tom felt it too.
Even the incident where Mara, the cat, understands the subtlety of emotions when the tigress talks about her angry husband and her kids. Thus we read about the white tigress who kept her voice impassive, but Mara could hear the sadness in the low tones. ‘Rudra and Tawny have been shifted into another cage, on the other side of the zoo,’ she said. ‘They’re old enough to breed. It’s not that bad; we link and chat every day, and Rudra’s a big boy now.’
The author also lets us know how incapable we humans are of understanding our pets too when the ‘sender’ protagonist in the novel wonders:
She had no way of explaining to her Bigfoot that something was terribly wrong, that the messages carried by the rain and the wind had raised her hackles with a fear she couldn’t name.
The novel is certainly imaginative and queues up cats for readers to fall in love with… the illustrations by Prabha Mallya are charming. Despite all this, the book remains, at best, slightly better than a simplistic animal story for school kids. The sort of depth that this subject could have been given is somehow lacking and one feels incomplete and restless as a discerning reader would have loved much more analytical thought than just a rendition of ‘a series of extraordinary events’. It isn’t enough to have a ‘terrified orange-coloured kitten with monsoon green eyes and remarkable powers’ walk you through some events that involve largely forgettable cats. The author should have made even the forgettable cats in the story have an unforgettable role to play – isn’t this true even of forgettable men and women in unforgettable writings of great authors?
Now, I’m not trying to say that I didn’t like the book. I loved the stories. I just wish they could have been more unforgettable.
Title of the book: The Wildings
Author: Nilanjana Roy
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Price: Rs 595 (Hardbound) (Price in 2012)
03 December 2012