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Book Review: The Wildings


The secret life of cats
SAIBAL CHATTERJEE | New Delhi, August 31, 2012 15:32
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Nilanjana Roy’s dazzlingly original The Wildings zeroes in on the mysterious and danger-filled lives of cats in a Delhi neighbourhood. The narrative, like the domain it is set in, is strikingly unique, if you discount Indian-American writer Rajesh Parameswaran’s The Infamous Bengal Ming, about a lovesick tiger who mauls his zookeeper out of misplaced affection.

But that was a short story. The Wildings is a full-fledged novel about both affection and animosity, neither of which is misplaced. It makes for compelling reading. Roy draws the reader quickly and effortlessly into the world of the feline creatures that live and wage a daily battle for survival in and around the alleyways and ruins of Nizamuddin. Prabha Mallya’s evocative black-and-white illustrations provide visual spine to the readable prose about the secret life of cats.

The novel opens with a reference to Mara, an orange kitten that creates quite a stir in the wilds around the canal and the dargah. The loveable little ball of fur that has been adopted by a human household is no ordinary cat – she is a Sender, blessed with powers of communication that go beyond mere “linking”, a telepathic web that enables cats to stay in touch with each other no matter how far they might stray from the clan.

We are told: “The cats of Nizamuddin were used to linking across long distances, as all animals in the wild did. Mews reached only so far; scents and whisker transmissions formed an invisible, strong web around their clan and dargah cats. But linking allowed them only to listen to each other. A true sending, where the Sender’s fur seemed to brush by the listener, its words and scents touching her listener’s whiskers, was rare. From time to time, strangers might breach the web, accidentally linking – but it had been years since the Nizamuddin clan had a Sender in their midst, or had a sending as strong as this.”

The context is thus set for the chain of events that unfold in this remarkable parable about growing up, staying on one’s feet and discovering the true thrills of  being a cat. Seen from a few inches off the ground, from under parked cars and from rooftops – all from the POV of the cats – the universe that Roy conjures up is magical, full of surprises and utterly exhilarating. The novel does have unnamed humans – collectively called Bigfeet – stomping about quite freely around here, but the core narrative space belongs squarely to the animals.

The wildings are stray cats of the area. In a Shuttered House nearby is a bunch of feral felines, bloodthirsty and always spoiling for a bloody brawl. Among others, the Nizamuddin clan has Hulo, Beraal, Miao and Katar, besides Southpaw, the kitten for whom staying out of trouble is life’s biggest challenge.

Some of the most gripping moments in The Wildings are provided by the Southpaw’s misadventures – he is targeted by a cheel and a dog in quick succession. And then, in the Shuttered House, he finds himself in danger of being killed by the ferals, led by the ruthless white cat Datura.

The novel proffers stories of many other animals – Ozzy the tiger, Tantara the langur that is friends with Rudra the tiger cub, Kirri the mongoose, to name only a few – but does not follow them through as the focus shifts to the central plotline.   

The hostility between the wildings and the feral cats forms the crux of the novel. Beyond these skirmishes, the most intriguing passages are those that deal with Mara. She is looked upon with a great deal of suspicion by some members of the clan, which has little respect for “inside cats”, but she finds a protective mentor in Beraal and a friend in Southpaw.

Life is a constant learning curve for these animals. When Southpaw is cornered by the feral cats, every scary second is a process of grasping the tricks of survival. “Southpaw tried to remember what Katar had told him about using his whiskers to sense predators, but though he could raise his black whiskers up just as the tomcat had, he felt nothing in the air. He hadn’t learnt the finer points of sensing, and the kitten hoped his unseen enemies wouldn’t be able to guess how vulnerable he was.”

Later, Southpaw watches Mara make her first kill – a large Atlas moth – and then agonise over the act: “Mara put her head down on the floor and mewed sadly. She nudged the moth once with her mouth, willing it to come back to life. ‘I’M A BAD KITTEN, I DIDN’T MEAN TO KILL YOU MOTH. I’M SO SAD THAT I DID,’ she said forlornly.” Living by her instincts, it is apparent, does not come easy to a house cat. But Southpaw is instantly impressed by “the speed with which (Mara) made her kill”.           

If a debut novel can be equated with a cat’s first kill, The Wildings is as perfect a strike as Mara’s. Gripping, humorous and truly immersive, it is well worth a sequel. 

Author: Nilanjana Roy

Edition: Hardback

ISBN: 978-81-9232-809-6

Pages: 312

Price: Rs. 595

Publisher: Aleph Book Company

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017