Thursday, January 12, 2012
No poem was good enough for Julio, so here is a love story. It lasted not more than a week, but what seems like a lifetime. That is the magic of love, I suppose: it allows you to live several lifetimes in one.
It was a severely cold January when I met him first: the third day of the new year. A handful of students, who had stayed back on campus during the vacation, flocked at the market, probably trying to hold on to the elusive festive spirit the way I was. The queue at the golgappa stall meant I had to wait. There he was, sitting still like a stone, not trying to avoid but ignore the trampling of the crowd engrossed with their savoury delights: a wet, cold and terrified ball of fur.
Why doesn’t anyone bother to move him away from there? I realized I could just as well be that anyone. Picking him up was no trouble, but putting him down proved to be a challenge; he would meow his way back into my arms, and soon enough, into my heart. There was no way the authorities would allow scholars to keep pets at the hostel, but it took me not more than ten minutes to decide on gifting the poor dear a home. How strange is it for someone who never identified as a cat-person for thirty-two years? I suppose it does not matter, for I did no adopt a sick, shivering, frightened little kitten that day; he adopted me.
What does one name a white-and-brown kitten, with whiskers only on his right side? ‘PoMo’ was an instant hit with my friends and associates (yes, you are allowed to snigger at the myopic vision of the architecture academia), while ‘Baburam’ came to me naturally. For a while, I also contemplated on names with an initial R, thinking of christening my new-found love in memory of the love lost. In the end, I decided it was all unfit, as it had to be about him and not about me. Julio, a sad pun on hulo,was an epiphany, possibly somewhat catalyzed by Paul Simon’s music.
Two days after we met, returning from my morning class, I found myself in my room with no trace of Julio; not even a suspended Cheshire smile. The only way out of the locked room could have been my second floor balcony, but all I could see form there was a completely different cat sun-bathing on an assortment of rubbish piled below. I do not remember what it felt like (or I am too embarrassed to admit it), but I reached out for a pack ominously imprinted with ‘smoking kills’, and in spite of having no hope, slowly trudged down the stairs to inspect the site of the possible accident. The gentleman was sitting there all huddled up and frightened just the way I had found him not too long back; thanks to his patchy coat, I had been unable to make out his divine presence from the upper floor. How is it that I felt lighter on my way back, even though I was carrying him then?
Julio seemed to have learnt his lesson: after that day, he didn’t venture too far off the room unless I was in visible proximity. I started to leave the doors ajar, and even if he bolted out with his natural sense of responsibility to enquire the cause of strange sounds and smells, I knew it would not take him farther than the stair-landing, and he would scamper back the moment I went up to him and walked him back to the room.
I collected several pieces of common knowledge: tom-cats do not make the best of pets, and do not recognize anything beyond momentary self-interest. I kept preparing myself for the day he was old enough to run away and fend for himself, and regularly mentioned the immediate possibility of such an occurrence in my casual conversations with friends, possibly trying to convince myself I was comfortable with the idea. However, I wished for it to be a distant reality, and, may be subconsciously, hoped for it to never happen.
A kitten made a father out of a silly love-lorn bachelor, and almost mended his erratic, whimsical lifestyle. There is no way you can stay up all night, aimlessly surfing the internet, if your bundle of joy creeps up on your lap, and demands to be caressed to sleep. A few times I had tried quietly lifting him off my chest, and putting him down on the blanket, thinking he was fast asleep, but he would just open those drowsy eyes, and without much ado, crawl back onto me. He made me choose between an exciting flux of virtual socializing and a singular but living, breathing, meowing love; reality won.
Gone with the nights of insomnia, were the days of waking up at noon and lunch for breakfast. He would be up early, but strangely, never made me get up until I was ready to; though, with my first foot down on the floor, his reprimanding ensued. I could never be quick enough to stir up his platter of morning milk without feeling guilty of making him wait for it too long… far too long; Julio sure knew how to sound plaintive. His thirst quenched, he would make an amusing display of the proverbial feline curiosity: running after bits of paper, fallen leaves and bugs, pulling at shoe-strings, pajama draw-strings and belt straps, hunting slippers and shampoo bottles, inspecting laptop keyboards, and exploring the dark worlds hidden behind doors, suitcases and cupboard shutters. It did not go on for long though, for my kitten was even more capricious than me. My attempts at starting the day’s work had to be punctuated to personally entertain him with kill-the-ball combat trainings, come-bite-my-finger drills, and okay-I-shall-brush-you-to-make-you-purr routines.
All of a sudden, I was left with no time to even consider how laid-back and easy-going my life was a week ago. I had to keep running to and from the shops, buying pail, jar, fish and milk to arrange for his meals, bucket, mops and disinfectants to clean his shit, a ball to keep him entertained, a pair of slippers to replace the ones he had ripped apart, and of course the injections I had to take because he had scratched, and made me bleed. Add to that the hurried bicycle rides back to the hostel room, flung between classes and café-symposiums, to replenish his pail, clean up after him, and check if he is lonely. Surprisingly, now that I had to be busy for him, I suddenly found all the time I needed to complete the work I had piled up over months, thanks to my erstwhile, incurable procrastination. Winter too was kind; the chill gave way to days of sunshine and I was full of energy. A friend rightly remarked: was I a blessing for him, or was he one for me? Life works in strange ways; one of the strangest of them is love.
My friends also supplied a continuous string of complaints: I was smothering him, bothering him, restraining his freedom, and making him incapable of fending for himself. Sometimes I wondered if I had done worse with my lost love, and backed away, but never for more than a few hours. Julio accepted my continual attentions with only occasional and feeble objections. He would meow now and then when I cycled with him haltered in a scarf, and protest by pushing off my hands when I cleaned his ears with cotton-buds or pick out fleas. Other than the bathing, which happened just once, there was nothing that he wouldn’t agree to, once I managed to catch him by the collar.
It had been an exhausting day at the university, and gulping down my black coffee I rushed back home to see my feline son. Taking him up in my arms gave me the usual sense of eternal bliss. Julio had had an extra pail of milk with his fish lunch, but I decided to give him another extra pre-dinner serving; he did seem hungry. Leaving behind half of the warm milk, Julio suddenly bolted out of the door. I went after him after a while, and was alarmed to see him not on the corridor anymore. But a flight of steps down, he was loitering around: I would like to believe, waiting for me to join him. Each time I went to collect him, he went down another flight. Finally, I quit following him and just let him go on. I was simultaneously annoyed at his new-found audacity, expecting and hoping he would return looking for me any minute, scared of being all alone and away from his father, reasoning and defending his action against my own emotions (after all, my room was too small to keep him entertained), questioning the adequacy of his diet, and disoriented by the idea of spending the night alone, with Julio somewhere out there being preyed on by the many tom-cat thugs.
I went out for a cup of coffee and promised myself I shall not look for him… after all he is sure to come back at night looking for the warm milk, the warm blanket, and the warmth of my caress. A pragmatic and rather mean alter ego reminded me that it was equally likely that I may never see him. On my way back, convincing myself I am not looking for him, I went down to the courtyard while trying to figure out an alternative reason for going there. Julio was amongst the other cats, and did not run away when I caught him by the collar; I was relieved to take him up in my arms.
As I walked back up the stairs, I realized he didn’t really like it. Even if I was doing what I thought was best for him, who was I to decide that anyway? Wasn’t I just being selfish in love? As he struggled to get off, I gently put him down on the steps and watched him run away, without a valedictory meow.
At night I went around looking for him one last time, but all the cats of the world seemed to have gone to their hidden world. I console myself: Julio must have found his place amongst his kind. Winter has suddenly decided to come back with all severity, and I just hope he finds a warm spot for himself.
I expect to spot him sometime amongst the other cats down at the courtyard, surreptitiously waiting below the concrete benches, and running after morsels of food carelessly dropped by the university scholars. At night, I keep my door unbolted and a platter of warm milk ready.
In the end, like all love, it is about learning to let go.