By Sohana Manzoor
It took more than an hour for Rupa to reach her destination. After paying the fare she started walking past the pet shops in Katabon. The first one had birds and fish and aquariums of different sizes. She also noticed some curious looking cages. After three shops she found one sporting caged dogs. Two black ones were sleeping, a white poodle dozing, while a big wolf continued eying her wearily. Obviously, they too felt the heat. She stopped to see if there were cats too. An elderly, wiry looking fellow was smoking. He came forward and observing Rupa’s frowning face, extinguished his bidi by tapping it against the top of a cage. Then he pushed it over his ear like the tailors tuck in their pencils. Obviously, he planned to smoke later, and not waste his precious bidi*. He grinned and Rupa could not help noticing a single gold tooth that glittered among his nicotine stained set of dark brown teeth. “What would you like, apa*?” the man asked. “We have very good dogs here—a poodle, a German Shepherd… all pure-breed. We can get you more…” There was something very obsequious in his manners that made Rupa grit her teeth.
She shook her head, “I am actually looking for a cat,” her eyes following a thin white cat that had just popped out from behind some boxes. The guy immediately picked it up and said, “You can take Minnie; she is a great mouser.” He looked at it and beamed, “Aren’t you, Minnie? You’re such a darling!” His ‘darling,’ however, turned her snout away from him as if something in his breath bothered her, and struggled to get down, while whining and trying to scratch him with her hind legs.
Rupa looked at the rickety form of the cat the man was holding. She could tell that even though she looked small, she was quite old—at least two to three years. She felt sorry for poor underfed Minnie, but not enough to adopt her. So she asked, “Do you have any other?”
The man let go of Minnie unceremoniously and said a little peevishly, “No. We did have a few more, but they have been sold.”
As Rupa turned to leave, the guy said, “Minnie is a real hunter. She caught a mouse even last night.”
But Rupa was not particularly interested in a hunting cat; she wanted an adorable kitten. This guy probably thought that the only use of a cat was to catch mice. At the next shop a young couple had just bought a pair of white rabbits. As they stepped out of the shop with the caged rabbits in hand, a man balancing on a bicycle cried out: “O bhai*, what have you got in there? Surely not rabbits? Your entire house will stink like the cages in Dhaka zoo!”
Rupa along with the couple stared at the man blankly. What was he babbling about? Probably, some crackpot up to his antics. You can trust the people of Dhaka to offer unsolicited advice at any time. But as Rupa went inside the shop the couple had just got out from, she detected a stench that was worse than all the other shops she had passed by so far. She wondered if it was because of the rabbits. The shopkeeper and his assistant showed her three black kittens claiming that they were Siamese cats. Rupa could not be sure if they were Siamese, but she was willing to bet that they were previously owned by some evil witch. They glared at Rupa with open hostility, their bright eyes burning like green fire. Rupa shook her head negatively and walked toward the next shop.
A boy of around 12 or 13 years of age beckoned her to a box like cage where she saw the kitten. It was small, surely not more than a few weeks old. The orange tabby looked up at Rupa with its large brown eyes and sneezed. Rupa held out her hand gingerly to feel it when she heard a faint mewing sound from elsewhere. She looked inside the box and saw another kitten, a black and white one, whimpering. She continued meowing piteously as Rupa turned to look at the tabby and took it from the boy. Dirty and malnourished, the tabby yet seemed absolutely adorable to Rupa.
“How much?” she asked.
“Five hundred taka, apa. It’s pure breed.”
The boy mumbled something unintelligible. Another guy spoke up, “You can see the stripes. It’s a foreign cat.”
“Sure,” Rupa grimaced. “It’s just a regular deshi* cat, mixed breed at best.” The other kitten was still crying for its friend. Rupa calculated something quickly, and said, “Okay, I will accept your price, but I want that other kitten for free.”
The shop keepers started arguing, “But you won’t get two cats for 500! And they are first rate kittens.”
“Then I am not taking any,” she placed the tabby in the cage and turned away, even though her heart cried out for the poor kitten. She had not taken two steps when she heard the elder guy, “Okay, okay, they’re yours.”
Rupa took out a five hundred taka note and asked, “Do you have any box I can carry them in?
“No boxes. But we’ll wrap them up for you.”
Wrap up living cats? Rupa waited to see what kind of wrapping they provided.
After about 5 minutes she was staring dumbfounded at the boy holding out the kittens in two brown paper bags. How he got them inside the paper bags so quickly, and without any tearing was a mystery to Rupa.
“Are you mad?” she spluttered. “I am going home in an auto-rickshaw. Those two will tear out of the bags in minutes. Get me at least a net bag or something.”
The boy put the paper bags of cats in a large fluorescent green net bag. Rupa took the bag cursing herself as well as the shopkeepers and hopped on a CNG auto-rickshaw for a hundred taka extra. She should have come the next day with their driver.
Surprisingly, the kittens were quiet in spite of all the noise emitting from the auto-rickshaw and the vehicles in the surrounding streets. Rupa suspected that they were just too weak to protest. After about 10 minutes, however, Rupa heard a rustling sound, and she saw a small orange muzzle tearing from a brown bag. “Baghu,” thought Rupa. “I’ll call him Baghu.” It was a male cat, she had already noted, whereas the black and white one was female. She could be Nishi. Nishi made no sound at all, but Baghu kept on rustling and clawing at the paper bag until half of his body came out. Then he was pushing against the net. “He does have spirit, after all,” thought Rupa. But she certainly did not want him out of his bag right now. So she put the bags and cats all on her lap holding on to them tightly, praying all the while that they didn’t pee on her. And she hoped that she got home without any trouble.
bidi* — a tendu leaf cigarette
deshi* — local
(Published first in Daily Star Literature)
Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.
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