By Sohana Manzoor
“O my poor Putli, why did I let you go out? O Allah, why did you take my Putli away?” Rupa heard Kohinur’s ma wailing as soon as she entered home. She sighed. Everyone in the house had been down since Putli disappeared about ten days earlier. Then three days ago, one of the guards of their apartment complex brought the news that he had seen Putli’s remains near the Niketan bazaar. Of course, nobody could be completely sure that it was Putli because the body had been lying there for some days and had partially decomposed. All they were certain of was that a black and white cat that looked like Putli had been killed. Rupa wanted to go herself but, in the end, could not bear the thought of seeing the rotten corpse of their cuddly family member. But since then their old maid, who took care of the cat, had been absolutely inconsolable.
Today Rupa could not take it any longer. She felt it was high time to find another cat, preferably a kitten; their house felt empty and desolate. Putli was an adorably frisky cat, about two years old. It was really fun to observe him jumping and playing with imaginary friends, raising his tail erect, or clawing at his own image glaring back from the mirror. Only recently he had started going out and was courting a cute white cat that Rupa had often seen reclining on the corrugated tin roof top of a nearby garage. He even had a fight with a street cat over his sweetheart. He had disappeared once before, but had come back after three days. This time probably he had ventured too far away from home and met his end.
It was summer; the schools were closed and Rupa’s two younger siblings were sulking in the house all day. Rupa studied at a private university and soon the semester would be over, and she resented the thought of residing in a house without any feline presence. There was always a cat in their home as far as she could remember. Even their father, who was a businessman and was busy all the time, seemed to have noticed Putli’s absence. Only yesterday Rupa had heard him saying, “That sofa by the window was Putli’s favorite spot; I can’t believe he’s gone.”
Rupa’s younger brother Yen had been trying to allure a neighborhood cat. Rupa did not like the looks of the cat he was inviting in though — looked more like a hobgoblin, greedy and sneaky with shrewd yellow eyes. She had occasionally seen it lurking in the back alley. It took the half-eaten drumstick that Yen had placed on the pavement, and ran behind a small pile of rubble. Rupa was certain that it would cause nothing but trouble. Besides, Kohinur’s ma hated any human or animal sneaking into her domain—the kitchen. She would surely wrinkle her nose and comment, “Couldn’t you get anything better than that susa bilai?” But then nor could Rupa approve of the white fluffy cat Lira was nagging about the other day. She had seen one in the movie Stuart Little, and wanted a cat like Snowbell. Now that was a Persian cat and Rupa certainly did not want their entire family rolling in a bed of hair. She would rather have a deshi regular cat than one of those overrated foreign ones.
The ornate clock in the dining room chimed 3 in the afternoon. If she started right away, she might get to Katabon and even return before evening. She was not very sure what kinds of kittens were available at the pet shops there, but it would not hurt to take a look. She grabbed a quick snack, filled her water-bottle and got out of the house. Her mother was taking a midday nap, and hence Rupa did not disturb her. But she knew her ma would not mind even if she brought in an entire brood of fluff balls. They were a family of cat lovers. Sifat, her best friend, often joked that they were surely Egyptians in some other life.
Rupa looked at the elevator which seemed to be stuck at the 6th floor. So, she took the stairs. On her way down, she saw the helping-hand from the fourth floor. The boy stared at her and as always Rupa found his look disconcerting. She had often wondered if the boy was mentally sound. She had never heard him speak, and on several occasions heard him wailing incomprehensibly in the stairwell until someone dragged him home. She noticed that he had a shopping bag in hand from where greens and the top of a gourd were peeping out. Obviously, he spoke, reasoned Rupa, otherwise how could he buy those?
Rupa’s way to the Katabon was uneventful other than occasional stops at the traffic lights. After paying the fare she started walking past the pet shops. The first one had birds and fish and aquariums of different sizes. After three shops she found one sporting caged dogs. But there were no cats.
At the next shop, 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. 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.
“One thousand taka, apa. It’s pure breed.”
“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 only 1000! 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 two five-hundred-taka notes 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.
Surprisingly, the kittens were quiet in spite of the loud 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. “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.
“What do you have in there, apa?” a child’s voice asked, and Rupa realized that the CNG had stopped at a traffic signal. Several curious street urchins with flowers, lemons, water bottles and other knickknacks were peering inside her auto-rickshaw. By now Nishi had also started pushing forward and mewing piteously. And the hawkers were obviously drawn by the sounds made by the kittens, and the commotion in the bags.
Rupa sighed and replied, “Don’t bother. Just go your way.”
But their numbers increased. “O my, you’ve got cats!” observed a flower girl with a merry laugh.
“No, no, those are kittens,“ said one boy of about seven or eight. He was selling mineral water. Two of his front teeth were missing. “How many do you have?”
“Two,” Rupa tried to maintain her gravity. “Now, GO!” her voice rose two octaves.
The children moved back a few steps only to get closer again. They were all grinning. “Look, look, there’s a red kitty.” “And a black and white one too!” “That one looks like Harun’s kitten!” Rupa could hear all kinds of comments.
Another CNG driver who had stopped right next to Rupa’s auto rickshaw, looked at her driver and asked, “What’s going on?”
“Young girl—taking two friends home. Only they have fur, tails, and they meow,” replied the CNG driver with a straight face.
Rupa went beet red. As the red signal turned green, she heaved a sigh of relief. As soon as the CNG started moving both Baghu and Nishi quieted down. Baghu started to nuzzle her, while Nishi looked up at her with dark hazel eyes. Her coloring reminded Rupa of Putli, her main reason for getting her. Nishi seemed much more docile though. Rupa suddenly felt very protective of the two kittens, and at the same time she could not help wondering why she did not feel the same way about human children. Why was it she had this urge to take home every kitten she saw in the streets? Then she amended that not every kitten perhaps but the cute ones surely. But those street children could be cute too. She remembered the ones that were commenting over her cats, particularly, the boy with the missing front teeth and another little girl with pig tails. How come she never felt like taking them home, wondered Rupa uneasily. She wondered about the boy who lived upstairs, the one she suspected was mentally disabled. Would her parents be equally welcoming to these children as they were to the cats?
“Apa, which road?” Rupa realised they had reached Niketan. She directed the driver to road no 10. Their apartment was on the second floor. The old caretaker, Abu bhai looked at the bundle in her hand, two small heads, one orange, and one black and white peeping out. He grinned, “You’ve got kittens, apa. That’s so wonderful.”
Rupa nodded and smiled.
And then Abu bhai said, “Something unfortunate has happened, apa. The crazy boy from the fourth floor fell down the stairs.”
“What crazy boy?” gasped Rupa. “Not that servant-boy they call Khokon, or Rokon?”
“Rokon. That very one,” replied Abu bhai.
Abu bhai said, “A maid from another flat had gone out to buy her paan. And then when she came back, the boy was lying sprawled and motionless on one of the landings. Apparently, he fell down, and he has been taken to the hospital.”
Rupa remembered the greens and the gourd peeping out from the bag in the boy’s hand.
“Pets are replaceable, human beings are not,” she mused as she got on the elevator. She wondered if Rokon had parents. What parents could send such a boy work for other people?
“Where’s everybody?” Rupa shouted. “We have cats in the house!”
Yen came running, followed by Lira. Kohinur’s ma, who had opened the door, stood by with a smile on her face.
“They’re so small… and dirty!” commented Yen.
“But they’re cute!” cooed Lira.
“They need a shower and food,” observed their mother who had also joined them. “Kohinur’s ma, why don’t you take them to the kitchen and feed something? Give them a thorough bath tomorrow morning. They probably have lice on them.”
Rupa turned to her mother and asked, “Amma, did you hear about the servant-boy who fell down the stairs?”
Her mother looked surprised, “No. There was some commotion in the stairwell, but I didn’t realise that’s what happened.”
A few hours later the two newly acquired members of their family were playing on the living room carpet. They had licked themselves clean. Nishi was a bit shy and was sitting demurely on her haunches, but Baghu had already started scampering around. He was also a little bigger and probably older than Nishi. Everybody had approved of the names. Lira clapped her hands and laughed gleefully as Baghu did a summersault. Baghu looked up at Lira and did it again, and everybody laughed.
“He’s clever, isn’t he?” Kohinur’s ma observed.
“He actually understood that I liked his summersault!” Lira’s eyes went round. “Wow! Baghu, you’re amazing!” She picked the tabby up and kissed the top of his head and Baghu clung to her with all his four paws. Her mother shrieked, “Eeks! Don’t kiss them just yet! Let them have a shower tomorrow morning and you can do what you want.”
“But they are clean,” protested Lira.
“Not yet,“ Rupa shook her head. “And don’t carry them to bed with you tonight,” she warned. “You can snuggle with them after they have visited the vet’s office.”
At night Kohinur’s ma produced an old basket with rags of clothes for the two kittens to sleep in. Rupa recognised the basket that had belonged to Sisu, another cat they had lost years ago. She smiled as she said, “Something tells me that in a few days they will be sharing beds with Lira and Yen.”
Lira whooped and nodded vigorously while Yen displayed a huge toothless grin. Rupa again remembered the boy from the fourth floor. And the boy she had seen on the street, with his missing front teeth.
She brushed her teeth, changed into a loose T-shirt and pyjamas and went to bed. She dreamt of a gorgeous green meadow where children played and laughed, and they were all naked as the first day they were born. Rupa saw Yen and Lira and the street urchins along with Rokon. They all looked the same: clean and happy. Rupa heaved a sigh of contentment. Dreamland was perhaps the only place where her siblings could play with the likes of Rokon and the street-children without raising eyebrows and derision from any quarter.
Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor at the Department of English and Humanities at ULAB. Currently, she is also a Deputy Editor of The Daily Star, a leading newspaper in Bangladesh.
 Gluttonous kitty
 Elder sister
 Brother – a polite way of addressing helpers
 Betel leaf
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