Cat People (Simon & Schuster, Rs 499), a recently released collection of essays, photographs and short stories edited by Devapriya Roy, celebrates the most memed creature today: the cat. In this excerpt from a chapter titled ‘Nine Lives’, Aneela Babar shares memories of growing up in Rawalpindi, hearing of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, and getting pregnant despite an interfering kitten. Published with permission from Simon & Schuster:
By Aneela Babar
My husband has arranged to adopt a kitten while I am away in Rawalpindi.
I now live in Melbourne.
Back home, I walk around the kitchen one evening, trying to dodge an extremely active kitten, who darts from under the table to pounce on my toes, as is true to her curriculum vitae. While we have started to share how we are feeling on Facebook these days, we still got our news from the TV and the papers then; and so, I hear about Benazir Bhutto’s assassination from the news channels. It is after an election rally in Rawalpindi.
Twenty-eight years ago her father had been led to the gallows from a jail cell in the same town. There are urban legends of how he would stand in the window, looking out towards the Prime Minister House, until I realise that the raconteur may just be confusing him with a certain Shah Jehan, looking out at the Taj Mahal. The old Pindi jail was brought down one year, all except the lone cell that had housed this former premier—the Pakistan Peoples Party is still hoping to build a memorial.
One summer, I walked around the site and tried photographing it, but the photo studio returned the film-reel saying it had been exposed to light. I am convinced the jail cell is sacred-land and like capturing poltergeists on film, it is impossible to photograph.
Upon hearing of the assassination, I alternate between our shared kitten-care duties and crying for our loss. Ours is a generation that has been scarred by General Zia, and though we had learnt that our dreams for Benazir Bhutto were flawed, the Benazir Bhutto years are as close to Camelot as one can get. And now, between the embers of the bomb blast and the roses on her grave, it seems that these dreams are finally being laid to rest. I am a Bhutto acolyte, yes, but the year before her death saw me critical of her Machiavellian politics.
But this Melbourne morning it seems she is having the last laugh as she becomes immortalized as our slain democrat. In death, she is becoming the elusive Salome of the seven veils of popular imagination, with her obituaries giving tantalizing hints to her real self. From a flighty young woman who consumed paperback romances and sped past us in her yellow MG, searching for the closest Baskin Robbins, she turns into a thorn in the side of a military dictator, a serious foe, indulging in a decade-long struggle to keep her father’s name and political legacy alive.
She is at times the workaholic, campaigning long hours through pregnancies, a diligent politician surviving on four hours’ sleep, and then a much-maligned name with corruption and nepotism cases brought against her and her coterie.
I promptly name the kitten Pesho Bibi. (Pesho is Pushto for Cat. Bibi, or lady, sounded a lot like BB.)
Months later, there is an evening when my husband walks past an abandoned microwave in the kitchen—we have read an article about the perils of microwaved food. The cat now uses it as a vantage point to perch upon and play staring matches with the tabby from next door. I am watching a film on SBS in the living room, waiting for dinner.
The man sets two plates while lounge music plays on a laptop in the kitchen. The cat, from its corner, twitches its ears. So much cordiality and joviality does not bode well. Follow the two, she tells herself.
And so she does, from the kitchen to the living room, curling between legs, wondering why no one is paying attention to the TV any more. The humans are getting moony-eyed, her cat-radar catching signals that soon there might be mischief afoot. Must not let them get out of my cat-sight, must follow the humans.
And so she follows the one who is getting a bottle of fragrant oil, while the other potters around the house putting dishes and glasses away. The humans make their way to the room on the landing; however, she too is quick; right on their non-tails in hot pursuit. No, no! They are closing the door now. Must. Not. Let. Them. Do. That.
The cat can hear one of them whispering inside now, and starts scratching
“Do something, I don’t think Pesho is going to go away.”
My own memories of that evening include looking up from the bed at one point, to the sight of a cat’s paw wedged under the door, furiously trying to wrest it open.
I burst out laughing.
People might say that getting a cat may help anxious couples in getting pregnant. Let us just say I got lucky despite all its efforts to hijack the project.
Motherhood, and being mother to Pesho and the Baby-in-the-Pram, is not easy. There are days when I watch the baby and the cat stretched out on a blanket in the sun and get homesick for Rawalpindi winter afternoons, when the sun is out, but someone will complain, “This is not a good winter sun to sit out in, garmee nahee hai is mey (There is no warmth in it)!”
I coax the cat to come down from the wall, and the baby to release the grass blades in his fist, reminiscing of other winter afternoons like this, when I played with a cat, all the while my heart sinking that the day is ending and there is so much homework to do.
On other days, the leaves turning red in Melbourne bring to mind memories of a cat diving under a canopy of red and purple leaves. And so I live and walk the lanes of a town that is now becoming familiar, even if I miss the streetscape of another. And, before long, my mind starts playing tricks with me—coaxing me that if I follow Pesho’s lead and escape behind the fence, I will emerge into a Rawalpindi afternoon and frequent the streets I crave.
I go back to these mind-games over and over, using the cats I meet as a portal to other streets, other timelines. I speak to these cats in Pushto.
Aneela Babar’s research focuses on the development sector in South and South-East Asia and Australia. Her recent publications include We are all Revolutionaries Here: Militarism, Political Islam and Gender in Pakistan (Sage/Yoda Press) and Texts of War: The Religio-Military Nexus in Pakistan and India (Sage/Asian Institute of Technology).