Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Runaway Feline

Homesickness is a strange emotion. About 2 weeks after returning from a family trip to the US for my younger brother's graduation ceremony, during which we had been suddenly bombarded with questions about marriage, children and our plans for the rest of our lives on an otherwise fine evening, I had the following conversation with him. I thought that both of us were still recuperating from that ambush, but no, apparently, he seemed to want more of the same very soon.

Him: I’m coming to India.
Me: That’s great! In December?
Him: Umm, no, in the first week of August!
Me: Why?
Him: Err, just like that?
Me: Cool. Don’t get the girlfriend along, they’ll probably ensure you go back married.
Him (ignoring my attempts at humour): I want to come to Delhi
Me: Why??
Him: So that I can meet you!
Me: Why in the world would you want to do that?
Him: Because you are my brother?

Now this was a bit much to take. In family gatherings, both my brother and I have the conversational abilities of a rock, so put together, the sum total of conversations across our lifespans would probably not go beyond a couple of hours. Coming all the way to Delhi seemed to make zero sense, given that (a) we had just met a couple of weeks ago, (b) we would meet, ask each other how we were, and spend the rest of the weekend wondering why the wall clock had stopped and whether they allowed you to enter the airport a day before the flight and (c) it was August, and no sensible soul willingly travels to Delhi in that god awful season. Just as I was grudgingly admitting to myself that he was a much nicer soul that I was (actually I had reached that conclusion a long time ago, I had just successfully buried the thought deep in the recesses of my head), I had a eureka moment.

Both my brother and I have a thing for felines. Especially the ones you are allowed to domesticate. This affection had continued to grow as we grew up, denied as we were the pleasures of pet ownership during our formative years by our keep-that-thing-away-from-me dad. This affection continued till the point the then-wifey and I got a kitten named Chikki, which had subsequently grown into a significantly large, albeit loveable cat which systematically marked the whole house with his scent lest any other creature mistook it for his territory. Having moved straight from home to the university dorms, my brother had been deprived of such pleasures, and was quite besotted with Chikki and demanded regular updates as to his latest misadventures. My hunch was that the Delhi trip was actually to meet the cat. Which, to be honest, made a lot of sense. In fact, it made more sense than the purported reason. And I was very happy for him to come over and meet the cat, given how happy it seemed to make him. Excellent, I thought.

Except for one small problem. Chikki, after being a house cat all his life, had come back in not too bad a shape after 2 vanishing acts, the first a month and the second three months long, and was absolutely annoyed at being forced to stay indoors and not go bounding along out of the house when anything cat-like meowed, groaned, howled or shrieked anywhere within earshot, either to go trade a few punches with the silly male who was invading his territory or to mate with a female who seemed to be passing by. Any open door, window or accessible ledge had him exploring ways to escape, much to our frustration. I had sort of made up my mind to let him loose and come and go as he pleased, when my brother announced his decision to come. Now this was a problem. Keeping Chikki in for 3 weeks was going to drive both him and all of us mad, especially with his infernal howling through the night when he really wanted to go out. Letting him go could be problematic if he decided that he was going to take his time in coming back, and especially if he decided to make himself scarce just on the weekend that my brother was here. This was going to a long three weeks.

All seemed to go well for the first 2.5 weeks. The situation was explained to the home mates, who gravely agreed with my assessment of the situation. The maid was duly warned and threatened (not that that makes too much of a difference, she has a mind of her own. Asked not to cook a specific vegetable, she cooks EXACTLY that almost every single time), and seemed to cooperate given that brotherly relations were at stake. Everything was in place, with a day to go for him to arrive.

I came back from work the evening before and opened the door to the terrace. A well-spaced grill, which can let an obese baboon pass through, much less an agile cat, separates the final bit of the terrace from the neighbours balcony. A piece of fibreglass had been tied to this grill to prevent the cat from using this to take off, as there was direct access from there on to the road below. Unknown to me, an afternoon storm had loosened the knots that otherwise kept this sheet firmly flush with the grill, thereby creating a few centimetres of space for a determined feline to explore and exploit. 

Around 11 in the night, I realised that Chikki was missing. A thorough search of the house, including his favourite hiding spots, revealed nothing. In a few minutes, the 3 of us were roaming around calling his name, until we heard a faint meow. More calling from the terrace resulted in a louder meow and a happy, excited looking cat face popping out of one of the square shaped holes in the building’s terrace wall, about 12 feet above our terrace. This was the terrace above the house, and inaccessible to us without a set of keys which the landlord insisted on keeping with himself. Most importantly, this terrace was at the same level and directly connected to all the terraces in the line of buildings in this area. Anybody who has ever lived in Delhi knows that you can easily go from house to house by jumping over the wall separating the terraces, since multiple buildings are physically connected without ANY space in between. Basically, the blasted animal was free to do as he pleased and go anywhere he wanted to. Add to this the fact that he had not been able to go anywhere for the last month and a half due to the house arrest imposed on him, and we had a highly delicate situation at hand.

My first attempt at reaching him consisted of standing on a chair perched on top of a square table, stretching my hands up and calling for him. This, expectedly, had little impact, as he continued to gaze at me through the square hole, with a you-really-think-THAT’S-gonna-work expression on his face. He continued looking around from his newly acquired vantage point, with a vary eye on my movements, lest I did something unexpected and suddenly managed to reach him. The next step comprised of rapidly clearing the dining table, resulting in my room being thrown into utter chaos, and lugging it all the way to the terrace. The square table was put on top of the dining table, and the chair placed on top of that, and I started my precarious ascent to the top of this contraption, with the house mates holding the table and chair in place, while at the same time looking around carefully to figure out which direction to jump at in case I came crashing down and they had to make a clear choice between themselves and me. Standing on top of this thing felt like what those dahi handi breakers must have felt, the ones who are at the very top and break the handi. The fact that your life depends on your friends standing below is slightly unnerving, especially when you know that in case things start going badly, there is a clear incentive for them to get the hell out of the way and come out fairly unscathed, leaving you in a fair bit of bother.

I was finally high enough now to be able to see through the square hole directly, as it was perfectly at eye level. The top of the terrace wall was still about a foot and half above. Having seen my ascent with a lot of interest, Chikki had popped his head back in, and was sitting somewhere behind the wall, out of sight. Calling his name, I inserted my hand through the hole. For a while, nothing happened. Then, a furry paw seemed to come out of nowhere, swiped at my hand and immediately disappeared. I withdrew my hand and waited, and it came again, out of the hole and missed my face by a whisker. Apparently, it was play time. This continued for a while until I realised that I was in a distinctly unfavourable position, and there was no way I could catch him this way.

One of the advantages of having a greedy pet is that any hint of food being offered is usually irresistible. Rattling his food bowl was a common method of getting Chikki out of sticky situations when the reluctant feline refused to oblige and move, or to even find him from his hiding spots. A bowl food of freshly poured cat food was delivered to me, which I rattled around a few centimetres away from the opening. Sure enough, the greedy bugger responded, and thrust his head out, attempting to reach the bowl. Quick as a flash, I grabbed at him, trying to get a hold on the scruff of his neck and yanking him out through the opening. Cats, however, can be notoriously difficult to catch hold of when they don’t want you to, and within a flash, he had wriggled out of my grip and disappeared. A few moments later, I saw him sitting about 5 feet away from the opening, on the terrace floor, having decided to withdraw from the scene of the battle, with a very wary, how-could-you-stoop-to-that look on his face. Round 3 had also gone Chikki’s way.

It was about 11.30 in the night now, and I was fast getting weary of this expedition. I told Gayatri and Bhale that I was going to climb into the terrace, as I could reach the top of the wall and pull myself up and catch hold of the offending feline. I had no idea as to how I was going to climb back down, but at least we’d have the cat, which was probably the preferred option given the situation. Dismissing their protests, I put my hands up and pulled myself, expecting to quickly climb over the ledge and into the terrace.

The next thing I remember was being covered head to toe in construction debris, with the ghastly stuff finding its way into my nose, mouth and ears. Gayatri and Bhale ran for cover, leaving me precariously perched on top of the contraption, barely able to stand steadily. Dire threats and some choicest cuss words later, they were back, warily holding the table while ready to take flight in an instant if things worsened. Looking up at the wall revealed that the top had completely crumbled off, leading to calls for abandoning the mission.

‘Come down, yaar. That looks bad.’
‘Hmm. I think the loose stuff at the top has already come off, now I can climb up. See, I’ll prove it to you.’

I thumped the wall to prove its solidity, and the whole thing shook like a bedsheet in a mid-summer thunderstorm, sending more debris onto me and a plume of concrete dust in the air. Chikki continued to watch the proceedings with a dispassionate gaze. I climbed down with a bit of alacrity, convinced that the whole thing might collapse on me at any point in time.

After dusting off some of the debris on me, I refocused on the larger problem at hand.

‘Ok, we need to get the keys to the terrace’, I said, calculating that the brother’s flight would land in precisely 8 hours from now.
‘Umm, it’s midnight, and you look a bit terrifying at the moment’, Gayatri pointed out.
‘Stuff that’, I said and dived into the bathroom for a quick shower and scrub.

About ten minutes later, I was standing at the landlord’s door, the building across the street, having rung the bell and hoping that he didn’t flip out. About a minute or later, he emerged, looking (obviously) very sleepy. For a moment, I felt bad for waking up the old fella so late, but then what had to be done had to be done.

‘Umm, can I get the terrace keys?
‘Now? Why?’
‘Err, my cat has somehow managed to get there and I need to get him down before he runs away and gets lost.’
‘Your cat?’
‘Yes, my cat. I need to get him down.'
‘Ok, sure. Just keep the keys, you can return them tomorrow’, convinced that I’d turn up half an hour later otherwise.

The terrace was thus opened, and Chikki decided to prolong the game for a few minutes more, by sitting under the water tanks, as far as possible from any probing hand. The whole thing ended after an exasperated Bhale crawled underneath and dragged the reluctant feline out by the scruff of his neck. Mission successful!

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