Writing fiction about animals is a tricky business. There is the risk of being cutesy. There is the risk of being facilely anthropomorphic. In the latter case, one is in the challenging universe of the fabulist where too much cleverness or heavy-handedness can prove disastrous. Above all, there is the risk of doing what has been done before, and done better - whether by Winnie the Pooh or the Panchatantra. Personally, I'd rather hang around animals than read about them as ciphers in a laboured allegory or see them cartooned into twee-ness. And when I really want to visit a literary bestiary, I'm happy to settle for Paul Gallico's Jennie, a cat with a complex inner life, or CS Lewis' larger feline, Aslan, who, with a flick of his mane, can send a blast of Narnian magic into a mundane world.
Nilanjana Roy's The Hundred Names of Darkness crafts a careful path through this dodgy terrain. This is a sequel to The Wildings, her earlier book. Mara, the orange clairvoyant feline of Nizamuddin, Delhi, is back again. She is an engaging heroine: gifted, but not unflawed. A house cat who is also the shaman of her tribe, she now has to decide whether the psychic journey can be a substitute for the physical one. Can she protect her clan without getting her own paws muddy? Can she enter dreamtime without confronting the night? This is the central conflict of the book, as she struggles to balance her need for love and security with her feral need for freedom and the wilderness.
Mara's terrestrial coming-of-age narrative is paralleled by an aerial one. An adolescent cheel, obstinately earthbound, gradually comes to terms with his winged identity and his real element: the sky.
Around this journey of self-actualization is the more literal journey of migration. The Nizamuddin cats are in grave danger, their food in short supply, their habitats threatened. Deprivation turns them into mass émigrés. In the time-honoured traditions of journey narratives, they have their own dragons to slay: in this case, a guerrilla battalion of bandi of bandicoots led by a megalomaniacal warlord.
It is not an enchanted landscape that Roy offers, but a familiar one, viewed through the lens of an ancient tribe, keen-eyed, sure-footed, immaculately aligned between autonomy and interdependence, territoriality and mutuality. It is a wild world but not a lawless one. On this level, it is a morality tale. It is the dharma of cats to make their peace with the night, the dharma of birds to fly, the dharma of all animals to know their place in the ecosystem. Humans are the ones whose dharma is unfathomable. They can be kind, but can, like bandicoots, turn suddenly violent and imperial. In an amusing section, Mara makes a near-yogic attempt to enter into a telepathic communion with her human co-habitants, but is dismayed by the cacophony she encounters in their heads. A palpable affection and respect for the characters infuses these pages as Roy spins an unapologetic yarn about good guys and bad guys, seasoned with suspense, humour and some fun cameos (the gallant stray Doginder Singh, and the genial relic of the Raj, the peacock Thomas Mor, being chief among them).
And just when one wonders if the puns are growing a trifle indulgent, one arrives at the richer sections. There is the lovely fable about the cat who overcomes her fear of the dark by befriending her unknown Other. There is also the wild mating dance of the cheels, evoked with a fluid writerly grace. In sections like these, the story strikes a fine creative tension between whimsy and folklore. The local turns legendary, Dilli becomes Duniya, and the wilderness swivels suddenly into the world.
(Arundhathi Subramaniam is a poet and a cat lover. She lives in Mumbai.)