After close to two decades of brandishing her metaphorical claws on authors, literary critic Nilanjana Roy has decided to get her hands dirty with The Wildings, her first novel about a clan of cats who walk the alleys of Nizamuddin. At Amici, the Italian eatery in Khan Market, over Blue Mushroom pizza and Caffé Mocha, she insisted there was a lot human beings could learn from cats. Excerpts from the interview:
In predator parlance, what took you so long to draw first blood with fiction?
It was because I never saw myself as a writer. As far as I was concerned the job description in my head – whether I was in publishing or journalism – was of somebody who read books and got paid for it. I thought it was the biggest scam ever. In my early 30s, two things happened. One was the tyranny of freelance life. When you are producing column after column on a treadmill, there is no time to think about your own work. The other was that I didn’t feel I had that much to write about. I wrote a small story that was absolutely dire about this family in Kolkata and it was so very stiff and talcum-powdered. When I was 33, I began the chronicles of a cat for my nephew. I was very good at putting my writing away and not looking at it.
Why’ve you chosen a first novel with just animals as protagonists?
They were so much more interesting than humans, they really were. Most of the research was done walking around Delhi and Bombay and other cities. Initially, when I spent time watching the cats and the cheels and the dogs, I thought their worlds were totally separated – the cheels had the skies, the cats had their own world, the dogs had the parks. At some point I realised that they strongly intersect and how humans are fairly irrelevant to their world.
How and where did you develop your affinity for felines and books?
I grew up in Delhi and Kolkata. My father was a government servant. There were books in the house always. We sometimes had to water the dal, but I don’t think there was a problem with the fiction. After marriage (to market analyst Devangshu Datta), we’ve been a two or three cat household. Now we have Tigrath and Bathsheba. Bathsheba arrived in a bucket and desperately needed a bath. She arrived after having a fight with a puddle which she clearly lost.
Books featuring animals are often allegorical. What was your metaphor?
The Internet was a useful metaphor to explain something instinctive to cats. I’ve called it a status update. It came out from an actual moment when I was working at home on a column ignoring my cats. I had a strong sense I was being watched with some intensity by Tigrath, the large tomcat, sitting in a corner with his whiskers stretched out at me. Mara, the neat little cat, was sitting in another. They were looking at each other with an expression that said: ‘She’s dumb’. They were trying to be kind and include me in the conversation. I felt them say: ‘Humans are slightly disabled in this area.’ In the book, there’s this bit about a kitten afraid of the outside since there’s a sensory overdose. You can extrapolate it on anybody who has a fear of doing anything.
What can humans learn from cats?
Cooperation and tenderness for one. Certainly the concept of how to be a good predator, which humans aren’t. A lot of the book was also written against the background of censorship and free speech controversy. Cats stay in a restricted world where they are at the mercy of the kindness of humans that can be withdrawn. The way we treat animals is very much the way we treat anyone disenfranchised. I look at that and look at Delhi’s gated communities and ask what do we want to exclude? People who are poor, people who don’t belong, people who are different from us, and animals.
You are planning a trilogy. In the season of sequels – The Dark Knight Rises, Gangs of Wasseypur 2 – was it a decision driven by marketing?
I am so happy to be compared to Gangs of Wasseypur (laughs). My publisher David (Davidar of Aleph Book Company) said I had put two books into one and that I had to separate them. About the trilogy, I don’t know whether it will go that far. It is up to the people to pick up another story about cats.
* T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats has such memorable characters as Rum Tum Tugger, Skimbleshanks and Rumpleteazer, the really bad cat. And who can forgetMacavity, the cat that could levitate
* Gray-Malkin was the witches’ cat in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth
* The Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland had a maverick, philosophical outlook towards the world
* PG Wodehouse once wrote: "The trouble with cats is that they’ve got no tact."
From HT Brunch, August 19
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