I have cousins and friends who chose not to have children. They prefer dogs. This intrigued me because though I get along fine with dogs, both household pets and ‘Roadesian hounds’ as our joke went, I’ve never had one. But growing up later in Lutyens’s Delhi with green lawns and many trees around the house, we seemed to attract animals of all kinds. Sparrows (now extinct in many Indian metros) always built their nests in our house, mynahs and hoopoes grew almost tame, street dogs religiously chose to have their pups at the bottom of the untidy back garden ruled by our mali, Kale Khan, king of the cabbages. We even found a baby vulture inexplicably abandoned by the big old neem (Vultures have mostly disappeared now across India, whereas we used to see whole kettles of them circling over the Bara Gumbad in Lodi Gardens before they venued on its dome). For some reason, all our animal refugees were given names from the Book of Genesis in the Bible; perhaps it was the enchantment of those strange names or because that’s where it says all sea creatures, birds, and the beasts of the earth were created by God. Bread soaked in milk was sneaked out to feed them, the best idea we could come up with, and many Marie biscuits were crumbled for their sustenance.
That’s when a succession of wild cats chose to adopt us and we did not give them Old Testament names but normal ones, meaning they were Pets, not Refugees. Whiskey was a kitten with weak legs who lurched about drunkenly, Mandarin was a handsome marmalade tom, Cleo was a queenly b&w and then came the Three Little Kittens Who Lost Their Mittens, and were given foolish Tamil names that I can’t even begin to explain. Food for pets was an official expense, including, ayyo, smelly fish scraps from the Khan Market butcher, because now we had assumed Responsibility and the job had to be done properly or not at all.
That’s why I guess I’m a cat person, not a dog person and it’s often earned me the outspoken scorn of dog-lovers, including remarks like, “Only sly people like cats.” A dog’s love is so lavish and loyal and unconditional that I had no argument, except to think wistfully of the sudden, sweet feeling of triumph, of having received some rare reward if a cat suddenly chose to jump on to your lap. It was such an act of trust from a basically wild creature that chose to walk by itself, that was so fastidious in its personal habits and so deeply suspicious of everybody and everything (and yet proverbially curious!) that you felt honoured.
I don’t mean to needlessly provoke sectarian angst, but purely as an exercise in emotional logic (a conundrum?), I’d compare the cat-dog thing to the difference between ‘official’ Shaivism and Vaishnavism. Vaishnavism is like dog-love. It is open, unconditional, happy, extroverted and is micro-managed like in a well-run household. It is somehow ‘worldly’ and ‘domestic’ in its joyousness and emotional extravagance, just as Sri Krisna’s path is niti marga. Images of Vishnu are royally adorned with gold and precious jewelry, there’s an abundance of silk, glitter, flowers, music, dance, fabulous prasad, a sense of great richness and luxury. We even call Sri Krishna ‘Thakur’ (Lord), a feudal, palatial term. Vaishnava festivals, why, even the daily Vaishnava arati, is a grand and gorgeous experience; ritual theatre at its most beautiful, right from the slow, hypnotic waving of silver-mounted peacock feather whisks to the last, tender crooning of “Hari, Hari…” You feel pampered and nourished at a Vaishnava temple and during Vaishnava festivals; your heart overflows with the feasting of all senses.
What does a shivala have to offer in contrast, except its emptiness and austerity? Nobody offers diamond crowns to Shiva, nobody swathes Him in silk or presents Him with pedas. All He wants is a bath and a bel leaf. What’s Shivratri about? Fasting, all-night vigil, introspection. How splendid then that it is Shiv-Parvati who head the First Family of Hinduism; that casteless, homeless, money-less, don’t-care Shiva holds the heart of Devi. In the end, it truly does seem One, doesn’t it, with the choice of individual approach routes? As this bit of Tamil that I can translate, goes: “harium haranum onnu, adhu ariyaadhavan vaayiley mannu.” ‘Hari and Hara are One, and may his mouth be filled with mud that does not know this.’ The disdain of it! Surely a cat-lover came up with that?