Nine lives and other cat tales

How did the idea for this story emerge?
It took shape over a period of time. Part of it was fiction. For 15 years, I was content being in journalism. I took a long time to give myself permission to write a cat book. There was a real Miao (who plays the clan elder in the book) in my life. About 16 years ago, we acquired a cat and called her Mara — we rescued it from its unfriendly surroundings, courtesy a drainpipe and stray dogs. She was the size of one’s palm, but a little terrorist! To think of it, Mara was torturing the dogs, and so when my cousin called to inform about this kitten, it was as much to rescue her as it was to rescue the dogs!

The early intent of this book emanates from when you meet someone — be it human or animal, and whether it shifts your perspective towards life. Mara had that impact. We’ve always had our fair share of ‘almost’ companions, and kept trying to adopt cats at home but had to give up the idea because we had an asthmatic relative.

In 2003, after having begun work on the structure of a cat-inspired book, I abandoned it only to return to it in 2007, where I began to tackle it from the point of view of Miao and Southpaw (the curious kitten in The Wildings). Again, in my usual flair, I abandoned it, after my Mara died of diabetes. In 2009, my husband and I acquired another kitten Tiglath, who desperately needed another kitten for company. She was something else — she was very good at using computers and loved my MacBook! Every morning I would wake up to cryptic messages. Next, we came across our third kitten Bathsheba. Together these two helped us tide over our grief of Mara’s demise. The new energy from these kittens helped take this story forward.

How did you decide on the neighbourhood and the book’s feline characters?
Originally, the story was to be set in Sujan Singh Park — it’s the perfect place for stray cats. No matter what I did, the old Delhi neighbourhood of Nizamuddin seemed to come into the framework. It’s a fascinating area — a mix of medieval and modern, which sums up Delhi. It has an affinity for strays of all kinds as it comes across as an oddly comforting place. Technically, it is a gated community but that logic never seemed to have worked here. In fact, its vibe as well as its inhabitants seems opposed to the whole idea. There is a great deal of co-existence and a sense of space where man and animal seem at ease with each other’s presence.

Prabha Mallya’s illustrations captured the essence of the cats who resided in Delhi’s Nizamuddin neighbourhood. It was slightly dark and not child-like as seen in children’s novels

Was it always meant to be set in an urban landscape?
I never thought of it until now. Being my debut, I was tempted to try a narrow canvas. I was also looking to include cats from other places like Sikkim, Goa and Bengal — where I have had cat experiences. There was something about the book that lent itself to an urban set up. It was reflected from the fascination I felt while watching Mara. We tend to treat strays and vulnerable people in the same manner. Both are powerless, have no voice and become invisible in a city. There is a tendency to perceive both as a nuisance.

The illustrations echo the tone of the story and its important moments. How did you and Prabha Mallya work in sync to do justice? Why wasn’t it made into a graphic novel?
I am glad you brought this up. Even before taking it to the publisher, I felt that the story was filled with visuals. I dropped the idea of a graphic novel because it would mean so much more effort. So, when David Davidar suggested that we illustrate some sections of the book, I was thrilled. I was lucky to have Prabha Mallya as the illustrator. The head of design at Aleph, Bena Sareen went on a gut feel and suggested her name. Bena got it right, and Prabha’s work throughout came across as layered and extremely textured. When the first batch came in, I told myself — this was it. Her sketches went with flow. The book was more like a collaboration. With such titles, it either clicks, or it doesn’t. Prabha was quick to get the brief right. I liked the fact that the book was half way there, in between a novel and a graphic novel.

Are Indian readers ready for animal-centric, full-length novels?
Good question. You could argue that we have had a legacy of visual stories dating back to the Mahabharata and the Panchatantra that were a genuflection of the natural world. Later, we have had writers like Ruskin Bond and Jim Corbett. Their writing came close to a connect with the organic world, natural surroundings. I grew up against such settings, be it in Chanakyapuri, where jackals would be spotted or in Kolkata, which was was filled with bird life. I longed for this sort of urban-animal connect when I lived in Europe.

Were humans never supposed to be main players in The Wildings?
The humans edited themselves out! While they had a bigger role in my earlier drafts, I discarded it from the final plot. Since it was an animal book, their perspective takes over. I attempted to piece together how an animal would think — it was my biggest challenge. I was clear that I didn’t want to compromise on how cats would behave and emote.  

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