The cat lady of Cumballa Hill

Updated: Dec 08, 2014, 10:21 IST | Malavika Sangghvi |

The posh locality, known for its elite residents and their Lamborghinis, has one other precious gem hidden it its bylanes. Malavika Sangghvi meets a middle-aged woman who travels from Ambernath and feeds the locality’s stray cats, every day

Following an ancient wisdom, the rich in Mumbai have settled on its hills; of these there are three: Malabar, Cumballa and Pali, the rule of thumb being that the seat of governance, the city’s old money, and its film aristocracy, more or less divide themselves in that order, amongst these three hillocks, from where they observe the city, with patrician ease.

Gayatri Lagade at Carmichael Road with one of her beloved cats. Pic/Bipin Kokate
Gayatri Lagade at Carmichael Road with one of her beloved cats. Pic/Bipin Kokate

And it is Cumballa Hill, with its roads Carmichael and Altamount (these names have long been changed to more patriotic nomenclature, but not to much avail) where you would probably find the highest concentration of the city’s billionaires.

This is where Mukesh Ambani (India’s richest man) has built his legendary two billion dollar home, the fabulous Antilia.

Not even a stone’s throw away, further down the same road is where Kumaramanglam Birla, (eight on the Forbe’s rich list) lives.

And scattered around these two pivots of stratospheric wealth, in concentric circles, lie the homes of the city’s top bankers, judges, diplomats and other aristocracy.

To give you an idea of the kind of wealth contained on this relatively unprepossessing narrow ribbon at one of the city’s highest point, you must believe me when I tell you that only a month ago, a young boy, not even 20, bought himself a Lamborghini as a coming of age gift.

The story I’m going to tell you is set on these roads. Except, it is about another kind of wealth.

But let me begin.

About six months ago, returning from a dinner at a friend’s home on a side lane of Carmichael Road, I had to walk a short distance up the street, to where my car had been parked.

Because it was deserted and dimly lit and I was alone at that late hour, I quickened my step to get to the car, as soon as I could.

It’s a safe enough neighbourhood of course, flanked by a ministerial bungalow and the official residences of not only the Governor of India’s Reserve Bank, but also the city’s Municipal Commisioner, but I was happy when I reached my car, and was about to open the door, when suddenly, I experienced a flurry of movement and a scrimmage of panicked sounds from under my vehicle.

My knees gave way, my heart leapt and I was about to scream, when I saw her.

A shadowy figure, in the dark recesses behind my car, bent over a newspaper.

A somewhat ragged middle-aged lady, feeding cats.

I’d come up on her silently and obviously surprised her in the act.

Approximately 20 cats had been lapping up the morsels of fish and rice laid out on the newspaper behind my car.

“What the ...?” I said. She staggered to straighten up. Slight. Dark. Bespectacled. A little worn from wear.

I apologised for startling her. I enquired what she was doing.

“I feed these cats every day,” she said to me.

Every day?

“Yes,” she said. “I work as a maid nearby. And before going home, I feed these cats.”

Where’s home? I asked.

“Very far away,” she said.

How long does it take you to come here? I asked.

“More than four hours back and forth.”

You come every day?

“Yes,” she said. “They’d go hungry if I didn’t.”

It occurred to me that she might be crazy.

It occurred to me that I was in the presence of something quite extraordinary.

I could have asked her for more details. I should have stayed longer and chatted.

But it was late. I was alone. My key was in the ignition. I turned it and drove home.

And so, as we often do, I closed the door on one more insight in to the human heart and one more secret of a neighbourhood already bristling with many. I went to bed.

But not before Googling Ambernath that night. That’s where she said she came from.

‘Ambernath is a city in Maharashtra, India, part of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. It has become one of the fastest growing suburbs on the Mumbai-Pune route. The name Ambernath literally means Lord of the sky…’

It didn’t say how far it was from Cumballa Hill.

On the map it didn’t even look like it was in Mumbai!

Ah well, I said. Now I’ll never know the story

Cut to this weekend.

Same friend. Same road. Same hill. Except now, it’s 8.30 pm and I’m arriving for dinner. I get out of my car. And there she is: the cat lady! I recognise her at once. She’s hurrying towards the same spot.

In her hand there’s a newspaper, bursting with fragrant fish curry and rice.

Hey, it’s you I say.

She smiles.

Back again feeding the cats?

“Yes,” she smiles.

What’s your name, I ask

“Gayatri Lagade,” she says.

Any reason why these cats in particular? I ask.

“I used to work as a maid in one of these buildings,” she says pointing upwards. “Got attached to these cats. Used to feed them daily. Saw no reason to stop after I shifted jobs.”

You come every day?

“Yes. Every day”

You feed the cats from your own income?

“Yes,” she says.

What do you give them?

“Fish, chicken, rice and chappattis. I prepare it at home in the morning and bring it when I come to work at Peddar Road each day.”

From your own income?

Yes, she says. From my own income.

How much does it come to monthly?

“I don’t count,” she says. “Whatever it takes.”

She tells me how much she earns and calculating how much she pays for the cat food and her rent (R1000), I realise she gets a pittance to live on, leave alone save.

In the lift while going up I try and test her story. I ask the liftman, if he knows the cat lady.

Yes, he says

How long has she been coming here to feed the cats? I ask.

“As long as I can remember,” he says. “She used to work in this building, lost that job, moved elsewhere, but continues to come every evening with food.”

After the dinner, (where I’m asked why I’m so unusually quiet), I ask the night watchman on my way out of the building, if the cat lady is around.

“She’s left,” he says

Fed the cats?

“Yes, fed all the cats.”

Comes every day?

“Yes every day. Used to work in this building as a maid, began feeding a three legged dog, then other strays joined and she got attached to the cats, lost the job, but still comes back to feed them. Lives alone in a rented hovel very far away.”

He shrugs. I don’t know what to say, so I shrug too.

It’s a lonely walk again to where my car’s been parked. When I reach it, I peer under its chassis. Sure enough, the heady aroma and left over morsels are the evidence of a recently consumed delicious meal. A veritable cat feast, served à la carte on Mumbai’s most expensive piece of real estate, right under the stars. A feast far richer, incalculably more sumptuous and infinitely more lavish I am certain than ever enjoyed by any of the street’s famous residents, who regularly dine at Michelin three- starred restaurants around
the world.

Because, for a meal like this, even a sky full of a million stars is not enough!

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