Walk on the wild side

Walk on the wild side

‘The Wildings’ is not just a story about cats. Dig further to find its layered, visceral complexity; this book explores what happens when want becomes bigger than need, writes Payal Dhar

Once upon a time — when I hadn’t yet seen too many seasons turn, as the stray cats of Nizamuddin would say — I read a most memorable novel where a young pup introduces herself to her housemate, a kitten, saying: “I’m a puppy dog. Are you a puppy cat?” I was only eight and the book, Enid Blyton’s Bimbo and Topsy, bowled me over. Needless to say, it was a very long time ago, and I’d given up hope of enjoying a story about animals so much again. But things change.

Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildings takes a few pages to really get going, but when you find yourself with the redoubtable feline hunting queen Beraal “trapped in a house, at the mercy of two Bigfeet and a kitten she had tried and failed to kill,” you know you’re in good company. Roy is no stranger in journalistic and literary circles, but her fictional debut makes you wonder if she’s missed her vocation. She should have been a cat!

The Wildings is set in the congested but historically significant colony of Nizamuddin in Delhi. Apart from the maze of lanes and alleys that form a residential concrete jungle, the area is famous for the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya. But we are concerned not with the boxy warrens the Bigfeet call home, the noisy metallic contraptions they travel about in, or the peculiar whims and customs they live by. No, the story takes us to the rooftops and trees, the ancient monuments and abandoned construction sites, home to a small pack of feline wildings that claim the territory as theirs.

The cats live in happy symbiosis with the clans that claim the dargah area, the market, the canal and so on, and in a moody truce with the dogs, cheels and other local fauna. Then, one day, a little orange kitten comes along and disrupts their idyll. Mara is an ‘inside’ kitty: she has a comfortable home, complete with on-demand food and attention, toys to play with and her own Bigfeet at beck and call. Unbeknownst to her, though, she also has extraordinary powers...powers that neither she nor the neighbourhood wildings can ignore. And even though she steadfastly refuses to step out of her comfort zone and come outside, when an army of ferals is let loose from the dreaded Shuttered House, the fate of Nizamuddin’s wildings might well lie in her whiskers.

The imaginative storyline is married seamlessly with an easy, lucid narration. Coming at a time when Indian writing in English wanders perilously close to the pretentious, The Wildings is a — pardon the cliche — breath of fresh air. The names of the cats and other animals form an interesting aside: Hulo and Beraal (‘tom’ and ‘cat’ in Bengali); Qawwali and Dastan from the dargah; Abol and Tabol, the canal cats; Jethro Tail, the mouse; Tooth and Claw, the kites; and so many more. The book is also delightfully illustrated by Prabha Mallya.

But The Wildings is not just a story about cats — or rather, it can be ‘just a story about cats’ if you let it be, but dig further and there is a layered, visceral complexity. It is not just the vibrant, interlinked world of animals and birds that we humans are probably in reality completely oblivious to, but there are some distressing questions raised about our own civilisation. Though the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker posits that we are living in the most peaceful era of human history, we are also living in times when greed and a disregard for the bigger picture is rampant. The Wildings explores what happens when want becomes bigger than need.

If there is one thing the book left me uncomfortable with was the disjunct between ‘humanising’ the animals, their relationships, motivations and interactions — as we are wont to do anyway — and the question of how instinct is overarching and trumps intent.
For instance, Mara is constantly told how her instincts as a hunter are bound to come forth — and that it can’t be fought against. Which is all very well, but a little out of place in a story where a deer wishes to “raise a family with its mate,” since deer don’t mate for life, and the way that the tiger Ozzy mourns for his cubs, but his mate Rani doesn’t show her pain and is worried about how to handle Ozzy, has distressing similarities to Bigfeet gender politics! And I might be dancing dangerously close to the borders of Nitpick Land with this, but there are also a few minor ‘continuity errors’, such as the point-of-view character abruptly changing a couple of times and a sofa mysteriously transforming into a bed.

Overall, The Wildings is a book that any animal lover will immediately feel a kindred connection to — certainly, the cat lover’s library is incomplete without it. It is an original, ingenious tale and an engaging read from someone who “spent most of her adult life writing about humans before realising that animals were much more fun.” She was right.

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