Cities Full of Cats

A short story by Sayantan Ghosh

Recorded in lockdown for Ambit 241

When Karno was fourteen, his parents mutually decided that they should separate. But they didn’t know how to break the news to young Karno. He would obviously have a breakdown; feel shattered and even betrayed at the thought. So they did what most Bengalis do when they are in a fix and can’t reach a decision. They booked a room in a hotel in the Darjeeling hills in North Bengal and drove down to spend the weekend there. Darjeeling also used to be Karno’s favourite and the plan was to let him savour the experience of spending a couple of days there with both his parents by his side and disclose the truth to him only on the morning of the day of their return.

Karno remained in the backseat throughout their journey. Usually he was used to taking his Walkman and a bunch of English rock cassettes with him whenever they drove out of town. His mother liked listening to Jagjit Singh’s ghazals and his father liked old Bengali film songs. There was enough conflict as it was, and he didn’t wish to impose Jim Morrison or David Bowie on them on top of that. Instead he would just plug in his earphones and cut himself off from the world. Only his eyes would capture the sun shifting positions outside their Maruti’s window and the miles and miles of yellow farmland passing by.

Once in a while he could see a man walking beside a water buffalo tilling his land; huts would appear occasionally. The music blasting in Karno’s ears, him turning the volume up each time he could see his parents’ mouths move, fists clench, and their brows turning into sea waves, anticipating war, them forgetting that he was right there only an arm’s length away from them, visible in the rear-view mirror.
   Ground Control to Major Tom
   Ground Control to Major Tom
   Take your protein pills and put your helmet on

He wanted to call out to Major Tom but he knew Tom couldn’t hear him. It pained him to think that his capsule was floating farther and farther away in outer space, far above the moon somewhere. Until Karno realized that he was the one sitting in a tin can, his was the voice which no one could hear. Then Karno became numb for some time.

The weekend passed quietly. Karno refused to go sightseeing and spent most of his time at the Oxford Bookstore on Mall Road. He bought Che Guevara’s memoir The Motorcycle Diaries on the day they arrived and finished reading it in the next two days. Naturally there wasn’t much talking that happened between parents and child. He was mostly found sitting on a green bench next to a railing overlooking the hills on Mall Road and on one of the afternoons fell asleep on it, turning the paperback into a pillow. Until he was woken up by the sudden chill that often surrounds mountain towns as the sun begins to go down.

In a way he had become used to hearing his parents bicker continuously. Sometimes he felt they looked for reasons to be unpleasant around each other. It was like a shared illness they were suffering from – a case of folie à deux, a condition they had simultaneously developed perhaps by watching one another. Hundreds of refugee children in Sweden had reportedly fallen into coma-like states in the past few years when they were informed that their families would be deported. Not every ailment necessarily has a biological cause. The only thing they didn’t blame each other for was the weather. They were similar when it came to rain. They both hated it. Plans were cancelled when it rained and they had to stay indoors, inside the same house where the other was. Theirs was a small house then – this was before his father’s business had taken off. One bedroom, one living room, one kitchen, one bathroom, and the refuge of a balcony overlooking a lane which used to get flooded during the monsoon months.

They both hated monsoon equally. Except the day when Karno was born; it rained heavily all over Calcutta on that day too. But he was told how exhilarated and optimistic they both had looked that day – his 22-year-old mother and 27-year-old ambitious father, Mala and Ashim. Karno had no memories of that day of course, but from the stories he had gathered, told by his grandparents, friends of his parents and neighbours, he had managed to piece together a picture in his mind. A picture of them sitting on that hospital bed, his mother in an overused hospital gown and his father in a worn-out maroon T-shirt which Karno had seen him wearing in some old photographs, holding Karno in their arms, together. Their four hands indistinguishable, dissolving into one whole, as if no one who saw them that day would have been able to guess where one’s arm ended and the other’s began. And at the centre of them was Karno, the final vertex of their triangle which was meant to make them complete as a unit. If only it hadn’t rained so much that day.

When Karno woke up on the morning they were going to leave Darjeeling, he saw the room they were staying in was empty. There was a note on the bedside table in his father’s handwriting which said, ‘Get ready quickly, see us on the lawn, have ordered coffee and sandwiches for you.’ It was no mystery to Karno that the conversation which was to follow would be an uncomfortable one. When parents say they know their children better than anybody else, they often forget that their children know them equally well. And in some cases, like Karno’s, even better.

Karno took a bath as instructed, wore his favourite white shirt with little brown foxes in various moods printed on it, and stepped out of the room. His heart was ready for a storm. All he wished was for his face not to betray him – he hated it when others knew how he was feeling just by looking at his face.

His father who never minced words, began with the punchline, ‘Your mother and I are getting a divorce.’

Karno took a sip of his coffee which had already gone cold, and looked around quizzically to see if any of the waiters was bringing his sandwiches to him. Mountains make some people hungrier. Perhaps at high altitudes, where oxygen levels are low, one learns to fill the empty spaces in the lung with morsels of food. No such cure for the heart though.

‘Don’t you have anything to say?’ he asked Karno.
‘I do,’ said Karno. ‘Since the sandwiches are not here yet, can I have a
croissant instead?’

His parents looked at each other in shock and awe. What is wrong with this kid? was written all over their pale faces — exhausted from having not yelled at each other in forty-eight hours.

‘Did you even hear what your father just told you?’ said his mother.
‘I did,’ Karno said calmly.
‘AND YOU WANT A CROISSANT?’ said his mother, not able to keep her
voice down any longer.

Karno took a deep sigh and said, ‘Will my having a sandwich make you change your mind? Because then I will. Then I will have a sandwich all the remaining days of my life ma, every morning, without fail.’

His parents kept looking at him with disbelief, now overpowered by a sudden sense of shame at having raised a boy like Karno who seemed to care so little, and who went on, ‘But you have made up your minds about not staying with each other, that’s why you brought me here. You had made up your minds long ago or maybe when we were driving down to this place in the car, when you were seated next to each other, one with eyes on the road and one looking out, pretending that you couldn’t see one another.’ Then he waited for a second and said, ‘And I had made up my mind about the croissant when I was coming down the stairs.’

Karno heard them finish their tea in silence after that. Neither the sandwiches nor the croissant came. Then his parents got up and left for the hotel room, together. He sat on that wrought iron chair on that lawn of that hotel which his father had picked for them without consulting either him or his mother, staring at the cliffs at a distance which made him think of his own life . . . shadowy, hazy, indiscernible.

Karno waited for about fifteen minutes, which seemed to him like many hours, and then walked up the wooden stairs of the hotel, past giant portraits of the owner’s grandparents followed by parents who ran the property before him. Karno knew the owner was a ‘he’ because his own portrait, the largest of them all, was hung behind the reception area in the lobby. His name shone in a garish gold-plated font — Ranjit Kumar Chaudhary. What is it that makes someone display their family tree in this fashion? Pride? Or a sense of belonging? Or a record of personal history which also serves as a dispatch for all guests and visitors that success isn’t found in a day; that only by carrying the baton your ancestors have passed on to you can you truly belong to the idea of a family. What was he to take from his parents that he would want to pass on to those who would come after him? Did Ranjit Kumar Chaudhary ever hear his parents fight?

When he stood outside the door of their room, Karno could hear his mother sobbing. But there was no urgency in that whimper. It came in spurts, like minutes passed between one tear and the next. He placed his hand on the steely doorknob and turned it cautiously. As he pushed the door open he could see his parents sitting on the queen bed which was still unkempt, beside each other. Karno hadn’t seen them physically so close to each other in months, maybe even years. His mother’s head on his father’s shoulder, a cascade from her eyes making a blot on his shirt as if quenching its thirst. His father’s arm gently wrapped around her like a December blanket. Karno’s feet felt sweaty. It seemed to him like a scene from an old film he hadn’t watched. A middle-aged man and woman in a suede jacket and cotton saree respectively, busy in embrace. His mother spoke first. ‘He’s our fault. Neither of us can abandon him now or he’ll sink.’ They were talking about him even though they had a mountain of other worries to deal with, which they had been keeping aside for a long time. But at least they were talking.
‘We won’t,’ his father said. ‘He has failed us because somewhere we have
failed him first.’
Duh, Karno thought.

Karno stood at the door and listened to them for some time. They didn’t notice him. Or even if they did, they didn’t acknowledge his presence. Ashim and Mala discussed their son’s future, his grades at school which were continually deteriorating, him even losing interest in his piano lessons which Mala had wanted him to learn because she couldn’t when she was young. Perhaps they spent so much time together smashing decorative items their home didn’t need or yelling because they had no common objective left to speak about. Hence they needed the volume, the clamour — because their arguments were devoid of even the faculty to be suitably accusatory. Like a blank space between two words, like the lull after an explosion.

But suddenly that had changed. Their only son, in a brief moment of insensitivity, had exposed himself as a faulty project which they needed to fix. And they had to do it together. On their way back to Calcutta, Karno couldn’t remember if he even said a word. But both his parents were their most verbose selves that day. They debated, bickered, calmed down on their own when a heavy gust from the river bed next to the winding road entered their white Maruti and enfolded them. Karno’s father spoke about the need to spend more time with Karno. His mother reminded his father that Karno needed to be less afraid of his father’s everyday rage. In those thirteen or fourteen hours in the car that day, Karno took the fall. But he couldn’t recall the last time he was so much at peace with himself.

Sometime around dusk, as the car raced through the heat and dust of rural Bengal, Karno laid his head gently on the backrest and remembered the time when a stray cat had entered his grandparents’ house and made it her home. For a few weeks everyone was okay with an intruder among them, who sometimes behaved like she was the landlord of a house in which Karno’s grandparents were tenants.

Then one day his grandmother noticed that the cat was pregnant and she panicked. They were getting old, and they didn’t have the energy or ability to handle more than one feral companion. They requested the man who worked as a driver for them to take the cat and leave it somewhere far from their house so she couldn’t find her way back. It was an act of cruelty, they all knew instantly – Karno, who visited them so often that he had befriended the cat, and his grandparents. But one that had to be done to ensure their own lives’ balance wasn’t disturbed.

Karno saw Gopal, the man entrusted with the job, seizing the cat and putting it inside a gunny bag, and then driving off with it. He returned an hour later without the cat or the gunny bag. Gopal wasn’t a violent man by any means. But that day Karno had a hunch that maybe Gopal had killed the cat, perhaps unintentionally asphyxiated it by tying the mouth of the gunny bag too firmly. Then three months passed and everyone forgot about the cat. And one day, the cat returned to their neighbourhood, with three kittens. A woman, who lived with her infant son next door, gave them shelter. Surely the mother cat recognized Karno’s grandparents’ house, he thought. She had spent a good few weeks there. She knew every corner, every corridor, every turning inside that house. She had even found her hiding spots when she wanted to avoid people totally. She had made it her home. One she owned and ruled over. But after she returned from her exile that day, and every day since then when she stayed next door, she never once turned towards his grandparents’ home. In abandonment she had found the strength to renounce her memories.

That day, in the car, Karno forgot the safety instructions his parents had tried instilling in him all his life and stuck his head out of the window to let the wind dissolve every human voice he had ever heard in his whole life. And during that moment, he felt luckier than the cat.

See printed issue to see the illustration by Siddhi Gupta

Sayantan Ghosh was born in Calcutta, India and currently lives and writes in New Delhi where he works as an editor for a publishing house. His work has appreared in Electric Literature, Litro Magazine, The Aerogram, The Missing Slate, Dust Poetry Magazine and elsewhere. He tweets at @sayantansunnyg.

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