She used to be a lonely old woman. Now she’s young, independent and secure
Photographer Nikita Sawant, 26, is always astonished at her cat Ginger’s ability to sense when she is sick. If she has a stomach ache, the tomcat sits by her stomach and purrs; if her head aches, he sits by her head and purrs. “It’s uncanny,” she says. Sawant recalls reading of a study recently that said that a cat’s purring can affect human health for the better. We looked it up, and yes, a US-based entity called Fauna Communications Research Institute declared this June that, ‘When cats purr within a range of of 20-140 Hertz, nearby humans may be therapeutically benefiting from these vibrations. Purring has been linked to lowering stress, decreasing symptoms of Dyspnoea (shortness of breath), lessening the chances of having a heart attack, and even strengthening bones.’
That’s not the reason Nikita has a cat. She likes Ginger because he treats her like “his lady”. She’d found him abandoned on a Pune street nine months ago, and ever since, it has been a love affair like no other. He is possessive of her. “He doesn’t like people visiting me and shows his anger by scratching them.” But even though he loves her unconditionally now, he did take some time to accept her as his mistress. “The fact is that [cats in general] don’t really need you, but choose to be with you. He is very independent but he loves me now. It’s because of him that I’ve become such a homebody. I like staying home with him.” He almost sounds like her boyfriend, I say, and she laughs, “I truly believe that young women complete their incomplete relationships through their cats. They pour all their love into that creature.”
Globally, in popular culture, the Cat Lady has been a subject of slight ridicule or pity, even the glamorous ones like Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s who doesn’t name her tomcat because she sees him as a reflection of “a wild thing” who doesn’t “belong” to her. Then there are the real-life cat ladies, like America’s reclusive Edith Beals—the mother-daughter socialite duo related to Jacqueline Kennedy. They lived in their Hampton home with numerous cats in squalor for two years before they were evicted.
Even in India, the Cat Lady has long been a spinster who dotes on her cat. “Find a man soon or you may just end up as a cat lady,” is a refrain many women have heard. Despite the dismissal implicit in that term, more and more young single women are embracing it with pride. After all, as Sawant says, “A cat is not just an animal, it has a mind of its own.”
Journalist Deepa Menon, 33, used to be a dog lover. When she shifted from Hyderabad to Mumbai five years ago, that was the pet she wanted in her life. But a dog left alone, she knew, goes into a sulk. Her best friend, who was living with her at the time, loved cats and that’s how she thought of going feline instead. She got a kitten from a Parsi restaurant Britannia and named him Jeejeeboy. She soon got another, a female, and called her Smalicule (a ‘small molecule’).
Menon’s life now revolves around her cats. “I need to come home and not see any humans,” she says, “My cats and I get along just fine.” She likens them to the friend who all other friends think is ‘aloof’ but is “affectionate and cuddly” once you both get to know each other. “I take photos of them all day.”
Once while Menon was trying to feed Jeejeeboy as a new kitten, she remembers, he swallowed the dropper she’d made out of a plastic ear-cleaning tube. “After that, I made sure everyone I knew was worried about him. All conversations were about [whether] Jeejeeboy had pooped the tube out yet. I took him to office, sifted through his waste—and finally, when we found it, we all got relief. That’s how obsessed I am.”
Once a cat trusts you, feels Menon, he almost becomes a dog. “The only difference is that a dog is like a needy boyfriend, while a cat is very affectionate and not as high-maintenance. They have an inner life of their own. They’re independent,” she says, “Maybe that’s why women like them.”
The lives of four cat ladies are chronicled in Christie Callan Jones’ 2009 documentary Cat Ladies. There is a lady called Margot, who often skips work to spend the day with her cats and has a home designed for their comfort, while Diane lives with 123 cats and keeps adding to the brood as she can’t leave a sad cat on the streets. As Jones says on the documentary’s website, ‘It’s not the number of cats that defines someone as a ‘cat lady’, but rather their attachment, or non-attachment, to human beings. They create a world with their cats in which they are accepted and in control—a world where they ultimately have value.’ She also describes the smell in a house with so many cats as ‘intense’: ‘It’s like living with your head in a litter box, and not the clumping kind.’
Modern cat ladies regard the cat as a reflection of themselves: intelligent, sensitive and independent.
I remember watching a young friend and her cat for an entire day. She sat in the bedroom while the cat hid under the living room sofa. In a few hours, the cat ambled into the bedroom, and, unacknowledged, climbed on top of the wardrobe and stayed there for another four hours. When she did come down, she lapped up a little water, ate some food and got into her lingerie drawer for a nap. My friend was not very communicative either. She called the cat’s name aloud a few times, and then gave up. I was intrigued how they’d shared the same space all day without any interaction. “She is having one of her moods, so I am waiting it out,” my friend had observed, “When she feels like talking, she will.”
Sure enough, before the end of the evening, the cat regally walked up to my friend and nudged her softly with her nose. “That just means it’s safe to pet her now,” laughed my friend.
It was like watching two roommates who gave each other a lot of space. If my friend was the single freelancer who liked quietude, the cat was her moody friend who’d insist, ‘Speak to me when I speak to you.’
Actress Kalki Koechlin talks of her cat Dosa as if he is a human being. She picked him up as a kitten off a road in Bandra six years ago. And she has always said that Dosa changed her life: he has always been there for her. “He is not moody and is extremely relaxed. Just feed him well, let him sleep and he is happy. He is a simple soul.” She says that Dosa knows exactly what mood she is in. “If I am upset or crying, he will come and sit next to me calmly [in] support. He is not an attention seeker, but knows how to love when there’s need.”
Conchita Fernandes, 22, calls her cat ‘Schmoo’, and even though she doesn’t reciprocate all her advances of affection—“I am not even sure she likes me much”—she finds her good company. “I talk to her when I come back from work. She is aloof when I do that… she only comes to me when she needs me. She doesn’t even snuggle. It’s a rare lucky day when I wake up and find her sleeping next to me,” she says, “But still, I don’t think I can do without her. She is like my roommate.” And then laughs, “I think she doesn’t like me because she is such a girl. She likes men so much more than women.”
Feline aloofness can often feel like indifference, but cat lovers insist it is not. Rather, it’s an attitude that makes them so appealing. “Cats let you live your life and they live their own,” says Deepa, “That’s comforting.”
It’s a mutually adaptive relationship of affection. Ask Italian expat Diana, a designer of shoes and bags who stays in Vile Parle with six cats named Kali, Manga, Electra, Buddha, Mitzouko and Zorba. She started adopting cats off the streets and just couldn’t stop. Now she has a different relationship with each and can’t do without any. “Mitzouko is much like a dog, for example,” she says, “She will do whatever you want her to and is super affectionate. She’d gone through trauma, as it was abandoned, but she has dealt with it in such a positive way.” Then there is Buddha, who always knows when she is unwell. “Recently, I was sick with a severe stomach ache. Buddha came, sat on my stomach and started purring. It really made me feel better.”
As Diana says, cats take time before they trust you as a friend and caregiver. Her cat Kali was scared and distraught when she first got her home. For a long time, she wouldn’t let Diana pet her; she would hiss and snap. “But I let her be, and slowly, she came to trust me as the person who loved, fed and cared for her. Now she cares for me the same way.”