Here is story 6 about several cats in a cattery in Bangalore who helped me through my year of cancer treatment, many years ago!
My cancer’s cat-gardening (6)
The Panis Angelicus Cat
As Mohanthal got too strict for comfort, seeming to throw Oracles 23 (Splitting Apart) and 12 (Standstill) at me like my very own modern day little I Ching dressed up in fur and blinks, I slid into my hopeful, timid do-nothing zone, that inner voice which reminded me that all this had happened before as well and I had survived. Plus Splitting Apart in life also gives me permission to just fall down and let the horror gobble me up! I often like to do this toothless, tepid, pathetic retreat and see what happens.
Along with Cat-gardening cancer seemed to have unclogged ancient, unsolved, unwashed filth, an undigested, sickening kind of Rodent Roast that returned fattened and foul!
Cancer’s bizarre curriculum (alongside the chemotherapy and robbing me of my hair) sprang up as soon as I went back to work with strict lessons: first of all the Wandering Jew from my garden had weirdly followed me to the office and was lodged there in the form of that old friend who had turned even more bossy and sticky and began to clamber over and around everything that was my business, and to slam into every personal space like the Wandering Jew squashing the Ivies, begonias, ferns and marigolds! Like a thick, over-heated, blanket she burrowed into my business so belligerently I was flabbergasted and as vexed as Mohanthal appeared to be.
Next in the curriculum cancer repeatedly brought in Leprosy –that very withered, but vicious encumbrance from my first months at work.
The spirit of Leprosy (who loomed large all over the time graced by the Panis Angelicus Cat) was the last thing I needed as I worried about chemotherapy and hair loss. But cancer invited him in like an extra very important guest!
When I had first joined the magazine, and my enthusiasm and overeager energy had made me dash off a special story a day, it had brought down on my head that malodorous, malevolent Leprosy, the office Snarl who became my perennial fetter and hindrance. Even as I slowly began to shrink and hobble under this cramping custodian with his rigid, greasy, gurgling guzzling up of all my work, I luckily also met The Panis Angelicus Cat and the plant that stole my soul away forever, the Fittonia, also called The Snakeskin Plant.
I am very cowardly around workplace churls and embittered old skunks, and if a large parcel of joy comes along from the Universe, (as it so often does) I tend to push away and hide these ghouls around this treasure, hoping it will clean them up. It never does, but something sore and sour scuttles out of me through the sheer joy of work and so I have generally stuck to this not a very brave trick which at least gives my soul a wash and a resting place. All work, however, hampered and stamped on, has this radiance that saves us and I stuck onto it even as Leprosy latched onto me like a horrendous gibbet, Camera-lugging gangrene.
Cat-Gardening warbled some more as the office Wandering Jew, latched on to me like a bad boil and it became time for the Panis Angelicus Cat with the Begonia hang up to lurch out of the past alongside the kitten with yellow marigolds stitched onto her fur. It was my very first love affair with a Tortoise Shell cat and what an Increase and a Decrease that was, for this kitten first taught me how the soul can be ripped off with woe.
During Leprosy’s fetid reign I had gone up to Mohanthal’s Quilt one evening, quite depressed and sore and was greeted by a corpulent cat, who seemed to have soaked up the grey of an overcast sky, and cadged some shades of silver-milk white from Rex begonias for his coat.
He sat regally on the upper terrace around spider plants in pots and looked as benign as a begonia: the ultimate soother to seek out on a mangled day. `
While Mohanthal, easily the most disdainful cat in India, sometimes could tire me out with her urgent messaging about standing up for my self, the soother would just become one’s personal little Begonia Burnish, and shine his lazy calm over the dregs of the darkest day and retrieve snippets of silver from it for me to take home. Always surrounded by spider plants which he nibbled and squashed under his fat chest he watched me seriously. Cats are great watchers, with plenty of time to do it in, and are always scrutinizing us, as avidly as we observe them.
The ferocious rain had hammered through my sullen heart, driven the senile Camera-Suited Leprosy out and left it free to fully savor a cat so calming I could feel the leprous dribbles of the day dropping off me.
He was the coolest fat pepper and milk marbled cat, and absolutely nothing seemed to bother him. Cats do have a monopoly on the display of absolute calm but he seemed to be the Custodian of Cool.
And over the next few months, we fell into a strange connection under the saddest canopy of darkness. It happened when I met Tortoise, a tiny kitten with fur so glossy with yellow hibiscus, mustard and white squiggles and dots that she dazzled the terrace as she napped on a gunny bag under the late afternoon sun.
The Universe had just sent me the awesome gift of my first perfect friend: that gem who would not gossip or badger me about my shortcomings. Instead, she would help me to deal with them, though she was only a fur-coated little yellow-black tulip.
That year I was struggling to get to grips with my very first Nikon SLR and hadn’t even dared to use the macro lens thanks to many snide and sly comments about my photography from that blizzard of belligerence Leprosy whose own photographs do not even merit the space to be talked about in this book. He freely commented on mine and ensured I rarely used my camera or its macro lens. He squeaked and tittered a lot about ‘underdeveloped’, overexposed, and blah blah.
But within hours of meeting my very first Tortoise Shell (I have always been snared by this breed with its recklessly glitzy rainbow-wrapped fur) I pulled out my macro lens and she helped me to learn just how not to be frightened of it. or even of Leprosy’s bilious bile!
Tortoise, four months old, stepped into this fear with her mackerel-marigold-coffee-mustard painted paws so alluring that I had to catch her with the macro lens. I pulled it out even as leprosy’s gruesome grin stitched on my skin tried to stop me.
She posed for half an hour, allowing petting in between and then played paper ball games with the other kittens so vigorously that the sun had fled and there were 12 kittens napping on my lap when it was time to go home. It was my first stunning encounter with Kitten Bonanza Time and Tortoise was my first real feline friend……who taught me how to play with photography, and not to worry about the outcome…..
It was my first ever deeply entrenched friendship with a kitten, and I decided that if I ever had a cat of my own it would be a Tortoise Shell. But as all cat people know, it is the cat which decides this matter for you. My first cat turned out to be smoke grey and secretive as a spy, the very silent Kittles who never thought it was wise or healthy to trust any human being.
It was a time of such profitable kitten entangled joy, with a free furry model who awesomely banished my Leprosy Soiled camera and macro lens fears.
Kitten bliss recklessly pours over human shoddiness, allows us to breathe properly again.
But two months later Tortoise, the Yellow Hibiscus midnight tinted kitten was struck by such an incurable deathly disease that after lying weakly in a cage for many days she died.
That little pal beaming all around my Leprosy stung work sky, ever ready to play even when she was falling asleep, was dying. Every evening I sat hunched inside her large cage, covered her with my sari end and petted her, for the first time meeting death as it eyed her greedily and slithered icily into my soul.
Even in the early stages of her disease when she had begun to wobble dreadfully, she came up to play as I began to soak in the black bestial power that death has over us. How murderously it creeps up on us, killing hope, sneering at prayer, just taking away my precious little calico cargo of Afternoon Macro Magic. Not even five months old, she had conquered Leprosy’s tormenting powers and peril with just being there!
That sanctuary to escape from senseless competitive work bites and sores was now showing me its fangs, plummeting me into the depths of unimaginable loss and that underside of heaven, where prayer and hope crash and death wins.
I childishly decided never again to befriend a tortoiseshell cat of abundant colours who would play for an hour and a half with paper balls, then amble off for a little snack of fish, rice and milk, and come back to flirt with my sari paloo or snuggle under my feet, and then even tickle my petticoat. But Tortoise (like every animal we ever dare to love) just gave me a diamond of a blessing even as she lay dying. Those 30 or 40 blackened evenings after work that I spent huddled inside that cage, gifted me a powerful resilience for surviving even crushed under caged, overwrought prisons of panic and distress
As I wept through that daily withering of my heart, for two to three hours till the evening crawled into the night, I looked across the slowly darkening terrace one day, dreading to leave her behind in her cell, and found the Emperor of Cool sitting on another unlucky spider plant!.
He was quietly watching me, his paws tucked under his chubby chest, in that classic cat pose of repose under the glum sky. Each time I looked up, he gazed back at me.
And in that very dreadful newness of being stung by death’s proximity, this shared look was a balm. Much later when I first heard the awesome chant of Panis Angelicus, (Franck) it fitted tenderly into this mystical time with a fat watchful cat and a small one under death’s spell, in some haunting, heart-rending way. And this sonorous hymn never fails to plunge me into that turbulent and tremulous dark wounding all over again.
As death began to come closer every evening I found the Begonia and Spider Plant Squasher on the same ledge and again observing me as if he had been paid to do this chore. It seemed to have become his daily mission.
The irony of it all was that the household and the caretakers had named this cat Gunda, which meant he was a very wicked Tom who fought with the other cats and caused havoc on the terrace.
And this same Spider Plant and Begonia- bewitched Tomcat now attached himself to this death watch. Every evening he came closer to my cell where my candle of hope was burning out. All the other cats came and looked in and then closed the chapter of Tortoise, in the healthy but chilling way of cats. They own the wisdom to walk away from death.
But I was shackled by the loss of something so small and so rudely robbed of her playing time, a very precious friend who had the ability to pour golden grace over half of every Leprosy taunted day. Each enmeshed, death encrusted evening I bled with nature’s ruthlessness as Tortoise died slowly and painfully because the shelter did not believe in putting her down.
But every fading, dissolving hour, it was mystifying to find that large grey and white Tom putting in his time on the watch. Towards the end he finally came right up to the cell, when I was weeping uncontrollably, looked at the sunken Tortoise, and then deeply into my swollen face, blinked gently, and then waddled off but only a foot away from where he again sat down companionably, investigating what the malignity of death was doing to me and looking puzzled but kind. He was my very personal Gregorian Chant who held onto me through that unraveling of hope and a very dear mystical fellowship with furs.
Every trite clichés about cats being selfish, self-centered, self-absorbed etc. were overturned in that time. The Stunner had such a sullied reputation with the shelter staff but all I got was that Gregorian chant power to anchor me in calm.
I prayed idiotically, the way we do when we ask for the impossible – I prayed that the universe would punish me with 600 bandicoots (like old Namby Pamby himself or the old fogy, the leprous malignancy of mediocrity slobbering on the beginning of my career before him) if it so desired, if only it would give me Tortoise back again. Many years later when I first heard Franck’s Panis Angelicus it sliced me up all over again with the brutality of departing hope, crushed by prayer returned to me unanswered and embraced by the tubby cat that sat in the venomous dark with me.
to be continued