Oct/Nov 2007  •   Fiction

Keeper of Cats

by Rumjhum Biswas

"Flip-flop flat, my fat little cat, where's your crutch today-a-a-ay"! The song sung in a high pitched voice threatened to break down into a fit of giggles any minute.

Binapani Das looked at the girl with distaste through her spectacles. She brushed aside a strand of gray strayed onto her forehead, impatiently. This one was too much. She was really too much! Just yesterday Binapani had caught her trying to kick little Tompu. Now she was singing. Singing at the top of her voice. Taunting her. Her Binapani, the matron! Provoking her to come out and say something. Cheap entertainment. That's what that girl was after! And, didn't Binapani know it? Tompu knew too. The poor thing had already fled to the carpet of dust under Binapani's bed. He sat there expressing his distress with soft little sneezes. Binapani sucked in her anger and concentrated on her sewing. Twenty-five years in a girls' college hostel had taught her to hold her peace. But sometimes it was hard not to react. Sometimes she had to express her disgust and anger in some way. But the girls were incorrigible.

Smita, reeking of stale cigarettes, poked her head in. "Mashima? I need you to sign my gate pass."

Binapani did not bother to look up. "Why?"

"I have late tuition. You know that!"

"I also know what you do on your late tuition nights," she said, glancing up for half a second before going back to her sewing machine.

"My application was approved. It has my local guardian's signature. Here's my slip, Mashima, sign it if you like." Smita walked away.

"Come back here. How can I sign without a pen?"

Smita came back. She produced a pen. The gate pass was duly signed and returned. Binapani went back to her sewing. She no longer took it personally that the girls showed such scant regard for her. Why should they? What power did she have over their lives? She was just the matron, little better than an elevated servant, wasn't she? The hostel warden was the real boss, and Binapani just the go-between. The girls knew that well enough. Even the newcomers figured it out the very next day. It didn't take them long to learn all the jokes about her, and the songs, too. It occurred to Binapani, every batch of freshers inducted into hostel life through the light ragging party taking place during fresher's night, was tasked with composing a new song for her. And this creation of a new anthem to taunt Binapani and her cats had become a tradition.

Binapani didn't really mind the songs. Some of them were funny. Nobody could say she didn't have a sense of humor. But including her cats in their frivolity was what she found hard to stomach.

Tompu mewed from under the bed. "You can come out now, Tompu-shona. The witch has gone."

Tompu, tail held high, brushed against her sari edge. Binapani got up. It was time for her tea and their milk. As if by magic the other cats appeared from nowhere. There were seven of them. Jenny-Ma, the oldest, was mother to three of Binapani's cats and grandmother to another two; she was the grand matriarch. Hence the suffix ma to her name. She was a white tabby with ginger legs, and she carried herself with dignity. Then there were the twins Binapani had christened Dushtu and Mishti, so together they were Dushtu-Mishti, i.e. naughty-sweet. Jenny-ma's other offspring, a slightly older daughter, was Sweety. She was now a mother of two not fully weaned kittens yet to be named. They stayed in the basket wedged between Binapani's cupboard and her writing table near the window. There they were relatively safe from the girls, though still accessible to Sweety, who jumped in from the window to feed them and was out through it in a flash once she was done. And, then there was Tompu, half dead when she had found him, with a chord tied to his neck, one leg already broken. It had taken Binapani all of six months to nurse him back to health and win his trust, after spending a purse full at the veterinary hospital. Now Tompu rarely left her side. Binapani sipped her tea, rocking in her chair, while her cats lay contented around her, their bellies round and warm with milk.

The supper bell rang, sharp at 7:30 in the evening. Once, twice, thrice. Straggly groups of girls, mostly juniors who didn't know any better, shuffled towards the dining hall. The hall was in darkness, except where the hurricane lamps shed their spooky, sooty lights. The summer power cut, or load-shedding as the people of Calcutta preferred to say, was in full swing. The girls clustered in front of Binapani's room, which opened right on to the corridor. They were not hungry yet, but there was nothing else to do. Binapani saw them and went right back to squinting at the day-old newspaper under the lamp light. But she didn't get the chance to ignore them for long. High girlish laughter, clatter of flip-flops on wooden steps, punctuated by rude jokes loudly delivered, rained into her room. Her newspaper fluttered. The cats hid.

"Mashima! We can't eat in the dark!"

"Is it my fault there is load shedding?"

"Why can't we have more lamps?"

"Who will get the kerosene? It costs 20 rupees in the open market! Get your own lamps!"

"Mashima! We are not hungry."

"Who asked you to gorge on bhelpuri and alu tikki?"

"Mashima how can you resist alu tikki?"

This last shot was followed by giggles more intense than the previous provocations. They were all around her. Binapani had no clue who was saying what in the dark. She didn't reply to the last shot. But the girls were not ready for their supper yet.

"C'mon Mashima. Don't tell me you never ate alu tikki!"

"And, golgappas! Mashima how can you resist golgappas?"

This was greeted by a chorus of giggles. Even the juniors joined in. Shyly at first, but more loudly after a minute. Somebody began a raucous Hindi film number. There was some shoving and passing around of private jokes. The girls' heads bobbed up and down like dark floats in a dark sea. The cats were silent. Only their eyes glowing green in the dark, talked back. Binapani still squinted at the newspaper as she held it close to the oil lamp, rocking lightly in her chair.

"Mashima is reading the news!"

This announcement was met with bursts of hysterical laughter. Some girls flopped down on the floor, laughing to burst their stomachs.

Binapani folded the newspaper, and put it aside. "If you girls paid attention to what was happening in our country, maybe you would have more dignity."

"Mashima, how can we ever be dignified in front of you?"

More laughter. More rolling on the floor. Binapani looked at the girls disdainfully. "When I was your age, I was participating in the freedom fighting movement of our country."

"Really Mashima?" This seemingly innocuous question was immediately followed by a hush. A very deceptive hush, as if the girls were waiting for a cue. "Do tell us, how you participated, Mashima? Oh do!"

"Hmph. As if you girls would care for that!"

"Mashima, I don't believe you were ever in the freedom fighting movement!"

Now Binapani was goaded. "What do you know, you silly girl! How could I not be part of the freedom movement? My father was in it, my uncles, my aunts, my mother, my brothers!"

An expectant silence greeted her outburst. Binapani had crossed the gate. Now she had to deliver the goods. They could taunt her all they liked, but now there was no turning back. Binapani took a deep breath.

She knew her story by heart. The crossing of the border in the stealth of night. The bundling of the women into trucks ostensibly carrying goods. The meager belongings, hastily gathered from abandoned lives. The kindly padres and nuns who gave them hot meals and shelter. The slow, often painful return to normalcy. A job for her father. Then, a school for her. A couple of hard years later, a one-roomed house in the refugee colony on the outskirts of Calcutta. And, then the quiet refuge of the Church, where their dignity was patched thread by thread. They survived as a whole, Binapani and her family, even though Bengal did not. Binapani's father always told her how lucky their family was compared to the other Bengalis who fled during the partition of Bengal.

This was the first story. The one Binapani grew up with, the story further complicated with such horrifying plots and subplots, even her nightmares paled in comparison. These were the stories she could never articulate. Nor could she bring herself to tell anyone of the years spent in penury, the years when they were looked down upon by those who had lived in this part of Bengal for generations, the epithet "refugee" hanging from her neck like a tag. She knew this long saga by heart and steadfastly kept it locked inside her heart. She could not, would not share it with anyone, especially with a gaggle of callow girls such as these. But there was another story she also knew by heart. Almost. Sometimes she slipped up on the details. That, however, hardly mattered. Her audience was least interested in the details. They only wanted to get to the meat. The gravy was incidental.

"I used to carry messages from one freedom fighter to another," said Binapani after a pause. "I was a little girl, very little. So the police or the spies didn't suspect me. I would hide the letter in the leaves of corncobs plucked fresh from our fields and roasted by my grandmother, as I skipped along, on my way to the meeting, eating from the cob. Sometimes I would keep it in the folds of my doll's dress, even inside sweet wrappers. They never guessed."

"Wow! Mashima. What a brave girl you were!"

The volley of giggles was quickly hushed. The girls wanted the entertainment to go on.

"Oh, we were all brave then. Especially my father. He stood up to Jinnah you know. And, Jawaharlal Nehru, Suhra Wardi Khan. Told them off. Just like that." Binapani snapped her fingers.

"Why did your father scold them?"

"Why not? Weren't they dividing our Bengal? My father didn't spare even Gandhiji!"

A slight silence greeted this last declaration. The girls were clearly overcome, but not for long.

"Where did he scold all these powerful people, Mashima? In which place?"

"Why at New Delhi of course! My father was present when they picked up the map and drew a line right through the heart of Bengal. Oh, they were fighting so much between themselves. 'No the line should pass from here. No there! No, no here!' How they argued and fought. That's when my father gave them a dressing down. And, then he took up the red pencil with his own honest hand and drew the final line. 'That's it,' he told them. 'Now that's final. No more fighting!' My father was a brave and just man."

"Mashima! You weren't there were you? How do you know?"

"Of course I was there, you silly girl. I went along with my father. It was I who sharpened the pencil, the fat red and blue pencil. One end red and the other end blue. The kind school teachers use to mark your exercise books. You see, I went everywhere my father went. So I saw it happen. Everything. I saw one Bengal become two. Like an egg cracking into two parts."

Now the girls were no longer in control. They hooted and shrieked and rolled. Binapani stared at this hysterical puddle of girls with anger. Why did she always fall for their bait? She felt like picking up her broom and sweeping them out. Then, just as suddenly the girls were quiet.

"Oww! Oww! My ankle! Oh, God damn it! Ohh!"

The sound had come from the steps leading up to the corridor. The girls turned in unison. Binapani was too disgusted to bother; she had recognized the voice. Some girls ran towards the source of the sound, their torches eyed small circular patches of ground fleetingly before moving on.

"Mashima! It's Smita. She's fallen down."

"What did you expect? If she comes in reeking and swaying on her legs, she deserves to fall! It's a wonder the warden hasn't found out and expelled her from the hostel!"

The girls gathered around the dark form writhing on the ground. Someone asked for a torch to be shone on Smita's ankle. It was duly focussed on the offending part, and a collective gasp went up from the girls encircling Smita.

"Her ankle is swollen, Mashima! Do something!"

But before Binapani could react, a stentorian voice rang out.

"What is the problem, girls? Whose ankle is swollen?"

The girls fell silent. Binapani swung into action. She motioned the girls to help Smita into her room. "Quickly!" she hissed. The girls obeyed.

The minute she had Smita lying down on her bed with a pillow under the injured ankle, Binapani splashed a quarter bottle of Dettol into a fistful of cotton hastily torn from the roll in the medicine cabinet where she kept the Band-Aids, Cough Syrups, Disprins, Baralgans, and Analgins as first aid for the girls. Then she deliberately smashed the bottle near the door. The girls, as if by a pre-planned arrangement, gathered around Smita in a tight circle. A couple of them took Dettol diluted with water in Binapani's tea cup and splashed it on Smita's face to disguise the smell of gin. The girl grimaced. By the time the warden arrived, the whole room and the corridor were reeking of the anti-septic smell of raw Dettol.

"What is this?" she asked. "Why is this room stinking of Dettol?"

"Madam, I dropped it, in my hurry," stammered Binapani.

The Warden looked at them all with contempt. "Let me look at her ankle."

The girls parted at the rear end of the bed. "My God, this is a sprain! You silly woman, why did you put Dettol on a sprain? You are supposed to put ice! I don't know why I put up with you. Don't you have any sense in that head of yours?"

The warden raved on for some time. Then she curtly told one of the girls to follow her back to her quarters and get some ice.

"Make sure she is taken to the doctor first thing tomorrow. It's pitch dark out there now. Thanks to these constant load sheddings!"

Binapani nodded meekly in front of her. But the minute her back was turned, she put out her tongue. A junior girl who was foolish enough to giggle was quickly shushed by the seniors. When the ice came in, the girls took turns to dab Smita's ankle after bundling the cubes into one of Binapani's large handkerchiefs. Binapani took out a stretch of gauze and started winding it tightly and expertly around Smita's leg, from her foot right up to her calf. Smita, sobered up by the pain, grinned sheepishly at her friends. The girls went into the dining room after a while. One of the hostel maids brought Smita her food and helped her eat. Later, after all the girls had finished their supper, Smita the lame was helped up the stairs to her room by her friends.

"Flip-flop flat, my fat little cat, where is your crutch today-a-a-ay..." sang one of the seniors.

Binapani wagged an angry index finger. "Stop that singing immediately."

"Mashima! I'm singing it to Smita!"

"I know who you are singing it to. You... you witch!"

The girls clattered up the stairs laughing. Binapani shouted after their retreating forms, "And, don't forget to collect the money for my ruined tea-cup! First thing tomorrow! Do you hear me? You... you wretched girls!"