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What My Cats Taught Me About Life

I write this post in grief. A stray cat, Smokey, whom I nurtured from kitten hood, has been missing since January 20th 2022. She was last seen electrocuted at the transformer which is just outside my apartment gate. I did not know of this incident until 24 hours later. The night security guard, who saw it happen, told me that she got up and walked away after falling down from the transformer. This information was corroborated by the KEB personnel who came to restore power.

I don’t know if she is alive or dead, but having seen a small pool of blood at the accident spot, I fear the worst. I have been looking for her in the neighbourhood for the past three days. I can’t help but recall how much I have obsessed over Smokey, and her mother, for close to two years. I will tell you why.

The story of how Smokey entered my life is unconventional. Although I loved cats, living in an apartment complex meant that I couldn’t keep one at home.  I never imagined that Smokey would become such a huge part of my every day routine. The cats and I where on our own paths which crossed unexpectedly. And eventually, they left the most lasting impression on me. 

Smokey was born to a mangy, feral cat in my apartment basement circa March 2020. She had 5 siblings, none of which survived. It was lockdown time, and the mother cat found safe haven under parked cars in our small apartment which has around 30 houses. But disease, and maybe predators, resulted in all but Smokey passing away within a few weeks of being born.

I have always been a cat lover, so when I saw only Smokey surviving the litter, I decided to start feeding her and the mother cat. I named the mother Lucy, after Lucifer, because I was horrified at how she ate up one of her own kittens. I also intended to get Lucy and Smokey sterilised so they don’t go around reproducing and adding to the stray cat population. So, feeding them was the only way I could ensure that they stuck around in the basement. Unfortunately, this ended up becoming Smokey’s greatest weakness. She never learnt how to hunt, and was entirely dependent on me for food.

Flashback to May 2020, Lucy was an extremely skittish and shy cat. She was terrified of humans, but she was very much in need of food. She was very young, and this was probably her first litter. Initially, my feeding sessions were sporadic. I did not even know what to feed her. I wasn’t aware of the different types of cat food available in the market. But, Lucy used to follow me around in the basement. Since it was the lockdown, watching her and Smokey was a good way to pass time. I gently persuaded them to shift from under a neighbour’s car to my car, so nobody in the apartment would chase them away. From milk, to rice, to egg, to cat food, I gradually upgraded their meals. Smokey was growing up under the loving care of Lucy. She had the same temperament as her mother – she was scared of humans, albeit, a little less. She was never a lap cat and hated being held. She would do a funny act of coming near me, and suddenly running away when I bend down to hold her. I don’t know if she did it on purpose or because her feral genes. Despite that, I continued my feeding and play sessions.

 

This closeness between mother and daughter continued for over a year. Usually, mother cats distance themselves from their kittens after about 6 – 8 months, but not in the case of SmoLu, as I call the duo. Meanwhile, I was becoming a better pet parent. I was feeding them healthy cat food. I made a small cat-house for them to sleep in, where they would spend all morning cuddled together. I could never figure out what they did at night or where they went, because they would not remain in the apartment basement after supper. We have a huge open area beside the apartment, so they probably spent the night there. I even installed a CCTV camera near my car, to watch over them and understand their behaviour. The CCTV had a limited coverage area. I learnt quite a lot from the recordings. For instance, there were several male cats that visited the basement. 

 

2020 and 21 were like no other. Covid was ravaging India and the world. Everyone’s daily routine changed forever, with work from home becoming a permanent thing for IT employees. This also widened the gap between people who had cushy desk jobs and those who had to slog it out.

Since I could work from home, I spent a lot of time with SmoLu. In between meetings, I would go down and watch the two of them together. Smokey would ask me for treats or food every time she saw me. She was a mischievous and curious darling. She was extremely talkative, especially around meal times. Both of them would wait for me near the lift, in the mornings. They would come running towards me if they weren’t near the lift. When I would return home from outstation trips, they would come running towards me. Smokey would mewl loudly seeing me, demanding to be fed. She would inspect the car often, and the joke was that the car is hers, and not mine. Her curiosity never faded. Lucy on the other hand was very stoic. The only feelings she ever showed was towards Smokey, who was always by her side.

For close to two years, I have ensured that they were fed. This was not always easy, because if not me, it is my mother who would have had to go down twice a day to feed them.

I was obsessed with SmoLu, because that is how cats grow on you. They have immense character, and take no shit. They aren’t easy to please or fool. It took me almost a week to trap Lucy to get her neutered. With Smokey, it was relatively easy, and I was glad that she was neutered before she got into heat. Another time, I had to take Lucy to the vet, where she scratched me so badly that the scars on my hand haven’t gone.  

A couple of incidents stand out in my brief association with SmoLu. About a year into Smokey’s life, a male cat started to trouble these two. One day he picked a fight with Lucy and chased her away. She was gone for a week. I assumed that she was dead, because the security guards, who are my eyes and ears where the CCTV cannot see, told me that they saw the male cat chase Lucy into a drain. I was terrified that the same would happen to Smokey, and I brought her home to keep her with me. She was not at all happy in her new (comfortable surrounding), and wanted to be left back downstairs. We spent several sleepless nights fostering her, much to her displeasure. She would incessantly cry all night.

Thanks to the CCTV footage, I got to know that Lucy was back in the basement after about a week. My joy knew no bounds, because I had presumed she was no more. Unfortunately, she was not the same cat after this incident. The trauma made her aloof towards Smokey, who was still a young kitten at heart. Smokey never understood why her dear momma was hissing and swiping at her. It was heartbreaking to watch Lucy grow colder than she already was. But until the very last day I saw her, Smokey’s behaviour towards Lucy remained the same. Lucy was her everything.

Smokey also had her share of disappearing. Once, she was not to be seen for almost 2 nights, and I was sick with grief. But she was back in the morning, her usual self, asking for food like nothing had happened. Of course, she was terribly, terribly hungry. In fact, Smokey’s disappearances became more frequent than Lucy’s. Especially around the full moon. New tom cats started to enter the basement, and Smokey was terrified of all of them. She never learnt how to fight, unlike Lucy, who can hold her ground. Smokey was extremely good at hiding from danger, because after all, she spent her childhood playing under cars and getting into the bonnet.

I like all animals a lot, but I have a special corner for cats. Unlike dogs, where everything is always lovey lovey, Lucy and Smokey’s temperament was closer to that of humans. Lucy had her mood swings, while Smokey was curious and mischievous. A human should be extremely lucky to earn a cat’s love. They can be selfish, and vile. Once they have eaten, they will walk away from you and look at you like you are a stranger. SmoLu were no different, although somewhere deep inside I like to believe that Smokey loved me back, but only did not know how to show it.

I wonder if I got so attached to them both because of my own emotional gaps. I grew up a single child, with no playmates. My relationship with my parents has always been troubled. I have only my mother now, and things haven’t changed. I always loved animals but could never keep a pet. I have no children of my own, and after my divorce, I never felt the need to experience parenthood. Having seen a parent’s death, a broken marriage, and several ups and downs in life, my emotional temperament is like Lucy’s – stoic. I keep my distance from humans. Only with these two animals, I gave my all. 

So, in SmoLu, I found everything I felt lacking. The bond between mother and daughter was such a beautiful thing to witness. Smol Smokey was my companion, and I spent so much time downstairs in the basement playing with her. I was her pet parent, protecting her from Tom cats, and always on the lookout for tasty, healthy food. I rediscovered my childhood hobby of making electronic gadgets, thanks to them. I rigged up a CCTV system with a long range WiFi network and made them a water feeding station which really helped me keep busy during the second COVID-19 wave.

Being so closely involved with these two strays also meant that I became more aware of the the issues other stray animals in the city face. I was directly and indirectly involved in rescues of animals in need. I regularly donated money for animal welfare. I frequently read horror stories about how humans harm voiceless strays for no genuine reason. I read in the papers how over 50% of new COVID era pet parents abandoned their pets on the street, not realising what it takes to raise an animal. From my own experience, I can say that looking after animals, especially stray cats, is an emotional roller coaster. 

I think all animals are more aware of their mortality than we humans are. They live life, one day at a time. It takes only a little love from our side to receive boundless joy from them. They show no malice, and carry 100% pure innocence which humans lack. Each animal has a different character, like us. Genes, upbringing, environment and individual temperament make each one of them unique.  If you have a little bit of extra sensitivity to the world around, you will see what perfect creatures animals are, compared to us. 

Every time I managed to catch Smokey before her feeding time, I would hold her and cradle her like a baby. She would mewl in protest, and I would give her soft kisses. Because after all, we have only this brief life to show and receive love. Maybe it was always in the back of my mind that this might not last long. I am grateful to her for entering my life. 

Sleep well, my baby, wherever you are.