Cats are to be hated. And their whining, which some might lovingly define as meowing, is nothing but tiresome whimpering. At least that was what my mother said she—not my mother—my cat—did.
“Why did you bring this nagging thing inside the house? Why don't you get rid of her?” Mother constantly did her own kind of meowing every day. But how could I throw her away? She was MY cat. I found her by the road that I always took to go to Hakim Bhai's Khelaghar by Bashabo bridge, where boys of my age played football. Because I was not a boy, it took me a lot of nagging to convince them that I had two feet that looked exactly like theirs—and could kick as hard. Sometimes they would let me play, but then they would throw me out the moment I missed a goal, or failed to defend the non-existent goalpost. It was on one of those days, when, after the boys kicked me out for failing to be their Daniel Passarella—even though in comparison I was half in size, dwarfed in age, and dissimilar in gender—asking me to join a sewing class, I found the tiny kitten, shivering and in need of me. I picked her up and headed home, telling her tales of my miseries in the football field. The fluff had no big ears to hear me with, but it listened.
Within a few months, it grew into a white bundle with a tail that wagged and a tongue that licked and paws that scratched. It was then I realized my fluff was asking for a name of its own. So I named her Biral.
Biral was no prophet, but she understood a thing or two about the mind of a seventh grader. She knew how important her meows, chirrups, chatters, hisses, purrs, and growls were to the girl whose world either constantly fell apart or simultaneously vanished. The fall was usually caused by an angry mother, and the vanishing came as its aftermath, to place the outside world away from the girl's reach.
“I'm grounded for a week, Biral. Should I run away, like Bappi, Kajol Kaka's son?” `Because Bappi knew how to fail every math test, he learnt how to flee. But Biral always growled at the suggestion, and because I trusted her judgment, I stayed— grounded!
Then Biral ran away. I spent days, hoping to find her by the front door, or under my bed, or anywhere around the house. If a door squeaked or a window scratched, I expected to hear a meow followed by a wagging tail. Biral was eventually found hiding in a box of old clothes. She was gone as one, but came back with five shadows, some of which were grey, and some, polka blotched.
“Biral, you're back!” I screamed with joy.
“What on earth are we going to do with so many of them!” Mother screamed louder.
“I want to keep them all. I'll name them….choto, chotto, chot-tto, chott-ow and cho-ttt--ttoww biral!”
“Goodness! Can you believe what she's saying? She already smells like a cat herself ! Look at her face and her arms! Full of scratch-marks! Who's gonna marry such an untidy girl?”
The listener on his occasion was one of her nephews, our permanent houseguest. Back in those days, one's childhood was always disrupted by some cousin or a distant relative whose life's goal was to make one's existence miserable by simply turning himself into your own mother's pet.
“Auntie, don't worry. I'll take care of them.” My cousin—my mother's pet promised.
Next day, Biral and her five shadows were gone. My days went blank, the house went dander-free, the cousin looked saintly, and my mother became Cinderella's fairy godmother. She spent her time washing my unruly hair, smudging my unsmooth-cat-scratched skin with soothing lotion, clipping my nails and toes, as if there's a pair of glass slippers waiting for me—somewhere in a distant future—and I might miss my chance if she didn't carve civility onto me.
One day, while my fairy godmother-mother was braiding my hair, I heard a melodious meow.
“Biral's back!” I snatched my hair free from the hands of Rapunzel's witch-mother and ran outside, sans-slippers.
Biral came back to make the house a happy home.
“How did she come back?” I later heard Snow White's mother's agitated voice.
“I don't know. I left them by a dumpster near Kamalapur.” Said her pet huntsman. III.
The day we moved out of that house, when all our belongings were packed, and when we were about to hop into the car, I could not find Biral.
“Baba, can we wait a little longer?” I pleaded. “Maybe she's gone to say goodbye to all her stray cat-friends.”
“We'll come back for her tomorrow. I'm sure she'll be done saying goodbyes by then.” Father said.
Back in those days, “the next day” usually came a week or a month later—especially in the world of grown-ups. My father followed the grown-up schedule and took me back the next day.
I found Biral sitting on the veranda, licking her paws.
“Biral, I'm back! Did you miss me? Let's go home!” I stroked her neck and tickled her ears. She lingered around me for a while, and then muzzled away inside the house where I no longer lived.
“Come back, Biral, come back!” I cried.
“Let's go, sweetheart. Cats are place-bound. This is her home.” Father tried to explain.
But who can reason with a little girl's love? I kept screaming to the top of my voice.
“Come back, BIRAAAAAL ! I hate you!”
Biral vanished, leaving her meows hanging within the shadows of my memory, like the faceless grin of Alice's Cheshire cat, as if to always taunt me with the truth she tried to teach me that day: everything that we love, or the thing that we call love—is just a haunting!
Fayeza Hasanat teaches at the University of Central Florida.