I suffer from chronic identity crisis, which makes me think of myself as cat or dog, as the mood dictates. This crisis is familial: my grandmother often thought of herself as a bird and talked to our pet cuckoo, Mickey, in his own language.
Persecuted by crows, who were perhaps angry at having to bring up his children, Mickey had landed in our veranda with a broken wing. My animal-loving grandmother had picked him up and nursed him back to health, but he could not fly any more. So, for the rest of his days, grandmother kept Mickey company by chatting with him non-stop in cuckoo and feeding him pellets of sattu (powdered chickpea). Whenever (especially in spring) the plaintive calls frazzled our nerves, we would put an end to the conversation by throwing a thick blanket over the cage. Made to think that night had descended, Mickey would stop mid-coo and grandmother walk away indignantly until next time.
Learning from grandmother, I began to talk cat and dog early in life. Unfortunately, only puppies and kittens could comprehend me—the adults of the species usually rolled their eyes. I once successfully rescued two kittens from behind the water pump by calling out to them in their mother’s voice. I still yelp in dog whenever my dog mock-bites me, just to savour the look of abject guilt in his eyes. The identification with animals is more pronounced in my elder sister, who, unlike me, can think of herself as reptiles too. While I shout if a lizard lands on me, my sister gets dewy-eyed.
She teaches in a State government school located in the expanding fringes of Kolkata. While getting rapidly urbanised, the area still retains traces of its rural past, which makes itself felt in the form of monitor lizards, chameleons, hordes of langurs, and a variety of birds. My sister’s standing lament these days is about the Komodo dragon lookalike Bengal monitor lizard, which was once found in plenty in the area surrounding her school. The lizards would enter the classroom, find a sunny corner to bask in, and flick out their long tongues, making my sister beam with adoration.
They have disappeared over the last two or three years. “They are hunted and eaten,” said my sister sadly. Monitors are indeed killed for meat, fat, and skin, which are used in traditional medicine. Their reproductive organs are used as a good luck charm though they spell bad luck for the rare reptile.
While monitor lizards are large and unwieldy, the tokay gecko is pocket-sized, making it easier for my sister to handle and save it. She once found one in her lap while marking answer papers. She lovingly placed it on the table, from where it jumped, whizzing past the headmaster’s head and brushing his shoulders. While the teachers shrieked, the headmaster looked on baffled, not knowing what had hit him.
“Ma’am just threw a gecko at you,” one of the teachers said, knowing that relations between him and my sister were contentious at best. To make matters worse, my sister then dashed at him, trying to recapture the gecko: the headmaster cowered. From that day onwards, my sister claims, the headmaster has been treating her with more respect—for her, this clinches the argument about the tokay gecko’s claim to love and reverence.
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In our animal-obsessed family, my aunt takes the cake. She has a menagerie of birds that fly freely and poop all over her house. Once, while talking to a parrot, she had her tongue split into two by the disgusted bird. Unfazed, she is now teaching two abandoned chicks how to fly: she “flies” by running up and down the room, flailing her arms.
My mother had always been the misfit in the family because she was mortally scared of animals, birds, and insects. This was evident right on her wedding day. One of the Bengali wedding rituals is to place a live fish in the bride’s hands as she enters her husband’s home: in the Bengali scheme of things, the ability to handle fish well is presumably the highest qualification for a new bride.
So, my grandmother had placed one on my mother’s arm, and according to legend, she threw it right back at my grandmother’s face while screaming at the top of her lungs. Thus the battle lines were drawn between saas and bahu on the very first day of mother’s married life.
She continued the tradition: once, when a cat entered the dining room, she jumped on to the table, crashing all the cutlery. Another time, the situation turned serious: it involved an animal vanishing fast like the monitor lizard—the civet cat.
There was a time in my childhood when civet cats were everywhere in our Kolkata house, which being old and sprawling, had a lot of sheltered corners. Being nocturnal, they would come out of hiding at night and run around silently—we knew of their presence by their characteristic smell. Remarkably agile, they would run on wires like a passing shadow, leaving only the smell behind. They would also enter the house, chiefly to eat bananas.
This way a juvenile had found itself trapped inside. When my mother discovered it at the corner of the veranda in the morning, looking like a black rag with a pink tongue, she promptly slipped on the floor in fright, spraining her ankle.
“The identification with animals is pronounced in my elder sister, who, unlike me, can think of herself as reptiles too.”
As the mammal-whisperer, it was left to me to rescue the civet and release it back into the garden, where its parents could see it. Since I did not know civet-speak, I tried Bengali, at which it hissed angrily. After many failed attempts, I managed to lure it inside a carton with a banana and released it.
The civets are gone now. They too are hunted for meat and for their perineal glands, which produce the musky secretion used in perfumes. I remember the time I saw them playing on a bamboo pole on the terrace on a moonlit night—gambolling in glee in the blue light of the moon, they looked like magical creatures. My father, who was also witness to the scene, had told me with a conspiratorial smile not to inform mother.
Now that mother is gone too, my sister has given a free rein to her desire to be surrounded by animals and birds. She has cats, crows, sparrows, and mutts, with whom she talks, sleeps, walks, and eats. Recently, on Christmas, she had baked a cake, which turned out to be as hard as brick. Rejected by her husband and son, the cake was presented to the crows by my sister. “One of them took it from my hand on the terrace, dipped it in a pool of collected rainwater and ate it. Aren’t they clever!” my sister exclaimed, happy that her cake had found takers.