Thursday 1 September 2016

Short Story 2016 Featured Amar Agarwala

Rosemary And Her Cats

Miss Rosemary Horatio Auckland, finally retired as the Principal of The Jewish Girls School, which was a prominent girls school of the city sometime in the early 1970’s. She had held on to her post well past her retirement, having being given several extensions by the School Trustee Board. Firstly, because she was a teacher par-excellence and the second being her incredible administrative abilities, which made her run the affairs of the school with an iron hand and to top it, she was a total disciplinarian. The Board members were hapless in finding a suitable replacement for her in the city precincts and had little choice but to reappoint her. Finally, as she neared her sixty sixth year, she refused any further extension which was on the anvil.  She felt that after a long and satisfying career of more than forty years, it was quite enough for a life-time. More so, she had a few commitments to her family whom she felt were neglected considerably owing to her preoccupations with school.  Surprisingly, her immediate family comprised of an ageing family servant and cook by the name of Mehboob Ali, and her entourage of eight cats.  Miss Auckland was incredibly fond of her feline family, for almost all her own, comprising of her parents and seven siblings had passed away, save for an elder sister named Belinda, who had moved to Canada after her marriage. It did not deter the sisters from keeping in regular touch though mails and occasional long distance phone calls. 
Rosemary was nice to look at in her youth, she was tall and lissom and always had robust health, but never married; she preferred remaining a spinster, for she found it hard to find a suitable man. 

According to her, most men were irresponsible and untrustworthy besides being sexually frustrated.  She herself came from a broken family, for her father who was a Colonel in the British Army had divorced his wife of fifteen years; her mother, having fallen in love with another woman when he was posted abroad.  Later her went on to marry her and settled down in South Africa, breaking all ties with his erstwhile family, comprising of his wife and eight children, of whom, Rosemary was the youngest.  Her mother Simone, was a devout Irish lady with strong family values; she decided to stay on in India and spent her life bringing up her children. Being the only child of her parents, she was well supported by her father who was a wealthy Irish trader, hence she never lacked for money and never remarried either. However, she remained bitter towards her husband, Horatio Benedict Auckland for having abandoned her and never saw him again in during her life. Even though, and not surprisingly, he had evinced an interest in meeting her and his children some years later but his overtures were stonewalled by Simone. Rosemary shared her mother’s matrimonial traumas and deeply resented the man who had fathered her and then left them without a thought to fend for themselves.  With Simone struggling with the upbringing of all her children together, two brothers and a sister went away to Ireland to live with their grandfather and the rest, including Rosemary remained in India. Deep in their hearts the family stoutly bore the painful separation and the unholy scar; but most of it was suffered by Rosemary, for whom it was an unwanted and abhorable legacy, which she despairingly lugged around in her mind, unable to cast it away.  It made her closer to her siblings and all she yearned for was for the family to be well-knit, together and happy. 

Rosemary’s penchant for cats was no where near the ordinary, for she was not just fond of them but considered each one of them as family.  It was a known fact that Rosemary was extremely fond of her three brothers and four sisters, like she was of her mother and grandfather, who had deep affections for her.  She had kept constant contact with them, as they had with her during their lifetime. Each in their death left Rosemary devastated and heart-broken; it would not be long before another cat would be added to her existing litter, almost as if it were filling up a void in her heart. And Rosemary would happily look after it, as if it was her intrinsic duty. She would lovingly christen the cats with familiar names, so that they could easily be identified. It was her novel way to condole the deaths, an inevitability, which she bore with the utmost of stoicism. Her pet count of eight did in fact, add upto names like: Brendon, Simone, Benedict, Raul, Vivian, Geraldine, Ronald, and Michelle. Miss Auckland would often lovingly speak of her surviving relative, an elder sister Belinda, who was the only one alive besides herself. She did not bother with the memories of her father; for the simple reason that she never considered him family after what he had done. She never forgave him and desperately wished to erase the fleeting memories of him she had as a child. 

She took wonderful care of her pussies, and her large apartment resembled a cat-house with the lazy and spoilt animals roaming around like monarchs at the sprawling tenements of No.2, Chowringhee Lane, often to the annoyance of her neighbours.  I was privy to it all, for our apartment at 3A, was alongside No.2, with only a stony and dilapidated courtyard separating us. The Mango Tree stood as a sentinel to ensure that the two edifices never met; like me, the crows nesting on it were a trifle weary of the cats, who would often climb up the branches for a quick feast on the helpless fledglings.  From each of my window on the third floor, I could look directly into her apartment which was on the second. The ancient windows of her apartment were fitted with large teak-wood wooden shutters, but none of them had grills, perhaps it was to make it easy for her cats to sneak in and go out as they pleased. She even had a cosy little balcony near the eastern side of her apartment, which overlooked onto the lane. Here, she would often sit in the mornings and during the evenings, on her favourite rocking chair and read. At times she would look down and casually glance at the passers-bye, sharing a comment or two with her little bunnies who would lay comfortably sprawled around her and even atop the armrest of the chair. They would take turns on her lap to be gently caressed and rubbed, happily purring at her plod dings when she felt the need to share something with them. They would almost instantly agree with her in each of her comments and passed judgements; after all, they were all a well knit family.  

The family servant Mehboob was directed to cook special dishes for the animals, as each one had their own select taste bud: whereas Brendon loved raw fish, Simone liked milk with cookies, Raul loved chocolate biscuits and cakes, Geraldine liked raw meat, while Vivian and Michelle liked rice and milk and the rest liked boiled vegetables and fruits. Her visitors and guests were warned by Mehboob to give utmost respect to the animals, or else the Memsahib would feel upset.  More so, if anyone was allergic or was not fond of cats, then it was advisable that they kept away from the Auckland household.  The cats went for walks with their mistress, slept with her on her large double bed, ate under the dining table when she sat for her meals. At times they would even be audacious to follow her into the washroom, when she was completing her ablutions. They would be given baths by her and sparingly by Mehboob, after that, they would be patted dry, powdered and combed. Times they would sport a little bow, specially Brendon and Benedict, for they were supposed to be very fashionable in their outlook. The others would carry pertinent accessories too, like Simone had a thin pearl necklace to adorn her, Vivian and Michelle would often wear silver trinkets on their feet and Raul was inseparable from his large red rubber ball.  She would happily say that he was an ardent soccer fan, and vehemently supported Manchester United, whose jersey color matched that of the ball. Times, some of them accompanied her for short walks and at even went along with Mehboob to the market, when he went to shop for groceries and tinned cat food.  During the winter months, they would often be seen walking around with little colourful jackets and vests covering their furry bodies, the colour of course matched their favourite of which Rosemary was well aware of. 
It may not be out of place to mention that Miss Auckland was an expert on cat-care and would often visit the neighbourhood vet at the corner of Kyd Street, so that she could take better care of her little ones.  She was very well read and had a cupboard full of books, quite a number of them were on animals and most being about cats and their upbringing, dietary schedules and domestic care.   Her family of cats an apt example of good care, for they looked clean, well-fed and had amazing grace and manners.  I would often see them responding to their mistress with the alacrity of soldiers obeying the command of their generals.  Come morning, and she would stare from atop her horn rimmed spectacles with her head of thick salt and pepper hair tied up in a bun, and holler in her loud high pitched voice: “Brendon and Michelle, what keeps you asleep so late? It is time to wake up and smile.”
“Raul, you do need to exercise a little, can’t you see that you are putting on so much weight.  Wait till I tell Mehboob to cut down on your quota of biscuits and cup cakes.”

“Ronald, did I see you upturning a few flower pots in the courtyard yesterday, when you were playing with Simone. Naughty boy, don’t you need to be careful? What if one of them broke? It would be such a pity… wouldn’t it? And Ronald would apologetically stand in front of her, listening to the mild admonishments of his mistress with a melancholic stare.  I would love to watch it, for I was never fond of cats and it gave me a chance to see the lot getting scolded for unmannered behaviour.  Miss Auckland’s was indulging but ever strict with her family and her watchful eyes missed nothing, after all that is what she did for more than forty years at school – keeping a vigil on her students.  The classroom had since changed and her wards had turned to an assortment of graceful cats, who perhaps obeyed her more than her students and never harboured harsh thoughts against her, unlike some of her students.   

One of them, a young girl called Lilian was a regular visitor to our building, as her best friend lived on the first floor.  Lilian had passed out of Jewish Girls School, when it was reined by the indomitable Miss Auckland; fondly recollects how the girls would snigger at being reprimanded by the principal, which would happen almost everyday, even for trivial issues like their skirts were a little untidy or out of place when they sat down, talking loudly to their friends across the corridors of school and much more.  Miss Auckland was prim and proper herself, always very conscious of her dress and demeanour and expected every of her student and close family to match it.  The only exception she tolerated was Mehboob Ali, who was quite unkempt and scraggly and bothered little with his appearance. In essence he would hardly be blamed for it, for the household would have a hundred chores to be done, in addition to a demanding family of nine to be looked after.  The task was incredible, for to begin with, he had the military dictions of Miss Auckland to comply with and besides he had his hands over-full to keep the large four bed-roomed apartment habitable and in running order, it hardly had time to bother with himself.  The quality that endeared Mehboob to Miss Auckland was his dedication to the family for more than half a century, an almost extinct quality that can no longer found of working hands.  He was dependable and loyal, besides never uttering a word when his memsahib was distressed or annoyed, and that she often was, being extremely finicky about cleanliness and to top it would often get into fits of extreme temper that were far from easy to manage.

Mehboob occupied the tiny bedroom at the extreme western end of the apartment which took up almost the entire of the second floor at No.2, Chowringhee Lane. It had a miniscule bath fitted to it; which served as his living quarters.  He was a widower, and his only daughter was married off when she was only a child, as it was custom in the villages then.  But tragedy struck when she suddenly passed away in child-birth, Mehbood was distraught and shattered by the news, more so, for he had a little grand-son who was only seven and he worried for the child’s well-being.   A short while into her death, he got tidings from his native village in Bihar that his son-in-law had remarried and the step-mother was ill-treating his grandchild, this was more than what Mehbood could bear.  He took leave from work and fetched his grandchild from his native village with the complete consent of Miss Auckland, who was more than encouraging. She had as much warned him earlier, that his son-in-law would prove to be most incompetent to take care of the child, and she was right.  She allowed Mehboob to keep the boy with himself in the Auckland house and even took a liking for the reclusive little boy and soon adopted him into her already expanding family.  The shy Liaquat, finally found a home, and did not mind sharing it with the cats, whom he soon befriended and the family seemed complete, well almost.  Mehboob was glad to have a helping hand, and the cats an attendant to see to their nagging needs.  The educationist that she was, Miss Auckland admitted the little boy into the small school that was just across their house on Chowringhee Lane. Some time later, Liaquat befriended the gang of boys down the lane, and I in particular shared a good rapport with him. It also helped me with valuable insights on the Auckland family, which I always found intriguing and most interesting.  

Then just a few days before Thanksgiving, the only other surviving member of the Auckland family, Belinda, came visiting her youngest sister after almost two decades. Miss Auckland was delighted, but her happiness was short-lived when Belinda informed that Jason, the second son of her eldest brother Brendon had died in a road accident in Portsmouth, England.  He was only twenty five of age, the family had on purpose kept the news from her, considering her age and that she lived all by herself.   The news saddened her considerably, even though she had only once met the little boy when he was all of seven and she had gone visiting her brother in England, who was recovering from a bout of tuberculosis.  Within a few days, a little kitten appeared from nowhere and added to the litter in the Auckland household. Rosemary promptly christened him with a name which was close to her heart! Then something startling happened on Thanksgiving which shook the very edifice of the Auckland family. Mehboob was asked to cook a lavish dinner for Belinda, who was the guest of honor and for the cats; Belinda who was closely watching her younger sister since her arrival, finally confronted her about the cats and her obsession with them. Soon after the prayers were said on the dining table, and much to the bewilderment of her sister Belinda and little Liaquat, Rosemary formally introduced her cats to them, saying… do meet: Brendon (My Maternal Grandfather), Simone (My Mother), Benedict (My Eldest Brother), Raul (My Second Brother), Vivian (My Eldest Sister),  Geraldine (My Second Sister), Ronald (My Third Brother and the youngest among them all), Michelle (My Second Sister) and now Jason (My nephew) looking directly into the eyes of the white and grey colored pussy-cat which had entered the household only a few days ago and quietly sat licking its paws under her chair.  While, Belinda was initially agape and then shocked at what she heard, Liaquat was mortally afraid that the apartment thronged over with a gang of dead relatives reincarnated as cats.  He stood in mortal fear, tightly clasping the sweaty palms of his grand-father, who stood with a bland knowing expression on his dark wrinkled face. 

Belinda had reacted with astonishment, “You couldn’t mean this Rose… I mean how could you?
To which Rosemary had replied as a matter of fact, “My Dear Belinda, they were all very fond of me, if you remember correctly.  And shortly after they died they came back as cats to live with me forever. It is so hard on them to stay away from one another… and from me.”
“You need help Rose,” Belinda’s voice had quivered.
“I am merely trying to keep the family together and it is finally my responsibility, after Mumma passed away,” she looked a little dismayed saying the words.
“They are all dead Rose… and will never ever come back to us. Why don’t you realize it?” Belinda was at her wit’s end to try and explain to her sister whom she now suspected to have turned a little insane.

“It is true they died, but it is also true that they are back. Can’t you see them, can’t you feel their vibrations here… right here in this room,” so saying she had got up and caressed one of the cats, “Look at him: Brendon – did our grandfather not walk with a limp – this one has one from the day he  come to this house. Look here, this is Simone, and she has such slender neck, just like Mumma did and our dear Ronald, who had a scar on this right cheek and here it is.  They are all a carbon copies of our beloved family.  Count them, they are nine in all, eight of us and now Jason… how can you not see it Belinda,” Rosemary had pleaded palpably distraught.
“Rose… I cannot believe that you being so educated and learned could harbour such perverted, superstitious thoughts…, “Belinda had cried out.
“In fact, I have been so eager for our family to be complete… it has been ages. And now that you are here…” Rosemary’s face beamed uttering the words, which had the strangest of tones, it was almost eerie.

Belinda had left the table and stormed into her bedroom, completely aghast with what she had heard.  She could barely believe that her dear little sister, the youngest and last surviving member of the family after her, was waiting for her to die and be added to the litter of cats, that would follow her around the rest of her life.  

Liaquat tells me, that Belinda hurriedly aborted her stay and left soon after.  She did not speak much with her sister after that night, neither did she try to reason with her or keep in touch once she reached Canada.  It was a different matter that, she did not live long enough to carry the grievances she had harboured after her last visit to her home country, for she died within a few months of her return.  A short while later, a little brown cat emerged in the Auckland household, and was unceremoniously christened – Belinda by Miss Auckland.  Liaquat would often hear the lady of the house crooning to the new cat, “Oh my loving Belinda. Am at a loss of words to thank you for making our family complete…, you are so wonderful. Mumma will finally be happy now… so will Grandpa. I know that they are now at peace.” Then she would croon in a cracked sing-song voice:

‘Our small family is together,
And they are such a loving lot,
Shall be with them till infinity
Oh! What a wonderful thought
Oh! What a wonderful thought...’

I gathered all this from Liaquat, but that was a long time ago.  It has now been almost two decades that Miss Auckland has passed away.  She left all her properties and belongings, including her litter of kittens to Liaquat, who she felt was the rightful inheritor of not just her belongings but could be entrusted with keeping the family together. Much the way his grandfather had served the family. Liaquat had once mentioned that the cats had turned a shade hostile and troublesome after the demise of Miss Auckland, until a few months into her death, a milky white Siamese cat, with blue grey eyes, marched into the Auckland apartment, at No.2, Chowringhee Lane completely uninvited.  It was the most beautiful animal he had ever seen and had not the least inkling how it got there. but it was wearing a blue ribbon around its neck with a lovely silver pendant – and he remembered that the color blue was Miss Auckland’s favourite besides he even had a feeling that he had seen the pendent somewhere in the house but he was not very sure. The cat seemed to know the household by the back of its hands and the first thing it did was jumping up on the old weather-worn rocking chair, on the little balcony,  and plonked on it cushions and promptly fell asleep, completely oblivious to her surroundings.  In a few days, the remaining cats took to their old disciplined behaviour as the Siamese took complete charge of them. The shaken Liaquat, not knowing what to do, promptly gave the Siamese a name, which was an old ritual in the Auckland household, for he thought it was the best he could do under the circumstances. I was not surprised when he told me that the Siamese responded to its christened name with immense delight – he called her ‘Rosemary’!

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