Goodbye. This word definitely comes in the Top-10 words dreaded by every Army wife.
Goodbyes said to our soldier, our friends, kids, neighbours, seniors, OR families…. we never seem to be able to stop saying goodbyes, not knowing when we will meet them again.
But I just realised, if saying goodbyes sucks, then not getting a chance to say it before leaving sucks even more. And now I know exactly how Pi felt at not getting that one moment to say goodbye to Richard Parker (Life of Pi, book and movie).
I couldn’t say goodbye to my own Richard Parker (miniature version). Even if I had said it, I would not have received a reply, except an ice-cold stare back.
“Oh god, so you won’t even let me sit in peace. Paparazzi kahin ki.”
And that breaks my heart, even today.
I am a huge cat-person and had befriended this stray kitten in our last peace station. She was a cheerful and naughty kitten, and her multicolored fur resembled that of my pet cat I had when I was in school. She technically belonged to the maid who used to live in the servant quarters of our block. The maid had named her Chandani (yes, a peculiar name for a cat), and I was amazed how the kitten would readily respond to this name.
I personally preferred to call her Chhoni (started off with Soni but ended up corrupting the name) though she never even twitched her ears at this name. She was a typical moody and aristocrat cat — AristoCat to the core. 😛
She would initially just come over to rub herself against our legs whenever we came out into our garden. Then gradually she warmed up and used to come into our house for some milk. Then twice a day. Then thrice.
“See the thing is that you can sit on some other chair, you don’t need the sofa. But I do.”
She started stopping by for naps in the hot afternoons too. Yes, she got that comfortable in our house. She would come, drink milk, climb up on the sofa and sleep for 2-3 hours. So one fine day, when we both were in a particularly playful mood, I noticed that her movements had slowed a bit. It also looked like she had put on some weight.
Two weeks later, she delivered a litter of 3 in our neighbour’s garage. A month later, all four of them would drop by for milk and playtime. Major Sa’ab was not particularly thrilled… you see, he was not a great pet-fan. And whenever Chhoni went up to him to play or just sit by his side on the sofa, her fur would end up on his uniform.
“I don’t think Major Sa’ab is vigilant enough. Here, let me too keep watch.”
But he too warmed up — it was hard not to with all the circus-type activities that the three kittens would put on display in our living room.
The kittens grew up and went their own way. It was just me and Chhoni once again.
She had somehow figured out that the front door opened every time the doorbell rang. She would show up at the front door whenever the maid, the MES repair guy, Major Sa’ab’s Sahayak or the milkman rang the bell. And she would be inside the house before the door was fully open (yes, those first few inches would be enough for her to sneak in).
My sister came with her family to visit us and that meant NO ENTRY for Chonni for at least 7 days as my sis was allergic to cat’s fur. Oh I think I must mention that even I am allergic to cats’ fur. This was also one of the reasons that Major Sa’ab didn’t want Chhoni inside the house — he was sick of having a sneezing wife who had red swollen eyes after a cat-visit.
“I am here for some stringent quality checks on everything that is prepared in this kitchen. I don’t really trust women like you.”
Chhoni later figured out that if there’s clinking-clanking of utensils, then she is supposed to climb onto the kitchen window and meow like crazy. And if the TV is on, then it is time to attack the bedroom window and go supersonic.
The fun part was to train her not to enter the kitchen. The kitchen door wouldn’t close entirely, so we couldn’t bolt it shut whenever Chhoni was inside. So we would scream like hell whenever she stepped inside. We would mix it up with sprinkling water on her which made her exit the kitchen on the double. Stomping my feet like a little girl also helped in passing on the message to her.
As a result, Chhoni would never enter the kitchen but wait on the panv-ponch outside it. But she was a cat after all. So one fine day when I accidentally fell asleep while she was still inside the house, she sneaked into the kitchen and happily finished off all the milk. Oooo I blew my top off when I found out, and didn’t take her inside for two days. But then I only felt bad and apologised to her… see they do have magical powers and are masters at manipulating us.
“Ya fine, I know I am not supposed to enter the kitchen. I am waiting on the mat here, but you need to hurry up and get me my milk.”
“The kitchen door is close and the memsahib is in another room. I should definitely go inside and see if everything in the kitchen is alright.”
She was expecting her third litter this summer. Major Sa’ab was out on some official work for a week while I was enjoying some alone-time at home. I didn’t have to prepare meals at meal-times and I didn’t have to follow any schedule at all… total vella-pan. Two days before Major Sa’ab was to return home, a thunder storm hit our city. Electricity went off, and it was raining the entire night.
I went to sleep at 0300 hrs, after reading a book by the candlelight — there was nothing else to do as the TV and Wi-Fi was not working. At around 0500 hrs, Chhoni woke me up with her incessant meowing by my bedroom window. I said a firm NO to her, indicating that I won’t let her in at this hour. She understood “No”. Probably the only other word she recognised after “Chandani”.
But she kept on meowing quite aggressively, in different tones, which was enough for my sleep to vanish. Jeez I had just gone off to sleep like two minutes ago. I even tried to breath as slowly as possible to fool her into thinking that I wasn’t in the room anymore. It had worked in the past. Didn’t this time.
I caved-in within 10 minutes and opened the back door. She ran in, paused just for a minute to shrug the rain drops off her fur coat, and then proceeded at full speed towards Major Sa’ab’s room. When I say Major Sa’ab’s room, I mean the spare room where he keeps all his clothes, uniforms, files, books and stuff.
For some reason, Major Sa’ab never got into the habit of closing his almirah doors.
“I am going out. Oh but you stay at home and take care of my five kittens.”
So Chhoni went straight for the almirah in which all the Uniforms and fauji-stuff was kept, vanished into the bottom shelf behind the green Mec Gear rucksack and… well that was it.
Chhoni had never behaved this way and I immediately sensed that maybe it was time for her to deliver her kittens. With the emergency light, I set up camp in that boring room that night (early morning). I could ocassionally hear some moaning, but sleep got the better of me. I woke up after two hours when the lights came on. And I could hear squeaky meowing! Badhai ho! Hamare ghar naya mehmaan aya hai. Err… ek nai, 5 aye hain.
Two days later when Major Sa’ab came home, I told him to check out the bottom shelf of his uniforms wala almirah.
Ufff, not the kinda reaction you expect in a delivery room. He immediately ordered the cat+litter bundle to be thrown out of the house. Promptly vetoed by me. Out of his room. Nada, not happening under my watch. Out of the cupboard maybe? Nope.
“You wanna work? Stop looking at me as if I am the one preventing you from working. You go right ahead…”
Had to sit down with him and explain that this is not how things around a new mother (cat or human) work. That Chhoni and her baccha-party were now our responsibility. And we cannot interfere with the way cats naturally cope with pregnancy, delivery and post-natal care.
Major Sa’ab had just about managed to grasp the idea, when Chhoni decided that it would be fun to shift her new family into OUR BEDROOM. One by one, she moved the kittens into my almirah’s bottom drawer where I kept my spare Tupperware stock. God! One of these days, we are going to have to remember to close our almirah doors!
So for almost a month and half, all eight of us were staying in that room. We could no longer afford to keep the room messy as our friends would drop by, often unannounced, to have a look at the kittens. We watched how an utterly vigilant Chhoni later on loosened up to leave the kittens under our care. Oh the ruckus those kittens created once they were able to walk, run, jump and squeak bloody murder!
“I came inside to have some alone time. You let my kitten in, so now you look after him. I am going to relax and I don’t want to be disturbed.”
The day they started climbing up the bed, we decided it was time for them to leave our house. And we were about to start packing as Major Sa’ab’s tenure was coming to an end. So the Chhoni khandaan was forcefully relocated in to our garage. Chhoni was still allowed inside because…err.. it was her house after all. We were just adopted owners and temporary tenants. 😀
We soon started packing. Just packing up certain corners, not the full-fledged packing that Army wives and officers do. And I could see that Chhoni was sensing that something was not right. She would often check out the corner in the living room where she had always seen a lamp (which was now packed up), or curiously peek into the trunk in Major Sa’ab’s room.
I had now started hugging her for no reason in that last week. I would well-up at the thought of leaving her behind. I obviously couldn’t have taken her with me, no matter how much I dearely wanted to pack her up in one of the cartons. This place was her home, she had friends and relatives here, and unlimited open space for her to roam around. I cannot simply uproot her and cage her in the 2bhk I was to move in next week.
The day the packers came, Chhoni was restless. Partly because she realised one of her kittens was missing and partly because she could see people moving in and out of the house with boxes. By afternoon, she decided the commotion was too much to handle and moved her kittens somewhere else (I couldn’t keep track of it amidst the frantic packing). But she came back to supervise the loading of the truck.
She was there when the truck left. She was there with us when we stayed back to pack our personal belongings. She was there when the maid came to clean the house one last time. And all this time, Chhoni did not utter a sound. Not one meow. Not even the usual purring. She kept staring at us while we moved around the house. I sat down for a minute and she sat down with me. I hugged her and cried my eyes out, she was still totally expressionless. As if she knew what was coming and was angry with me.
“WHAT THE…. WHY THE… SHIT.”
Later that evening, we handed the keys over to the MES guy. Chhoni was still there in the garden, pouncing on butterflies and insects. We were to stay with Major Sa’ab’s coursemate for a day, so we walked up to his car to leave. She just looked up, her face totally blank as if she wanted to zone us out. I vowed to come back the next day to say a proper goodbye.
We left our friend’s house the next day and Major Sa’ab asked the driver to take us to our old house so that I could meet Chhoni. I immediately broke down, sobbing like a schoolgirl. He gently asked me whether I still want to go there.
“Lets go to the airport directly. I don’t know how to face Chhoni right now,” I said.
“Just leave. Like everyone else does. You are just another fauji family even though I thought you were special and won’t leave me alone. And now you expect me to be understanding. Huh”
We went to the airport and left that city. I did not have the heart to meet Chhoni and tell her that we won’t be meeting ever again. It would have been so cool if she could reply with a “no problem, we’ll stay in touch through facebook”. No, she can’t do that. And I didn’t want to be the only one ‘saying’ anything.
Oh how much I now regret not meeting her that one last time. Pets, or visiting pets (a la visiting faculty) can so easily cement their place in your heart that it becomes painful to bid farewell. Maybe saying goodbye to friends is not that difficult.
All I can wish for is that whoever moves in to our house will love Chhoni as much as we did. And I don’t think Major Sa’ab is going to let me befriend any feline from now on. Because one day, the time to say goodbye will definitely come. And one-way goodbyes hurt like hell.