Patchwork and her merry band of feral cats
“Eeeeeh, is that cat dead?” screamed my rather overwrought daughter, looking out of the window. Together, we scrutinised a bizarre sight: a familiar, feral cat was wedged into our rolled chik (a woven Typha grass blind, hung outside windows and used for shade). Limbs pointing to the sky, high up under an iron grill, its concealed body was motionless. It looked so un-feline in this awry position. “Either dead to the world in slumber, or departed from the world altogether”, was my wry response.
Soon, the gardening boy turned up, emitting shuffling sounds and movements. As we watched in silence, the cat shook awake, righted itself and tiptoed along a metal grill to calmly disappear down the railing.
This odd one is called Patchwork, our nickname for one of two sibling cats that live around our house nowadays. They are feral cats that artfully dodge our resident dog every day. Feral cats, so common all over Pakistan and the world, are a phenomenon since antiquity. These are un-owned, domestic cats that live outdoors and avoid human contact, allowing humans to feed them or finding their own food.
Although considered a major pest for urban wildlife in many parts, culturally they are tolerated in Muslim countries, being allowed into mosques, gardens and hospitals, unlike other animals that are treated as pests. In fact, cats are often pictured as companions to Muslim scholars in paintings and poems.
Patchwork, as the name suggests, is a blotchy-coloured young female with rust, black and grey patches covering her elongated body like commando camouflage. Her brother, Tortoiseshell, in contrast, is a shapely grey and cream, dappled creature, with almond-shaped eyes.
A theory circulates in our home about the sharp contrast between the dancer-like Tortoiseshell and wacky Patchwork. The roots of this contrast lie inside our home itself and go back to the childhood of these two siblings and their mother.
It all started with Mummy, as we called their beguiling mother, also a feral cat. We are besotted with animals, but our younger daughter takes the cake with her affinity for cats. When Mummy, one of our neighbourhood cats became pregnant, she assumed an entirely charming demeanour towards humans, especially our daughter. A fluffy, soft, tactile fur coat with a halo of longer fur feather, framed a supple, elegant gait in a golden, dappled body. Her almond eyes and pointy ears gave Mummy the appearance of a young, vulnerable thing. Of course, our younger daughter fell for the charm offensive.
As a pregnancy matured in her lithe body, Mummy ingratiated herself by mewing and rubbing her face into our daughter’s arms and eventually into her bedroom. Then, unbeknown to me, the cat started to systematically explore our daughter’s room, until one morning, Mummy was found in the upper shelves of the clothes wardrobe, nestled in a comfy pile of clothes, with two newborn kittens!
With our daughter as her bodyguard warding off any family intruders, Mummy and her litter of two was fed and watered in the bedroom. The little family grew, and night-time became a drama of activity true to nocturnal feral behaviour. At the breakfast table, we would hear how our daughter pretended to sleep as looming shadows all around her bedroom walls played out projected images of pouncings of predator and huntings of prey. An opera played out by two tiny, little, growing kittens that came alive after dark, like the girls in the fairy tale who wore out their dancing shoes every night.
Sometimes safely accommodated on the bathroom mat with the toilet out of bounds for all and sundry. Sometimes ensconced under the bed, the little kittens were secure, until one weekend morning, as we sat reading the newspapers, something dramatic happened.
A dull, thud resounded in the courtyard on that lazy, weekend morning. Something fell down from the upper story walkway, down a considerable height, into the courtyard below. We only had to turn our heads from the adjoining room, to see tiny little Patchwork kitten shaken from a considerable fall.
As the family froze in our pyjamas, we witnessed Mummy gliding down the stairs and pick up tiny Patchwork in her mouth. Without a sound, she carried her precious parcel up the stairs and back into the safety of the purloined bedchamber, now a nursery.
At the time, all we felt was concern for Patchwork. We now believe that a kitten-hood concussion to the head may well be the source of her current, wacky behaviour.
After the great fall, Mummy and her children relocated themselves to a particularly unfrequented balcony of the next-door house. Opposite our daughter’s bedroom, in full view of her window, the kittens grew healthy and strong. Mummy was a model mother, always there when needed for food and protection, but herself: free, elegant and roaming. As I watched her honed, maternal routine, I almost envied her skills, wishing I could have been so elegant and free during my maternity years with my two children.
Mummy has now departed from the world. Despite her eternally youthful looks, she lay down, peacefully breathing her last, in the neighbour’s garden as an old cat. Wacky Patchwork and elegant Tortoiseshell have inherited our home and now play out their operas in our garden. We know their ways as only family elders might, recognizing idiosyncrasies and wiles through their maternal history with endless amusement.
Image of Mummy, Patchwork, Tortoiseshell, taken by the author’s daughter
The author is a Lahore-based ecologist