That meow again. Shikar got up from his study to investigate its source. Through the window in the living room he saw a cat sitting in the balcony outside. Sitting on its hind with the two front legs upright, it stared intently at him. Then it let out a meow. Shikar tried to shoo it away. The cat backed off two steps but did not turn its back. It took a firm foothold at its new position and meowed again, straight at Shikar. Shikar was puzzled at its behaviour. Cats don't come calling like that. Yet here was a full grown white and light brown feline visitor. There was no trace of fear in its meows. Beyond that, Shikar could not decipher its purpose. He stepped out into the balcony and the cat bounded away.
The second time, Shikar's wife Shruti noticed it. It was there again, meowing. Maybe it was hungry she thought and tossed a piece of bread through the window. The cat ate it promptly. Shruti returned with a full slice convinced that cat just wanted to be fed. But the cat only nibbled at the new slice and soon left it alone. It returned to face Shruti on the inside of the window and continued its bi-syllabic chant. Could it be asking for a drink? thought Shruti. She thought of placing a small bowl of milk but then she didn't want to endear herself too much to the cat. She didn't want the cat to harbour any hopes of a long term relationship. On the other hand, the whole situation was kind of cute- a stray cat persistently seeking the attentions of a stranger couple at their house. And it was a fairly attractive cat. Shruti fetched her camera and captured the cat in the act of conveying its message to her. She left the cat alone after that. After about a hundred unheeded meows, the cat also left. Temporarily.
That night, Shikar and Shruti were intrigued to find the cat back outside their window, calling out steadily again. Was she asking to be admitted inside? Shikar opened the balcony door and left it ajar to see if the cat would come in. The cat took a couple of steps forward. It seemed to be in two minds. Shikar started calling it in. The cat wasn't so sure. Neither was Shruti about letting it in. "Manjari, what do you want?" asked Shruti. "Is that her name?" asked Shikar. "It is now." replied Shruti.
Manjari was quietly taking stock of the young couple. Did they really mean to let her in? Would they harm her? Did they know her secret? She took a couple of tentative steps in the direction of the door. The couple just watched. That was encouraging. She proceeded to lay one paw on the threshold. No trap sprang shut. "She wants to come in. Maybe it is the cold outside.", said Shikar. "She has more fur than us.", said his wife. Manjari then placed another paw on the threshold. She was very alert, ears bolt upright, her lithe body ready to escape at the slightest hint of danger. Shikar started making what he thought to be a welcoming sound for Manjari. Manjari locked her eyes into his frame. He advanced. She bolted away. "Why did you approach her?" reproached Shruti. "I was only trying to be friendly. Wanted to pat her head and ease her in.", said her hubby.
Early next morning, Shikar spotted a cat as he woke from bed and entered the living room. In an instant, it leapt onto the window sill and was off through the balcony. Was it Manjari? He could not recognize her in the dim first light. This was getting spooky, he thought, a stranger cat stalking his house. What was it after?
Shikar noticed more meows emanating from the region of his closet. These were feebler, maybe it was Manjari on the other side of the wall. As he went closer, he realized they seem to be coming from inside the room, close to the floor. He cleared away a laundry bag, ironing stand and guitar to reach a cabinet behind. He used it for storing rags and old clothes. It had a sliding door that he never shut fully. He slid open the door. Four pairs of half open eyes stared back at him and unleashed a flurry of meows. Here was Manjiri's secret. She had been desperately trying to reach her kittens.
Shruti was full of questions. How did the kittens get there without their knowledge? Did Manjari deliver them in her rags cabinet? Had she looked carefully, she would have seen that the cabinet shelves were not soiled at all. Nor did they smell of the juices of labour. Manjari must have brought them there after birth. It was indeed a safe and warm place. Being inside a house, it was also free from the attentions of other birds and animals. And humans. Until now.
But Chunnu, Munnu, Chintu and Pintu - as Shruti named them promptly, could not be allowed to continue living there. The house wasn't exactly spotless as it were and she could do without feline waste in her closet. No, the kittens had to be evicted. Yes, it was terrible asking a nomadic mother to take her new born elsewhere but where was the alternative? Mama cat had to be found immediately. They looked around from the balcony, over the roof and in the adjacent alleys. No sign of Manjari. They would have to wait for its return. In one day, Manjari had changed from being an unwelcome visitor to being most eagerly awaited.
Chunnu, Munnu, Chintu and Pintu were moved into a card box lined with some of the rags from their cabinet nest. The box could not be left unattended in the open balcony - crows would spot them. So they kept it in the room, below the window that Manjari used for its forays. The kittens were flustered by sights and smells other than that of a warm underbelly with juicy nipples. Under the spell of their agitation, the room sounded like it was being invaded by children wearing squeaky beeping shoes. After what seemed like an eternity waiting for the mother, they heard a familiar meow from the balcony. Shikar made a few urgent welcoming noises through the window, opened the balcony door and slid the box of kittens over to the balcony floor. Manjari, waiting at a distance, did not understand what the box was for. The kittens were also being unhelpful. Just moments ago they had ceased their racket and fallen asleep. Shikar gently tipped the box over on its side so that its contents became visible to Manjari.
Manjari stooped and strained her eyes for an instant trying to understand what the box held. Her eyes grew wide as her face registered the shock of recognition. She took a few gingerly steps towards the box, turned to make sure it wasn't some trap, licked her babies as if in passing and then just like that, picked one of them by her mouth and bounded away into her world of alleys, ledges, rooftops and secret closets. The three remaining kittens registered their confusion with an assortment of feeble meowish sounds. Shikar and Shutri waited expectantly for Manjari to return and claim the rest of her offspring. But Manjari did not return.
"Great, we get to babysit three kittens until mummy returns.", said Shruti as they began to wonder if the kittens needed feeding. They tried taking small bowls of milk near the kittens' mouth. But a few days old kitten knows only to grope for warm nipples. "We might have to get a small feeding bottle.", said Shikar. The shopkeeper at the local medical shop smiled knowingly as Shikar asked him for the smallest feeding bottle he had. This was a sign of a new father. Soon he would need baby formula, diapers, baby cream, the works. A long term revenue prospect in short. "I have all baby products, sir.", he said. Shikar nodded and started to walk. "And you get 10% discount for purchase above 500.", added the shopkeeper for good measure.
Two of the kittens got it. In turn, they sucked hungrily at the silicone nipple bearing skimmed buffalo milk. The third kitten rejected it. We don't know if it it was Chunnu, Munnu, Chintu or Pintu. The four names had been assigned to the collective of four kittens, not individually. Shikar tried feeding the third kitten again after some time but it just wouldn't take to the bottle. He asked Shruti to try but she could not bring herself to hold the kitten in her hands. Evening came and still no sign of Manjari. Shikar narrated the incidents of the day over phone to his father. Shikar's father was raised in a village and Shikar wondered if he might have something to say about Manjari's apparent un-motherly behaviour.
"She will come back.", father said. "But you have disturbed her nest. She may eat them if she can't protect them." Expectation for Manjari's return turned to dread. What had she done to the first kitten? Had she finished him off? Was she just resting after making a meal of her own baby? Was that why she hadn't returned? Then they came to the inevitable questions, "What do we do if she returns? Do we just let her pick another one? What else can we do? We can't care for them till they grow up. Can we be sure she is killing them? She could just as well be searching for a different nest." As they prepared to retire to bed with these questions still weighing heavy, Manjari called. Same spot on the balcony, same meow. Shikar and Shruti looked at each other and decided that the best course of action was to not judge Nature's ways. They placed the box of three remaining kittens in front of Manjari. Manjari picked another and left.
They left the living room window wide open that night with the box of two kittens just under the window. It was an invitation to Manjari to claim the rest. Leaving them in the balcony would expose them to the cold air and to other possible predators like big rats. Shikar and Shruti woke up the next morning to find the box empty. And Manjari has not called on them ever since.