Cats came into Preeti’s life long before camels, around the time cows found a way out of her heart but into her life. She had seen cows ever since she could remember…while riding horse driven tongas in Haridwar in 1970s, creating traffic jams in Delhi, Haridwar, Kolkata, Dehradun, Lucknow and wherever she happened to visit in India. From long before the days they chased her, thinking she was contender for the tempting fare in an open dustbin heap in Delhi, she had tremendous respect for cows and bovine life saviours. So much so that cows were a reason why living out of the country suited her. They were never friends with her. Camels came later because they don’t roam the streets at large, like cows, dogs, monkeys and donkeys…
But before Preeti started narrating the cat and camel story, she confided that she had been craving to have a trip to Egypt on camel back to visit the temple of the feline goddess, Bastet. The reason Preeti referred to her as feline was Bastet had been given the head of a lioness and made into a warrior princess when she started out in the third millennium BCE and ended up as a cat some two thousand years later! Preeti was curious about Bastet.
Why would a warrior goddess adapt and become a cat one? Was she giving some kind of a message to other women as the guardian of mankind? As in a book she read long ago, Volga to Ganga, a historical fiction covering the geographic area mentioned in the title from 6000 BC to 1922, the author, Rahul Sankritayan, claimed that women fought alongside men. Preeti said she had read the translation by Victor Kierman. In that book, the first story set in 6000 BC, depicted women as warriors, leaders, clan chiefs and men obeyed them. Later women as a race subsided. I added that I had seen skeletons of such a civilisation housed in Xian’s Neolithic Banpo museum. The guide had told us the civilisation from 4500 BCE to 3750 BCE was matriarchal. And yet, Chinese women had to bind their feet and go through painful mutilation themselves to make up to standards of beauty till Mao Zedong outlawed the practice! Was that good or bad?
The main thing was why did Bastet from a ruler turn to a hunter of mice? Why would she metamorphose? Gregor did metamorphose into a giant bug and kick up a ruckus in Kafka’s world, and his manifestation was seen often as an externalisation of his inner self, but was that why Bastet changed to a cat from a lioness? Did she feel catching mice and manning (oops…catting) the caps of funeral urns would be a better deal for her than fighting wars? A question that Preeti felt could find resolution if she made that trip to Egypt on camel back.
Preeti was born a Leo and could never imagine being called a female cat instead of a lioness. Many females were feline by nature, she felt, but not her. Neither was that a reason to love cats or her own kind. All creatures great and small.
However, like dogs, cats loved Preeti too… not the strays in Delhi or in other places in India but there was one in Holland — expressed her fondness by sitting on Preetis’s lap every time she settled to watch TV — more than three decades ago.
I told Preeti I was lost, and she needed to start her story at the beginning, instead of starting from the middle — a very bad place to start unless you give a flash back. So, she narrated the flashback.
“I was almost eighteen. My cousin and I were traveling in Europe and staying with some Dutch friends in this little town near Amsterdam. These friends had a black cat with green eyes and a tail. I mention the tail because when it came under my foot, the cat for all its ostensible love of me gave a scratch! It lurked in the tall grass behind the house near the recliner that had stretched out an invitation to me. I sat down to read. The cat quietly prowled under the shade of the recliner placing her tail right where I would place my foot when I got up. She could guess the exact spot probably instinctively!
“And then, she kicked up a rumpus when I got up and stood on her tail. I was thin, scrawny, underweight. She was fat and big and black. But she hissed, mewed and scratched.
Not much happened to me because I was in thick denims.
“And then at night the ingrate was back — back to my lap by the TV!
“That was my catty adventure.”
Camels and interactions with them happened later in Preeti’s life at least two decades later. Her first major encounter was across the border where McMahon drew a line that still draws much contention and conflict. But, then, which line does not? Differences of any kind create contentions and yet we classify and classify. When it’s cats and lions, it is understandable because one catches mice, the other rules the jungle! But back to Preeti’s narrative from this pointless digression.
“In China, my three-year-old and I rode a camel at the zoo. We got on to a standing camel or horses from a rigged platform with steps. But in India, the experience was different. The next ride was in Jaipur, Chowki Dhani. It was night. They had a fair where they had fire-eaters and palmists and camels. The fire eaters were amazing to watch. One palmist called me hot-tempered looking at my palm — much to my chagrin and my family’s amusement. And then my five-year-old wanted to ride the camel. He could not go alone. I was forced to volunteer as my husband never rides animals, only machines, like cars, trains, planes and roller coasters. And my elder son was sleeping off some heady medication — he had vomiting and stomach upset, a common occurrence whenever my kids visit India.
“The camel driver asked us to sit on the animal’s back while the creature was sitting. We climbed three stairs. He asked me to get on first. I put one foot up and put it on the camel. It felt furry and bony under the quilts. I was given a reign of sorts. Then my son was put before me. At last the camel was made to get up. It went ‘see’ first and ‘saw’ then. Quite an experience. My son shouted in glee. My mother-in-law, who watched my face, suggested I get off and we dump the ride. But I hung on — too stunned to respond! My son was delighted. As the camel picked up pace and ran on the uneven fair ground, I felt I was on a stormy sea or maybe in the middle of an 8.9 Richter scale earthquake or riding the waves during a tsunami — take your pick, but you have the gist of it.
“When I got off, I had lived a hundred years. When I visit Jaisalmer or Egypt, I will have to ensure the camel moves gently, softly like the one in China. Maybe they could be trained there! After all they have training for everything under the sun now — even sleeping!
“But I still want to travel to Egypt on camel back and visit the temples, especially of the cat goddess.”
A tall dream in COVID times, I told Preeti. Then she said, maybe somebody would develop teleporting. That could help her visit both Egypt and Easter Island at the flash of a beam. They needed to work on that one, and perhaps, alternative biomes for mankind, she added.
Preeti is like an alter ego of mine — a good friend with who I can discuss anything under the sun. But what came next found me totally unprepared!
Preeti suggested that as most of Greenland ice cap it is said to be melting and sea levels would go up, we could have underwater biomes like that of Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars! Scientists should focus on research in underwater biomes!
I disagreed, to me building dykes or tall skyscrapers on towers with swirls of stormy water appealed! We could have whole platforms of civilisation on pillars with swirling storms and tsunamis below. We could continue your life as if nothing had changed on those platforms and behind dikes. Of course, the pillars would need to be very strong! I am scared that if we live underwater or too close to water, we will mutate to look different! In Waterworld, a movie with such projections — humans were shown to develop gills and webbed feet!
I do not want that. Do you?
Mitali Chakravarty is a writer and the editor of Borderless Journal.