Short Story: The Cat by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay
Translated by Shah Tazrian Ashrafi
I was in my bedroom, sitting on the stool, dozing with a hookah in my hand. A sliver of light was permeating, creating a clever shadow on the wall, a ghost dancing. Lunch wasn’t ready yet — I sat in a pensive state; I was dreaming as I puffed… If I were Napoleon, could I win the battle of Waterloo?
Right at the moment, an unexpected sound crept in, “Meow”.
As I tried looking, I couldn’t perceive anything. First, I thought that the Duke of Wellington had taken the shape of a cat and was approaching me to beg for some opium. Full of enthusiasm, tough as a stone, I thought I’d say that the Lord Duke shouldn’t ask for more, given that he had been awarded previously. Too much greed isn’t healthy. The Duke replied, “Meow”.
With careful observation, it dawned on me that this wasn’t Wellington! This was a petty cat that had drunk the milk reserved for me as I was busy arranging soldiers on Waterloo’s field — unaware of the cat’s theft. The beautiful cat, filled with satisfaction after finishing all the milk was intent on making its satisfaction known to this world.
In a mellifluous tone, it said “Meow!”
I did perceive that the cat was mocking at me, that it was laughing internally as, facing me, it thought; “Somebody dies drying the pond; somebody eats the koi.”
I perceive that the “Meow” had the intent of understanding what was on my mind. I perceive that the cat’s thought was, “I’ve finished your milk—now what do you say?”
What do I say? I can’t decide anything. The milk isn’t even my father’s. It is Mongola’s. Hence, the cat and I both have similar rights on the milk, which is why I should not be mad.
However, there’s this deeply ingrained adage that insists on shooing away a cat if the creature ever drinks one’s milk. I do not want to be a disgrace to society by defying the age-old practice of chasing the cat away. Who knows, will this cat mock me in its kingdom by labelling me a coward? So, I thought it best to act like a man. Firm on my decision, in a sober manner, freeing my hand of the hookah, finding a broken rod after much inspection, I moved towards the cat cautiously.
The cat knew me, Kamalakant. Noticing the rod, it didn’t express any symptoms of fear. It only gazed at my face and settled in a corner. It then said, “Meow!” Sensing the question in the “Meow’s” foundation, I dropped the rod and took the hookah in my hand again. Then listening in a godly manner, I grasped the things that the cat had to say.
I understood that it was saying, “Why fight? Calmly, with the hookah in your hand, let me see you judge a little. In this world you people will eat everything — pie, cream, milk, fish, meat. Why won’t we get anything? You are humans, we are cats. What’s the difference? You have hunger — don’t we too? You eat, we have no objection; but despite countless attempts to understand, I don’t get why you always come racing towards us, charging with sticks, whenever we are the consumers. You should all take my advice. I don’t see any other way of people obtaining true education, other than from a four-legged creature. Observing your educational institutions, I feel as though, you’ve understood my statement well.
See, bed-ridden humankind! What is religion? Helping others is religion. Drinking the bowl of milk has given me great satisfaction. The milk meant for you has helped you help another fellow being — therefore, you’re the receiver of maximum religious virtue —— whatever I do, even if I steal, I am the reason for your good deed. So, you shouldn’t chase me away, rather respect me. I am your savior.
Even though you see me as a thief, have I stolen solely for my own pleasure? If someone gets to eat, do they turn into thieves? Those who act great and pure, those who get infuriated by the slightest mention of thieves, they’re actually far worse than thieves. They don’t steal because they don’t have to. Despite having surplus amounts of wealth, they don’t care to even look once at the thieves. This is why the thieves steal. The fault isn’t the thief’s — the fact that thieves steal points out how the fault is actually that of the stingy rich. A thief is blamable, but a penny-pinching, wealthy person is one hundred times more to be blamed. A thief gets punished, but the stingy person who is the root cause of thievery, why doesn’t he get punished?
See, I linger around wall after wall constantly meow-meowing, but no one even gives me a fish bone. Everyone dumps fish bones and wet rice into the rivers relentlessly, but they never holler at me to feast on those. Your stomachs are full, how will you know the burning hunger inside me! Does it cost you people anything to feel a little sympathy for the poor? Someone who never gives a fistful of pennies to a blind person is ready to ruin his night-time slumber for the pain of a king. Everyone is ready to empathise with suffering of the rich. But when the poor is suffer…yuck! Who would feel the pain?
Look, if some celebrated person or a judge drank up the milk reserved for you, would you still chase them away with sticks? No, you’d instead beseech and say, “Should I bring you some more?”
Then why charge sticks when it comes to me.
Now you’ll say they’re wise people, very much respected people. Do their wisdom and status make my hunger inferior to theirs? It’s human nature to oil an already oiled head. No one understands the hunger that rules the poor. You arrange feasts for people who feel agitated when asked to eat. And when someone maddened by hunger finishes your food without invitation, you chase them away by hurling the word ‘thief’. Shame on you!
Notice, notice our plight, notice how we linger around wall after wall, compound after compound and get ignored — no one offers us even a tiny fishbone. The cats that reside in domestic households are pampered. Their tails become plump, their body is graced with fur, and seeing their beauty, many cats become poets.
And, look at us — with empty stomachs, scrawny, submissive tails, tongues dangling out — we are crying for food, ‘Meow! Meow! Can’t find food!’ Don’t hate us for our dark skin. We have some rights over the fish and meat in this world. Let us eat or we’ll steal. Don’t our dark skin, dry mouth, plaintive voices calling out ‘Meow, Meow’ make you sad at all?
Thieves have punishments. Do the merciless have punishments too? The poor are punished for scouring food. Are the rich punished for stinginess? You are Kamlakant, a wise man, although an opium addict, can’t you too see that the poor exist because of the rich? Why should one person make 500 people poor and amass all their wealth? Even if that person does, why should he spend it lavishly and not distribute it amongst the poor? If he doesn’t help the poverty-stricken, then the poor are bound to steal. After all, no one has arrived in this world to die of hunger.”
Unable to resist, I said, “Stop! Stop, wise cat! Your words are heavily socialistic! The root of disrupting a society! If someone can’t earn the wealth they deserve, or if they can’t spend it as per their wish due to the tensions caused by the thieves, then no one will care about earning wealth. And then our society won’t develop.”
The cat replied, “So what? The society’s development means the increment of the rich people’s wealth. If the rich don’t profit, how’s that harmful for the poor?”
I tried to convince saying, “Only the increment of wealth in a society can help develop that society.”
The cat said lividly, “If I can’t eat, what do I do with the society’s progress?”
I felt it was my duty to convince the cat. At times, people fail to convince those who are wise judges. Because this cat was a wise judge and skilfully argumentative, it has the right to not understand. Therefore, I coolly explained, “The society’s progress may not be needed by the poor, but the rich need it. Hence, the thieves’ penalty is of utmost importance.”
The wise-lord cat said, “Hang the thief! I have no objection. But implement another law: The judge should starve for three days prior to the thief’s trial. If the judge does not develop the urge to steal food, then he can happily hang the thief. You came racing at me with the rod, you should try starving for three days. If you aren’t caught in the meantime at Nasriram Babu’s food-stocking room, then you can beat me up all you want.”
Wise men say that when someone loses a long, intense argument, then he starts giving deep and vague advice. Keeping the ritual in mind, I told the cat, “These are godless words. They invite sins. Drop such thoughts and focus on practising religion. If you want, I can give you Newmand and Parker’s work to read. And reading From the Desk of Kamlakant* may help you too — if anything, you can grasp the greatness of opium. Now leave, tomorrow I’ll set some light food for you in the afternoon. From now on, don’t steal from anyone else’s bowl. If you’re hungry, come here, I’ll give you a bowl full of opium.”
The cat said, “There’s no need for opium, but the prospect of stealing from someone else’s bowl can only be decided by the extent of my hunger.”
The cat bade goodbye. Kamlakant felt satisfied by thinking that he had shown light to a lost soul.
*Kamalakanter Daptar is a book written in 1875 by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee himself that contains half humorous half sarcastic sketches critiquing the world and practices of those days. This translation is of an excerpt from Kamlakanter Daptar.
Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-1894) was one of the greatest writers from Bengal who was part of the reformist movement that went hand in hand with the independence movement of the Indian sub-continent. He wrote thirteen novels, which included classics like Kapalkundala, Anandamath and Devi Chaudhurani, and many treatise with the intent of reform. His work has been translated, taught and he continues to be revered as a prominent writer, poet and journalist of the sub-continent.
Shah Tazrian Ashrafi is an aspiring writer. This is his first shot at translation. Feedback to be sent to: email@example.com
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