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What was the name of your first pet?

March 19, 2014 10:11 IST

What was the name of your first pet?

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Ashwath Nityanandan says the Internet keeps memories of his cat alive for him. Illustration: Dominic Xavier

When I was a ten-year old kid in India I was fascinated by fighter planes, so I tried to name my first cat Messerschmitt. The name did not scan well in Tamil, and it soon shrank to Schmitt.

Schmitt was only a few weeks old when a prowling tomcat invaded our house through an open window and slashed open his belly. When I found him in the morning I was sure he would not last till sundown. But he turned out to be a lot tougher than any of us imagined.

The vet pushed his entrails back in place with a couple of stitches and told us to keep the wound saturated with fish oil so he would keep licking it. In a few more weeks Schmitt looked as good as new, but he developed a cynical attitude towards everything and everyone that lasted all his life.

As a young owner, I have to admit I did nothing to soothe his soul.

I would steal up on him with a paper bag as he was napping on the ledge around our backyard well. When I popped the bag in his ear I got the satisfaction of seeing claw marks on the concrete as Schmitt exploded awake.

I had heard that cats always land on their feet. I challenged this theory by dropping Schmitt upside down onto my bed from different altitudes. He did his flip many times with careless grace, till I finally lowered the launch height to fifteen centimeters and he landed on his ass. At this point Schmitt concluded that he had sacrificed enough dignity for science. He hissed and fled, pausing only to scratch my arm bloody on the way out.

I made the adult mistake of recounting these exploits of Indian childhood to my daughter.

She listened quietly at first, then tensed up at tales of Schmitt's arguments with our dog. The last straw was my boast of domesticating a bat that had been winged by a ceiling fan.

She pouted and said, "You had dogs, cats, and bats. I don't even have a goldfish."

I attempted damage control. I pointed out that in our metro America dogs are impractical and bats are illegal. Cats, I argued, have a much superior quality of life in the tropics, roaming their urban nightscape, hunting and spawning at will, free of the confinements and castrations of a cold civilisation. I nearly stooped low enough to play the culture card: after all, how many Indian-American homes have pets?

Nothing worked. On her eighth birthday I found myself in line at the SPCA.

At first I thought we were picking up a porambokku poonai, a random stray cat like Schmitt, except that this one happened to sport beautiful charcoal fuzz and green eyes. It turned out that the charity sweepstakes had won us a purebred Russian Blue.

The kitten soon ran past a guy who was installing a burglar alarm in my house.

The technician casually murmured "Hi, Smokey!' I skidded to a halt and asked how he knew my cat's name, suspecting some dark conspiracy to spy on clients' pets.

He stared at me as if I was an idiot and said, "They’re always called Smokey."

Despite his commonplace name, we soon realised what a rare find Smokey was.

Curious, company-loving, quirky and humanoid, a Blue is nature's experiment at making a dog that bathes and does potty on its own.

By the time ours was fully grown, we also got the benefit of a fresh-smelling 17-pound hot water bottle.

He loves his owner too: I spend a lot of time dragging him out from under my daughter's bed, shredding strands of carpeting as he digs in to his favourite bedtime hiding spot.

This is not the first time I have seen feline ejection resistance. When I was in college in Chennai one of my corridor-mates found two kittens from a litter abandoned outside his hostel room. As he adopted them he paid a feeble tribute to his Malayali heritage by naming them Boocha and Boochi.

The pair became a pleasant fixture in his room, accompanying our late night parties and studying fakeouts. They fed on any and all human leftovers, played fighting games and caroused constantly to the sounds of 1970s soft rock.

One 105-degree day I found Boocha eating a sparrow in the hostel bathroom. He refused my request to leave. I had heard that animals can be savage when they are with prey, so I decided to engage with a remote missile. I threw a bucket of water at him. Pleased with the remarkable success of my tactic, I began to shower in peace. Two minutes later I had company again: Boocha crawled under the door asking for another cooling douche.

All went well with Boocha and Boochi until one day I found Coman trying desperately to throw them out of his room. It was in vain; they kept coming back every time he opened the door. The twins had decided that life called for more fun than mere sibling rivalry. They had become lovers, and were treating Coman's room like a cheap motel. He was terrified that it might soon become a cat nursery too. We finally managed to boot them out to raise their incestuous family in the bushes.

Boocha and Boochi's good cheer never reached across space-time to touch Schmitt. Long after his kitten traumas had healed, he remained permanently battered and bruised as he went out night after night to stake out his territory.

One week he seemed a little bit more beaten up than usual. I thought nothing of it, assuming that the pro circuit was just tougher this season. Then I noticed something strange.

My grandmother liked to sit cross-legged on the kitchen floor while she roasted coffee beans for the perfect Tam-Bram cappuccino. Today, instead of inhaling the delicious aroma, she had the tail end of her nine-meter sari wrapped around her face as Schmitt approached. I took a closer look and found maggots dripping out of a gangrenous hole in his cheek.

The vet’s bedside manner had not improved since he last saw his patient seven years ago. He noted tersely that an infected battle injury had led to osteomyelitis, eroding a cavity into Schmitt’s jawbone. There was nothing to do but keep the wound clean and wait. As he put his fifteen rupees in his pocket, he made a final macabre observation: the hole had exposed Schmitt's jugular vein. Unless he wore a fencing mask, his next fight might be his last.

I locked Schmitt up in my bathroom and ran through liters of hydrogen peroxide swabbing his face whenever he let me.

He had never spent a night indoors since puberty, and despite a raging fever and pathetic weakness he tried to crawl out of the window every hour.

In an era without air-conditioning or even insect mesh, my only option was to wrap twine around the open window grate. I replaced the twine constantly as Schmitt kept stripping it off in a sorry quest for freedom.

Had I been a spiritually inclined teenager, I might have seen all this as penance for my cat abuses of the past.

As it was, I just wanted to get him the hell out of there so that I could stop stepping on litter box overspray. After two weeks of torture I succeeded. Schmitt walked out of his cell in reasonably good shape, though his jawbone was still ventilated.

Soon after Schmitt's convalescence I had the great excitement of being accepted to engineering college.

Cautious about the stack of paperwork with the acceptance letter, I decided to consult a senior student who lived nearby.

As I walked over I spotted Schmitt sitting on one of the white fence posts lining my parents' property. I deviated across the maidan to check on him.

Schmitt seemed calm and well, favouring me with the closest thing to a cat smile.

I imagined that he was reaching down from his high perch to give me his blessings for a fruitful career. I went on my errand feeling even better than before.

I walked past the spot an hour later on my way back home.

Dusk was gathering and the fencepost was vacant. No doubt the vet's grisly prediction came true that night, for I never saw Schmitt again.

It took me a few weeks to admit secretly to my best friend that I really missed this bad-tempered beast.

He assured me that he had just seen his grown uncle crying over a dead dog. That made me feel more like a real man.

I had to wait much longer for final closure.

It came from an unexpected source: Schmitt was immortalised by Internet e-commerce.

The question 'What was the name of your first pet?' may sound silly to some, but not to me. I may forget passwords, but I never forget that answer.

Ashwath Nityanandan sits on the diversity council of a large corporation, where his job is in manufacturing infrastructure. His professional interest lies in studying the effect of human systems on technology, especially on the factory floor.


Image: You may forget passwords but you will never forget the name of your first pet says Ashwath Nityanandan.