Moving to a new city can lead to all sorts of adventures. When I first shifted to Mumbai from Goa, my weekends were consumed by exploring museums and art galleries, stuffing myself with keema at Irani cafés or tandoori quail at Mohammed Ali Road. I’d take local trains for the heck of it, just to see where I’d wind up; even losing a chappal in my first monsoon seemed like an oddly poetic moment to my touristic sensibilities. Finally, after a year, my gregarious approach to the city calmed down, and I began to slip into my new environs in a less contrived manner.
Instead of doing things newcomers might feel they ought to, I began to explore Mumbai in a more natural way, and that manifested itself, particularly, in my walks. I had already moved once within the city, from the not-so-pedestrian-friendly Worli to the not-so-economically-friendly Bandra, but certain parts of my new locality made it a walker’s paradise.
I began to carry a camera on my increasingly regular jaunts, clicking photos of waves of bougainvillea cascading over bungalow walls and rusty Padminis. Almost every block in this heavily Catholic swathe of the suburbs featured a statue of Christ. I also noticed that my new home had almost as many stray cats as monuments of Jesus’ suffering. Now, I had befriended stray dogs everywhere from Goa to Buenos Aires, but cats were often given a wide berth. Still, I began to meet so many of them on my walks I couldn’t help but get pulled in by their presence.
Part of the attraction was that I often took my strolls when I hit a wall of writer’s block, yet when I encountered these creatures my creative malaise seemed to crumble away. Observing these cats seemed to accelerate time, turning minutes into seconds, yet they themselves moved like molasses: their eyes, like polished gemstones, always casting gorgeous glares; their coats, intricate and bright, bringing the colours of life to dusty streets. Cats have inspired more than just a pedant’s prose, for so many notable authors have experienced a similarly strong affinity for them, be it Twain, Eliot, or Yeats. In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley advises, “If you want to write, keep cats,” which might be the most useful notion the Oxford-educated philosopher ever penned.
“There are no ordinary cats.”
Gradually, I began taking portraits of them. Beguiled by the polarity of their unimpressed gazes and fluent grace, I scouted out a well in Khar, the lanes of the Chuim, Chimbai, and Ranwar villages, and the bungalows near Saint Andrew’s grounds, anywhere I could find their feline settlements.
Perhaps getting older had warped my idea of what ‘fun’ was, but this pastime thrilled me to no end. I was now expanding my walking routes, determined to find more cat havens. I would gab to my friends about all the cats I met over the weekend, and many would look at me with a pity reserved for someone starting to lose their minds. Others, however, took a bemused interest in my hobby, and started giving me recommendations on where to find other strays to photograph.
“Cats never strike a pose that isn’t photogenic.”
~ Lillian Jackson Braun
A corner on Carter Road turned out to be an amazing tip, leading me to a gang of around ten cats, all congregated around the entrance of a building where they were regularly fed by a few residents. Squatting on my haunches, I snapped away at this diverse cat clique. So engrossed was I that I barely registered a group of teeny boppers that emerged on the sidewalk. I presumed that they took me for a mildly important person (maybe, a cat-mongering influencer?) as they started clicking shots of me taking the cats’ photos. Just then, a sea breeze alerted me to the fact that my jeans were slightly pulled down in the stereotypical plumber fashion, and I realised that the source of their interest was perhaps a visible snippet of my derrière. As determined as I was to capture the poise of these languid critters, it seemed as if that day I managed to be the least elegant creature on the busy promenade, an unfortunate moment to be relived on some adolescents’ TikTok accounts.
“A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.”
~ Ernest Hemingway
Another friend suggested I venture deep into Chimbai Village, near the ocean, where a drove of cats slumbered away at high noon. I paused to take a photo of a chubby ginger scowling in its sleep under a bhaji cart. A resounding, “Oye!” rang out across the street. The lane full of fisherman and construction workers averted their eyes from the angry copper staring me down as he waved me towards his rumbling Enfield. Now my Hindi is shameful, but the gist of the conversation was that foreign-looking guys taking photos next to the docks was the type of suspicious behaviour that reminded him of David Headley, a key figure in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Sweat percolated out of my pores. Before I knew it, my driver’s license and PAN card were in his hands, and he took photos of them, slowly, so he could watch me squirm. It seemed as if he wanted me to take my wallet out to encourage me to offer him a bribe that he would then hold against me. His thick mouche wiggled like a cat ready to pounce, primed to wreak havoc on a clueless pigeon.
But sometimes, grovelling is bribe enough, and I am well versed in the art of spineless obsequience. “Mujhe maaf kardo ji, yeh meri galti hai. Mera dimaag thoda kharaab hai bhaiya, chhod do na… please.” I couldn’t tell if my Hindi was so painful it offended him, or that my lack of dignity satiated his ego, but I finally got the go-ahead grunt to leave, and did so with my tail tucked firmly between my legs. As I walked back I saw a cop car surrounded by loads of jostling people. “Just my luck,” I thought. There was nowhere to escape, so I tucked my camera under my arm and pushed on.
As I tried to inch past the melee, I unwillingly became a part of the crowd surrounding the police vehicle. People kept on asking the uniformed fellow seated on the passenger’s side questions, others passing chits of paper through the open window for him to sign. As I squeezed past this cop’s apparent admirers, I decided to snap a quick photo of this confusing scene; but considering my recent unpleasant experience, I gestured to the man in uniform with my camera, figuring that was an innocuous enough of an approach. He caught my eye and glowered at me, lifting up his lathi through the window so it was pointed right between my eyes. “Not again,” I thought, but just then he gave me a cheeky wink, pleased that he managed to make me turn green in a mere moment.
I managed to shuffle my way past the crowd, opening up to a view of a full camera crew shooting a scene in a small electronics store. Lo and behold, I was in the middle of TV soap opera set, and the ‘popular policeman’ I had crossed paths with turned out to be an actor interacting with his fans. I probably would have found this scenario amusing, except my nerves were already quite frayed. Who expects to endure an episode of good cop, bad cop when they set out to take pictures of cats?
“In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this.”
~ Terry Pratchett
As I took the slow train to Marine Lines, I stuck my head out in full filmi fashion, a terribly idiotic, and fun, thing to do. I was headed to check out a ‘cat alley’ another friend had graciously uncovered for me. We met outside the bustling facade of Liberty Cinema, and a few blocks later found ourselves in an alley full of felines lounging on ledges, as if they were emulating Cleopatra herself. One in particular looked over her shoulder as I took a shot, her distant gaze daring me to try and take a bad photo of her. The rest of the day I marched across Fort and Colaba, I met a calico mix stalking crows and a cat with heterochromia in her eye: a deep auburn iris paired with a piercing blue one. Panwallas and sugar cane juice vendors chirped at cats just so I could get a better angle for their portraits, and children paused to look at the cats I photographed with deep appreciation.
“The cat is the only animal without visible means of support who still manages to find a living in the city.”
~ Carl van Vechten
Work gradually reclaimed my weekends, but by the end of this hobby I had travelled everywhere from Borivali to Powai, Lower Parel to Byculla, in search of these beautiful street cats. I had fed a few strays on my travels, but sadly my interactions with them were limited to capturing the atmosphere they added to the city. Thankfully, during this pandemic-induced lockdown, my lady friend of three years finally bit the bullet and brought home a stray in foster care. To be fair, I always knew she would replace me with a cat. Almost every day for over three years, she’s said to me, “Today, I’m getting a cat.” The pandemic shut down the city, but opened up her heart to that insistent tug: a warm desire to care for a cat, especially one in need of a family. Now, I find myself wondering, if and when this lockdown is ever lifted, will I take up my old hobby again, or will I be too busy playing with my little bundle of joy, Imli; after all, as Jules Champfleury says, “There is no more intrepid explorer than a kitten,” and I believe this one needs a travelling companion.
Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Senior Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.