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The Great Cat Caper.

I have a broken foot, a body covered in scratches, outstanding debts in my name to three Indian companies and a week of my life wasted in tears, sleepless nights and fits of anger.

That was fun.

I grew up, as many Americans do, believing I’m the master of my own universe. The bestselling book The Secret tells us to predict our own future: imagine, and it will be. Oprah encourages women to make visualization boards: paste, and it will be. The Horatio Alger stories insist we pull ourselves up by our own bootstrap: work, and it will be.

These are lies.

I learned many things in India: Indian buffalos make fantastic mozzarella; the word “prepone” is a necessary and intelligent addition to the English language; always carry small bills.

But the greatest lesson of all: things happen, but on no real account of me. Illusions of control lead only to humiliation and defeat.

A recent NYT article explains why so many Western-trained Indians flee the mother country after attempting to work there. It quotes a partner at a global executive search firm as saying, “India can seem to have a fairly ambiguous and chaotic way of working, but it works.” It’s because Americans don’t like ambiguous. They expect things to work if it is planned, organized, scheduled, structured. India laughs at that Western structure.

My Indian friends hate expat pow-wows where everyone gets together and tells their “I Hate India” story. There was the time I basically folded over into a fetal position, sobbing hysterically in a fabric store when my white curtains came back slightly tinted brown; the time my friend tried to pay his electricity bill and, through a sequence of small, inconsequential events, couldn’t, so he wound up driving his motorcycle into a wall; and the time another friend tried to lead a revolution in a cell phone store, jumping on top of a chair and screaming, “How can we put up with this? We have to protest!” as the Indian customers looked on in amusement.

The point isn’t that India is a frustrating, maddening place. Or that my friends and I are Mommie Dearest crazy (maybe a little). It’s not India that’s insane, but we are for trying to control it. I have to tell the story to remember that temporary loss of sanity, otherwise I will be doomed to repeat my mistakes.

So, my final (looong) swansong India meltdown, for your reading pleasure:

It was my last week in India. I had spent the prior two weeks playing and partying and enjoying the frequent farewell soirees. But it was time to get down to business. I was moving, closing down three and a half of the happiest years of my life: selling off the furniture I designed; gifting friends with the plants I cultivated; closing down the accounts of the work I loved.  I planned to wander the city and drink it in, have chai in the flower market, listen to the peacocks mew in the gloaming at the tombs, tie a red ribbon at the dargah as my final prayer. I had big plans.

Looking back, this was my first mistake. Never have plans in India.

On Sunday night I hosted my final, final goodbye party. All my furniture would be sold or given away, and whatever remained would be burned. It seemed like a smart concept at the time, especially since most of my furniture was made out of bamboo.  Until, that is, we ran out of furniture and a friend found the fireworks.

It turns out cats do not like loud explosions. My landlord didn’t like it very much either. Unfortunately, she didn’t run away. One of my cats did.

The first night I didn’t worry. Reynolds would often go out and hunt and come back a day later. But she didn’t come back. A day passed. My bed was moved out. I slept on a charpoy, waiting to hear her cry at the door. Another day passed. Everything else was moved out. My house was empty and still. I sat on the cold marble floor, hoping for a familiar scratch. And, daily, my departure date loomed.

I couldn’t imagine leaving the country to have my cat finally wander back a day later to an empty house. My landlord might call some butcher company to haul her away.  A street dog pack might catch her.

To make matters worse, after a heart-wrenching, agonizing decision, I had found a sweet, young couple to adopt both of my cats. I couldn’t justify putting them on a 24-hour plane flight stuck in cargo, only to wind up in a small, basement apartment in cold DC, where they couldn’t go outside and play and hunt and live the leisurely life they had in India. I had hoped for at least a couple days to say goodbye to the little furball.

I was mildly concerned.

I started stalking the neighborhood, a handful of dry cat food in my pocket. “Reynolds, come here kitty!” I shouted. For three days nary a whisker was spotted. But finally, on the fourth day, a guard rushed up to me: “Billi!”—cat in Hindi.

Every home in Defense Colony, my neighborhood in Delhi, has a guard ensconced in a tiny gatehouse out front. There isn’t much crime in Defense Colony. The extent of the guards’ job consists in milling around, playing carom with each other, and staring at the women who walk past them.

After three days of my fruitless searching, I had become rather well acquainted with about 20 of the guards. “Billi?” “Nahi, madam.”

Finally, things changed. The itinerant cat had been spotted slinking into a nearby power station. The guards were in a tizzy.  All 21 of us rushed over to the station. They did their level best to help call for the cat: “Ranads!” “Roonolds!” “Renens!”

I think they freaked her out more than anything else. She didn’t come out. At least I knew she was alive. A few more days of fruitless searching led to a growing cat fervor on the street. Maids were brought in. The power station employees all knew about the plight of “poor madam and her billi”.

Reynolds was spotted, ran away; she came by to eat food I left out for her, escaped before I could be called from down the street. The guards were happy to look for her, but terrified of touching her. They don’t exactly like cats. They would see her, jump back a few paces and then shout “Renens!” and “Madam!”

By this time, my last week in Delhi had evaporated. The errands I needed to run filled two pages of a yellow legal pad, and not a single one got crossed off.

The day before I was to fly away, I returned to my empty house at seven in the morning. All my co-conspirators had canvassed the streets the night before. The cats were supposed to meet their adopted parents that night. I hadn’t told the parents that only one cat was around.  I sat on my cold marble floor in my empty apartment, filled with nothing but ghosts of the past, and waited.  At 10 a shout rang up from the street. “Billi!”

I ran downstairs; finally the guards had cordoned her off. She trembled under some plants. No one dared get too close. I crouched down and cooed.  After five long days and nights, my kitten stumbled into my arms. The guards all grinned and shook hands. Mission accomplished.

Reynolds was not so happy. Shivering and petrified when I took her upstairs, she bolted for the last hiding spot on the terrace. I put out food and water for her, closed the door tight behind me and collapsed in a pile of relief.

Before I could pack her up in a carrying case and take her to her new home, I had to finalize a couple of projects, close out my house with the landlord, and pay an electrician making a few last adjustments on the house. I may have wasted a week, but I thought, I have nearly 48 hours of Delhi left. That should be enough. Things may just work out. For the first time in a week, I felt relief, the beginnings of happiness.

I headed downstairs, admonishing everyone to stay away from the terrace door. I could have locked the door. I could have put her in her carrying case. I could have snatched her up and jumped in the first taxi home and come back to close up my accounts later.

I could have, would have, should have.

The electrician opened the door. The cat ran. I cried. I yelled at my sweet, old electrician. I stomped around banging doors. Everything was ruined! I turned to a brick wall and with my blood seething and my mind racing, I kicked it. I wanted to kick the electrician. I wanted to kick the cat. I wanted to kick myself. I kicked a wall instead.

The wall broke my foot.

Okay, fine. I broke my foot.

Catless and now crippled, I finally remembered the lesson India had been trying to ram down my head for three years: trying to force things to happen in my way, on my time schedule was as stupid as kicking a wall.

I called my friend. “I need to go to the doctor.”

She had just fallen off a treadmill the week before, fracturing her ankle. (Our common klutziness is one of the many reasons we love each other so much.) She was well acquainted with the orthopedic wing at the hospital. In her walking cast, she pushed me in a wheelchair around the joint and a couple hours later, I was free to go, cast and elbow crutches and all.

Back at my house, the cat was waiting for us, perched in a tree with a score of guards and maids all underneath her.

“Madam! Billi!” They shouted in unison. Once again they had found her.

The cat was terrified. The guards were terrified. They didn’t want to get any closer to the animal. And the animal didn’t want to get closer to anyone.

I sighed, threw down my crutches and climbed the tree.

My friend—the good, lovely friend that she is—hobbled over with the carrying case.

The crowd became cricket commentators. “She’s going up the tree; she’s got a hold of the neck; she’s pulling the cat down. Oh! It’s wriggling away.”

“No, no, she’s got it! It’s in the bag!”

“They’re zipping it up. Oh, no! The cat’s out!”

“The other madam has it! She’s got the cat! They’re putting it back in the bag. Look, look… It’s in! The cat’s in the bag!”


Reynolds is now happily in her new home, already figuring out a way to sneak out at night. And I, well, if I had just waited a few hours, given up my stranglehold on the situation, I wouldn’t have bruises on my palms from the dumb crutches. Lesson painfully learned.

Thankfully, India, in her ever generous way, may have given me a broken bone to remember her by, but it padded my fall with another gift: wheelchair service and a bump up in my plane seat all the way home. With two huge, over packed bags, the help came in handy. So handy in fact, I may just need to be kept from the vicinity of any walls before my next trip back.



  1. Sarge says:

    Renens is a naughty, naughty pussy.

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