Review of B.N. Goswamy’s The Indian Cat: Nine lives and more

B.N. Goswamy’s last book, on the Indian cat, is a treasure trove, a whimsical tribute to an intriguing animal

December 08, 2023 09:02 am | Updated December 12, 2023 03:44 pm IST

‘Courtesan in a palace’.

‘Courtesan in a palace’.

You cannot go wrong with a book that begins with a confession. Art historian B.N. Goswamy starts his book, The Indian Cat, by admitting that “strictly speaking”, he is not a cat lover. This serves both him and the book very well; writing about something you love is always a more tedious and fraught exercise, and here, he is able to maintain an objective eye on his subject.

B.N. Goswamy

B.N. Goswamy | Photo Credit: Illustration by R. Rajesh

Goswamy, 90, who passed away on November 17, is renowned for his books on art history, and so his choice of subject for his 27th, and as it turned out last, book was a source of amusement. But, true to his style, the book is a treasure trove, a whimsical tribute to an intriguing animal.

‘Ruler in the zenana’.

‘Ruler in the zenana’.

The Indian Cat is divided into three parts. In the first, Goswamy tells us stories about cats from ancient texts, most prominently the Panchatantra, Jataka Tales, and Anvar-?i ?Suhaili. In these, the cat takes many forms, it is sometimes a holy person, a hypocritical monk, sometimes it is a wise being, and often it is a crafty and cunning animal. Goswamy goes to great lengths to explain that despite its reputation for hypocrisy and cunningness, in Indian mythology and history, there is no dislike of cats. There are superstitions around it, but no hatred towards it.

‘The pancake maker’.

‘The pancake maker’.

Cats in art

The second part forms a substantial chunk of the book, and I must confess this is my favourite section. Here, Goswamy, the art historian, examines cats in Indian art. He selects 58 paintings to describe, what in essence, is the easy co-existence between humans and cats. In most of these paintings, the cat is merely a presence, it is not a painting of a cat but a painting, which as it turns out, also has a cat in it. In fact, in some of them, the cat is so tiny that without Goswamy’s helping hand, we are likely to have missed it altogether. In most of these, especially the miniatures, the cat seems to be a gentle and loved presence, often sporting gold collars and doing cat things while the humans around it go about their lives. In a few, the cat is the source of action, chasing a bird, or running away with a fish in its mouth. Goswamy annotates these with descriptions of the cat, and sometimes, a line of droll prose about what the cat was likely thinking.

‘Strange happenings in a sprawling household’.

‘Strange happenings in a sprawling household’.

There are many portraits of women with cats, courtesans caressing cats, sharing a bolster with a pet cat, or trying to rein in a cat on her lap. My favourite though is the painting titled ‘Strange happenings in a sprawling household’, in which so many bizarre things seem to be happening all at once. And in this milieu of men who appear in multiple places, “Chinese looking” men, a man getting massaged while others pray, are also two cats, one on the roof with a mouse it hunted and the other being offered by a Chinese man. Each time, I look at this painting, I notice a new, hilarious detail.

‘David and Bathsheba’.

‘David and Bathsheba’.

Lyrical interpretation

In the third section, Goswamy goes looking for cats in poetry. Originally written in Urdu, Persian, Hindi, Bengali and other languages, in these poems the cats are often in the front and centre of the narrative. In poetry, the Indian cat seems to be a being of wonder, it is cute and cuddly, that which can only be loved. In one poem, S. Ganapathi describes it as “a fallen piece of cloud”. Whether it is Mir Taqi Mir, Asadullah Khan Ghalib or Jibanananda Das, the poets are all enthralled by their felines. Not for them its reputation of cunning or canniness, in their poetry cats are noble creatures, even their sweet purring is superior than a lion’s roar.

Even though Goswamy does not say it, it is clear upon reading the book that he likely revised his thoughts about cats in the course of his research. Whether he admits to it or not, there is no doubt that “strictly speaking” Goswamy became a cat lover, a fate that will likely befall all his readers too. My copy is now firmly lodged at my bedside table, it is a perfect book to dip into for a few minutes every night, before I turn the light out. It is both enlightening and entertaining and will certainly be the book I will end up gifting the most. Like a viral cat video on the internet, The Indian Cat, too is so joyous that you’ll be compelled to spread the love.

The Indian Cat; B.N. Goswamy, Aleph, ?1,299.

The writer is the author of ‘Independence Day: A People’s History’.

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