lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


"What was that?"
"Cats, honey."
"I know it's cats, what are they saying?"

I rolled my eyes. He thinks I know the language of cats.

I do know the language Cat. It is easy to pick up if you are a child in a house full of cats and grow up observing them. Cat communication involves a lot of silent body language and signals, but cats do talk a bit, and you can understand Cat if you grow up listening to it.

I was a mostly silent and observant child, so I learnt Cat.

We had a large vacant lot next to our house that was a wilderness and the cats in the area tended to frequent it. If there are toms, there will be territorial disputes as they patrol their patches. When a strange cat wanders in, there will be interaction, some assessing each other and if neither is willing to back down, some aggression.

Cats don't look for fights, and most confrontations are just posturing and tend to get resolved without aggression, but it used to be great fun to watch them. We had a lot of adolescent cats at any given time, so I learnt the behaviour of cats when they try to establish territory.

There are hisses and spits, "merrow" of challenge and if a fight ensued, there are shrill shrieks. There are the "meriow" of courting calls and "rrr-yeow-eow-rrr" of caterwauling.

And then there are the sounds mother cats make calling their kittens, warning them and teaching them. Amma Pilli used to bring stunned mice and birds for her kittens to practice hunting with. She had a special "meeow" for that. I knew the call, and it usually meant a spell of trying to rescue the creature or removing it if it was beyond saving. She'd say "merrrrow" to warn her kittens to stay hidden and safe, "mer-row" to say "stop that" and more.

It is possible to imitate the sounds cats make- those that are audible to humans anyway. When our kittens adventurously climbed trees and then lost their nerve to make the climb back down, they used a thin, high pitched pathetic tone of "mew" to ask for help. Sometimes they'd get panicked enough to go "MEW" in a frantic loud plea, and while it was amusing to watch, it used to be a chore to get them down. I could say "mee-aaow" well enough to coax them down. Probably I got the words and accent wrong, but I think I used to say "come to mother, follow me, and look what I got for you". They used to scramble down, anyhow, so that was mission accomplished.

There are the almost silent meows strange cats use to assess each other. There is probably more conveyed in the body posture, stance and position of tail and if the tip is twitching, than in vocalised communication. The hisses and silently snarled messages are too highly pitched for humans, but there are cues of body language you can pick up if you watch.

Cats talk to humans in a version of baby talk, because we can't hear the high pitched silent meows and fail to notice the body language or misinterpret it. When a cat says meow, it can mean 'hi there', 'feed me now' or 'make a lap, I need some petting'. It can mean 'leave me alone', 'I am not interested' or more. A cat's yawn is the most cutting insult one can suffer.

I learnt that the winding round and round human legs and rubbing faces against ankles is marking the human as property and declaring "paws off, this human is mine" to other cats.

So there were mews, both voiced and unvoiced, that I learnt; meows that demanded attention quietly or emphatically; loud MEOW of command; mee-o-ows of whining protests in varying levels of loudness; mierrrows of purring friendly greetings; and meeps of offended indignation.

Those last meeps were something I heard a lot of when ministering to unwilling cats, as I was the champion holder of wriggling felines when the vet visited.

There was one memorable occasion when my sister and I removed tar from the paws of our tom, Baddoo. (Don't ask. The street was being re-paved) We used kerosene and swabbed his paws and he suffered this stoically. Then, worried that he might try to wash himself with his paws and get poisoned or something, we washed him. Okay, we gave him a bath. He struggled mightily but it was I who held him, so he got that bath.

Later, clean and dry, he came and settled himself on my sister's tummy as she napped, and kneaded her, even purred like a chainsaw. She assumed he was showing gratitude, until he widdled on her and stalked off with a pointed, offended and disgusted "Meeeep!" My sister was indignant that he chose to demonstrate his outrage and vengeance at her than me. I held him down to suffer those indignities, after all.

Having been bereft of feline company for lo these many years, my Cat is rusty, but the hisses and violent spits and screeches that followed made it clear. The noises emanating from the window were most definitely a dispute. Two toms and a territorial spat, plus an argument about which gets to woo the pretty queen in the vicinity.

I listened and said, "Umm. Territorial dispute mostly, something to do with you widdled on my patch but there is a female involved. It's going to get physical, I think."

"So we are going to hear some serenades?"
"Definitely. Let's postpone that song session, we can't compete with cats." I said.



Anonymous Anonymous said...


Secret admirer.

5:19 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Anon- Get a name.

5:46 pm  
Anonymous Rajesh said...

Auntie Lali playing pied piper and charming kittens off trees. But seriously, can you really follow cat conversations?

8:44 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


In manspeak...

11:52 pm  
Blogger Priya said...

hate felines meself, but endured your meeeowing.(strokes Em cat's back ;))

12:22 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Rajesh- Child, don't mix metaphors. And desist with the Auntie Lali business. Yes, I can follow cat conversations, I had plenty of practice.

Alien- ET, you know Cat? How Meeeoooooowww!

Priya- Meep! What do you mean you hate cats? Are you allergic to them or just plain dislike them?

3:21 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Courting calls can't be ignored with such a dismissive "Get a name."
Secret admirer

9:35 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Anon- Mer-row
Ze Lark

10:08 pm  
Blogger Rimi said...

Like your comeback!

1:35 am  
Anonymous Someone said...

Cats are the most sophisticated among the animals of the four-legged variety.They are so full of themselves.
I had cats as pets too and I used to try talking to them in Cat.
Here is my meaow for u-the one full of complaint,saying where had u been?I missed you. meaaonnn

10:19 am  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Rimi- "mierrow" *purr*

someone- Ah, that two-in-one grumbling greeting. "meeaown" back at ya!

1:35 pm  
Anonymous Hehhh said...

"I was a mostly silent and observant child, so I learnt Cat."

And cat and mouse games too.

Cat-cher later.


Err, no, amman wonly.

10:28 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Almost forgot that incident. You forgot the resident Toms' call looking for the new litter to eliminate competetion that used to keep us up at night protecting them while Amma pilli took a well deserved rest. Tivi.

4:58 am  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Hehhh- "Meeep!" What, no cataloguing of Amman's praises? Devotees these days, I tell you.

Tivi- Yeah, those fraught nights filled with hissing spitting Amma Pilli and chasing Viswanatha off. Remember surrendering our cupboards to her so she could have a nest for her latest litters?

9:47 am  
Anonymous Ash said...

I've read the comment section and the Cat language being bandied about with some amusement, but Viswanatha? You mean the Jnanapith award poet? You had a cat named after him? Really?

How could you, Lali?

9:12 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Ash- Sigh. Blame it on my mother. The marauding tom was Viswanatha, the parrots next door were Koduri Kaushalya and Yaddhnapudi Sulochana Rani. We kids just took the names bestowed. Viswanatha had a great glower and snarl and all that. Street cred , I tell you. Toms are big on that.

10:09 pm  

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