Lakshmi found it on her way home from school, down in the gutter mewing loudly for its mother. She brought it home much against her mother’s wishes and loud protests. To tell you the truth, it was an ugly three week old creature – dirty black with irregular blotches of brown and grey at the wrong places, its fur smeared with mud and bleeding wounds and an inch of its tail bitten off. But, to Lakshmi, Bhaloo as she named it, was the most beautiful and adorable kitten in the world. Promises of better pets and threats went unheeded – Lakshmi refused to part
with the cat.
Bhaloo was not allowed indoors. The first evening at home, it managed to sneak inside, but, being too small could not jump out through the window. It stayed inside the house the whole night – and, next morning, Mother had to do a lot of cleaning. A furious Mother cursed the dirty cat and vowed to kill it the next time she saw it inside the house. So, Lakshmi made a bed out of a cardboard box and an old frock of hers and put it out in the garden for Bhaloo.
Everyday, she would stealthily hide some of her food and give it to Bhaloo later. In the evenings she would play with Bhaloo in the garden; sometimes, she would sneak the kitten into her bed at night and let it sleep with her; next morning she would let it out silently. Bhaloo, for its part, realised that Lakshmi was its only friend with whom it could prance around. The very sight of Mother or the sound of her footsteps would send Bhaloo scurrying away to the safety of its box in the garden.
One night, Lakshmi as usual, took Bhaloo into her bed and went to sleep. Around midnight she was suddenly woken up by her mother. Lakshmi was dazed when she saw her mother and then looked around worried – where was Bhaloo? Did Mummy see him? Luckily (or so she thought then) Bhaloo had already run away under the cupboard.
Even as Lakshmi began to wonder why she was woken up and what was happening, her parents hurriedly packed some clothes into a suitcase, came out with her and locked the house; they were going somewhere. Lakshmi wanted to tell her parents that Bhaloo was inside but was too frightened. Better to keep quiet and let him out as soon as they returned home, she thought.
“Where are we going?” Lakshmi asked sleepily.
“To Grandma’s village”, snapped her mother.
“Why now, so suddenly?” Lakshmi wanted to know but got no reply. Father was very sad and Mother too grumpy to answer. Lakshmi soon dozed off to sleep.
Next morning, when they reached Grandma’s house, Lakshmi found people either crying or arguing in hushed tones. And at one corner, she saw her Grandmother sleeping peacefully in her white sari that she always wore – but why had she put cotton in her nose? And, why was she lying down there – was she sick? Lakshmi’s father went to Grandma, touched her feet and sat down beside her crying – why was he crying, Lakshmi wondered. And why was Grandma not moving? Lakshmi wanted to go to her but her mother held her back and took her upstairs.
“What happened to Grandma? Why can’t I go to her? Why isn’t she giving me sweets?”
Lakshmi wanted to know.
“Keep quiet. Grandma has gone to the other world”, replied her mother.
“But she is sleeping downstairs. Why is she not getting up?” persisted Lakshmi.
“She will not get up anymore nor can we talk to her. Now shut up”, snubbed Mother.
Lakshmi knew there was no use asking her anything else. Later it was from her elder cousin Krishna that Lakshmi learnt all about death and ‘going to the other world’.
A day passed and Lakshmi began to worry about Bhaloo. Soon she learnt, again from Krishna, that they would all be staying there for 12 days. What would happen to Bhaloo? Who would give him food? He would be feeling lonely and frightened.
Lakshmi wanted to tell her parents but knew it would be of no use – Father would not be interested and Mother! – she would only scream at her and curse Bhaloo. So Lakshmi tried telling her aunts and uncles but they paid no heed to her – they were busy arguing about something Lakshmi could not quite understand – Grandma’s jewels and bronze vessels? – whatever it was, they were not bothered to listen to Lakshmi. As to her cousins, they were too young to be of any help.
“Oh, how I wish Grandma was here”, Lakshmi thought. “She would have done something”. She began to cry bitterly.
“Poor girl – how she misses her Grandmother”, remarked her uncle.
Lakshmi could not eat or sleep well but none cared to find out what was wrong.
Twelve days later, Lakshmi and her parents returned home. As Father opened the door, a sickly odour greeted them. Mother began to curse herself and the cat while Father started scolding Lakshmi. Lakshmi rushed in to find Bhaloo on the floor – stiff and cold. She shook him but he did not move.
“Is Bhaloo dead? Has Bhaloo gone to the other world like Grandma?” she wailed.
Tears rushed down Lakshmi’s cheeks as she held Bhaloo in her lap.