It was after lunch on that November day last year. I was at my desk struggling to complete some paperwork – the least favourite part at work – and sighing away and thinking of all the better things I could be doing, when I heard it.
It was so soft that it barely registered. But I still looked up and around, but could not find the source. I gave myself a stern talking to for imagining things and getting distracted and told myself to get back to the task at hand. That’s when I heard it again.
This time it was louder and when I looked up it was to see a cat standing on a chair and peering over the table at me with the most curious expression.
To say I was a surprised is a bit of an understatement. While my workplace, which is a large campus, has many dogs and cats that consider it home, they rarely enter office spaces. In fact, in the two-and-a-half decades that I have worked in this organisation, I can recall just two occasions.
Well hello to you ! How did you get in here? I asked the cat. If the cat could have replied he would have said, Duh ! Through the door, obviously. His expression, however, conveyed the answer all too clearly.
The cat then proceeded to examine every inch of my office and also inspect me and my team members before leaving. I didn’t think much of this incident, until he returned to my office the next day and the next day and… He got bolder with each passing day and started spending more time in my office. On the 5th day, he sauntered in as usual, but instead of his usual inspection proceeded straight to my room, climbed on to my desk and settled down to snooze.
I think we have just been adopted, I whispered to my team as we gathered around the sleeping cat.
Yes, they whispered back.
What shall we call him? He needs a name now, doesn’t he?
Guddu. Let’s call him Guddu Billa, suggested SS.
The name suits him perfectly, we smiled in acceptance. And that’s how Guddu Billa became part of our team. Little did I know at that time just how much a part of my life he would become.
It started off me with looking for him if he didn’t drop in to my office by lunchtime. Then I started missing him if he didn’t come to my room for 2-3 days at a stretch. I would feel elated when he would saunter in – a soft meow announcing his arrival – and settle on my desk to sleep. Some mornings I would find him outside my office door waiting for me to arrive and unlock the door. I found myself talking to him in Tamil; the twitching of his ears and his green-eyed gaze made me feel that he understood every word that I spoke.
It took Guddu Billa a while to let me touch him or pet him, but the day he rubbed his face against my ankles, arms and shoulders, and then proceed to purr into my ears, I got emotional. I learnt to recognise when he wanted to be petted and when he didn’t. I found out that he didn’t like to sleep directly on my wooden desk; he preferred to sleep on a cloth or a pile of papers or books. I found out from my team members that if he came to my office room when I was not there, he would take a look and leave immediately.
Outside of my office, Guddu Billa ignores sometimes even going to the extent of changing directions. Initially this behaviour puzzled me, but now I’ve come to accept it as one of Guddu’s many quirks and charms.
These days, he sits on my lap, allows me to lift him, poses for selfies, stands in front of my desktop monitor – daring me to work – and has become an integral part of online office meetings. Somewhere along the way he has also become my stress buster-cum-feline therapist.
I never thought that I would be that person taking pictures of cats and posting them on social media. But these days my camera roll is full of Guddu Billa’s photographs and my IG has at least one story about him every day. To my surprise and delight, Guddu Billa has garnered many admirers and if I don’t post an update by evening, I get messages asking me if he’s doing well. I’ve had perfect strangers on IG offering to send treats and toys for him; one person even wanted to send a cat bed over ! Some call him the therapy cat, others remark on his unusual markings of spots and stripes, his handsome looks, his green eyes and his expressions !
Presenting the many moods of Guddu Billa !
Then there are those who advise me to take him home as a pet. Each time someone suggests this, I recall a conversation I had with my friend Krithika more than a decade ago. We were walking in one of London’s many parks and looking wistfully at the dogs being exercised there, when Krithika said,
Dogs and cats here [UK] have to belong to someone. You can’t be a stray cat or dog here; such animals are caught and taken to the animal shelter or pound. In India, the cats and dogs don’t have to belong. They can be free !
I use the same analogy with Guddu Billa. I like the fact that he (and other animals at my workplace) have the entire campus to run around and call it home. He decides whether to accept food from people around him or hunt for his own (I’ve seen him do both). His affections are his to give and he decides who he wants to love, like, tolerate or ignore. He is a free cat and one who deserves to be free and not belong to anyone. While the idea of having Guddu Billa as my pet was appealing, I liked the idea of him being free even more.
But this resolve was severely tested when the lockdown came into effect in Mumbai in April, and I couldn’t go to work. I missed Guddu Billa terribly and not a single day went by when I didn’t wish he was there at home with me.
When I went to office last week, the first thing I did was to go looking for him and the other dogs and cats on campus and check if they were doing well. It was a relief to see all of them doing well, though Guddu Billa gave me some anxious moments for he the last to be found – sleeping on top of a pile of stacked chairs. The look of recognition when he saw me is something I will never forget. He quickly jumped off his perch and followed me back to my room for some cuddling before proceeding to sleep for the next 3 hours. And then he left to wherever he had to go.
Earlier today, I saw him outside my office window sharpening his claws on a jackfruit tree and running around and listening to birdcall. I called out to him, but he ignored me and continued doing whatever it is that he was doing before running away. Just seeing him being himself in his “natural environment”, made me so glad that I didn’t give in to my selfishness and take him home. People call cats selfish, but I don’t think so. Cats, and definitely Guddu Billa, know what they want and where to draw the line. He has taught me more about space, trust and respecting boundaries that anyone else I know.
While I like animals, I’ve never had pets. It was always with a tinge of envy I would listen to my friends talk about their cats or dogs. Though they generously shared their pets with me, it was not the same. Guddu Billa has been the closest that I have come to having a pet and yet he is not one.
Who is he then? What is he to you? These were questions that a friend asked me after seeing my IG posts on Guddu Billa. He is the someone I didn’t know I needed in my life – whether it is the few minutes or few hours he spends in my office every day, he always leaves me feeling better, lighter and happier.
He is many things to me – a teacher, a therapist, a stress buster. He is someone I love unconditionally. He is a cat called Guddu Billa. 🙂
Have you known such special and free cats and dogs? Or other animals? I would love to hear about your stories in the comments section.