Rare is the book that can make an adult feel – in the most delightful, magical way possible – like a child. Rarer still is the book that can pull this off without the slightest condescension – incidentally, the same trait that is often, quite wrongly, ascribed to the feline species. Felines, as anyone ought to know, are regal. The felines who populate the pages of Nilanjana Roy’s debut novel, The Wildings, are certainly regal – bravely, protectively, powerfully so, with just a splash of the imperiousness that any creature (human or otherwise) who is all those things is due.
The wildings are a clan of “outside cats” – what the less-enlightened might call “strays” – in Delhi’s Nizamuddin. They prowl, play and hunt prey by the rules: adhering by a strict ethical code that allows them to co-exist with other clans and creatures. Amongst themselves, they communicate through their whiskers in a psychic process known as “linking”. With non-cats, they speak Junglee. And to Bigfeet, or humans if you prefer, if they interact with them at all, they miaow.
Very early one morning, at an hour when only ferals or the weak wander or hunt, a new voice interrupts the link – tiny yet authoritative, petulant, and in deep distress. The wildings gather in alarm and their leaders – Miao, the grave Siamese with the intense eyes, the fierce toms Hulo and Katar and the beautiful and lethal Beraal – agree that a powerful foreign element must surely be dangerous. But when Beraal, dispatched to kill, discovers that the voice belongs to an ingenuous newborn who isn’t even aware that she is linking, she convinces the clan to accept the kitten into their fold. Although Mara of the orange fur and monsoon-green eyes is too frightened to leave the Bigfeet house where she lives, she is capable of tremendous astral projection, going as far as befriending a family of tigers at the zoo during her “walks”. Knowing that a Sender – a cat of preternatural telepathic intensity – is born only in times of great need, Beraal begins to train the kitten for something that none of them can name yet but all their whiskers can sense.
Roy’s cats are not anthropomorphized humans; but if this novel does take after preceding literature with animal casts, it is only in its directions on how to live better. The Wildings, like only the best morality tales do, dispenses of its wisdom with an elegant sense of discretion. Its lessons in harmonious co-existence, duty to self and to others, responsibility, trusting one’s intuition, compassion and the dangers of a closed existence are never forceful. Most importantly, these lessons do not take away from the core of the action: like all epic narratives, it is taut with suspense and culminates in a climactic, vividly-described battle. The wildings must fight the ferals of the Shuttered House, who never having seen the sky do not know how much they fear it. The ferals’ only pleasures are derived from senseless killings, and their release could spell doom for the Nizamuddin ecosystem.
Punctuated often with beautiful, but never overwhelming, illustrations by Prabha Mallya, The Wildings is a superlative achievement that cuts across genres and far exceeds its own hype. The author is the country’s foremost book critic; this book cements her position as one of its foremost storytellers. Roy’s style has the even, unfaltering omniscience of a master narrator with a deliberately underscored presence, and the book should appeal equally to adults, older children, and readers of fantasy and adventure and well as the category known as literary fiction.
Shining through, however, is her wonderment at her subjects, a wonderment lovingly conveyed in the way they are etched. The Wildings is above all a love paean to cats; that it also happens to be a marvelously-spun novel that could well become a classic in its own time is almost secondary. One cannot read, let alone leave, this book without a childlike wish for a furry orange apparition to stroll across one’s line of vision and demand to be cuddled. Mara captures the heart; the other wildings seize the imagination. A sequel has been promised, and it cannot come soon enough.
An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.