MY FAMILY IS OTHER ANIMALS, AND SO CAN YOU!
The restaurant is on a promontory and overlooks the bay, with its skeletons of dying mangroves. The last bit of the footpath leading to the restaurant consists of crushed shells that glow white in the moonlight. The surrounding hillside is littered – Minute Maid (TM) juice boxes, plastic Bisleri (TM) and Aquafina (TM) water bottles, the ubiquitous plastic bags.
As we sat for lunch, a few stray dogs and a stray cat came around. The cat, after miaowing from under the tables, came on to the table. In an effort to impress us, the head waiter, Krishna, an immigrant from the Nepali foothills, came charging out with a broken wooden table leg and thwacked one of the dogs, who took off yelping. Another dog limping around we had already noticed keeping its distance. A waiter grabbed the cat, dangling her 20 tense, sharp points out by her tail at arm's length. Krishna took a swing at her and missed, but Maya, our 6 year old, born and brought up in the US, saw him and started bawling, “What are they going to do to her?”, terrified for the animals. In turn, Elsa, her younger sister started crying for Maya. While their mom tried to calm the two of them, my sister, protector of nieces as well as of stray cats, jumped up infuriated and started berating the waiters. The Indian nieces and nephews – immune perhaps to displays of violence towards animals – sat unfazed through the whole thing, even the 3 year old, who looked mystified at her older cousin's upset.
After that, at least in our presence the waiters left the animals alone. Our one felinophobic cousin left the next day, and the rest of us accustomed ourselves to the animals, mostly ignoring them, except for my sister, who talks to the cat; and Elsa, one and half years old, who squeals, warbles and trills and bobs her head while making calling gestures with her hands, almost throwing herself out of my arms in her efforts to interact with the dogs, cats and crows.
A couple of days later we had fish for lunch. Maddened by the smell, the cat miaowred hideously through our meal. The moment I finished and sat back, she jumped on my leg and onto the table without scratching me, hunkered down and started eating the fish bones off my plate. I pulled the cat off the table with her jaw full, by her scruff but not in the correct immobilizing hold, and she nicked me, drawing blood.
“You are the second one to be scratched by that cat – the other day Papi was scratched too!”.
“And what about that crow that pecked Nima on her head?”
“Where did that happen?”
“Arrey here only nah.”
“Yah, lucky for us the chipkali fell on the dining table before our food was served.”
“This place is filled with animals, I found a frog in the bathroom.”
“A frog! That's nothing, you won't believe what I found in the bathroom.”
“I had been shaving in the bathroom, when I heard a rapid ghasar-pasar near the window and a chipkali darted in, the head of a snake an inch behind it when the gecko managed to climb around the frame and escape along the wall to hide behind the water-heater. The green-brown snake, thumb thick and 3' long, slithered in and out again immediately and I thought it was gone for good, but it climbed the window slats on the outside, coiled its hind part around the top slat, levitated itself off that and swayed two feet into the bathroom, looking for its recently escaped prey. I had been petrified and now futilely waved a plastic mug in its direction. The snake noticed me, coiled back and reptated back outside.”
Now people noticed that the cut was bleeding and suggestions started: “Rub some salt on it.”, “No, no! That will sting, just squeeze some lime juice on it.”, “Just crush some of that raw onion, that will also work.”. Then the suggestions left the immediate vicinity of the table and expanded outwards to the kitchen and the larger world beyond: red chilli powder, cumin powder, haldi, neem leaf, calendula and everybody's favorite ayurvedic or homeopathic remedy. I squeezed a couple of more drops of blood out, as my dad suggested, rinsed it and, since I had had a tetanus booster recently, forgot about it.
I imagine the same scene in the US, people discussing the relative antiseptic merits of relish and ketchup.