The trouble with the cats, Essie believed, was entirely her son-in-law Daniel’s fault. They first turned up on the day that Gopi was expected to come shake the coconuts down from the trees. It was mid-morning, a January day without too much Bombay haze, and early enough for the children to play outside without Marian worrying about the heat. Still, she insisted on hats for them. Essie said nothing when her daughter called the girls to the front veranda steps, just sat and helped Marian rub their limbs with lotion to protect them from the sun. Both were fair-skinned, though darker than Daniel, whose pale, pinkish skin reminded Essie of chicken not cooked long enough.
Marian went upstairs to help the servant Ritu wash the children’s clothes, but Essie stayed to keep an eye on the girls. They were five and six only, babies still by Essie’s reckoning, and it was her belief that Daniel did not pay close enough attention. She knew better than to approach him directly, of course; he would only turn to her with his blank American look and smile his blank American smile. It was all too soft and spongy for Essie, who had wondered when she first met Daniel whether he fully understood her. Who was this man her daughter had married?
Nalini Jones is the author of a story collection, What You Call Winter (2007). She has written for Elle India and Vogue India, and has contributed essays to AIDS Sutra and Freud’s Blind Spot. She teaches at Fairfield University and is currently at work on a novel.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- NJ: My sister, brother and I used to go to India as children, and very much like the girls in this story, we tried to befriend all sorts of unsuitable strays. One of my uncles helped us feed a family of cats—the only uncle who wasn’t watching the cricket match—and I remember my grandmother’s frown as he began naming the cats with us. In small personal ways it’s a startling memory—in part because I realized my grandmother was right, and in part because I’ve grown so attached to my dog that it’s hard to recall how alluring a cat can be.
- HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- NJ: Overcoming the cats, perhaps. I had to remember liking cats enough to write about them properly, but once I did they threatened to overtake the story. And then I suffered from the same problem Essie has in writing letters to her daughter—the sense that any moment in a character’s life is suffused with that person’s history and desires.
- HT: It’s unusual to read about Catholics in India —can you talk a little bit about this community and your relation to it?
- NJ: Catholics make up less than 2% of the population, but in a country as large as India, that’s over 17 million people. My mother was raised in a Catholic neighborhood of Bombay (now Mumbai), and much of my writing is set in its fictional counterpart, a place I’ve called Santa Clara. I don’t know why; I never lived there. But I suppose it’s a part of my own history that continues to intrigue me. Questions about my Catholic upbringing feel so much sharper in that context, where beggars are routinely gathered at church gates. I’m also interested in the way a western sensibility has taken root in most Catholic communities. It’s a strange and complicated brew—small knots of Catholics among largely Hindu and Muslim populations, influenced still by the British Raj and other forms of political and economic colonialism.
- HT: In many ways, Essie is the classic passive aggressive mother figure, trying to control her children. But her story is also one of lost intimacy and love. Why do you think Essie holds her secret, and also why does she tell her daughter, in the end?
- NJ: I think she holds her secret because she’s lonely, and people who are lonely do all sorts of things to keep the attention of the people they love. I guess she tells her daughter for the same reason: she loves her daughter. She lied to Marian in a moment of weakness, but she doesn’t actually want her daughter to suffer.
- HT: Can you answer Nicole’s question from the story: Have you ever seen a real tiger?
- NJ: In zoos. My mother saw them a few times as a girl and told wonderful stories about them. I wish I could see a wild tiger—at a safe, shady distance, with my daughters in an armored vehicle. But for now, I rely on Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide for tiger encounters.
- HT: “Tiger” is part of a larger cycle of stories. How does it fit into your overall collection, and can you give us a hint of what happens to the characters?
- NJ: The story collection is about a handful of families who live on the same road in a Catholic suburb of Bombay. The family I’ve come to know best is the one in “Tiger”—Essie and Francis Almeida and their three children. One of the (failed) stories about them, a story we didn’t include in the collection, has become a starting point for the novel. Much of what happens to them will hopefully come to life in those pages. Essie continues to address her thoughts to those who are absent, although that habit takes an odd twist as she gets older.
- HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- NJ: I wrote the first draft in a week or two. The cats were everywhere. It was all about the cats. The editor of my story collection gently suggested that the world might not need a story in which the cats are more memorable than the people. So I put it away, waited a few years and excavated it one weekend when I wondered if some of the material might be pillaged for the novel-in-progress. I couldn’t make that work either. The cats twined through everything. It was all so discouraging that I introduced a dog into the novel to bark fiercely at any cat intruders. Then an editor at One Story made a brilliant suggestion. I carried it around with me for a several weeks, shook it up, turned it on its head, and suddenly saw everything I’d been missing. After that, it was a few hours. But all told, years.
- HT: What are you working on now?
- NJ: The novel, almost exclusively. But occasionally I can’t resist the chance to turn my mind to something different. Right now I’m working on a short essay about Miles Davis and women, which is about as far from Catholic India as anyone could go.
- HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- NJ: I think many writers begin with the idea that they should never give up, but it was incredibly useful to be reminded that there are projects which ought to abandoned. Caryl Phillips spoke to me once about the books that clamor to be written, the material a writer can’t outrun even if he or she tries. I’ve tried to take that as my standard. If I don’t need to write it, the work may turn out polished, it may even turn out interesting, but it won’t have soul. I like reading and writing with soul.