Kalighat painting, artist unknown.

You look at some people and you can tell how they’re likely to laugh. She was one of those people. Hers would be a low, rhythmic rumble that would make the cushions on the sofa vibrate. The kind she’d have to hold in by pressing her belly with her hands and slowly ease out, a rumble at a time. She held large laughs within her, anyone could guess that much. But it was only that morning that these aspects of her preoccupied me, I had never considered them before.

This despite the fact that I spent most mornings studying her. I watched her in the early hours as she slept, waiting for her to wake up in a repetitive pattern of gestures. First one of her toes would twitch and she’d turn to a side (usually the left) then her slightly ajar mouth would snap shut, finally she’d open her eyes and rub the sleep out of them. That was my cue to nuzzle her. If she didn’t respond I’d pull her hair gently. She’d make these half-hearted complaints but I knew she didn’t really mind.

The morning I’m referring to, began like any other. I followed her into the kitchen, watching the ends of her housecoat flap against her heels. Usually she watered the plant by the window and then set a vessel of water to heat. But today she did none of those things. Instead she pressed her back to the counter, resting her weight on it and stared at the wall in front of her. I looked at the wall too, wondering what had caught her interest, but I saw nothing except plaster peeling in a sharp trail towards the ceiling. I heard her sigh softly before she resumed her duties.

By the time the old man woke up and came to the table for his breakfast, she seemed perfectly normal. In fact, when she set down his bowl of rava upma on the dining table, she was smiling.

“Aha!” he said looking at the steaming hot bowl of his mushy breakfast and pulling out his chair.

“Why feel down when there’s always an Up Ma!” he said, his voice carrying the unnecessary cheeriness that humans often begin their day with.

She said nothing as she slopped three spoonfuls onto his plate. When she was done, I circled her legs, losing myself within the folds of her housecoat as I followed her back to the kitchen.

“Umm?” I looked up at her in a manner I had perfected over the years.

“Hmm,” she grunted and poured me a bit of milk, half of which sloshed outside the bowl.

I lapped up the outside first, gradually moving to the inside of the bowl which smelt like it hadn’t been washed. I wasn’t in a position to grumble though, so I finished my milk with every intention of taking a quick nap right after.

“Chai?” I heard him asking her.

“You’ve never made me laugh,” she said in answer.

“Huh?” he sounded as surprised as I was.

We probably thought we’d misheard her, so we waited.

“You have never made me laugh.”

He ignored her, thinking the problem if there was any, would present itself to him, he didn’t feel the need to wrench it out of her. I did, though.

So, I flopped on my back and displayed my belly, cycling through the air with my legs, inviting her to tickle me.

“You’re a bore,” she said to him as she gave in to me and bent down to pick me up. “Even Poocha is more interesting than you.”

Uh-oh, I thought. Comparisons are a sign of deeper problems, I didn’t want to be involved now and I tried to make it abundantly clear by attempting to jump out of her grasp. But she held on tight, her frustration evident in the tightening clasp of her fingers.

“Arrey, what did I do now?” he asked in a voice that now sounded like a lullaby to me, (milk always makes me drowsy.)

“I have made a note…” she said, finally setting me down.

“A note of what?” we both wondered, only he said it out loud.

“A note of the number of stories you have in total.”

She picked up his empty plate and headed to the kitchen as if to show him the basics of building intrigue, drawing him in with cryptic statements and then leaving him hanging.

He rose to the bait, following her into the kitchen as she rinsed his plate.

“What on earth are you talking about Mala?”

She set the plate down dramatically. I briefly wondered if she was going to rinse my bowl…

But she turned around and sighed again, her shoulders drooped and her jaw sagged as she said, “I have counted the total number of stories you have told me in the duration of our marriage. There are 76.”

Both me and the accused bore found ourselves unable to react to this so we waited for what was coming.

“In the 43 years of our marriage you have repeated every single story and sometimes…before you can speak, I can guess what you’re about to say.”

He looked a bit hurt, poor chap.

“Whenever I make upma, you say the same stupid thing, and I make upma twice every week. When we drive past Chembur Chemists, you read out loudly- “Chembur CHEmist”. Every 31st December before we sleep you say- see you next year Mala. I am sick of it!”

“But Mala…” they both said at the same time, only she said it to mimic him, curling her lips exaggeratedly and modulating her voice into a taunting, cruel imitation of his.

He went quiet then. I felt it was important to establish that I was not on either side, but again she scooped me up in her arms purposefully.

“You see…I can predict your every sentence. And after retirement it’s gotten worse, every day I hear those same 76 stories repeated along with different newspaper headlines.”

“Do you think I can’t read?” she said as a parting shot.

She took me to the bedroom after that and as we sat on the bed together, I saw her scroll through texts on her mobile phone. This time I didn’t just watch her, I really saw her. The blue light of her phone brought to my attention that everything about her drooped and stooped in protest against the dullness of life. The soft, sagging flesh of her face was held up by little lines like brackets around the corners of her mouth and her rounded shoulders curved her body into a cocoon within which she hid herself. I realized then that I had never heard her laugh.

We heard the door slam shut, it seemed that he’d left in a huff. Not that I cared, because he and I only interacted when he ate fish once a week and I begged him for a morsel (he never parted with any). I focused my attention on her once again, allowing her slow movements to lull me into sleep.

When he came back that evening, I think she felt a bit sorry for him. She served him fat round pooris, swollen with guilt.

He poked them right in the centre and I watched the steam rise out of the fried dough, waiting for either of them to throw me at least a little piece. They didn’t.

“I have to tell you something…” I heard him say.

“Huh? Listen… I was just annoyed in the morning don’t take it so…”

He ignored her and went on. “A wife asks her husband to pass him her lipstick. By mistake he passes her Fevicol, so you know, she’s still not talking to him.”

The old man looked at her expectantly.

I saw her lips curl up a little around the left side but there was no rumble, yet. Not even a sign of it.

He pulled out a book from his pocket and set it down on the table. It was tiny book of the sort people carried on their person, to read when bored at bus stops or train stations.

“200 hilarious and ribald non-veg jokes,” she read out the title.

“276.”

“Huh?” she asked distractedly as she rifled through the book.

“200+76.”

She sighed heavily, “the problem is not your joke, it’s…” she fumbled searching for the kindest explanation. “…it’s the way you said it. The delivery was off. You’ve got to wait a bit, pause, wait for me to want to know the answer and then…crack the joke,” she slapped her hands together to demonstrate the impact.

Now the old man was not just boring, he was also timid, he didn’t have the imagination or the courage to really challenge her. But his ego was hurt and I saw him substitute his humiliation with anger.

“You’re no Sridevi that I’ve to learn jokes for you,” he snapped.

The next morning also disturbed the routine of mornings I had gotten used to. Before her toes could twitch, I saw his stomach wobble and empty itself of snores. He woke up then like a rattling old engine, coughing and sniffling as he dressed silently and walked out with purpose. I was desperate to know what he was up to, but I didn’t want to miss breakfast either.

But there was no time to ponder this dilemma so I leapt up and followed him.

“What?” he asked me when he spotted me outside the door at his feet.

I shrugged and followed him down the stairs. He ignored me after that.

We walked like strangers who were heading towards the same destination. I resisted the smells and distractions that wafted up towards me, keeping my eye on him as we took the long road out of the building leading to the colony’s community hall. Normally I avoid this area as it’s full of thugs, one of whom -a large ginger- tends to be jealous of me. I prayed they were out dining with the Cat Lady from B-wing.

The old man had no such fears, he swung his arms and walked without concern, stopping only to say hello to two old friends who were going for a walk.

“Morning walk today Raghavjee?” one of them shouted from across the street.

The old man crossed over to greet them and answered, “I wanted to attend the society meeting.”

There was an awkward pause.

“Uh…I’ve never seen you attend any, how come suddenly?” said the portlier of the two.

“I’m just curious, I heard some interesting stuff goes on in there…”

At this both men laughed assuming he was joking. Only I knew he wasn’t, the man really did not know where to find a good story.

“Curious or ambitious?” said the skinnier companion, interrupting my reverie.

The portly one scoffed, “Aha! Someone wants the building secretary position, it’s open now isn’t it?”

“Maybe,” the old man shrugged and walked off without saying goodbye.

Having discovered his intent, I didn’t see the wisdom of risking my fur, so I gave up following him and trudged back to the house for my milk. She was awake by now and flustered to find both of us missing.

“Where did you run off to?” she scolded me when I got back. She’d been standing by the door waiting for us to come home.

I gave her one of my famous side hugs, as she led me in to serve me milk. She still hadn’t cleaned out my bowl.

Later when the old man came back, he excitedly related the only interesting thing that had happened at the meeting. It was as follows:

Someone was throwing hardboiled eggs into the 3rd floor lady’s sacred tulsi plant, thereby tainting its holiness. Various theories had sprung up, some of them turning into religious conspiracy theories that targeted the Muslims in the building and the lone Catholic lady on the 10th floor. When things got really heated however, a harrowed mother from the 4th floor above, confessed that lately she’d been surprised at how quickly her fussy son was eating his boiled eggs. It was deduced that the boy had been spitting his eggs into his downstairs neighbour’s balcony, somewhat cruelly aiming for her plant. The case was closed when the harrowed mother promised to get the lady a new plant.

“It would be better if she made her son eat his eggs na?” she said, but I saw her eyes twinkle, amused at the distress a boiled egg can cause.

“77” he said to her in bed that night.

“Did I laugh?” she scoffed at him but her arm moved to encircle his belly as they finally fell asleep.

It became a pattern thereafter, as he tried something new each day to bring back a story. Some of his attempts, (actually most of them) failed miserably, while the others were mild successes.

One day he dyed his grey beard an astonishing shade of deep, unnatural black that made him look like he’d stuck a disguise on himself. It was unclear whether he was trying to make her laugh or remind her of their youth. In any case, this only made her cry out in alarm.

There was also that time he took part in the women’s march, after which he made tea for the next two days.

While she was occasionally amused by his efforts, I noticed that she still hadn’t really laughed. Quite often I caught her by herself in the mornings, staring into a distance either at the wall or out of the window. During these times, it seemed that she had a far more interesting world of her own in her head, one where she found all the sustenance she needed to get through her repetitive days.

Around this period, on one of my jaunts downstairs, I heard gossip about a large and slender black cat, who was new to the colony. The rumours suggested that she was looking for a potential mate and many toms were vying for her attention, but she hadn’t yet committed herself to anyone yet. When I finally did meet her, it was outside B-Wing, where the Cat Lady had put out her fortnightly spread of food for all the colony’s cats. She stood behind the aggressive ginger, patiently waiting her turn at one of the bowls, which in itself an unusual act for a cat. I was immediately drawn to her, and I couldn’t help but think that when she noticed me her large eyes stayed on me a little longer then they should have. Long after the others had left, she stayed back to ask me who I was, and where I stayed. We soon began to meet by the stoop at the water tank to talk and eventually she let me know that she wanted to take things further.

The excitement of meeting a mate had left me feeling unnaturally expressive and one day I sprayed the old man’s shoes leaving my scent on them. I don’t know why I did it, but it had seemed like an urgent need at the time. He didn’t take to this at all and spent quite a while yelling at me, finally ending his tirade in a hard kick. I left yowling and didn’t come back for two weeks.

This is not to say that I left because of the kick or that I had a bad time during those weeks. I had already decided to spend these two weeks getting to know my new partner. She was an engaging creature, with a sensuous velvet coat that lit up like dark fire in the golden light of evenings. On some nights, despite the full, round moon I could barely see her, I only sensed her perfume until I finally saw her lamp-like eyes glow at me in the dark. I’d met plenty of females before but this one had an ability to leave me feeling unsure of myself. I often wondered if this was how the old man felt — unable to predict his mate’s reaction, always on slippery footing.

I often tried to impress her, Cheeni, her name is, I still see her around and she still treats me like I’m dispensable. But during those days, I was convinced of how special I was. Many of us are born with an exaggerated sense of self-importance and there are those who come into our lives, either as mates or competitors to chip away at our self-esteem, or simply give us a reality check.

One day, I came back to our usual spot to find her scent gone. She’d left and not found it important to say goodbye.

The next morning, I got back to the apartment and clawed at the door, calling out for the old lady. There was no response. I looked up to see a large lock hanging outside the door. This surprised me as I had adopted the old lady and old man for two years now and never once had I seen her step out. I lay by the door, hungry and waiting. I craved the warm milk the lady poured me and the fish she boiled and fed me every week. Dreaming of a stream of warm milk pouring into my blue bowl I pushed away thoughts of Cheeni and fell into thick sleep.

Loud voices woke me up and I looked up to find a man in white shorts and a white shirt pushing a cycle towards the door, the old man was floating on it. I was alarmed! I looked to the right and saw the old lady, her shoulders even more slumped, pulling the keys out of her handbag.

When she looked up the old lady caught sight of me and scooped me up.

“Poocha!” she nearly wept. “Where had you gone? He fell sick, you disappeared! What a terrible time I’ve had.”

So, the old man was sick.

“Let me push the wheelchair and get used to it,” she told the man in white shorts and attempted to wheel the old man through the door.

So that was a wheelchair.

“It’s only for a few days, I won’t be in a wheelchair forever,” grumbled the old man.

The old man had to be fed, washed and bathed for a few days and she was miserable throughout the time. I felt sorry for her, but also mildly relieved that there no longer was time for her vacant staring.

Our days went by in the way they once had, except the old man now took to watching TV at all hours, his previous gusto to impress her now entirely abandoned.

I missed those days, like the one where he’d plucked a bunch of bougainvillea and given it to her in a flourish and she’d been bitten by the ants crawling on it.

I took it upon myself to make her laugh, bringing her a dead frog one day, but she didn’t appreciate it. So, I resorted to physical humour, turning on my back, cycling the air, nipping her feet as she walked, but none of these things made her laugh. Sometimes there was a faint smile, but that was it.

I finally gave up and fell into their routine. Every evening, the three of us sat in the balcony and watched people below- absorbed in their lives, for lack of having our own. The old couple would have their tea and I would be given a bit of kibble after which I lay down at her feet and she stroked my fur and scratched my ears fondly. The peace of those evenings was interrupted one day when their son’s old friend dropped in.

He was a smartly dressed man, and his shoes gleamed enough to reflect my face in them. He bent down to pet me from his perch on the drawing room’s sofa.

“When I heard uncle had a fall in the bathroom, I had to come and check on you two,” he said warmly.

“Thank you, Satish, you’re a kind boy, Hiren always said good things about you,” the old lady said as she served him a cup of tea.

“We still miss him aunty, and now that he’s not here, I want you to call me if you ever need anything,” the man called Satish went on.

It occurred to me that the couple’s son had either gone away somewhere far or was no more. But before I could dwell on this, the old man let out an awkward laugh.

The man called Satish took this as his cue to leave, “I must go now, and before I forget, I brought you a box of samosas from the sweet shop.” He handed the old lady an oily box that smelt heavenly and left in a click of gleaming shoes.

Once he left, there was an excitement in the air. We all wanted to eat the samosas as quickly as possible, before the sunset, watching the people downstairs. Who knows what we had missed?

She rushed to heat up the samosas on a tawa and poured prickly smelling tamarind chutney into a bowl. When she finally came to the balcony, the old man looked up eagerly as she handed him a plate with two golden samosas, their crisp crowns curling in a wave of sculpted dough.

I looked up at him hopefully. Would he finally change his selfish habits today? He took a large bite into his crisp samosa. So, no.

I turned to her hopefully and was startled to hear a shriek.

The old man was screaming.

“What a disgusting samosa this is! There’s someone’s tooth inside it!”

He had flung the samosa in shock, the lady picked it up and we both saw a large tooth embedded right in the middle of the samosa. When I tried to investigate further I heard it…

It came in a shrill, fluttering wave. Like a sound that had been trapped deep inside a box and was finally being set free. It was followed by a series of other sounds, none of them a rumble but low musical chortles. Soon the air was full with the sound of her laughter.

“That’s your own tooth,” she told the old man.

He was silent, his mouth agape with a dark space where his tooth once was.

“96,” he finally whistled.

“76+20, is 96.”

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