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Pain that heals and restores

He is more of a mythical creature than a cat. At times he looks like a giraffe, at times a lemur, at times a rabbit. at times a dolphin and then so much more. So when he went missing, it was difficult for us to explain what he looks like to people. We printed pictures, we made posters, and we stuck them on the walls and poles all around our colony and beyond.

But how can pictures capture the spirit of this being that we were learning to understand in the past two years? When people asked his name, each one of us came up with a different one, confusing everyone even more. He never did have one name but it changed with time and as he grew into each one he found home in. Infantata, Taata, Taati, Baati, Baatu and many more and he would respond to each. Until he did not and we were only left echoing each other’s calls from different alleys, nooks and crannies. To return home and sob in our own corners so as to not inflict more pain on the others as carousels of heart-wrenching images spun in our heads at night.

Like all love stories, Taati’s story also has a history. Before he was born, his feral mother decided to adopt our daughter during the first year of the pandemic. No animal had lived with us after our dog’s death due to old age. Which was very unusual for a family that had housed dogs, fish, turtles and even nursed a tiny squirrel (a story for another time). We called her Cat and grew to love her and were bewitched by her strange ways. You have to live with cats to know how strange they are. She came and went as she pleased and would get us gifts of love every now and then – dead rats, the head of a pigeon, the feathery carcass of a bird. We retched but were touched by her random love.

One day, she walked into our balcony with something in her mouth and as I prepared to face another morbid death, I came face to face with life. A tiny ball of fur perched in a corner who spat and snarled at us when we tried to get any closer. His mother left him with us for one night to test our love and his endurance. The first one, our Taati, let her know that we could be trusted and promptly she brought in the other three. Two stayed with us and two found another home and it has been more than two years since that night. We believe it was a miracle the way he found us and now we waited for another miracle to find him.

I write this piece with an appeal, an apology and appreciation. The appeal is to witness all the pains in the world and not to disenfranchise ones that do not fit our assumed definitions of loss. So many children I meet carry the pain of the loss of a pet that they were not allowed to grieve for as parents, sweep in with a brand new one with: “Now you can forget about him and love this one.” As a 13-year-old shared with me, “I am laughed at for still missing my dog who was my brother for 12 years.” When I shared my pain in a long message to a close friend, she replied, “So sorry” and then a silence spanning over two weeks. Otherwise, a loving person with an immensely generous heart she unwittingly dismissed the distress of the loss of an animal as not significant enough.

The apology or, I should say, sense of contrition is that people experience immense tragedies on everyday basis and what we went through does not seem to come anywhere close to that. And yet the grief was as real and palpable as the loss of a dearest family member. The kindness of strangers kept us going as they called us, messaging us pictures of lost and feral feline lookalikes. Their caring eyes and unhesitant invites soothed us as we marched to their terraces, combed their gardens and ledges and crooned in the heavy rains, “Taata…Taati…Baati…Baatu.” Making a range of offerings with the hope that he might be in the mood for one. Our hearts started living in our calls at night. It also woke up our neighbours but they responded with their offerings of water, assurance and food. The guards, the presswallas, the kudawallas and the army of roadside soldiers who stay invisible until we call out for help. Deep appreciation for witnessing our pain and standing by us.

It is the pain that has helped me step out of what Tagore described as, “dreary desert sand of dead habit,” and live a more uninhibited life even while I felt most raw. My introverted self has found itself stopping people on the road and sharing our story, walking into people’s homes with no hesitation, and taking any and every help that came our way. We got to know every cat, every dog, and the way trees, ledges and top of the cars find home for so many of these homeless souls. In the heart of Delhi, we chanced upon peacocks, hoopoes, owls, ibis, flame-backed woodpeckers, kingfishers and hornbills. We witnessed life when we stepped out of the comfort of our homes. We also learned to cry together, give each other long hugs and realise, how we persist against all odds due to what holds us together.

Like all my favourite love stories, this one has a happy ending too. There was a chance encounter in one of our night rounds, our torch beam spotted a likeness and an immediate response to our call. For two nights we kept close track and a rescue campaign was planned with military precision by our son. Taata had been braving the urban wilderness for over 18 days and though he pined for home, his survival skills watched us work our way back to his heart again. After all, everything that we have loved and lost has to be wooed back.

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Pain is testimony to all things we hold precious. As a young person reflected, “We have to live through grief to understand life.” The pain churns us in a way that we are never the same again. After Taata’s return, we are astonished at what we in jest refer to as his “Master Shifu spirit”. As if he has experienced all the pain and hardships and returned all the wiser, loving and at peace, making us wonder how life can grow around the cracks and heal. As long as we learn to keep the faith.

Shelja Sen is a narrative and family therapist, writer, co-founder of Children First. In this column she curates the know-how of the children and youth she has the honour of working with. Email her at

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