It was a cold, rainy day in November 2011. I still remember the overcast skies and slushy roads, adding to the overall dreariness of the period between Diwali and Christmas when the diyas are gone and the stars aren’t up yet. I had trudged back from the gym, someone had splashed me while driving past and my sweaty tights were now streaked with mud. I don’t quite remember the events that followed—whether it was the security guard who alerted me or whether I discovered them myself—but I can never forget the discarded pizza box filled with three mewling kittens, carelessly tossed near the garbage bin of my apartment.
Cats, of course, were not new to me. I have always loved them. My grandparents’ house in Quilon, Kerala, where I spent all my summer and Christmas holidays, was filled with cats: rowdy, semi-feral felines who hung off curtains, stole ornaments off the casuarina branch my grandmother used in lieu of a real Christmas tree, tripped my long-suffering grandfather, stole the dog’s food and clustered, screaming, in the kitchen every morning, demanding fish, rice and some petting. Even my undergraduate Animal Behaviour project—I majored in zoology—was on cats. And at B-school, where I spent a reluctant two years, I mostly hung out with the local cat, Sweeny (named after the statistician Dennis J. Sweeny), between classes, both of us absolute misfits in a management ecosystem.
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But kittens, specifically neonatal kittens, were a completely different ball game. Till they are weaned at around four weeks, kittens are almost completely dependent on their mum. Not only do they need her milk every two-four hours, they need her to be able to stay warm and to stimulate excretion. The survival rate for neonatal kittens without their mum is abysmal, just about 40%. And these three downy kittens hadn’t even opened their eyes, so they were less than two weeks old.
“Where is the mother?” I remember asking the watchman. Dead, he told me. They had found the body beside the kittens and disposed of it, he added. I immediately called my friend, S, a community feeder with cats of his own, who lived down the road. “I have found three kittens,” I told him. “They look really small. What do we do?” “I am coming,” he said.
Five minutes later, he popped in, accompanied by two curious local cats, who looked as dismayed as we did at the sight of the frail kittens.
First, the vet. We picked them up gently and placed them in a blue plastic basket with a lid, while S took them for a check-up. “They seem healthy,” the vet said. “But they won’t survive without food.”
Nourishing neonatal kittens is hard. Cow’s milk gives them diarrhoea, killing them, and finding KMR (kitten milk replacement), basically formula for newborn kittens, was almost impossible back then. In 2011, there were barely two cat food brands in the market. The only way you could get your hands on formula was if you knew someone in the US who was willing to lug back a few boxes to India.
We reached out to another friend, who runs an NGO for cats in the city. It was probably the best decision we made. She came to visit us and the kitties almost immediately, bringing formula, a cage, feeding bottles, baby wipes, and, best of all, hope.
The next question—where to keep them? S worked nights and I was in college most of the day; we needed to find a place accessible to both of us, without disturbing our households. My poor mother came to the rescue as usual. “Why don’t we use the office room?” she said, referring to the small room that was used for society general body meetings. So we set up there, covering the floor of the cage with a soft cloth and putting in a rag-lined cardboard box for them to nestle in and stay warm.
S and I took turns bottle-feeding them, six-eight times a day, all that month. They were so little that they could barely find the teat of the bottle and hadn’t learnt how to poop; we had to wipe their bottoms gently at the end of each feed to stimulate them. People struggling with life often talk of taking one day at a time, buoyed by enforced optimism, a belief that this too shall pass. I think of that rainy November like that, constantly aware of life’s fragility as you held those soft, helpless bodies, worrying whether they would make it to the next day.
They did, every one of them, growing stronger and more playful. By December, they had been weaned, scrapping fiercely with each other for the smelly, wet kitten food we offered four times a day, getting fluffy and pretty and eminently adoptable. By Christmas, almost serendipitously, without us having to go through the usual frenzied stress of most foster parents, two of the three were adopted by a lovely family. “I am taking the third,” said S, cradling the last kitten, snow-white with a crooked tail.
Today, Bolt, then the runt of the litter, is all of 10. She sups off grass-fed lamb, demands air-conditioning, sleeps on a large, king-size bed and strides around the house as if she owns it. But when I look at her, I can still see the shivering little thing she once was. And, for me, atheist though I am, it remains the closest thing to a miracle I have known.