‘You remember Bansi Lal Babu?’ asks my father, frowning down at me as I sit on the floor of our lounge, back against the wall, ginger cat purring on my lap. I nod. I don’t know who he means, of course, but I’ve learned not to question his random, occasionally obscure statements. I am eight years old and I know acquiescence will make him move on to other, more interesting siblings. But not today, it seems. He pulls a stool closer and sits down, keeping his pin-striped pant legs carefully away from the cat’s reach.
‘Bansi Lal Babu died of diphtheria,’ says my father, turning his frown on the cat in my lap.
‘What’s that?’ I ask.
‘It’s a terrible disease caused by cats. Cats carry diphtheria germs in their spittle. Bansi Lal Babu’s cat licked his hands, he ate dal-chawal without washing his hands first, his throat closed, he couldn’t breathe, and he died. A horrible way to die. What do you have to say about that?’
The cat stops purring and slinks away towards the kitchen where we can hear my mother clattering pots and pans.
‘I’ll wash my hands before eating,’ I say.
‘Is that all you have to say?’ he demands.
I know better than to respond to this challenge, so I stay quiet, while he glowers and stands up, straightening a perfect crease.
My father and I face off on several occasions throughout our intertwining lives. He gets the better of me each time, and not just on the matter of animals transmitting deadly diseases. Everything is debatable. And potentially catastrophic. Friendship, love, education, employment. Everything can be done another way. His way. The only way. There are no visible signposts to anything my father considers acceptable. Eventually I run away, although this is not what I think I am doing at the time. I see it as growing up. Moving out of home. Getting married. Leaving the country.
But in the world according to Dad, all my decisions are immature, ill-advised and thoughtless, beginning with the one I consider excitingly important.
‘Why on earth would you want to marry?’ He appears genuinely perplexed.
My declarations of love and protestations of independence are insufficient reasons.
‘It is foolish,’ he says finally. ‘You have no skills. We have given you enough. Why do you not accept it? Living within the fold of your family should be your aim. You will regret this. But, who knows – you may learn. And return. Bansi Lal’s daughter was never able to make amends. He died before she came to her senses.’
His dire warnings reverberate through a lifetime of decisions, good and bad. When he cannot persuade me to give up the idea of leading a life away from him, he loses interest. Turns his attention to more amenable siblings and proceeds to direct their lives with the aplomb of Zubin Mehta at Sarajevo’s ruined library. He orchestrates the lives of my brother and sister and their partners and children for the next thirty years, with well-timed swipes at the one that got away.
I practise my insensible independent ways on a different continent, away from the places, languages and landscapes I was raised in, away from the father who was known, among other things, as ‘Antiseptic.’ My daughter is eight when she acquires a cat, the same age I was when my father proclaimed them lethal killers; a fact a I register with a small smile. I attempt to rescue couches and curtains while shaking my head over the child/cat pair at the dinner table, lounge room, bathroom, kitchen. My paranoia over my daughter’s well-being has been restricted to occasional mutterings about stranger danger and surreptitious looks inside the homes of friends when I pick her up from a play-date. I have not thought about cats as killing machines or the hapless Bansi Lal for more than twenty-five years. However, Mr and Mrs Antiseptic are due for a visit and adjustments will need to be made; cat-free spaces will become necessary.
A week after my parents arrive, I come home one afternoon to find daughter and cat sprawled on their tummies in the lounge room, watching Inspector Gadget. My father sits on the couch behind her. It is covered with newspaper. He insists on it because he saw the cat settle into her habitual spot on the saggy end of my uncovered sofa. He is horrified at this blatant disregard for his life. I don’t have extra sheets to use on the couches or the time to wash them daily, hence the newspaper. Every morning I spread the paper out and every evening I throw it out. During the day he makes sure the cat doesn’t sit on anything I’ve covered. The free community newspapers are not enough, nor is the junk mail I collect with such dedication. I have yet to feel comfortable asking the neighbours if I can have theirs, so I buy multiple copies of The West Australian instead. It’s costing me a small fortune. We also use Pine O Cleen as if we are the emergency department of a major hospital in the middle of a pandemic.
‘Do you know cats carry diphtheria germs?’ my father says as I drop my keys and bag on the table.
‘What’s that?’ asks my daughter and time slips away. The grey cat pays no attention and continues to lick my daughter’s hand as she shares her buttery toast with her.
I start preparing dinner and the story of Bansi Lal Babu’s death-by-cat misadventure drifts towards me, mingling with the closing lines of Inspector Gadget.
When I tuck girl and cat into bed that night, my daughter giggles. ‘Nana doesn’t like cats, hey? He really thinks Puss will kill me. That’s funny. And how long do we have to sit on newspaper, Mum?’
When it is time for them to leave, a couple of months later, we hug awkwardly, air-kissing, because he doesn’t trust our germ-ridden, cat-loving bodies.
‘Remember,’ he says sternly. ‘Diphtheria is a deadly disease and that cat is a potential killer. Well. Goodbye. I can see nothing will persuade you to get rid of that pest. I will not be visiting again.’
He kept his word. We kept the potential killer, who died peacefully in her basket 18 years later.
First published here