Winston Churchill loved pigs. That at least is what he said. ‘I love pigs’, said he. ‘Cats look down on us. Dogs look up to us. Pigs treat us as equals.’
It all sets you thinking about the place of animals in our human world. There are many of us who would not want to have anything to do with animals, let alone keep them as pets. Some among us will try explaining away their rejection of animal company as being based on their faith. Some are afraid of contamination by animals through the germs that might be carried by them. And some others simply do not have the time or the patience to put up with animals.
Well, it takes all kinds. At home, my nephew and nieces would love nothing better than to have a dog or a cat for a pet. I have observed the sheer happiness which lights up the eyes of a stray dog every time these children in the family step outside the gates of our residence. Those dogs know they have friends, or human beings who could be friends. The swiftness with which they wag their tails is remarkable and even as an adult you sometimes feel that they all deserve a home in the home that you live in.
But, of course, my nephew and nieces have not had their desires given due consideration by their mothers, who stand resolutely against any thought of any animal making its way into a home which they have fashioned in line with their sense of aesthetics. It is a position you understand and tend to agree with, even if you would want those children to shower their love on a dog or a cat to their hearts’ content. And just how profoundly people love animals is a beautiful image which one encounters in the West, largely. I have seen old women weep silent tears at the death of a cat. I have observed absolutely worried men take their poodles in their laps in order for the innocent creatures not to get too tired with walking. Often there are the charming sights of dogs, big or medium or small, scampering alongside their owners, happily enjoying the gentle breeze on a summer evening.
In Berkshire, England, where my wife and I sometimes go to spend an evening and the following day with our good friend Geraldine Clayton, we come across a properly respectful cat which appears at the door of our hostess three times a day. She is there to partake of her cream, which Geraldine makes sure is in her little bowl. When guests are present, the cat will glance momentarily at them before moving softly to the bowl of cream laid out for her in the kitchen. Once the meal is over, she takes her leave. It is on such occasions that the human mind loses itself in thoughts of the minds that work in cats and dogs and of course in other animals. There are then the birds, tiny manifestations of life, whose imagination is certainly not to be made light of.
And, yes, there are the squirrels that are busily working out their food collection plans for winter. The bigger ones among them collect all sorts of nuts and other food and bury them in the soil, to be retrieved and consumed in the cold winter. The babies among the squirrels do the same, except that when winter comes, they cannot remember where they have stored their loot. They search everywhere, often without success. In the end, many of these little squirrels die of hunger. And that reminds me of a walnut tree in the garden of Geraldine’s home. Some squirrel, it seems, had some walnuts buried in the ground but then something happened. Out of those walnuts arose a new walnut plant and eventually graduated into being a tree. The poor squirrel must have come back at some point to retrieve his food supply, only to find a tree there.
Speaking of cats, the late writer-scholar Abdul Matin comes to mind. He died a few years ago, which was indeed the death of a great history analyst. Matin bhai was in his eighties, in possession of a mind that was truly an archive of historical facts. I would meet him at his home in south London. He would prepare lunch for both of us. During the meal session, he would speak of Bangladesh’s politics and history and I would have it all stored in my memory. The session would continue after lunch and would not end till dusk. Matin bhai’s affection for cats came through the love he and his family showered on a feline they had as a pet. It would sleep peacefully on the rug in the sitting room as we talked. The warmth in Matin bhai’s conversation clearly was an inducement to slumber for it.
It so happened that once, before we had lunch, I saw Matin bhai place six little plates on the floor. He told me they were there for his cat and for five other cats who happened to be friends of his cat. Placing the cat food on the plates, he had his cat come over to its plate. Then he opened the door and I saw to my astonishment that five cats were indeed out there. They would not come in until Matin bhai asked them to. ‘Come in,’ he told them. ‘Your friend is waiting for you.’ All five cats then stepped gingerly in, making straight for their plates. It was a quiet lunch all six cats shared, with the five guest cats politely taking their leave once the meal was over. Matin bhai told me that it was an everyday ritual and he was happy to do his part. I was impressed, both by Matin bhai’s love for the cats and by the civil manner in which the cats conducted themselves as they had their lunch.
Long years ago, my brother Nadeem, very young and only recently admitted to school, picked up a puppy outside our then home in Rankin Street. It soon became a family member and we called it Lassie. It grew big and increasingly affectionate. And then it died. A pall of gloom settled over the family.
These days, as the night deepens, a number of dogs, puppies included, take over the street leading to our home in Adabor. They have a whale of a time playing around and with one another. But every time a car or motorbike or truck, headlights on, appears, they are irritated to no end. Some of them growl. Some go into barking, the little ones the loudest in that display of indignation at being disturbed by the intrusion of human beings.
And birds? One envies their free spirit, their ability to soar into the vast blue sky.