10 Oct 2011

The Painted Cat

Dad came home one night and woke us from our sleep. We rushed out of the house. Then, we took out a match and burnt down the house. The whole family stood staring as the flames brought down the house to ashes.

Since then, we have been moving from place to place without a house to stay. This situation is better, said Dad. We don’t have to crack our heads to think about what colour to paint the walls, what brand of paint to use, hire someone to paint or paint it ourselves, how many cans of paint would be needed and so forth.

That is only about the paint. Dad listed tens – hundreds and thousands, indeed – of problems that we would be able to avoid all together since we do not own a house.

“But, Dad,” said one of us while we were seated inside a peanut shell. “Which address shall we use for official purposes? What about school registration; which address to use? What if someone wants to send us a letter; a fan perhaps.”

“Just give the Parliament address or our Prime Minister’s,” Dad answered spontaneously. “At least we won’t be receiving all those junk mail.”

“And we do not have fans,” someone among us added; but not the one who raised the initial question. “We are nobody.”

The others among us agreed while shaking our heads. By then, we had already left the peanut shell where we took shelter while waiting for the rain to stop.

“What about school registration; which address to use?” Someone asked; could have been the same person or someone else.

“Why worry? Have you forgotten that all of you have never been to school,” Dad assured while walking.

“Oh, yeah!” We responded in unison.

* * *

We don’t know why we named him Cat. Perhaps since – to the best of our knowledge – there has never been a cat called “Kucing”, we spontaneously named him Cat.

Others do not have the right to question why we named the cat as Cat. If we were to name a cat as Dog or Snake, people can start questioning the rational behind such a decision. But, aren’t there people out there who name their dogs as Tiger? So, what is wrong with a cat being named Cat?

Cat is bright. Not very long ago, a government department advertised an opening for the Head of Department. Words are that all the previous heads were too old and retired merely a week after being promoted to the post. So, the Government decided to hire a younger Head of Department who would last longer.

Cat applied for the job. He was called for an interview. The interviewer had no reason to deny Cat’s right to apply for the advertised position. Cat seems to fulfil each and every requirement and qualification to be the head of a government department. Indeed that was the reason why, says Cat, the Public Services Commission called him for an interview.

“We are looking for a candidate who is fluent in more than two foreign languages,” said the interviewer while using a pen to circle the requirement which was indeed clearly stated in the newspaper advertisement.

Hence, Cat began to deliver a speech in Italian, German, French, Japanese and Hindi.

Strangely enough, the interview result – which was received three months later – says Cat was unsuccessful. It seems that when Cat spoke Italian, German, French, Japanese and Hindi, it sounded the same: miew-miew-miew.

What a stupid interviewer! Doesn’t he know that cats in Italy say miew-miew-miew, cats in Germany say miew-miew-miew, cats in France say miew-miew-miew, cats in Japan say miew-miew-miew and cats in India say miew-miew-miew?

* * *

Mum would lose her temper if she finds the males among us pretending to cook. Or if the males among us wanted to play house with the females among us.

“The traits of a real man are as follows,” Mum would quote two Western feminists – Jane Bardwick and Elizabeth Douvan – who have done studies about the expected behaviour of boys among the American parents: “Aggressive, strict, brave, active, rational, not influenced by sentiment, and not showing emotion.”

And if the males among us are disheartened – and confused – with what Mum says, and gave Dad a hug or started crying, he would say: “Boys are not supposed to and are not allowed to show emotion, not supposed to and are not allowed to hug, not supposed to and are not allowed to have fear; not supposed to and are not allowed to cry.”

A female among us tried to quote Dr James Prescott, a neuropsychologist: “The aggressiveness and violent behaviour among adult males are among others caused by the lack of hugging and the lack of physical touch during the early years in a boy’s life.”

Without paying any attention to what was being expressed, Dad would continue while leaning on the lazy chair: “A real macho male knows neither fear nor sadness. Even if he knows it, a real male should know how to conceal any form of emotion. Emotion only belongs to the weaker gender.”

Mum would proudly add: “A son must be strong, should not be soft and feminine, must choose aggressive games, should be able – indeed must be able – to command the girls to follow all his orders, and must have the desire to become the nation’s leader.”

Unable to bear such long lectures, the males among us would start making guns and knives out of sticks. The males among us would play war. The males among us would combat each other and hit each other and hurt each other.

The males among us would tear down the “homes” built by the females among us. The males among us would bully the females among us until the females among us start crying. Upon seeing that, the males among us would laugh arrogantly.

Mum and Dad would smile proudly upon witnessing the males among us bullying the females among us. They would say: “We are very proud because all the males among you will become real men.”

Afterwards, Dad would continue lying on his lazy chair. Mum would continue to cook, wash, clean and look after the children while grumbling: “Men are useless. Why must women do all the housework! Why don’t fathers try to be closer with their children? Would they be losing their manliness if they helped to clean the house and cared for the children?”

* * *

One day, we caught Cat and dumped him inside a glass container. Then, we baught a can of paint. We are not sure of the colour. We don’t even recall the brand. But words are that the paint which we bought has a five-year guarantee. If used somewhat after a general election, the paint is assured to last until the next general election, five years later.

We poured the paint into the glass container containing Cat. We let Cat soak in the paint for a few hours. Later we took him out. Of course Cat has changed colour according to the colour of the paint.

Cat told us that he was actually dead. But he was still alive, he said, because cats have nine lives.

Miew-miew-miew,” said Cat. Translation: Take me to the government department which rejected my application to become the Head of Department.

“What for?” asked someone among us.

Miew-miew-miew,” said Cat. Meaning: Do not ask!

We took Cat – who has changed colour after being soaked in the paint – to the government department which had previously rejected his application.

Cat demanded for a second interview. The highest authority from the Public Services Commission was summoned to come and interview Cat. Throughout the interview, Cat said absolutely nothing. Not even miew-miew-miew. Ten questions asked, zero answered. Hundred questions, none answered.

“Great! This is the sort of Head of Department we want. Mister Cat, you still have eight lives, right? So, the Government hereby appoints you, Mister Cat, as the Head of Department until you, Mister Cat, die for the eighth time,” the interviewer used his authority to decide.

* * *

Cat is bright. He seems to have paid close attention to what Mum and Dad have always been saying about the traits of a real male. Cat has also mastered the art of reading. It didn’t take long before Cat came to be known as a respected leader in the society.

Cat, whom was once soaked in paint – the colour which we don’t seem to remember – now has in himself all the criteria of a real male as mentioned by Mum and Dad: strong, not soft and feminine, chooses aggressive games, able to command the women to follow all his orders, unemotional, does not like to hug and be hugged, and has a stronger desire than ever to become the nation’s leader.

Cat has also made it possible for us to buy a residence by means of his salary as the head of a government department. Cat is often refered to as the most potential candidate to become the nation’s prominent leader.

But the fact still remains that Cat is a cat which was once dumped into a glass container and soaked in paint – God knows what colour – that is guaranteed to last five years only.

That was when Dad came home one night and “Wake up from your sleep” he said. We rushed out of the house. Then, we took out a match and burnt down the house. The whole family stood, staring as the flames brought down Cat to ashes.

* * *

The Painted Cat © Uthaya Sankar SB 2010. Abridged and translated from the Bahasa Malaysia short story, “Cat” (Mingguan Malaysia, 21 December 1997) by the author. The original story in Bahasa Malaysia is also published in Vanakam: Antologi Cerpen Bahasa Malaysia (2002), Rudra Avatara: Kumpulan Cerpen Bahasa Malaysia (2008) and Readings from Readings: New Malaysian Writing (2011). An abridged English version was first published in Selangor Times, 21-23 January 2011. A longer abridged English version was published in Dusun: Malaysian e-journal of the Arts (August/September 2011). Translated to French as “Le Chat Paint” by Preeta Samarasan. Selected parts of “cat” and “The Painted Cat” was read – among others – at the Kuala Lumpur Writers Unlimited Tour (10-12 June 2011) and Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (5-9 October 2011).