I never liked Shahrukh’s nose. You couldn’t call him very likeable at first sight. But he grew on people, just as he grew on me.
“What a perfect name,” everyone would say when getting home. They would stare at the fluffy beast as he walked daintily through the sea of star-struck eyes, with no intention whatsoever to socialise.
Overall, Shahrukh was a good-looking Persian cat. Although his face looked like it had been flattened by the back of a pan, there was something close to perfection in his overgrowing fur. The excess fluff reminded me of the butter biscuits from the bakery adjacent to our old house. Those biscuits and their aroma were the only pleasant memory from that house. They were round, sweet, smooth, creamy, with a tinge of white from coconut sprinkles, and brown from the hellish wrath of the oven.
All said and done, Shahrukh never acknowledged his prettiness. Whenever he looked at himself in the mirror, it was as if he saw nothing. The green button-like eyes could see through mirrors. With a look of contentment, he would watch me in the mirror instead. We both did.
I used to love ruffling his hair and always hid my nose in the thick locks, with the hope of smelling butter biscuits. But he would respectfully walk away. He was usually not one for physical contact. Unless I came back from college, tired, defeated, and tasting like salt. Only then would he noiselessly climb into bed, dig his nose into my armpits and cuddle with me as I lay in bed. He had a thing for smelly things. Especially my brother’s socks from a day at school.
We had a lot of things in common. I think the most obvious commonality was our hair fall problem. And we were both scared of thunder, and crackers. And there was something about cockroaches. But I was not entirely sure whether he was afraid of the cockroaches or was afraid of me around cockroaches. Our terrace was a common interest as well. Sitting there every evening was a routine for us, preferably on the block of concrete where we still do our laundry. That was the place I learnt to sit and think too much. I could tell Shahrukh learnt things too. He would sit there watching the chaos on the main road, and the birds soaring through the sky, with a new kind of wonderment, and a fresh type of curiosity, each time. The hemmed edges of my dupatta would dance to the breeze whilst his tail danced to its own tune. And then we would both walk back home when the Maghrib call for prayers sounded from all directions. Each time our paws and feet would be blackened from soot.
As human as Shahrukh was, he was equally weary of humanity. He knew well of the unfaithful spine of the Human. Bewafaa (unfaithful), as they say in Urdu.
“Bewafaa!” Nani, my grandmother used to call Shahrukh. She was weary of him. She was weary of cats in general.
I completely disagreed, of course. Love, support, encouragement, and joy, from all the people in my circle at the time, came in batches, of a very unpredictable nature. But with Shahrukh, I was safe. I knew nothing could go wrong or be unpredictable. And we both single-handedly managed to console each other through the hardest times, thunderstorms, and viral fevers. And I will ever be grateful to him for this.
The first time we heard the word Histoplasmosis was when Shahrukh’s vet Dr Lobo asked us if he scratched his ear a lot. He did. But we didn’t know that an itch in the ear could turn into an invasive cancer with time. The day Lobo scooped out three earbuds full of blood mixed with puss, something changed in the vet’s usual, uncomfortable dismissive positivity. It was also the day I made up my mind to make things perfect again. Never mind this one, I took him to more vets. I tried to show Shahrukh how beautiful life was, and how complete our friendship was. Through all those procedures, surgeries and pain I taught Shahrukh the humanly virtue of patience. I coaxed him to understand where I was coming from. But Shahrukh wasn’t having it. At first, he fought me well, but later agreed, or surrendered, or something.
Our terrace was a common interest as well. Sitting there every evening was a routine for us… That was the place I learnt to sit and think too much
The trips to the hospital multiplied. Shahrukh’s star-struck admirers disappeared. The warmth in his eyes died, and life changed. He avoided us all, especially me. He would find a spot under the bed, exactly in the centre, so that no human could reach him. He would sit there all day, thinking things, with folded arms and closed eyes.
“Please, I’m sorry,” I’d say, sobbing, arms reaching out to him. But his eyes remained closed.
Then one day, his eyes never opened. Something told me Shahrukh died a broken cat. Nani declared the best place to bury him would be under the lemon tree in the backyard. This was in keeping with some sort of hearsay, which alleged that the death of a cat gave you more lemons.
I found a tangled tuft of his hair fallen near his bowl of milk. “Can I keep this?” I asked Nani.
Nani shook her head, “Never keep memoirs.” She walked off without giving any further explanation.
While she was having tea just before the pit was ready, she said, “There was something very human about him.” She watched my hands as I massaged the ball of hair between my fingers. Then she continued, “But cats are unfaithful animals.”
I stopped meddling with the hopeful memoir of Shahrukh, and stared at Nani, angered at the audacity, but too confused with the world to fully express it.
“They can never be dogs,” she concluded, staring right back at me. She was still weary of cats.
The small pit under the lemon tree didn’t take too long to dig. I placed the hairball next to Shahrukh’s still body. As I wiped my tears, I wondered why I felt as if I had lost him way before I had lost him. Crushing the yearnings of cuddling next to him, I poured a handful of earth on my best friend. I never saw them again. Neither the hair, nor the biscuits.
Sarah Farheen is a psychiatrist in training, with a keen interest in child mental health. Although the juggling between medicine and writing proves to be an ongoing challenge, her work has previously been published in Spark. She is an alumnus of Bangalore Writers’ Workshop and Dum Pukht Writers’ Workshop.
About the featured artist: Born in 1996, Natalia Ashraf completed her bachelor’s degree in fine arts (with a major in miniature painting) from National College of Arts, Lahore, in 2020. Being a student of traditional miniature painting, she participated in Lahore Biannale’s Maktab Project at the Lahore Fort (2018). Her work was also part of the national art exhibition The New Odyssey at PNCA, Islamabad (2021), and she was recently part of a group show, Evocations, at O Art Space, Lahore (2022). Natalia currently resides and works in Lahore.
We would like to thank O Art Space for their unflagging efforts to highlight new work by contemporary artists, as well as their support to The Aleph Review.