By B Narayanan

t’s twilight in Delhi, and a blue dusk has settled over the leafy courtyard of the Press Club of India in Raisina Road in Delhi near Parliament. The bar opens at 7 pm, and soon, the courtyard is crowded with media persons sitting at tables, quaffing their nimbu-pani, or beer, a Bloody Mary, or a simple vodka-with-lime. Along with drinks are the plates of snacks – chicken or mutton or fish. As the evening draws on, silent black shadows flit below the tables, hoping for a leftover piece to be thrown by one of the members. These silent, smooth apparitions are the ubiquitous cats of the Press Club, as much at home as the members themselves, as much part of the scene as the famed cats of the Press Club in Islamabad.

Cats are to be found anywhere in Delhi. Or in the rest of India, for that matter. But what makes the resident cats of the Press Club in Delhi unique is that all of them are jet black. Intrigued? Well, the reason is simple :

the original progenitor, or the dominant male cat at Press Club is a fully-black creature, who passes on his genes, generation after generation. Over a period of time, black cats mate with black cats, and the black-cat gene is now the dominant strain. Occasionally, a kitten is born which breaks this pattern, with a bit of white or stripes mixed in, but, mysteriously, does not make it to adulthood.

These beautiful, black cats are almost invisible once night falls, and tables are put out in the open-air courtyard of Club, for patrons to enjoy their drink and food under open skies. Dark, flexible shadows, with limpid gold or green eyes, they move under the tables, begging for leftovers from the members of the club.

Always respectful and at a distance, they dumbly appeal to the members with their eyes, till one of them throws them a piece of fish or chicken, after gnawing it thoroughly. Then their joy knows no bounds, and they run off with the piece, to some distant corner where they can enjoy it without any interruption. Being hard-core carnivores, the press club is paradise for them, with members enjoying its famous non-vegetarian recipes and leaving large amounts of bones as leftovers. During the two yearlong COVID 19 pandemic, the club remained closed most of the time because of the restrictions. But still few Members made it a point to visit the closed club only to feed the cats so that felines do not die of hunger.

The cats perform a very important function: they keep the ramshackle building free of rats, and thereby perform a crucial role in ensuring the hygiene of the food being made in the kitchens. Otherwise, with the amount of food being generated, the rats would have taken over the premises a long time ago. Even the smell of a cat is enough to keep rats away, and in this the cats are carrying out a vital job. Also, being territorial in nature, they keep cats from other areas at bay. The cats also are attractions for children of the Members and their guests who normally come on weekends.

Behind their apparent contentment lies a sad story: the proliferation of stray dogs has meant that a silent holocaust of cats is going on, across the country. The most vulnerable time for a kitten is the first six months, when they are not fast enough to climb up trees or walls, and are slow on the ground. And while an adult cat can escape an individual dog, it cannot escape a pack of dogs. For the cats of Press Club, the high walls of the club are a shelter from the packs of dogs right outside the gate, and the heavy traffic on both sides ( Raisina Road and Rajendra Prasad Road). Being allowed only in the courtyard and the back of the club, they eke out a precarious existence, protecting themselves and their young from aggressive monkeys, and keeping themselves sheltered from the bitter cold, rain, and heat in hard-to-find nooks on the roofs.

Even so, they have to finally leave the Club when they reach maturity, and chalk out their own territory, especially the males. Mortality rates are high when they leave, and very few survive the harsh world outside. The lucky ones make it across the road to the Chelmsford Club opposite, and enter a green haven.

While these cats are not the official mascot of the Press Club, there is strong case for them to be declared so: like the Press Club members, these cats are independent, dignified, and survivors in adversity. They add that amount of quirkiness and humaneness to the institution. Harvard and Oxford universities have their official cats, so why not PCI? India is the land of Emperor Ashoka, whose edicts, preaching compassion to animals is unique, and has been passed down the ages. Caring for animals comes naturally to Indians, and our heritage is replete with stories like those of King Shibi (who offered his own flesh to save a dove from a hawk), and the elephant Gajendra who was saved by Lord Vishnu.

The evening is over, and it is late night now. The bar has closed. The tables lie empty, and the courtyard is in darkness. The place will be cleaned only the next morning. The cats now have the place to themselves till the sun arises. They walk the courtyards and the roofs, silent sentinels of the place, their eyes attuned to the darkness, glittering like jewels. Like the media persons on whose kindness they depend, they too are happy in their freedom, however fragile their lives may be, or tough.

Source: Himalayan News Chronicle