Forgotten by the people who once thronged his house to seek blessings from his father, Ali Muhammad Shah finds peace tending cats. Suhail A Shah spends some quiet moments with the inhabitants in Ali’s house.
Ask anybody in the bazaar where Ali Muhammad Shah lives and the confusion on the faces is visible; but once you mention that the man lives with cats, the confusion vanishes and they guide you to the house, with a smile.
“You mean Ali Hurairah,” is almost always the response. Ali got the nick name Hurairah for his love of cats, for the word in Arabic means a cat.
The Lakut Bazaar (small market) in South Kashmir’s Bijbehara town has been undergoing slow but visible changes in the last decade or so. Old wood and brick structures have been paving way for the newer concrete ones.
In the middle of the Bazaar two new shops are being constructed. A narrow alley runs along one of the shops to the backside. Before the stair well, just about at the end of the alley, an old iron gate is oddly fixed into a newly constructed brick wall.
The house inside has two doors. The one on the far end leads to a single room where Ali lives, where he has lived all his life.
As the door opens a cat makes a hurried dash out of the room, making the visitor almost jump to safety.
The room is a mess, not cleaned in may be a decade now. An earthen water pot in the middle of the room looks out of place, clean and fresh, despite being used to drink water by the cats for God knows how much time.
Ali a soft spoken man, who is not sure of his age, sits under a quilt which might have seen better times and would have been white sometime in the recent past just like Ali’s beard.
The filthy state of the room however does not take even an iota away from Ali’s bright face. It might be the affect of living with cats for this long or it might not be but in any case Ali’s eyes stand out in his face. His green eyes give him a calm spiritual demeanour.
Ali might be in his early seventies but he is a keen listener. He makes the conversation easy with an effortless sense of humour.
The obvious abject poverty that Ali lives in does not stop him from asking his visitor to have tea; however he sheepishly admits the next moment, “I don’t have any here.”
Youngest among three siblings, Ali lost his father when he was a toddler. Ever since life has been a struggle for him with two sisters to marry off and taking care of his ailing mother. All of them have been dead for over a decade now.
A hand to mouth situation throughout his life did not allow him to get married, “It was hard keeping me well fed, I never thought beyond that and marriage was the last thing I could really think of.”
Ali’s father was a peer (god man) who, as per Ali, had a huge following, which essentially meant that the household was always overflowing with gifts and eatables the followers kept bringing.
Things changed once Ali’s father, Ghulam Mustafa, died a natural death. The responsibility shifted to Ali, who worked all his life as a labourer to meet the ends. He could not attend school as well.
Ali’s love for cats eventually turned into a necessity from a sheer hobby and the cats became his lifelong companions.
Ali says that he has kept more than 350 cats during his life time and he remembers each and every one of them.
“I loved cats since I was a kid,” says Ali, “I had my first cat when I was this small,” Ali shows with the gesture of his hand.
While the conversation was just warming up, something moved inside Ali’s quilt and another moment two bright eyes shone, even in the poorly lit room, just beneath his legs. Yes, it’s a cat in there.
“We have a guest and I’m talking. Don’t disturb,” Ali tells the cat like somebody would address his son. Reluctantly the cat comes out of the quilt, has a long hard look at the visitor and buries its face into the earthen pitcher.
When Ali was young and earned good money to keep him and the cats well fed, he says, that his room used to be full with cats.
“More than 50 cats at one particular time and I took care of all of them,” said Ali, “This room used to be one heck of a sight, cats everywhere.”
He terms the cats as a replacement in his life for lack of kids, “Allah has been kind enough. He knew I couldn’t have kids, he made sure I was not left alone.”
While Ali narrated his story a gentle push at the door made him stop talking, “Here comes another little devil.”
As he opened the door the cat stood there, seeing a stranger, it seemed to be in two minds; to enter the room or not to.
Ali patronized. Don’t be shy, he said to the cat. “I know him, he’s a guest. Come on in now,” Ali said and managed to bring the cat into the room.
For Ali harder days were yet to come. Some ten years back he injured his hand while carrying stones at a construction site. The fracture was real bad, leaving his right hand handicapped.
Things deteriorated and with no other means of income Ali started living on charity. As of now the situation has gone even worse.
The neighbours do take care of his food but not always. There are times when he does not have anything to eat and for such times Ali has devised a unique solution.
He has stuck chunks of meat, sent to him by people on the Muslim festival of Bakr-a-Eid, high up onto the wall. “It’s for the real bad times. When I’m out of even the last grain.”
Narrating the woeful tale of the misery he’s going through, Ali surprisingly has his sense of humour intact and when asked about eating the rotten meat and its effects on his health Ali says that the meat is delicious.
“I have a special way of treating the meat before I eat it,” he says.
The hard times meant less food for the cats. The cats kept leaving him for food and probably got lost on the way back home.
Ali however says that the cats are like human kids, “You raise them and one day they leave you alone,” he says with a sly smile.
However no matter how bad the times may have been, Ali says, the cats have never ever touched his food, no matter how hungry they are.
As the cats kept leaving never to come back, Ali was at a point in time left with only one cat. That one left too, but left behind 9 kittens.
“Since then I have taken care to keep them well fed. No matter how bad the circumstances are,” Ali says, “But that has not stopped them from leaving.”
Presently Ali has four cats, who he says dine with him, and go to sleep elsewhere except the one sitting in his quilt.
“This one is small yet. It does not leave me. It stays with me all the time,” Ali says, fondling the cat lovingly, who by now was sitting in his lap.
Like all the other mysterious people in the world, Ali has had his share of stories associated with him. The most frequently told among the stories is that he has named the cats like he would have named his daughters.
Ali however says that naming cats is a sin. “This is what Allah has named them and who am I to change their names. I just love them like my children without naming them of course. But I can tell them apart with the color of their fur.”