Mission Delhi – Billi, East of Kailash
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The cat quietly ambles towards him, circles around his feet—slowly and thoughtfully—as if she were an elderly neighbor taking a walk in the park.
The masked man in red sandals doesn’t seem startled by the cat’s proximity to his person. “We meet everyday,” he says in a tone that hints a wide smile.
The cat lives on the pavements of this quiet part of south Delhi’s East of Kailash. It is difficult to find out where exactly she sleeps at night, but during the day she is always seen loitering about the neighborhood’s popular Mother Dairy milk booth—one of the few places that stayed open during the strict lockdown months triggered by the coronavirus pandemic. The aforementioned man is a customer waiting for his turn in the queue. He stands responsibly inside one of the (already fading) yellow circles drawn on the pavement to maintain physical distancing.
It turns out that the cat knows many regulars to the milk booth. Now another man appears and she lunges towards him. She settles down on his shoes as if it were her living room sofa. The man—he too is in a mask—mutters some indecipherable words to her. He says it’s French language—he’s from France, currently living in Delhi, he explains. The Frenchman now turns his attention back to the cat and speaks some more French words to her. One doesn’t know if this cat can understand any human language, but she seems absorbed by his white mask.
Nobody seems to know about the cat’s background. Not the pavement tailor nearby, not the pavement vegetable seller (who gives huge bundles of green chillies and dhaniya leaves for free with every purchase), not the security guard outside the ATM, not the police constable standing with a notepad, not even the person manning the milk booth, who says—“I know her, we are friends.” The gentleman informs that the cat has a name. “She’s called Billi.”
But Billi is simply the Hindi for cat.
The man shrugs.
The milk booth customer in red sandals butts in, saying, “Yes, many people in the area call her Billi.” He also says that the milk booth owner feeds her regularly with…. well, milk of course.
Handing over a yoghurt packet to a customer, the milk booth man looks conscious and smiles out of embarrassment, as if wishing his tender side hadn’t been outed.
Indeed, there are many such tender-hearted people in this stretch, including tea stall owner Mayawati, who would regularly walk from her faraway home—even during the lockdown—just to feed a stray dog in the area.
Some minutes later the customers leave. Nobody is to be seen. The man at the booth disappears somewhere inside his booth. It is deathly still. Billi, the cat, ambles back to where the customers were standing in a queue some minutes ago. She circles around one of the empty yellow circles. Who can tell if she is enjoying the circle’s emptiness, or missing the usual pair of human legs standing inside it.
[This is the 336th portrait of Mission Delhi project]
The story behind the walker