Princess was the third and final name I gave her. Doubtless, she had had others through her long tenure as a monastery cat with ‘yogis’ flowing through the gates over many years. Foreigners, with their first world luxury that elevated animals to the status of ‘pets’, increasingly staying months at a time as the teacher became well-known in Asia and the West – Europe, Australasia and the US.
The other names for her aren’t important now. Once she was named, a simple elegant name, it was taken up, on occasion translated into Italian (Principessa), and when she felt like it, or a tub of dried food was shaken within a hundred metres, she answered to it.
She was tall for a Burmese cat. Thin (that was a given) but with a large frame. She moved tentatively but gracefully and even when heavily pregnant as I saw her that winter she could jump up to join me on a high wooden seat with the spring and ease of a kitten.
She was almost completely white in colour with a satiny soft coat. Her small pointed head, showing her Siamese origins, and 2 of her legs had unusual clearly delineated grey and brown markings. Distinct patterning around her greeny yellow eyes gave her the look of a mascaraed socialite on a big night out.
The other cats hanging around ‘D’ block were a ‘clowder’ or ‘glaring’ of marmalade coloured, handsome animals, thick furred and confident. The alpha tom’s bore scars and patches of bare flesh from savage territorial fights. The whole extended family took first pickings of scraps offered by Yogis returning from lunch bearing a spared fish bone or rice covered in meat juices. Princess was not accepted within the group. They would hiss and raise spiked paws at her and she would back off one delicate, well-placed foot retreating after another, timidity winning out over hunger
With the British soft spot for the underdog, I took to feeding her though not from lunch scraps – as a vegetarian I didn’t have much to offer her. The cats would eat most things but were not keen on tofu coated in a spicy tomato sauce! Outside the monastery gate was a small store cum roadside cafe where it was possible to buy – for 10 cents apiece – plastic bags, hand filled, of dried cat food.
One evening on my way to the Meditation Hall I came across Princess huddled near the back wall of the hall lobby looking furtive. As I moved towards her she scooted quickly out of the front door. I noticed a small pool of saliva and vomit on the parquet floor where she had been sitting. Not wanting to give ammunition to the minority who were dead set against cats coming into the building I went back to my room for a cloth to clean up the floor.
As my eyes adjusted to the shadowy corner where Princess had been sitting I got a shock. Within the streaky pool of liquid was a whole gecko, albeit one with a very squashed head. It took me a few seconds to take in what I was seeing and make sense of it – and then it moved! It was somehow still alive. Princess had swallowed it whole and then not been able to get it all completely down, or (it was about 8cm long) or keep it down she’d vomited it up again!
Revulsion, compassion and fascination mingled within me as its little tail moved again quite clearly. It had to be dying surely? Thankfully within a couple of minutes, the movements stopped and the whole mess of gecko, vomit and wet cloth had gone into the rubbish bin.
I told a couple of friends what I’d discovered.
G said, “Oh, it’s really good it was you who found it.”
I was surprised and nonplussed. “Why?”
“Because you really like the cats. If it had been someone else it would have created more aversion in their mind and towards the cats.”
It was true; I felt for the cats and tried to help where possible, as did some others but it wasn’t easy. In a country where the human beings regularly don’t have enough to eat animals are a low priority. What was heartening though was, over time, seeing the attitude of the elderly traditional Burmese ladies change and for a time, until the Monastery put its foot down, the cats lined up after lunch to accept meat scraps from them.