It all began with Gundya.
Gundya was a striped ginger kitten who lived in Shivaji Park. He was mostly to be found lounging around the Ganesh Temple with a morose face.
Sir Alfred Catterton, a large white aristo-cat who used to pop by the temple from time to time for free buttermilk, wondered why Gundya was so sad.
"Well, young chap! Why the long face?" he asked.
"Oh 'oy, Sir Alfred," said Gundya, stirring from his perch, tapping his own nose by mistake. "It's nuffink. Really."
"You can't brush me away like a human, sport. I've seen you around, you know. You always have a sad sort of look about you. It's not right. We're Cats of Mumbai, we pretty much own the damn city, but you...you give our community a bad name with this depressed demeanour of yours."
But Gundya turned away from Sir Alfred and escaped into the hedges, preferring to flee rather than answer.
Many older cats tried to reason with Gundya and snap him out of his sadness. Kitty Carsitter, whose humans owned a Honda Civic, even took him for a ride around the park. Old Comrade Katnakoff, the big grey cat from C Ram Chowk tried to beat sense into him, but Gundya escaped him too, and continued with his sad-cat act.
When nothing changed, and weeks became months, Sir Alfred finally arranged an intervention, and twenty cats from Shivaji Park and surrounding areas cornered Gundya behind the temple and made him talk.
Confronted by all those he admired - and in some cases, feared - Gundya finally had to confess.
"It's the rat outside the Temple door. A big, fat, white rat. 'e sits on a plinth and mocks me all day! I tried to bite 'is tail but broke a tooth! I climbed on 'im to get at his neck and some human picked me up and chucked me away. I stalked him and attacked 'im at night, but only slipped off 'is back and fell. An' I swear, 'e laughs at me, laughs and laughs and calls me a loser!"
Alarmed and concerned, the gaggle of cats formed a sortie led by Katnakoff and headed for the Temple. That's when they saw the rat - made of plaster-of-paris, adorned with turmeric and with the most supercilious expression ever seen on a rat.
Sir Alfred made a move to swipe the leer off its face, but Katnakoff stopped him with a masterful swoosh of his tail.
"Don't bother, Sir Alfred. I was a kitten myself when I first saw this one. He's got friends in high places, he does. I stalked him, I swooped, I'd almost got him - but then a voice came from inside the temple, and I swear - I swear the Elephant-headed one's eyes glowed!"
The sortie shivered, their fur standing on their backs. Cats feared few things, but the Elephant-headed one struck terror into their hearts.
"Those eyes haunt me!" wailed Katnakoff, as the memories flooded his brain. "To this day, they do!"
And so, twenty cats took up the yowl, the unholy sound tearing through the relative silence of night.
It led to the Shivaji Park residents association, one of the most proactive in India, lodging a formal complaint with the Municipal Corporation. With elections around the corner, the complaint was acted upon, and two weeks later, when Katnakoff passed by the Temple on his rounds and saw Sir Alfred poking around, he felt obliged to explain what had happened.
“They came in a van,” said the old Communist feline. “Took away all the stray cats they could find. Probably turned ‘em into footrugs or pillow-cases.”
“That’s terrible!” said Sir Alfred, whiskers drooping. “Poor Gundya! He wasn’t a bad kitten.”
“I was coming to that. Gundya escaped the carnage, y’see.”
“What! Where is he then?”
Katnakoff motioned to Sir Alfred with a twitch of his ear, leading him towards the Kali Mandir, a few meters away. And there stood Gundya, surrounded by a circle of fawning admirers, sitting by the feet of the statue, vermillion on his forehead and bearing an unmistakable resemblance to the larger, painted feline on which the Goddess sat.
He saw Sir Alfred and smiled a wide smile.
“He roars! The little tiger roars!” called out the priest, and the fawning admirers ooh-ed and aah-ed.
Sir Alfred raised a cheery paw at Gundya.
“Well, what do you know,” he said to Comrade Katnakoff as they walked away, “that actually worked out quite well.”
The big grey cat nodded his head sagaciously.
“Those the Elephant-headed one favours always fare well in life.”
“True, that. No wonder humans consider him a God.”
“Maybe he is, at that. His blessing be upon all cats!”
They had reached the Temple gates now, where the white rat on a plinth leered down at them, mocking.
“Not him, though.”
“A mistake, an obvious mistake.”
“Typing error. Rat. Cat. Probably got mixed up in translation.”
Years later, when Comrade Katnakoff became India’s first feline President, and Sir Alfred his Prime Minister, they would mark the start of the glorious new era by replacing the rat with the cat as the elephant-headed God’s official vehicle and commemorating Gundya with a gorgeous gilded statue to replace the one of the rat outside the Temple.