“PUSSY-CAT, PUSSY-CAT, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?”

This is not apocryphal. In the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the First, a pussy cat of one of the maids of the queen, on one of its unrestricted sojourns in the Windsor Castle, ran beneath the queen’s throne and startled the queen. The queen, having as good a sense of humour as many in my Facebook group called ‘Humour In And Out Of Humour’ or HIAOOU for short, decreed that the pussy cat be permitted to stay in the castle as long as it kept the castle free of mice.

And that’s how the pussy cat gained respectability and the famous nursery rhyme came about.

This 16th century tradition soon found its way to RN (Royal Naval) ships. And since we in the Indian Navy eagerly lapped up everything that the Brits had to offer, every IN ship had a cat of its own. Sailors on long sailings away from home comforted themselves with the company of a pussy cat, having left their wives ashore.

Pussy-cats also came in handy with the junior most sailors on board and the cabin boys or civilian bearers. Since these low-down worthies were kicked about by almost everyone on board, they now had the pussy-cat to kick; somewhat similar to how sailors in solitary detention (as a punishment) are given hemp to pick.

I was made the Ship’s Commander on the aircraft carrier Viraat in June 1994. The ship was under refit. But, within three months we got ready and by November of that year, we embarked the air squadrons.

During the refit, the living conditions had deteriorated. Sailors and officers were a few but rats and cats had increased their population. In order that the rats won’t attack all parts of their bodies whilst they slept, the sailors had encouraged cats to multiply. I don’t know how Noah had managed, but my sailors were convinced that the only way to manage the deluge (of rats) on board was to have pussies everywhere.

Now, this experiment was working very fine (for them, that is) until the aircraft came on board. And that’s the time I discovered, to my horror that one feline variety hated the other: the pussy-cats hated the White Tigers (Sea Harriers) and vice versa.

First imagine the change of scene as visualised by the pussy-cats. They were purring and meeowing without competition and everyone loved them. And then the White Tigers (successors of what my friend Sareshth Kumar Sir flew with blissful abandon) arrived on the scene and grred and howled. The only way to see things is to step down to the level of pussy-cats and feel how unfair life can be.

(photo courtesy: indiannavy.nic.in)
(photo courtesy: indiannavy.nic.in)

Now, shift the scene to the White Tigers; an unenviable track record of ruling the Indian seas since 1960. You are the pilot of one and you carry on your shoulders the proud legacy of having driven fear of God in the hearts of East Pakistanis in Cox Bazaar, Chittagong, and such equally exotic names as Mongla, Khulna and Chalna. And you are about to make a vertical landing on Viraat and find your spot already occupied by a pussy cat. I mean, you can be excused to conclude that this is not the right time and place for pussies.

(Photo courtesy: thetimes.co.uk)
(Photo courtesy: thetimes.co.uk)

So, it was left to the Ship’s Commander to have the Viraat flight deck as catless as possible. Many of you who have routinely dealt with pussies would tell me that nothing can be easier. All you have to do is to call the Master Chief Bosun’s Mate and tell him, “Master Chief Saab, starting tomorrow I don’t want to see pussy-cats on board.” And then Master Chief Saab smartly salutes and goes to mess-decks, musters all the pussy-cats in smart files and marches them off the gangway and tells them, “Bye, bye cats, please find yourself another home; Sea Tigers have come to live on board.”

There is a huge gap between fantasy and practice, however. Getting cats is easy; but getting rid of them has resulted into innumerable jokes and disasters. I had a job at hand. All leadership lessons that I had come across don’t ever teach you how to be DoP (Director of Pussies) on an aircraft carrier.

Sailors were emotionally involved with them. Their way of looking at it was that the pussy-cats stood by them in their hour of need; and to get rid of them at the expense of some White Tigers with doubtful capability to keep the mess decks clear of mice wasn’t a wise step at all.

Finally, tough measures were called for by yours truly. I counselled and cajoled, and coerced and shook them up that having Viraat cat-less was in national interest. I was also fed up of young pilots, during air briefings, greeting me with cat-calls. Indeed, they had told me that if I don’t do anything about it, they, the air boys, would have no choice but to boycatt – sorry – boycott me altogether.

The exercise took seven days. Away from the eyes of SPCA and Maneka Gandhi, cats were put into gunny bags and let out in the streets of Mumbai, to keep them mice free.

The original nursery rhymes from the days of Queen Bess went like this:

Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been?
I’ve been to London to look at the Queen.
Pussy cat, pussy cat, what did you do there?
I frightened a little mouse, under the chair.

Nearly four centuries later, I was to realise that I was the “little mouse” as the Ship’s Commander. QE I was made of sterner stuff. I had come close to losing my job. And I was “frightened” indeed.

© 2014 – 2016, Sunbyanyname. All rights reserved.

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