Anushka Jasraj is a writer from Bombay. She holds a BFA in Film Production from NYU, and an MFA in Creative Writing from the New Writers Project at the University of Texas-Austin. She was a regional winner of the 2012 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Asia, and her work has appeared in Granta online, Internazionale, and Four Quarters Magazine. She is a 2015-16 writing fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.
Chor Bazaar, located near Bombay’s Mutton Street, translates literally as thief market. This is a misnomer since it is not the thieves, but their wares, that are for sale. The market is a well-organized place. Sector A (across from the Parking Lot): Bags and jewelry. Sector B (keep walking): Cars and electronics. Sector C (turn left twice): Furniture. Squatting in unclaimed territory between Sector A and Sector B, Cassata’s father sells shoes. His neighbors call him a fraud because shoes are the easiest item to steal in a city with so many temples.
Cassata used to accompany her father on his temple visits. First, they would remove their ten-rupee-Bata-flip-flops at the temple gates. Then, a few directionless steps, never going beyond the entrance. Find your chappals, and let’s go, Cassata’s father would say loudly. This was her cue to search the sea of boots, sneakers, sandals, and designer heels, for the best-looking pair. Once that was accomplished, Cassata and her father would walk home in the ill-fitting shoes of strangers; Bata flip-flops left behind, and feet blistering.
Shoes are a dangerous specialty despite the ease with which they can be procured. Cassata learned this when she was twelve years old. A classmate had pointed at her shiny black rubber boots and said, in a tone that was more curious than accusatory: Those are mine. There were no real consequences apart from the embarrassment Cassata felt when everyone within earshot turned to stare at her. Unlike bags or cell phones, people recognize their footwear on someone else. Cassata stopped wearing stolen shoes, and decided to find a specialty of her own. In those days, she had been reading The Jungle Book. Animals are such wise creatures, she thought, and resolved to become an expert at animal theft.
Cassata borrowed animal encyclopedias and manuals about pet-care from the bookseller across her father’s shoe shop. The bookseller always tore out the pages about animal reproduction and genitalia before giving Cassata the books. She could tell from the index, which chapters had been removed. Cassata told her best friend, Sai, that she was a cat burglar. He understood what she meant, and corrected her, even though he did not believe her. You’re a cat-napper, he said. Not a burglar.
At first, her father had disapproved of her interest in selling pets. He thought it was a business with no future. There are stray cats and dogs and goats everywhere. No one pays money for things they can find on the street, he argued. But Cassata had an eye for well-trained, good-looking animals. The kind children throw tantrums for, and the kind that won’t pee on sofas.
Cassata took an animal only when she thought its owner was neglectful. Hungry-looking cats. Dogs left waiting in cars. Wandering turtles. Sometimes she stole chickens from the butcher and sold them back to him at a bargain price. She could not steal larger animals because she lived in a tenement building. When Cassata was fifteen, she found a garden snake and de-fanged it with the help of a Special Edition National Geographic. She learned not to do this again, because without its fangs, the snake died of starvation.
The first animal Cassata ever stole had been a white cat with mismatched eyes. She found it cowering under a parked car. A blue string around the cat’s neck was the only sign that it belonged to someone else. Cassata had simply lifted the cat into her arms and walked off. Excessively soft fur, as Cassata later learned, was also an indicator of a domesticated cat. A store-bought pet-shampoo is required to achieve that level of silkiness. A hand-drawn Kitten For Sale sign went up outside the shoe shop. The next day, a young man in a stolen Fiat bought the cat for two hundred rupees.
Over the months, Cassata noticed a pattern: people buying stolen vehicles were more apt to buy a second-hand pet than people who were there to acquire simple objects like purses and picture frames.
Cassata once found a ‘MISSING’ poster advertising a large reward for a Pomeranian that was in her possession. She decided to return the dog, but felt too embarrassed to accept the money. The Pomeranian’s owner, a small woman, insisted on telling Cassata her life story: I used to be a Kathak dancer. I was famous in the South. I didn’t have time to get married, and now I live alone, with this furry little person. I trained him to walk himself every evening – since my knees are no good now.
Cassata was barely fourteen when she became a well-known figure at Chor Bazaar. The other sellers regarded her with respect. People came to her with requests for certain breeds, but she refused because it went against her work ethic. She made an exception if the customer was a parent looking to replace a deceased pet. Sai still did not believe Cassata’s stories about abducting animals. He told her she had a vivid imagination, which is something his parents had often said to him when he was younger.
Cassata watched innumerable Hollywood romances dubbed in Hindi, and tried to understand the notion of Love. She constructed a list of scenarios, each ending with Sai asking for her hand in marriage:
#1 Serenade. Preferably with large drum or portable music machine.
The third item on Cassata’s list was inspired by Vodafone’s advertising campaign, featuring an ugly miniature Pug. The entire city was fixated on watching the Vodafone puppy as he chased behind his young mistress unfailingly for thirty seconds, between episodes of Indian Idol. Cassata decided on a scenario which involved stealing the Vodafone puppy to give to Sai as a gift.
Vodafone’s customer service line did not officially have any information on the Pug’s whereabouts, but the lady on the phone revealed that her cousin knew the dog’s owners. Cassata got an address from the lady after asking, in an affectedly sad voice, where she could find a mother because hers was missing.
The Vodafone puppy – his real name was Rocky – was being walked by his personal trainer when Cassata took him. Cassata was at that precise age when intelligence co-mingles with the remnants of baby fat. Her childlike features belied her cunning. She planted herself in front of Rocky the Pug and his well-chiseled trainer, and began yelling her head off:
The trainer stood motionless, reminding Cassata of a Romanesque sculpture. Perhaps he was contemplating the ways in which he could salvage the situation; perhaps he was fearful that passersby would misconstrue the scene, leading to unwanted consequences; or perhaps he was simply wondering why this chubby young girl was calling him a dog and a thief. There exists an inconceivable distance between the language of children, and the language adults believe them to be speaking. What Cassata was really screaming is:
In the midst of the confusion created by her yelling, Cassata grabbed Rocky’s leash and sprinted away. Rocky obediently wobbled after her, while the Roman statue remained standing, clutching a plastic bag filled with dog turds.
For an entire week, no one noticed Rocky’s disappearance, since he still appeared in television spots. The owners assumed he was with the trainer, while the trainer was too humiliated to report the incident. The day after Sai’s birthday, his mother showed up at Cassata’s house with the puppy. She pretended Cassata was not in the room, and spoke only to Cassata’s father.
If you don’t control them at this age, they’ll just get out of control, you know. Give them a foot and they think it’s a mile, Sai’s mother said.
Yes, I absolutely agree. I’ll speak to Cassata about it.
It’s just the age they’re at. Very difficult age. You really need to keep tabs on them. She can’t just go around giving out puppies, you know.
I know, I couldn’t agree more.
Their conversation followed this pattern for ten long minutes until Sai’s mother left, taking the dog with her. Cassata’s father told her to be more careful. Don’t get me into trouble, he said.
The next day, Sai apologized for his mother’s behavior. I love the puppy. He is always happy, Sai said, incredulous.
You’re welcome, Cassata said. Do you believe me now?
Do I believe you about what?
That I’m a cat burglar. A stealer of animals.
Sai paused to consider the implications of this. You kidnapped Rocky from someone else?
Cassata looked into his eyes with intensity – the way she had seen it done in movies, when someone is about to confess their love. Sai, I would do anything for you. I would steal an elephant. A koala bear. An entire zoo.
You would steal an elephant for me?
Liar. Prove it.
I said, prove it. Steal an elephant for me.
Cassata wasn’t sure how to respond to this demand. She was a pet-napper, but she was not a liar. Okay, she said.
After the conversation with Sai, she spent weeks reading about elephant habits and habitats. The bookseller still would not let her read about elephant sex. She roamed the city to no avail, hoping she might find one of those trained elephants that tourists pay to joyride.
It has been two months since Sai asked Cassata for an elephant. She is being interviewed by an unfamiliar woman, sent by the local newspaper.
You have an unusual name, the reporter says.
My grandfather had a sweet tooth. He died a few days before I was born. Cassata was his favorite cake.
Was he also in the business of stealing things?
Cassata shrugs. She doesn’t know. She senses that the reporter is more interested in finding a tragic story, than one with excitement and adventure.
And your mother? Where was she through all this? the reporter asks.
I don’t have a mother. I was a surprise.
What do you mean?
I mean I was an unexpected delivery.
There is silence, as the reporter shuffles the papers in front of her.
I felt really guilty the whole time, because the Indian elephant is an endangered species, Cassata tells the reporter.
The reporter looks at the notes she prepared for this interview. Yes, well, this elephant you apparently kidnapped –
I took it. Kidnapping suggests that I asked for a ransom, which I didn’t.
Sorry, this elephant you took – no one has actually seen it?
I’ve seen it. I was the one who took it.
Apart from you, no one?
I guess not.
So from what I understand – the zoo is missing an elephant, and you claim to be the one who took it, but there’s absolutely no proof.
I never take animals from the zoo. It’s below me. But I had to – I did it for love.
The reporter coughs. I’m sorry, could you expand on that statement?
Cassata wonders why the newspaper sent such an incompetent reporter. I stole the elephant for my best friend, Sai. So that he would fall in love with me.
Wait, so your best friend – he saw this elephant?
He saw the elephant. But he couldn’t recognize it. He thought I was the elephant.
He thought you were an elephant?
No. Well, kind of. I read about something similar once – it’s called the Fregoli delusion. He thought I had split into two people. He looked right at me, pointed toward the elephant, and said, ‘That’s just you disguised as an elephant.’ And then I couldn’t get him to change his mind.
So after that debacle you sold the elephant to the circus?
I had to. My room was buried in elephant shit. But the circus is choosing to deny this, because they don’t want to return the elephant to the zoo.
The reporter stares at her notes. She does this each time she asks a question about Cassata’s family. And your father –?
He suffers from delusions as well. He didn’t notice the elephant’s presence.
Okay. And just so we’re clear – you are referring to a literal elephant? Large, gray creature, with tusks?
I know what an elephant looks like. I recently stole one from the zoo.
Yes, okay. I see.
Cassata bangs her fist on the table, puncturing the silence. They are at a coffee shop, and the reactionary force from the table causes her Coke to fizz. That elephant didn’t want to be in the zoo; he was a circus elephant. He needed attention.
He told you that?
Don’t be ridiculous. I could sense it.
You’re an elephant-mind-reader now?
No – not just elephants. All animals.
The reporter taps her watch, without checking the time, and says she has to leave. She hugs Cassata and says Bye, doll.
Cassata thinks the reporter was pleasant but dull, like a flightless bird. She tells her father about the interview. That’s nice, he says. Cassata’s father has the ingenious ability to process information and react to it without believing or disbelieving. It reminds Cassata of a dog; the way he listens with sweet, sad eyes. Cassata thinks Sai is like a dog too – a cute, yappy one. She wonders why the women on T.V. sound angry when they say All men are dogs.
At school, the English teacher treats Cassata with leniency. She thinks Cassata is misunderstood, even though Cassata does not particularly agree with this assessment. One day, she tells Cassata a story about three blind men attempting to describe an elephant. We are like the three blind men, the English teacher says. We cannot see things in their entirety. Cassata nods, and raises her eyebrows as if the fable was a revelation, but she does not understand. According to the doctor who visits their school once a year, Cassata has perfect vision.
Sai does not speak to Cassata in class. They are still best friends, and they talk after school, when Sai walks her home. The elephant incident is a joke between them. Is that you disguised as a pigeon on that tree? Sai asks. I am the tree, Cassata responds. Sai does not know what he saw in Cassata’s room. They have tacitly agreed to treat the entire thing as a shared dream.
Cassata is often unable to remember whether an event occurred in a dream, in real life, or on television. She can however, with great acuity, recall every other detail. She remembers being at the zoo and wondering why she hadn’t thought of looking for an elephant at the zoo in the first place. The elephant enclosure, when she found it, was empty. The zookeeper, instead of answering her questions, had asked her more questions such as Why wasn’t she at school? and How did she get past the wire-fence and into the animal enclosure? Cassata had realized that the signposts were mixed up. She had noticed the elephant sadly standing on a grassy patch claiming to be a family of monkeys.
Cassata still collects cats, but she no longer sells them. She has seven of them, and they are all named Meow. She sympathizes with their plight. Most human beings do not fully understand the feline urge to create chaos by scratching table legs and ripping sofas at their seams, she thinks. Cassata remembers reading a true story about two girls raised by a wolf pack, and wishes she could have grown up in a family of panthers. They are less frightening than wolves.
The reporter published an article in the local Sunday Times supplement, which usually features brunch recipes and celebrity interviews:
“A zookeeper at the Byculla Zoo was arrested earlier this week for failing to report the non-existence of the zoo’s elephant. In his statement, he said, ‘There was never an elephant at this zoo, in the two years I have been employed here.’ Authorities are searching for the previous zookeeper. They suspect his involvement in an elephant ivory trafficking ring. Kaa, the Byculla Zoo’s lone elephant, was reported missing last month by a young girl, who later claimed to have stolen the elephant and sold him to a circus. ‘We think the previous zookeeper killed Kaa – for his tusks, and also for the meat. Elephant meat is extremely rare and expensive,’ said the zoo’s director. On further questioning, the director added, ‘The zoo does not get many visitors these days, which is why this information was not brought to our attention earlier.’”
Cassata shows Sai this article. Watching him read it, Cassata begins crying soundlessly. Later, Sai will tell her he felt strangely hungry at that moment. The only other time I’ve seen someone cry is when my mother chops onions, he will say.
Sai wants to comfort Cassata, but he doesn’t know how. Cassata can see him trying. He opens his mouth, but instead of words, an odd sound emerges from his throat. She cannot tell if he is attempting to speak, or imitating a whale. Cassata looks at him and says, You must believe me. Sai looks at Cassata’s large ears and wonders whether they would function as parachutes, if she ever fell from a great height. He has the urge to push her off a precipice, but they are on a sidewalk, so instead he merely holds her hand.