I was telling my friend about my story-in-the-making (it’s about an underground colony of cats!) and he said, “Have you read The Wildings, by Nilanjana Roy? You have to.” Wanting a model for my story — and also intrigued by the premise, a colony of cats in Delhi — I bought it immediately.
The Wildings follows a cat colony in the Delhi neighborhood of Nizamuddin as they encounter two of their biggest challenges in living memory: the appearance of a new and oddly powerful “Sender,” and the incursion of a group of ferocious feral cats into their territory.
The Sender, a cat who can communicate telepathically with other cats and form links for group communication, turns out to be Mara, a kitten who lives with Big Feet (humans) and who is afraid to come out into the world she navigates via her mind. Although the colony cats are initially threatened by her presence, one of the queens, Beraal, decides to mentor Mara as her Sender powers grow. Eventually, the colony cats come to accept Mara’s telepathic presence — and it is lucky they do, because she forms their best line of defense against the ferals.
It’s hard to describe this book without referencing Watership Down, Richard Adams’ classic about rabbits. And there are some similarities. Like Adams’ rabbits, Roy’s cats have long memories; some of them can remember tales they were told by earlier generations of cats, meaning that history and legend are passed down orally and provide a backdrop for the current conflict. And the conflict is, ultimately, about territory and terror. The ferals, led by a fierce and power-hungry cat called Datura, are legitimately frightening. They have been cooped up in a dank, smelly, rotting house for years without venturing outside, and as a result, their attitudes towards hunting have become twisted. They are blood-thirsty, without morals, led by an insane cat to shocking acts of violence.
And just as Watership Down was rooted in the English countryside, The Wildings is rooted in Delhi. And, lucky us, we get it filtered through the remarkable senses of the cats. The chatter of birds and other small creatures, the smells of the city, the warm sun emanating through the stones of the baoli (step-well) — all of these are beautifully evoked in Roy’s worldbuilding.
I mentioned birds and other small animals; one of my favorite parts of this book was when the cats had to interact with other species. Although cats tend to isolate themselves from other animals, they must team up with other animals — including hawks, mice, and sparrows — to fight their battle. It is delightful to see these inter-species relationships negotiated, especially Mara’s friendship with Ozzy, the tiger in the Delhi zoo.
Mara herself is fascinating and wonderful. The way her acts of “sending” are described, it almost sounds like there is an Internet for the animal kingdom that they are all plugged into; I loved the descriptions of her navigating her way through Delhi on this network. And her initial gaffes on the network were pitch-perfect kitten confusion; it was as if an adorable cat meme came to life and had a personality, and whiskers.
My only criticism is that sometimes the pace dragged. Also, at times the book felt a bit cutesy. Both of those issues go away as soon as the feral cats are introduced, and the conclusion is genuinely thrilling. I’m already looking forward to the sequel, The Hundred Names of Darkness, due out this summer. I hope Mara finally finds her way outside.