I saw new born kittens today. I mean genuinely new born kittens. It was dusk and I was on a road around my house, taking a walk.
Out here, in this city, stray cats live in or near dumpsters. Each dumpster is like family territory. These cats practically spend their entire lives foraging for food from trash, hunting occasionally, and every now and then using the big-eye technique to woo humans into giving them morsels.
At first glance, it seemed to be counter-intuitive seeing three new-born kittens right next to a giant stink-bin. One would think that the mother would find a closed, secure place instead of an open field. But then I realised that maturing in and around these conditions would naturally boost immunity – ensuring survival of the fittest.
Just a day before this one, I had been reading about neoteny – the retention of juvenile characteristics in adulthood. Neotenic faces attract trust more quickly than their counterparts, that is, you would trust a child-like face much more readily than you would trust a barrel-chested pirate. An extension of the trust is willingness to come to the aid of someone/something with neotenic features. When was the last time your heart didn’t melt when you saw a 1-month old puppy struggling to climb stairs?
The average human brain is probably programmed to nurture paedomorphic features. The croons a baby attracts from women is proof enough. This instinct is probably hard wired into us for when I gazed at these defenseless kittens, mewing for their mother, completely powerless in the face of chance, my first reaction was to care for them. I had begun walking towards them when I noticed another cat sitting some distance away. It was breathing heavily and looked exhausted. That and the fact that there were no other cats to be seen led me to believe that it was the mother.
This mother was heaving up and down with every breath. I walked along. A story which had been read long ago made its presence felt up in the stratosphere.
A man sees a caterpillar roll up into a pupa. He decides to keep it for himself. A couple weeks later, a butterfly starts to emerge. It struggles to come out like all butterflies do. This man, in his eagerness to help the poor little creature, snips away the hardened shell keeping the butterfly from emerging. In doing so he unknowingly prevents the butterfly’s wings from blooming – a butterfly’s wings can gain shape only after hours of struggling to emerge from its shell. The man’s intentions were good but nature knows best.
I walked past the kittens a few times. During the third round I noticed that the mother was nowhere to be seen. Now it was dark and she might have been in the shadows but I could not see her. It made me wonder about the hardiness of new born babies of any species. These kittens were the size of my palm but their maternal-meows could be heard from quite a distance.
I delved into thoughts about these kittens’ futures. How many would survive? Did they sense my presence? It was mind numbing to think that these kittens were life. Life which was shaped out of nothingness. The magic that is self-awareness was bestowed upon them. Soon they would open their eyes to the world and see for the first time. Their first thoughts would be utter hogwash and their conscious selves would be oblivious to these thoughts within a few months.
Have you ever wondered what happened to your infant self? All those things you experienced for the first time in your life, all those thoughts, the countless impressions… What if there was a way to tap into that primitive self? Would you make sense of it? Would it drive you mad? They say babies possess a kind of hyper-awareness as the neural connections to block out unimportant inputs have not developed. It would be so utterly chaotic to experience everything all the time without a filter. I see why a mother’s smell, sight and sound soothe a baby like nothing else in the world.
I hope I see those kittens again.