A cat trapped on a roof becomes a lesson in Bhutanese character
That cat really wants to be let in, I remember thinking. I was housesitting in Upper Motithang — the rich neighborhood in Thimphu, Bhutan. My husband was at work teaching Western classical piano to children and I was in the kitchen, copyediting the script for a Bhutanese radio drama. Periodically, I heard this cat in the distance, doing something I call meowling — a cross between meowing and howling. I had first noticed it in the morning, around nine a.m. By one p.m., its voice was hoarse.
“Can anyone hear that cat?” I asked.
“Yes, Madam,” one of the sunbathers said.
“Do you know where it is?”
“She’s outside, Madam.” She pointed up, looking unconcerned. I looked and saw the cat’s face peering from the roof of a two-story building — where the housekeeper for the landlord lived. Nights had been falling to ten degrees Fahrenheit, well below freezing, and only a few hours of daylight remained. An animal lover, I felt immense concern over the cat’s predicament. I knocked on the door of the house with the cat on its roof and the housekeeper answered.
“Hi,” I said. “Can you hear that cat on your roof? It’s been meowing all day.”
“Yes,” she said. “The roof cleaners came by to get her down this morning, but they couldn’t.” There was a beat of silence while I waited for more, but there was nothing else. This was a familiar pattern I had experienced in Bhutan, and one I didn’t know how to navigate. Recently, a bank employee had told me, “It should work, Madam” and tried to send me on my way when I told her that my debit card no longer worked at any of their ATMs. Saying a thing here is often a substitute for actually doing a thing.
“What’s the next plan?” I asked, hoping there was one.
“I don’t have a ladder,” she said. I hopped back over the fence to get one from the yard where I was staying. I brought it back to the woman’s house and carried it up to the second-floor porch. Bhutanese houses are built with ultra-wide eaves, the ceilings eleven feet high. There was no way to angle the ladder so that I could get onto the roof myself. I climbed into the open window of the attic instead, thinking I could dislodge a board or find a gap in the corrugated metal that serves as roofing in Bhutan. I could not. The cat meowed to me. I carried my ladder back down the stairs.
“Is there someone else we can call?” I asked. “The cat is going to freeze to death if we don’t get it off of the roof.”
I’d seen a lot of animal death around Thimphu in the months that I’d lived there: street dog curled up on the sidewalk, cat with its ears gnawed off in an open field, cat attracting flies on top of a trash bag. One of an expat’s two pet dogs had been hit by a car. A friend’s kitten fell off of her fifth-floor balcony. Most recently, on a main street in town, I’d seen a puppy that had frozen to death eight feet from its mother.
The woman called the landlord’s office to ask his assistant if the roof cleaners would come back and try again. Placating me seemed to be the sole purpose of her call. I couldn’t tell whether she believed the cat would eventually come down on its own, or if she didn’t and just hoped I would go away. I didn’t know this yet, but the landlord was out of town for the day. The cat on the roof was his.
“They’re busy now, but they can come later,” she said. A thing had been done. I was satisfied, and returned to my work. Just before my husband returned at four thirty, though, I heard the cat again. There would only be light for another forty-five minutes or so.
Damn it, I thought. Doesn’t anyone give a shit about that cat? Where was that “ancient wisdom” that Westerners are always hawking in propaganda about Bhutan? Bhutan is famously a Buddhist country, where people swerve their cars to avoid hitting dogs and cattle because they fear the karmic repercussions of harming other sentient beings. This sentient being needed our help.
“We just thought of something that might seem strange,” I told the housekeeper, “but it could work. The fire department will have a truck with a big ladder.” I knew that Bhutan had a few fire trucks, donated by Japan, because I had looked this up before my proposal. “What if you call the fire department?”
The woman pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and scrolled through her contacts list. “I don’t have their number,” she said, with a shrug.
I wanted to scream. Of course, she didn’t have the fire department’s phone number in her contacts list. Didn’t she care? I wondered. I could never tell whether this attitude was a lack of concern, an inability to foresee consequences, or an inhibited sense of agency. The end result would be the same no matter the reason.
“That’s okay,” I said, my voice unnaturally calm. “We’ll figure out how to call them ourselves.” This was easier said than done. On Royal Bhutan Police’s website, the phone number listed for Thimphu’s Fire Services Division is the same as its fax number. I called and heard beeping. The website does say that you can call the fire division’s rescue services for “the children, people, and animals found trapped under various situations where grave injury or death would be caused to the victim.” Little more than half an hour of daylight remained.
We called the Fire emergency number, where they told us to call a different number — which turned out to be the Crime hotline. My husband was on the phone and I could hear yelling through the receiver. In response, my husband was saying, “No. I’m fine! The cat—yeah, I said cat—I already called the Fire number. They told us to call you. What? No! No. Okay, goodbye.” A dead end.
I called a Bhutanese friend to ask if she could help me find the real non-emergency number for Fire Services. She asked why, and then said, “I can…but I don’t think that’s a service they offer.” More inertia. Everything related to the afternoon was a perfect example of what infrastructure is often like in Bhutan: uninvested citizens, government websites with errors on them, and authority figures who deflect problems.
It was a little after five now, and twilight. The house we were watching was right near the royal palace. My husband walked there to ask a guard for advice, thinking they might have an exceptionally tall ladder or know who could help. They were our last resort. I caught the end of their conversation a few minutes later, when the two of them walked into the back yard.
“The cat will not die, Sir. When it begins to feel cool, it will come down automatically.”
The cat on the roof had been screaming for help for eight hours. It was not going to come down automatically.
At this point, my husband and I were certain that the cat was going to die despite us trying every resource we could muster. Would anyone really be surprised if they woke up the next morning and the cat was dead? That was just its karma, I thought bitterly.
My Bhutanese friend finally returned my call and said that Fire Services was “discussing it” and would call me back soon.
“When? It’s going to be dark soon. Can I have their number?”
She gave it to me, I called them, and they confirmed that they were discussing my case and would have a decision “soon.”
“When is soon?” I asked. “It’s going to be dark in the next fifteen or twenty minutes.” I had never felt more stereotypically American than I did in this moment, sassing a foreign police department. I was not proud, just exasperated, and from a culture that believes if you are persistent enough and ask the right people, you can get the service that you need. This belief had been disproven to me many times in Bhutan.
Two minutes later, Fire Services called me back and said they had agreed to dispatch some officers, but they needed to know where I was. No one in Bhutan uses addresses or knows any street names, so again, this was easier said than done. I described that we were up the one road that goes to the palace, in Upper Motithang, on the way to Amankora — an egregiously fancy hotel.
“And you’re bringing a big ladder, right?” They told me they were, and that I should wait outside on the street for them. I agreed. Ten minutes later, they called me back, asking to clarify the directions. “We’re on the only road in Upper Motithang,” I stressed.
They called my husband back a few minutes later, still confused. I started to doubt that they would make it to us before dark or at all. If my house were on fire, it would have burned to the ground in the time it took Fire Services to reach me.
When I saw the fire engine coming up the road some minutes later, I almost couldn’t believe it. I waved my arms and motioned the officers over. Their truck was too wide to fit through the driveway of the house where the cat was stranded, so the officers pulled the ladder off of the truck and walked it over to the house. The cat would not come for them.
I knocked on the housekeeper’s door. “We brought the fire department,” I said, like it was no big deal. “Can you call the cat?”
Her face lit up in joy and disbelief. I have no idea what she was thinking in this moment, but her expression taught me something important: I had misread her. She did care. Maybe she felt that it was not her place to call the police or fire department. As an average American, I feel entitled to city services, which empowers me to contact them. I had not thought of this as a privilege before.
The woman came outside and called the cat. “Jiley!” she yelled. Cat in Dzongkha. The firefighters were able to carry the cat down the ladder, at which point Jiley hightailed it toward the landlord’s house, done with all of the excitement.
I could not believe that it had really happened — the fire truck, the tall ladder, men in uniform on the roof. I also could not believe that I had come to a place of zero faith in Bhutan’s people or systems, but the day had been uniquely discouraging.
The next afternoon, the landlord called me.
“I hear there was some drama at my house yesterday,” he said. He’s mad, I thought. I’ve overstepped my boundaries and I’m going to have to apologize for whatever bad thing happened as a result of my actions. “You called the fire department to rescue a cat?”
“Yeah,” I said. “It happens enough in the U.S. that it’s kind of a cultural joke.”
He thanked me. “I’ve been asking around,” he said, laughing, “and this is a first in the history of Bhutan.”
And it’s probably a last, I thought. The fire department had taken a leap of faith. The cat lived. Still, I couldn’t pretend that I understood the nuances of Bhutanese culture or that any lasting change would come of my meddling. If nothing else, then at least the officers, the housekeeper, my husband, and I had improved our karma.
Sarah Lyn Rogers is the Fiction Editor for The Rumpus, a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, and a lover of words. ‘Inevitable What’, her chapbook of poems focused on spells, rituals, travel, and magical objects, is available from Sad Spell Press beginning this May.