Tuesday, August 7, 2012

*305. CATSTUFF: The 'Pusa' in our Pop Culture

WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT? Muning, Kuting or Miaoww--a caterwauling cat by any other name would has enough endearing traits and behavior to earn a special place on our laps, in our homes and in our pop culture.

Cats have always played second fiddle to dogs, but by sheer profligacy, they outnumber and outlive the canines. Like dogs, they were a common presence in many Kapampangan homes, and their scavenging instincts were often put into service to rid houses of vermin, rodents and snakes. Western observers who arrived with the American military forces at the turn of the 20th century were quick to note of the crooked tails of local cat breeds, a feature that was seen as undesirable. As such, racists took the cat as a metaphor for the “inferiority”of our brown race.

In other countries such as Ancient Egypt, the Felis Catus held a revered place in the country’s religion, and a cat-headed goddess—Bast—was even venerated with deep respect. Cats were mummified and buried with the dead to accompany him to the afterlife.

In the Western world, cats found their way into popular culture, inspiring authors to create literary pieces (T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum”, Dr. Seuss “The Cat in the Hat”) , nursery rhymes (“Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, where have you been?”), fairy tales (Grimms’ Puss in Boots”)”, and even a long-running Broadway rock opera (“Cats”). Cat-related words, expressions and phrases found their way into the English language. To be “catty”is to be sarcastic, to be a “sour puss”, a bad loser. A secret revealed means “the cat is out of the bag”. When one suddenly is at a loss for words, he is asked if a “cat got his tongue”. Kapampangans have also embraced the ways of the cat—regardless whether it’s a stray cat (pusang layas) or civet (musang), musk (diris) , a mountain cat (lamiran) or a purebred Persian or Siamese.

Our language has been enriched with descriptive expressions certainly inspired by our feline friends. ”Lupa kang musang”(You look like a civet cat) is how one describes someone with a dirty face. The same breed of cat also gave us the word “mangusang”, meaning to have an asthma attack, in reference to the cat-like gasps an asthmatic emits.

When in heat, cats can often behave in a wild, crazed and noisy manner during their mating ritual, hence the term, “pusa lampung”. An early definition of “lampong”as collected by Bergaño is “to smash or break plates or tiles in a hearth”. Could that refer to the cat’s ear-breaking wails while in the throes of passion? When one wanted a bratty child to stop crying, one would utter the threat—“Oyan na ing pusa lampung! Kunan na naka! Myaooww!”(Here comes the wild cat! Meoow! He’s coming to get you!). The term “lampung” has come to mean making flirtatious, sexual moves between a man and a woman, as in “makipaglampungan”. It is also interesting to point out that there is a Lamphong region in Indonesia—could it be that a cat was a bred there and came to this country via the land bridges as a feral cat?

There are also cat-associated descriptive phrases that are now part of our everyday expressions: a dead person’s temperature is “marimla ya pa keng arung ning pusa”—colder than a cat’s nose. “Mitindag”, which means “like the bright eyes of a cat”, is a term used to describe the brilliant personality of a person. Certain beliefs about the cat’s peculiar behaviour also abound. For instance, a cat standing by the front door portents the arrival of a visitor while a cat wiping his face (“manimu ya”) forewarns of rains. In the Visayas, to laught a cat during thunderstorms is to invite lightning. And, there is a pervasive belief that a fishbone in one’s throat can be unstuck by brushing a cat’s paw across one’s throat.

An old saying recorded by Bergaño -- “Nanan me man ing pusa, suclab ya lalam dulang” (No matter what you do to a cat, it always gets under a table)—refers to the unique behavior of the animal to attach itself to a place, rather than to a person. Figuratively, it is also a reference to the natural attachment of Kapampangans to their native land.

Crooked tail or not, the cat will always find a welcome place in Kapampangan homes—as a furry pet, a loyal household companion or even as a natural pest control agent. In a way, cats remind us too of our distinct Kapampangan personality; like our Kuting and Muning, we have a deep attachment to our province and we have proven survival instincts. Most of all, we can be cunning, crafty and—catty!

(SOURCE: Many thanks to Mr. Joel Pabustan Mallari, for his Singsing article,"Anac Pusa: The Cat in the Life of Early Kapampangans" , p. 115, Vol. 4, No.2., on which much of this feature is based.)

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