It’s hard to be mad at a book with such noble intentions.
Through the perspective of a fictional pet cat of the Dalai Lama, David Michie, a Buddhist, meditation instructor, and cat-lover himself, attempts to distill Buddhist teachings into simple anecdotal stories, meant, presumably, to reach across to the widest possible audience. Using language that is at once simple and ornate, Michie allows the cat, the narrator of this far-too-detailed story, not only a vivid imagination, but immense knowledge of First World pop culture.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
A sequel to a previous book, simply called “The Dalai Lama’s Cat”, “The Dalai Lama’s Cat and the Art of Purring” continues the adventures of the eponymous cat, who sets out on a quest, at the request of his master, to find the true meaning of happiness. The story is interspersed, every now and then, with the connection made between the act of purring and the meaning of happiness, but the link is attacked from so many corners that we are not quite certain where we end after all.
The real purpose of the book, it becomes clear early on, is to teach lay readers the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism, described in exalting prose. Through the course of the book, we meet monk after monk after random visitor who join the cat – called variously His Holiness’ Cat, Rinpoche, and Swami – describing in verdant prose the greatness of this school of thought, of the transformative power these teachings can have on an individual, if only they would open up their minds and hearts to it. To back these up, Michie cites several scientific studies of differing repute to imply that what Buddhism has always taught to be true can now be proven through scientific data. The sincerity with which every character seems to regard these studies as undeniable truth and proof of the greatness of the religion is infectious enough to tempt you to leave your cynicism at the door.
Not for long though. Because, make no mistake, there are glaring problems with this story, though one doubts if any of its (clearly intentional) Western target audience would spot it. The characters of the non-feline variety who occupy the majority of the book are remarkably… white. There is not an Indian in sight, at least Indians not serving food, cleaning up, and bowing and “scurrying away”. For a book set in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama’s residence, the majority of the characters, barring the monks that sometimes liaise with the narrating cat, are all, notably, not Indian. There is such a dearth of ‘natives’, as it were, in fact the waiter at the Himalayan Book Cafe is described merely as the “Indian Jeeves”, and the only other Indian who has any dialogue at all turns out to be — spoiler alert — a Maharajah. Who, upon the big reveal, tells sob stories about common folk trying to steal from his grandfather’s mansion and the burden of his royal name, forcing him to hide his true identity.
The major characters, the ones with any real agency and storylines are all sweet, jovial, picture-perfect travellers who can seemingly not resist the allure of McLeodganj and Buddhism. As we get to know them, we’re treated to a cavalcade of “real-world troubles” for which guidance is sought, and for which the answers are provided from within the tenets of Buddhism.
There is the retired European millionaire, who pantomimes his existential angst at having too much free time on his hands by drinking copious amounts of fancy French wine in the middle of the day — in what seems like a small cafe, but is apparently a place that not only hosts lavish Indian banquets, complete with that dish, a mystery to any Continental Indian, vindaloo, but also serves crème brûlée for dessert.
There is a German yoga teacher, who talks about the power of yoga in fixing people’s hamstring issues, among other things. Serena, the Europe-returned chef, finds much joy in managing a cafe and preparing Indian curries as opposed to the haute cuisine she is used to dishing up, but this genuinely becomes the conflict in her life from which Buddhist teaching must relieve her. Inspiration is sought by visitors at every corner, and the sagely seem more than happy to provide eat-pray-love type platitudes to help these characters overcome their difficulties.
There is such a quaintness to it all, not least because the author seems to genuinely believe these to be some of the most serious problems that afflict anyone, or he certainly leaves that impression, with the kind of dramatic declarations vented out on every page. At one point, someone actually suggests that the key to happiness lies in things as “simple” as learning to play the piano, and “involving oneself in a cause”. It is hard to imagine that these tricks would apply to every individual in search of happiness, but it certainly seems to suffice for the readers of this book. (There is also a bit about a scientific formula for happiness but one wouldn’t want to ruin it here.)
In the end though, the point that one must return to, somewhat grudgingly, is that the book has the noblest intentions. It’s hard to argue with, or find very many gaping holes in such wide-eyed positivity, whatever reservations we may have about the way Eastern spiritualism is being marketed to the West. This book is harmless in that it is as much for cat lovers as for those being introduced to Buddhism through popular culture media. But if you scratch past the surface, there’s not much to purr home about.