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Three stripes on its back bear witness

The squirrel understood that all this had to do with the dark-skinned man with bark-cloth wrapped around his hips, whose eyes were strained and red from scanning the far horizon.

india Updated: Apr 10, 2009 23:34 IST

The tulasi, the pipal, the banyan, the neem, the tamarind, the kadamba tree, as top-of-the-mind examples, are all-India cultural triggers. The seven sacred rivers are entire anthologies of feeling, meant to refresh our inner lives as much as our outer bodies. The temples with their five levels, recreate the Pancha-kosha or five sheaths of consciousness from the gross outermost layer to the subtle innermost one of ‘pure consciousness’. (You can see this in pictures of Angkor Wat, too). It seems as though our ancestors tried to pass on important thoughts through art, song, dance and story on how to relate to this world.

One of my favourite stories ever is about the squirrel that is said to have watched the building of the Ram Setu.

It’s well-known and I have told it before but it came back strongly now as I watched a little squirrel scamper about its business amidst the shrubs and trees that front HT House on Kastur-ba Gandhi Marg, New Delhi. While the traffic roars busily outside on our busy main road and the pedestrians jostle and hurry past the pavement hawkers, this squirrel ( fear of twee heaven stops me from naming it) gets on with its life.

The façade of HT House used to update the public on the day’s news. Recall that historical photograph of people dancing with drums outside when Indira Gandhi lost the General Elections after the Emer-gency? And again when she swept back triumphantly three years later when the public grew disenchanted with the Janata Party.? This squirrel’s ancestors must have gone about their business all these decades while the history of a great subcontinent and the world’s largest democracy unfolded over their furry heads.

It was interesting suddenly, watching the three black stripes on the squirrel’s back, to think of the epic link and its huge political resonances today.

The children’s story I was fed by my Granny goes that there was a thunderous din raised during the ‘Ramkaaj’ or ‘the work of Ram’, as the building of Ram Setu is called. The warriors of the Vanara army uprooted the biggest boulders they could find and hurled them into the ocean whose waters obligingly bore them at the command of Varuna, Lord of the Sea.

Watching this frantic activity with bright, curious eyes was a tiny squirrel. It understood that all this had to do with the dark-skinned man with bark-cloth wrapped around his hips, whose eyes were strained and red from scanning the far horizon. What did he hope to see? The squirrel knew nothing of these great matters, but it knew it wanted to be near this man. Then a daring thought popped into its head. It would help him in his work. Of course it couldn’t heft those big boulders. But it could fill in the gaps between them with tiny pebbles that its own paws could carry. And so it did…

By this time, I’d dissolved into tears thinking of the squirrel’s torn and bleeding paws (what to do, we’re a nation of saps). But my Granny had the epiphany waiting. Rama saw what the good little squirrel was doing. He picked it up gently and stroked its back in thanks. The three stripes on the Indian squirrel’s back are the marks of his fingers, the reminder it carries to this day that…every vote counts.