Essay: Following the white squirrel
The appearance of a squirrel sets off a meditation on our feelings for the creatures that provide hours of entertainment in gardens
I am worried about the white baby squirrel; I haven’t seen her running around on my garden wall today. I saw her for the first time last week when she was digging her small teeth in a fruit that she might have extricated from the neighbours’ trash. It couldn’t have been from my bin because, as regular readers of my urban gardening adventure stories know, all organic waste from my house goes into a tightly closed compost bin. I was surprised to see a white squirrel, I’ve never seen or even heard of the existence of white squirrels in Delhi, at least. I rushed inside to pick up my camera, but she had disappeared by the time I returned.
I saw her again the next morning while I was watering the plants. She was eating one of my flowers. Dropping the watering can right away, I clicked lots of pictures. She happily modelled for me. Since then, I have been seeing her every day.
She seems quite naughty. Yesterday, she stuck out her tongue as if to tease me. Squirrels have long tongues, much longer than I had imagined before I began photographing them. I’ve taken hundreds of pictures of squirrels; adult squirrels, baby squirrels, fighting squirrels, squirrels showing affection, squirrels climbing, squirrels escaping certain death and squirrels not making it.
A black kite once dropped a wounded squirrel in my garden. I still feel sad that I couldn’t save its tiny life despite my best efforts. Once, while clicking one scampering up a tall tree, my heart skipped a beat. The squirrel had miscalculated and nearly fell off a high branch. It barely managed to hold on with its hind legs. Its long tongue lolled out in shock. Fortunately, my camera was on a tripod and I clicked a decent picture, minus a camera shake, of that scene too.
I haven’t seen my white squirrel today and I am concerned. Has she been eaten by a black kite? There are lots of them around my house, hovering in the sky, in search of food. Did a cat or a stray dog attack her; there are a few of them in my lane. Could she have been assaulted by squirrels of colour? Who’s to know that squirrels aren’t racist?
Common animals that are an integral part of our lives, squirrels aren’t admired enough for their cuteness. I would have proposed that they be declared the “state animal of Delhi” if they didn’t occasionally elicit negative reactions.
When I proudly showed a friend my squirrel pictures, she scowled. “They are just a cuter version of rats,” she said. In her defence I have to add that her experience with squirrels hasn’t been as benign as mine. Her air conditioner needs to be repaired every summer because the creatures chew the metal grill and electric wires and pull out the insulating wool from around the pipes. I pondered the wisdom of asking her to imagine her teeth growing forever and having to spend money to trim them at the salon along with her hair. Squirrels have to manage their ever-growing teeth by chewing whatever they can find. On top of that, their diet mainly consists of nuts, seeds, and fruits that are hard on teeth. Having sharp teeth is a matter of life and death for a squirrel and it’s why they chew on whatever they can find. Or perhaps Mrs Squirrel needed the AC’s insulating wool to keep her babies warm in her nest. Of course, in the interests of maintaining our relationship, I didn’t treat my friend to the NatGeo film running in my head.
Squirrels popped up most unexpectedly when I appreciated a journalist’s brave work on Twitter. “Mera itna hi yogdan hai, jitna Ram Setu banane mein gilahari ka tha (My contribution is only as much as the contribution of the squirrel in the making the Ram Setu.),” he said. He was referring to the story in the Ramayana of the squirrel which carried pebbles in its mouth and threw them into the sea to help construct the bridge that would allow the vanar sena to cross the ocean to Lanka. Happy at the dedication, love and tireless effort of the little squirrel, Lord Rama picked her up and gently stroked her back with his fingers, leaving behind the three lines that are characteristic of the common Indian palm squirrel (Funambulus Palmarum). Other varieties played no part in the noble cause and presumably haven’t earned their stripes.
My cute white squirrel seems to be an albino. Really, no one should blame her ancestors for being lazy or not participating in a worthy cause. She’s as desi as the others scampering about my garden.
I’m not the only one in my household who is obsessed with squirrels. One warm Sunday morning, a cup of tea in my hand, I opened the blinds of my living room to see my handsome German shepherds, Jai and Veeru, sitting facing the boundary wall. Constantly moving their heads from one side to the other, they reminded me of the referee in his high chair at Wimbledon. Curious to know what they were so interested in, I stepped outside. Two squirrels were chasing each other on the wall and the movements of my gentle dogs were perfectly synchronised with the movement of the squirrels. They were enjoying the spectacle like it was a high-stakes tennis match or at least a song and dance scene from a Hindi film. I wished I had picked up my camera instead of that cup of tea.
“I had expected them to be much bigger,” an Australian friend commented on her first visit to Delhi.
“They are not as big as kangaroos, though the length of their tongues could probably compete,” I said. I am slightly possessive about our squirrels. They are Indian squirrels, how can we allow someone from outside to belittle them? OK, I didn’t put a smiley after the last line but I assure you, it’s meant to be a joke. These days, it’s always safer to clarify after cracking one.
Anyway, my sense of humour is back. I just glimpsed my white squirrel. She is safe, cheerful and jumping around my garden.
Prerna Jain is an artist and photographer based in New Delhi. An extensive collection of her work can be found at her website www.prernasphotographs.com and at facebook.com/prernasphotographs. She is the author of My Feathered Friends. Her latest book is Stories, Usual Yet Unusual.