A suspicious friend

I am sitting on my balcony. Branches of trees overhang almost onto the parapet. I am waiting for the crow that sometimes comes into my house: of late he has obviously found better pastures. The biscuit I have kept out for him has been untouched. I am suddenly aware of someone watching me. I try to swivel only my eyes and see two beady eyes, beautifully almond shaped. His whiskers are twitching. He is poised to flee at the slightest whiff of danger. Every muscle and nerve speaks of tension. I do not move and try to smile with my eyes. He relaxes. We look at each other and I wonder if he nods. He jumps on to the parapet wall, cautious and alert. I do not move. He edges nearer, grabs part of the biscuit and takes a flying leap onto the nearest branch. Still suspicious, he sits up with the piece between its forepaws. One tooth appears, the characteristic that makes it belong to the rodent family: from ‘rodere’ meaning to gnaw.

Squirrel cheeps, along with the koels’ melodious trill are among my earliest memories of rural and small town India. Here in my flat in Bangalore, they are still the first sounds that glide into my half conscious half drowsy lovely morning mood every day. Later, when I sit on my balcony, I see them run across the tree branches, using their tails to balance like tightrope walkers. They scamper, then suddenly freeze still, then spring off their haunches, leaping into the air onto the next tree, and run down its trunk with gravity defying sprints. I have seen them chase each other in a whirlwind of tails and marathon runs, sometimes using the tree trunks as springboard before jumping onto another trunk.

I love their question mark tails: I am told that the name ‘squirrel’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘shadow tail.’ Also that a squirrel will cover its head with its tail during heavy rain. One interesting fact about the tail is that it radiates heat when it confronts a rattlesnake and that heat along with the flicking often scares the snakes away. We in India consider it a blessed animal, having helped Rama build the bridge under contention today, by rolling in the sand and then shaking it off his back for the construction material. He rewarded the squirrel by running his fingers down its back, giving it its stripe. For me, it’s therapeutic to watch this animal so full of verve and vigour. Better than a vitamin pill.

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