[or, Thongs from the Wood]
The local squirrels and I get along very well.
Every day, I set out water for them – well, for the squirrels as well as for the pigeons, mynas, sparrows, crows, bulbuls, doves, sun-birds, babblers, wasps, chameleons, and all the other assorted creatures that have permanent citizenship and visiting rights to the terrace upstairs.
Whenever I can, I toss the squirrels – and all the others – snacks to nibble on. Regular snacks include peanuts, cashew nuts, walnuts, raisins, bits of biscuits, pieces of buttered toast, and leftover rice. And in winter, when Delhi is at its best, with blue-and-gold mornings and clear, chill nights and the air crisp as the Marie biscuit that accompanies your hot cup of chai, I sit out on the terrace with the squirrels et al., and we bask in the sun for hours on end and chew assorted snacks and contemplate the beauty of the Universe, the subtleties of Creation, and the idiocies of Indian Polity.
Sometimes, the squirrels and I do yoga together.
“You’re sitting in my spot!”
I’ve discovered squirrels eat all kinds of things we eat: potato wafers, murukku, samosa, paratha, slices of apple and mango (well, who wouldn’t eat that!), even gobs of ice-cream. I had always thought squirrels were vegetarian. And then, one winter’s day, I saw a scampering squirrel come to a screeching halt beside the tiny, desiccated remains of a long-deceased beetle. The squirrel peered at the hors de oeuvres; sniffed it thoroughly from end to end; and then grabbed it in two little paws and scrunched it down with thorough enjoyment before racing along on its interrupted errand.
Once, I offered a young squirrel a fish tikka in its foil wrapping, complete with a liberal daub of peppery green chutney. The squirrel unwrapped and ate the tikka with great delicacy, as though it were a gourmet dish, proceeded to lap up every last drop of the green chutney…and then sat on its haunches licking its chops and staring at me hungrily, hoping for more.
The squirrels are adapting to my ways, just as I am adapting to theirs. It is deeply comforting, this mutual bonhomie and peaceful coexistence.
Yet, the squirrels and I have our personal spaces; for do not strong fences make good neighbours? We too have our border; a Line of Actual Control (LAC), reasonably well demarcated, that both sides respect and do not breach, barring occasional, unarmed tests of strength that are as brief and non-violent as the scuffle between unarmed Chinese and Indian soldiers on the LAC in Sikkim, and as speedily and honorably settled with mutual withdrawals to our respective ground positions.
Thus, barring a few choice epithets hurled in their general direction, I do not bear the squirrels ill-will when I discover that they have vigorously uprooted and consumed all my carefully planted bulbs and seedlings in the terrace garden; nor do I run to the United Nations wailing for third-party mediation when a cheeky little squirrel-pup filches the buttered toast from the saucer that I had left unguarded for a minute while I went indoors for a coffee refill. Likewise, beyond tweeting a few derisive comments about me, the squirrels don’t complain when I chase them away from the chili plants whose slender twigs they love to use as toothpicks; or when I periodically clean up the window-sills that they use as community toilets (inspired, no doubt, by the Swacch Bharat Mission).
Recently, however, the spirit of Panchsheel that has hitherto governed our relationship was shaken by an unprecedented security breach on the LAC.
It started with a strange aroma in the kitchen: a scent that was neither pleasant nor unpleasant but quite distinctive: a cocktail of ancient pocha-kapda (mopping cloth), straw, damp leaves, grease and dog fur. For two days I hunted for the source of the smell. I checked every cupboard and shelf and drawer, every container and bottle; the fridge, toaster, the sink, the drain, the waste bin, even the water filter. No luck. The scent grew stronger, my appetite weaker, my mood fouler.
And then, returning home in the evening on the third perfumed day, I saw a squirrel taking a stroll on the kitchen counter-top. It executed a hop-skip-and-jump via the water filter up to the exhaust fan vent, within which it disappeared.
The exhaust fan vent…the one place I hadn’t thought to check! So I climbed on to a stool, stood on tiptoe and peered into the recesses of the vent. Voila! There it was, the source of the aroma—a pile of shredded cloth and rope and string and straw, carefully arranged layer upon layer to make it soft and springy, so tall that it completely obscured the hinged vanes on the far side of the vent. Of the squirrel, there was no sign.
The squirrels had built – or were still building – a nest.
But how on earth had they managed to get into the vent, that too with all this nest material, when the vanes on the far side normally remained shut and opened only when the fan was running? I soon discovered the answer: professionals that they were, the squirrels had wedged some kind of rag tightly between two vanes, so that the vanes remained half-open during the great construction project to allow smooth ingress and egress of squirrels and building materials.
The discovery of the nest plunged me into a great moral dilemma, such as that which nearly undid the great warrior Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra before Krishna talked some sense into him.
I didn’t have the heart to demolish the nest. For the squirrels, the cool and dark tunnel of the exhaust fan vent provided the perfect refuge from the scorching summer heat. Besides, wasn’t it possible that Ma Squirrel was expecting to deliver a batch of little squirrel-pups, and was making this snug little nursery for her young-ones-to-come? How cruel it would be for me to undo all her hard work, her labour of love!
But countering this emotional response came the harsh yet compelling voice of reason. The nest was fragile, precariously located…in the exhaust fan vent of all places! Wouldn’t it be awful if I, or someone else, turned on the exhaust fan and hurled the feather-light nest – and possibly the pups – against the cruel vanes? Even worse, the fan blades might cause injury – or worse – to the squirrels. Surely that would be far crueller than removing the nest now, when it was empty?
And then, there was the little matter of mosquitoes. Every mosquito and her sister-in-law, from Noida to Gurgaon, must surely be making a beeline (or mosquito-line) for this inviting gap in the vanes, which, from a mosquito’s point of view, was like a blazing signboard over a fast-food joint; namely, me. Little wonder that of late, I was being eaten alive every night by the bloodthirsty members of the Family Culicidae…
What was I to do?
Like illustrious Arjuna, I chose the path of vacillation. Like brave Arjuna, I thought up seventy-six excellent reasons why I should not do anything. Let’s give it a day or three, I told myself: maybe Ma Squirrel will give up her nest project now, because she knows I’ve spotted her.
And so three days passed, with strict instructions given to one and all not to turn on the exhaust fan at any cost. The kitchen walls and ceiling grew grimier, the mosquito bites grew more numerous and painful, the nest grew thicker and wider. This made me feel worse: I had to do something fast, before it became too late for Ma Squirrel to change her plans…and before I was completely consumed by the mosquitoes.
On the fourth day I had a brainwave: I would simply remove the rag that held the vanes open! The vanes would snap shut; Ma Squirrel wouldn’t be able to get into the vent; she’d fret a bit, and then shake her furry head sadly and find another site for her nest.
So I fetched the stool, reached into the vent and tugged at the rag holding the vanes open till the rag suddenly came free and the vanes snapped shut. Leaving the nest intact, I descended and examined the rag: it turned out to be the frayed remnants of my face towel that had gone missing from the clothesline on the terrace the previous week; I had assumed the towel had been carried away on the gusts of a dust storm.
Problem solved…or so I thought.
Two days passed uneventfully. On the third day, while sipping my morning chai and scratching idly at a mosquito bite, I glanced up at the exhaust fan vent and noticed that the nest was distinctly thicker. What’s more, there was something blue resting on top of the nest. I climbed on to my trusty stool and peered into the vent. Not only was there a fresh layer of shredded pocha kapda on top of the nest, but carefully placed right in its middle was a blue clothes-clip – no doubt, Ma Squirrel had chosen it to decorate and liven up the little nursery.
Ma Squirrel was at it again! But how on earth had she got into the vent ?
I peered into the dark tunnel…and groaned. Once again, there was a piece of fabric carefully and tightly wedged between two vanes to hold them open. Muttering like an irate old squirrel, I tugged out the piece of fabric, descended to examine it closely…and nearly gave up my ghost there and then.
In my trembling hands was a pair of panties.
Slightly worn, slightly frayed, but definitively a pair of red panties. Size L, by the look of them; though I did not look closely.
Well might you chortle, O dear reader. But picture my plight…and empathize! Leave alone Arjuna, even Bhimasena would have quailed at the dreadful situation in which I found myself.
Here I was, a single man, a senior citizen at that, holding a pair of panties. Whose panties they were, I knew not; nor did I want to know. I just had to get rid of them, fast. Imagine if someone walked in and found me in possession of lingerie!
How could I explain it? What could I say? Speak the truth?
“You see, I found these panties in my exhaust fan vent…The squirrels were building a nest in there…and they used these panties to prop the vanes open, so they could get in and out…”
It sounded a highly unlikely story, even to me.
I had to get rid of them! But carefully; I couldn’t risk anyone tracing the thingies back to me.
For a brief wild moment I considered burning the panties out on the terrace – but discarded the idea with a shudder. Imagine if the fire, and its source, drew the attention of neighbours…
And so, feeling like a murderer disposing of an inconvenient corpse, I wrapped the panties in three layers of newspaper; placed the paper package deep inside a black garbage bag; and then, deploying nest-layering skills and care that would have made Ma Squirrel shake her furry head in admiration, I buried the package beneath layer upon layer of vegetable peelings, tea leaves, coffee grounds, shredded paper, and finally and regretfully, the material of the nest.
A month has passed since that traumatic day. To my immense relief, there has been no discernible change in the neighbours’ attitudes, or in the attitudes of the squirrels. Clearly, the panties have been safely consigned to the landfill.
It’s now safe for me to reveal the truth, complete with photographic evidence – such as it is – in the interests of transparency.
Ma Squirrel has not resumed her nest-building. Still, I continue to check the exhaust fan vent, and especially the vanes, thrice daily…just in case.
You just can’t underestimate the squirrels. Or under-rate their underwear-filching skills.