Out for a walk on a crisp Fall morning this week, my attention was drawn to the large number of squirrels that have taken over the neighborhood streets. I see plump black ones suddenly stopping to stand erect on their hind legs, clutching and ravenously nibbling on a tidbit tightly clasped in their front paws, while their whiskers twitch frantically to detect signs of potential threats. There are also the smaller and friskier, lighter colored brown ones running up and down trees, chasing another sibling, friend or rival’s tail. Slipping sometimes while they jump this way and that, these speedsters quickly recover; I have never seen one fall to the ground. I am convinced that these latter variety must be kid squirrels, only because they behave just like my grandkids – never still for a minute and throwing caution to the winds, scampering in any which direction. All squirrels and in particular the smaller rambunctious ones must be genetically conditioned to periodically dart right up to edge of the kerb or straight into the middle of the road and then pause, unsure whether to turn back or charge on ahead. It’s a good thing most vehicles on the road tend to slow down, allowing these boisterous rodents to make up their mind although accidents do occur occasionally.
There are many things and experiences that are unique to each immigrant and in spite of the passage of time these tend to stay fresh in her/his mind. We landed in March 1996 and during the course of our very first spring in Canada, wonderstruck we would watch each day the emergence of flora and fauna from hibernation, as the snow receded. I can recall wondering at the time why one never heard, let alone see any crows in Canada! In India, one is used to being woken up at dawn by the loud cawing of crows, their flocks perched patiently on overhead electric cables, poles and rooftop parapets, ever ready to swoop down suddenly and make off with any food item they might detect from their vantage point.
The absence of crows was compensated for by the swarms of squirrels bounding around; I had never seen such fat, dark creatures ever before. Indian squirrels, especially those that I was used to seeing in North India, were much smaller in size and a lighter grey-brown in color. They also had three distinct white stripes running from head to their tail. As children, our grandmother told us that the squirrels “bahmaniyaan hundiyaan ne” (“squirrels are priestesses”). She would relate the popular mythological story from the Indian epic, Ramayana. Lord Rama’s wife Sita was abducted by King Ravana and Rama waged war to recover her. In order to cross the channel and reach Ravana’s kingdom across the sea, Rama’s forces set about gathering rocks and stones to construct a bridge. A squirrel, so the story goes, would roll on the beach to gather sand on its back and run to the tip of the bridge under construction and dust the sand off, contributing to the build-up, all the while chanting Lord Rama’s name. Upon noticing this, Rama picked up the tiny creature and gently caressed its back to express his gratitude. Our grandmother said the stripes on a squirrel’s back are the marks left by Lord Rama’s fingertips. A lot of people in India feed and care for these creatures.
Lord Rama defeated Ravana and reunited with Sita, traveled back to claim his rightful kingdom of Ayodhya. A synopsis of Ramayana is enacted over nine days by amateur neighborhood actors and on the tenth day, Rama’s victory is celebrated as Dussehra (literally, the “tenth day”) or Vijaydashmi and this year, it occurred on October 19. To celebrate the victory of good over evil, huge papier-mache symbolic effigies of Ravana and his two brothers are erected in public parks across India and set on fire amid the bursting of firecrackers.
Please enjoy this “bhajan” (devotional song) composed by the 15th century poet Tulsidas, author of the Ramayana. The late Bhimsen Joshi has soulfully sung it in the late evening raga Mishra Khammaj. I was not able to share this composition with my grandmother, who would have enjoyed it; but, I wish my friendly neighborhood squirrels are able to tarry a while and join me in entreating “patron” Rama to extend his grace and protect all living beings.
The lyrics and a simple translation can be found here.