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Miscellanea/Manjula Padmanabhan

Beauty and the beast

A friend claims that we're wrong to find squirrels appealing because they are, after all, only rats in disguise.

This reminds me of a public health campaign in London many years ago about which I have forgotten everything but that pigeons were described as 'flying rats'. Apparently pigeons score as high as rats in the disease-spreading and food-destroying categories of animal pest. The campaign was intended to alert city dwellers to the fact that the very same creatures so admired for their charming cooing ways were actually just as deserving of the traps and poisons set out for urban rodents.

For a while, I heeded the warnings. Any pigeons I encountered were treated with contempt. I refused to be beguiled by their strutting and posturing in public places. Even back in India I regarded the countless generations of courting couples on neighbouring air-conditioners with a cold and malevolent eye.

But I could not maintain my resolve. One day, having watched a squadron wheel against the sunset at Marine Drive in Bombay then land, heavy-bodied yet in graceful profusion, I dismantled my prejudice altogether. The simple fact is that most people find pigeons more attractive than rats.

Call it the luck of the draw or call it unfair bio-politics but one creature engages our senses in ways that the other does not. What are we, mere mortals, to do? Must we follow textbook definitions of villainy and condemn the birds? Or may we allow ourselves to be delighted by one of nature's many marketing tactics and indulge the pigeons with affection and handouts of free food?

The same thoughts can apply to squirrels. They, like rats, are rodents. They can be extremely destructive and would no doubt spread diseases, including rabies given the slightest opportunity. When one looks closely at them, one sees the formidable gnawing incisors, the beady eyes, the rather horrid hairless little ears. Despite all this, I find them unbearably cute.

On the terrace, I watch them scampering about or sprawled belly-down astride a sunlit branch and I cannot associate them with the malign, twilight personality of rats. Does this mean that I would be willing to forgive a creature its misdemeanours on the basis of its packaging alone?

Of course! Packaging is everything when it comes to caring for the fellow denizens of this planet. I don't doubt that it's a great deal easier to launch public campaigns to save tigers than it is to save a whole Noah's ark full of frogs, spiders and blindworms from extinction.

It makes one worry about the meaning of beauty. Why do some creatures have such a stunning advantage over others? Why aren't they all equally beautiful to our gaze? Or is there something amiss with our gaze itself? We could ask the same questions of human beings.

It's difficult to negate the effect of good presentation upon judges and interviewers. It's easy to understand why such heavy emphasis is being placed on personal appearance in the highly competitive world around us: When there are hundreds of lives jostling in the hopper of opportunity, a pair of well-pressed pants or an expensive haircut can swing the crucial vote. There isn't time for anything more than superficial assessments.

However, I've noticed a development. Whenever a particular standard moves off to some other location, sometimes even reversing itself. For example, computers have smartened the appearance of routine business correspondence to the point that all copies of a letter look like the original. The result? We are only ever really impressed by a letter when it is handwritten in ink.

At one time, only a few expensive magazines could afford the glossy, hi-tech appearance that desktop publishing has now made accessible to all manner of lesser journals. This means that I, for one, route my attention around anything with jazzy layouts on the cover. And the same goes for human beauties: now that every third aspirant to the beauty stakes, male or female, appears more perfect than a plastic banana, I am bored and look instead for someone with interesting blemishes.

I once picked up a tiny bat which had fallen off the rafters and was lying stunned on the floor. It was the ugliest living thing I had ever beheld. Its features were as gnarled and knotted as old wood, it had pinhole eyes and minute teeth which it bared ferociously at me. Gradually, however, I noticed how fine the fur on its little head was, how delicately wrought its fragile ears and wings. By the time I let it go I paid no heed to its homeliness.

Even today, its gargoyle face is more vivid in my memory than all the pretty squirrels and pigeons I have known. Beauty, it seems, is only one of the trump cards with which nature stacks her deck.

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Manjula Padmanabhan

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