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
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
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
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