Lessons in loving and letting-go
Rain: Relief and romance
It was monsoon season in the North, and the moist fragrance of rain was infused with a bitter taste of crushed Neem leaves. Warm wetness clung to the skin with stubborn persistence as we went about our days, thankful to have the dusty summer winds subdued by rainfall. There was a happy heaviness in the air that monsoon lovers cherish, since only in the tropics are overcast skies linked with romance and longing for love.
Birds bunch up and flutter about, preening themselves repeatedly, and squirrels huddle in branches to warm each other up. Watching young children splash around in a downpour is always so refreshing, but the happy face of a young man leaning precariously from the rear door of a bus one July afternoon, is an image forever stuck in my head. He let the rain wash all over his upturned face as he swayed, singing some popular Bollywood song. His mood touched everyone who saw him.
On a day like this, Gilly dropped into my life. A neighbour had found a baby squirrel under a tree and decided to hand it over to me after several unsuccessful attempts at finding the parents. With the constant preoccupation of looking up, either at the night sky or for some unexpected movement in the trees during daytime, I had earned myself a rather welcome reputation of being a freak, and must have thus been considered a suitable surrogate mum for the abandoned baby. As I held her (?) between my cupped hands, the soft fur and furtive movements caused some disturbances in my insides and I realized this one would be staying. Caring for a gentle four-legged companion for 15 years and helping her die had been heart-breaking for the family, and I was determined to eschew any further attachments. But my resistance quickly dissolved when I looked into her large, limpid eyes.
“Are you my mother?” she seemed to ask. Sigh! I was hooked. Minutes later, I dug up a large cardboard box, took her into my room and began eagerly surfing the internet to learn from others: ‘How to care for an infant squirrel’. Apparently, it’s quite easy. All you need is a needle-less syringe, some milk and loads of patience! Squirrels take to humans quite easily, the sites reassured me. I named Gilly after the Hindi word for squirrel, Gileheri. Sometimes, my husband just reminded me, I used to also call her ‘Gillyfinakus’, since her life was lived between two ficus trees (For those of you who enjoy the programme).
The sacred squirrel
Squirrels are quite liked in India. Firstly, they are smaller than their alien counterparts, and secondly, they are believed to have been blessed by Ram. As the legend from the Ramayan goes, gileheris got their stripes as a blessing from Ram. When he wanted to cross over to Lanka to fetch his abducted wife Sita, the bridge across the strip of sea was constructed by a band of monkeys. A little squirrel was found fixing leaks with small pebbles and was being ridiculed by the team of monkeys who thought nothing of her tireless efforts. An arrogant monkey flung her in rage and she fell right into Ram’s hands. Taking the little creature close, he said to everyone around that although their scaffolding was strong, unless the tiny squirrel had filled the little gaps, the bridge would not stand. The story is often told to illustrate that however insignificant a creature may seem, they have an important place in the scheme of things. (“A person’s a person, no matter how small”, to quote a favourite author, Dr. Suess in ‘Horton Hears a Who’, a book that I loved to read with my children). The stripes on the back of the Asian gileheri are believed to be the result of Ram’s finger strokes, a form of blessing. Squirrels are thus seen as gentle, endearing creatures, blessed for the small tasks that they can do. My Gilly was certainly as special as she was small.
In another affectionate description, this time a true story, Mahadevi Verma (an outstanding Hindi poet, freedom fighter, activist and educationist) wrote about her Gillu, a small gileheri who accidentally entered her life and remained her companion throughout its life. An animated version of the story can be found here. I want to thank Dr. Asha Sarbhoy for marking the story to me when I was in Gilly-dom. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oO5GDYCdlhw.
When I took her up to my room and fed her, Gilly eagerly tugged at the plastic outlet on the syringe; she was hungry! At nightfall, I made up a soft bed of leaves in the cardboard box and settled in for the night, leaving it open for her to play about if she wished. Soon I found her in my walking shoes, looking up longingly. I reached down and brought her into my mosquito net. She hurriedly curled up on the under-side of my neck, finding a spot between the pillow and I, holding onto a bunch of hair in her paws. After that, she slept quite soundly. Sometimes as she stirred, she would make soft sounds in her throat and snuggle up even closer, apparently for some extra warmth, I discovered from my internet buddies. It was quite a strange night. At no point did it worry me that I would smother her……the old instinct of co-sleeping with infants had resurfaced quite immediately. I did have good practice with that, having slept in the same bed with my kids through their childhood.
Monsoon time also brings loads of fresh bhutta (corn) that are roasted on hot coals for a tasty street snack, and I read that corn was quite a favourite with squirrels and other rodents. Rodent? Gilly? What a cold word. She was not a rodent, I thought. It’s like addressing a person you know as ‘human’. “Hey, human!” Anyway, I soon started her on solids and left bits of corn and bajra for her to nibble at. Next day, when her urine turned pinkish, I was informed (the internet buddies to the rescue again) that she was overeating. Baby squirrels don’t know when to stop, apparently!
After the first night, I didn’t need to bring her to bed with me since she found herself a cozy little place in between the bamboo blinds while I was at work. I admit that I had a desire to snuggle up with her, but I knew that it was wrong, a habit like that would weaken her squirrel-ness, and I resisted the urge. The next morning, she was fine in the folds, much to my relief.
Soon we fell into a routine of domestic harmony. She would wake around 7 and chirrup when she wanted attention (perhaps food) and would seek me out for a good rub-on-the-belly. Tugging at the ends of things was her favourite game and she would eat (carefully rationed amounts now), jump about, tug at my clothes or the edge of the dari, run around, go up the blinds, come scurrying down, run away again, peep out and look at me once in a while, sometimes making those indescribable throaty chuckles I still remember so distinctly. Sometimes it was clear she wanted to play when she would jump onto me and pull at something I was wearing. I think she really liked the smell of my hair.
Our first quarrel
One evening when I returned from college, the bath towel I had spread carelessly on the back of a chair seemed to have developed huge blisters. Obviously, Gilly had been sharpening her teeth on it, and I was irritated. I called out to her, took her in my palm and scolded her a bit. I could have sworn she was upset, and she confirmed that by giving me a quick bite on my forefinger! “Ow, Gilly!” I shouted, and she scampered off to her bedroom in the blinds. This little one was quite spirited I thought; but an irrepressible feeling began to dawn on me. This was no life for her, and I needed to let her go.
Anyway, that was the moment I realized that Gilly would have to be allowed to be her natural self, and with the abundance of foliage around my home, I resolved to set her outside immediately. Urged on by my annoyance at the destruction of the towel, the bite, and the concern for her freedom, I slid open the door and set her outside on the balcony. For a while she stayed quite stunned, crouched in a corner looking so very small. I cannot even begin to describe how I slept that night. Each sound felt like the street cat was prowling about looking for my Gilly, and I listened closely for the sounds of feline fulfillment. I regretted my decision as the night settled, but I knew I had to do this, for Gilly’s sake. I would survive, but Gilly needed to lead her own life, make friends, and have babies of her own. I was torn between what I thought I wanted and what needed to be done. That has always been a familiar space for me.
Into the wild
It was a long night and I could barely sleep, but I resisted the urge to let her in. At daybreak, at the usual time, I sprung out of bed, opened the door and ran around with my heart in my mouth. Suddenly, at the edge of the balcony, I could see her peeping. I wanted to hug her with joy, but as soon as she saw me she scurried away and to a safe distance, turned and looked at me. I was sure it was my Gilly, and I was thrilled that she was alive. But was she sulking? Gently, I began to call out to her and, after a bit of hesitation, she started to approach. Soon we were friends again, but I kept my back door firmly closed.
She found the chicks (thick blinds) outside were a safe and cozy spot and made her home there. We continued our periodic chats on the terrace and she would still call out with the soft chortling when we met. Yet again, we fell into a comfortable rhythm, but with a slight distance between us. We slept in separate ‘rooms’! Early morning I would go to the terrace with a corn cob, hand it to her or place it on the table, and we would enjoy the mornings together. When my husband came up to meet her, she indulged him with a quick leap onto his shoulder. He’s usually a bit awkward with crawling things, but Gilly was no ordinary creature. We both felt very special that she chose to befriend us.
In case you wish, I have posted Gilly’s gallery with more pictures and videos of our times together here: https://masalachaimusingsaboutlittlepeople.wordpress.com/gillys-gallery/
Surviving the stalkers
Other squirrels were also around, but I could recognize her instantly. Some of the visitors clearly looked like local hoodlums, and they would feed on the leftovers from our meal together. I was eager for Gilly to make friends with them. One day, the frantic chit-chit sounds of several squirrels filled the air, and I ran to check. A fight had broken out between the thugs and a small terrified little one hiding at the edge of a guava branch. I shooed away the street-bums and looked carefully to see who it was. Was it Gilly? WAS IT GILLY? I recall becoming seriously anxious, trying to get a better look. The little one was shaking like a leaf in a storm, the tail bloody and torn at the end. Another tense morning passed and the frightened creature refused to come away from that spot. Since I could recognize Gilly only by the distinctive fork at the end of her tail, I was terrified that it was her. Late afternoon, when I returned from work and called out to Gilly, to my profound relief, there she was! Sigh! Gilly was safe. Also, the little injured one could be seen around for weeks after the attack, with a damaged tail. I named it Stumpy!
One fine day, during one of the belly-rub sessions, I noticed a distinct development under her belly. I was wrong in my assumption that Gilly was a girl! Although I continued to call him a she for some time more, there was no doubt that he was a virile and handsome male, as Longtail and I would soon discover.
Gilly continued to come into my palm every day and we settled into a regular rhythm. I would call out in the morning give some food, belly-rubs, and leave for work. As soon as I was back, I would run up the stairs to look for her. One of her favourite positions was the yoga stretch she would do on the outdoor curtain we had fixed to protect foliage from the harsh summer sun. One Sunday morning, as I was sipping my tea and reading the newspaper, I suddenly noticed her come up for her morning yoga. Always alert to the local dangers to my dear one, I instantly recognized the sharp gaze of a Shikra looking on from the Gulmohar tree just outside my home. Before I could move, I saw the bird leap forward in direct pursuit of the creature on the curtain.
I tried to yelp a cry of warning as it swooped down and closed its claws, but a fraction of a second before that, Gilly had escaped to the other side! Gilly was safe. Heavens! It took a while for my heartbeat to return to normal, but I knew now that Gilly would survive.
We continued with our chats (baby-talk from my side, chuckles from his), and I watched Gilly grow into a handsome young squirrel. Although our lives coincided, I realized Gilly’s world was very different from mine. This dawned on me one morning when we were together, he munching away at his corn, and I absorbed in morning news. While eating with the typical squirrel-jumpiness, he would suddenly come to a stop and listen to something, I think it was the shriek of a distant hawk, but I couldn’t be certain. He responded so acutely to some sounds that I could barely hear, and the clamour of the human world left him quite unaffected. We were on completely different wavelengths. He soon started to do some new antics, tearing out strips of curtain, bunching them up and rolling the shreds into a ball while continuing to tug and tug and tug. One fine day I realized I was not the only one watching him. Another creature had joined us and was watching Gilly very closely. The curious squirrel seemed to have more than a casual interest in Gilly, and I assumed it was a female. It had a resplendent tail that earned her the name of “Longtail”, I could have sworn she had long eyelashes too, but that may have been my own imagination.
I curtailed the direct offers of corn and bajra, and started leaving the cobs on little stumps in trees instead, so that Gilly would learn to find food on his own. I was to travel for a fortnight, and I needed to wean off the food offerings. Somewhat reluctantly, I left. When I returned, I immediately searched for and found Gilly in the ficus trees, he responded to my call. After four weeks? I was ecstatic. Could a squirrel carry a memory of me for that long? He did! I was beside myself with joy and love. The next trip was longer, this time I was going to be away for a month and I wondered if he would still remember me. This time when I returned, the calls went unanswered, and I searched for the signs of the distinctive wedge at the end of a tail, but in vain. Gilly had left my world, but I did believe he was around. The month that had passed also resulted in a loss of recognition from my side and I saw several squirrels that looked like him. That acute recognition had waned with my absence. Gilly was gone from my life for good.
Two years have passed since, and the monsoons rains are back. I realize that Gilly must have lived out his life-cycle, but my balcony remains alive with little rodents, perhaps the offspring of my loved one and his long-eyelashed partner. They seem to have inherited the belief that this was their neck of the woods, where sometimes, a crazy old woman comes and watches them for hours together, and even tries to make small (baby) talk. Whatever!
Gilly taught me much. He taught me that not only was it okay to let go, it was also important, even essential to do so. If I hadn’t let him go, he would have been imprisoned in the imagined world of another, leading an unnatural life. But even before that, he dissolved my reluctance to form new attachments, having successfully wormed his way home. He reminded me that I could still be a mother, love a baby squirrel, feed it, keep it healthy, and also, most importantly, let it go when it was time. However much some moments may have hurt, the journey was filled with joy. For these lessons, I will be forever grateful.
We didn’t think this post needed a commentary, but a few thoughts came up (thanks to Pooja’s re-reading of the draft) subsequently, and a commentary came gushing out.
Every living thing needs nurturance in a species-specific sort of way. Although cross-species affections are largely delusional on our side, they are a significant part of our imagined worlds. Balancing between holding-on and letting-go lies in allowing the needs of the other to dialogue with one’s own desires. This applies in many situations: Children growing up, loving someone, losing a loved one, caring for an older person, nursing the terminally ill, living with animals, helping them die, and many others. ‘Go Gilly Go’ demonstrates this well: That you can only learn to let-go if you have loved; if you do not treasure something, there is nothing to let-go of, right?
Also, all living things thrive by balancing between confidence and caution, an excess on either side and you’re done. Perhaps the dynamics of care we experience will influence how we love and how we let-go. Developmental Psychologists have worked tirelessly on the science of forming attachments, and perhaps not enough on relinquishing relationships. As Atul Gawande writes, the modern world has learned to live well, but dignity in releasing the other, departure, dying and death are not popular subjects. Maybe the thrill of being happy all the time has cost humanity a lot, and even pushed some of us to the edge of despair. There is nothing more tragic than taking your own life, and some of the happiest-looking, successful and talented people we know have done that. The lingering desperation of their final moments weighs on all of us collectively. From this story, we are able to grasp how confidence emerges from being held lovingly (by one, by any, by many); and caution from being let-go of! Or is it the reverse?
 In case you haven’t seen this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Are_You_My_Mother%3F