Today I saw a squirrel in India for the first time. Drinking my morning tea, staring down at the dogs and chickens and goats and children milling about — it twitched into view. At first I wasn’t sure what it was: almond-shaped body and too-pristine tail. Chinchilla, perhaps? Mutant baby red panda? But the way it moved was too familiar to be anything else. I asked Pama daaju (not to be confused with Pema my boss) about it, taking the opportunity to practice the past and present perfect tense in Nepali, and he confirmed that it was a squirrel. Five months of watching animals with my morning tea, and I’d never seen one.
Hard to describe the place of animals in Indian and Nepali society. They are simply more present, for one thing. In all but the most urban of places, roads look down on back yards full of chickens and baby goats. They poke around and pit at each other, a hundred little alien dramas, stage-plays on dirt and grass. Little white cranes step delicate in rice patties, and pigeons gather together in strange courts around rooftop thrones of square concrete, corrugated tin, and rebar.
Monkeys crouch along highways and occasionally on rooftops, their young clinging to their stomachs, too adorable for words. At Swambunath, the monkey stupa in Kathmandu, monkeys stole or cajoled chips and biscuits from tourists and ate them out of the bag. Two years ago in Darjeeling monkeys broke into the room of two of my fellow students and rummaged through their luggage. Yesterday, while working on an Aughties roundup, Pema pulled out an issue from 2000 about a monkey that liked to ride the jeeps from Geyzing to Gangtok and back, sitting on the hood of the vehicle but never interfering, always being sure to not block the driver’s view.
Little mutty dogs sit at roadsides or patter down alleys, sometimes on three legs. At first glance it seems that one one cares, but I know this isn’t true. I remember my panicked host sister in Kalimpong borrowing my first aide kit to patch up her dog Moti after a fight, and today I am wearing my treasured Kathmandu Animal Treatment Center t-shirt, the one with the Beatles quote. People do feed and tend to street dogs, but mostly in an occasional and disorganized way not couched in ideas of ownership or responsibility.
For their part, though they may be street mutts, the dogs here are cowed to human presence. On my darkened walk home last night two especially small and scruffy beasts yapped at me as I approached Shurep’s house. “Ja! Ja!” I snapped at them, the Nepali command to leave given to lesser beings. They didn’t move, but neither did they do more than sniff at me affectionately as I passed. They are too used to swift kicks and biting sticks.
Because of it’s vertical, hillside nature and a desire to remain allegedly the “cleanest state in India,” Sikkim is one of the only places where in the country where cows are kept in pens and not allowed to roam freely like dogs. Then again, because most of its population is either Buddhist or a tribal, non-mainstream brand of Hindu, Sikkim is also one of the few places in India where beef is more or less regularly available.
And then there are the wild ones. 2009 was a strange year for animals. A record sixty-seven bear sightings in populated areas, and an unprecedented eleven bear attacks on humans. Experts on the subject, such as they are here in the Eastern Himalayas, blame variously climate change, forest fires, increases in human foraging and development in forest areas, and a recent rise in the wild boar population, which competes with the Himalayan bear for food. A task force of sorts has been convened to develop strategies to deal with the problem, an they have a few successes to boast of. Bait, sometimes laced with sedatives, is used to lure the bear into a crate, and then forest officials transport the creature back to the deep wilderness. A second strategy cordons off the bear-area such that the only way forward is back away from the village. The bear is then scared off with thrown firecrackers and shouting. With all strategies though, the work of forest workers is sometimes hampered by interfering crowds of curious onlookers. Like everything in India, crisp theory muddles at the execution.
I rather like being around other animals so much. Falling asleep to barking dogs and waking up to crowing roosters. Not for high-minded ethical ideas about how the West needs to relearn how to “live in harmony with nature” or misanthropic notions about the enviable purity of beasts. No, I simply like a world that is filled with different things, different creatures, different shops and clothes and stones and leaves. Diversity is a measure of strength in ecology, and a measure of beauty in civilizations. It is a poor thing to see the same chain stores and restaurants on every street, for why defend something that has a thousand twins just the same? Looking down on a dozen different species every morning, that isn’t a poor thing at all. That’s rich.