When I am not working in the slum, the rest of my time is taken up being a Dad and looking after the family. Shopping for the food, preparing the dinner and running the boys to football twice a week.
I would collect the boys from the school after taking the rickshaw from home, and waiting at their school for them to finish. We had many funny and unusual experiences when travelling from the school by taxi to the location where they trained for football. Remember my previous blog about a funny taxi driver?
On this occasion I had arrived early at school, and had about 30 minutes to kill before the boys had finished school. I went over to a small corner shop where I have been buying the chapattis and I sometimes treat myself to a can of diet coke. The guy in the shop is always friendly and like most people in India, is fascinated as to why I am here in a suburb of Mumbai. Over the weeks, we have got know each other, and if he is not too busy selling his produce, his English is good enough for us to have a friendly if not cheap conversation.
I left his shop with about 20 minutes still to go before the boys finished school. So I was in no rush to cross the normally dangerous road to get to the school. I stopped just outside the shop and had a moment to myself, whilst drinking my cold Diet Coke. I found a corner outside a hairdressers and I couldn’t help notice a large bag of rubbish in a tree. It puzzled me. It was obvious that this bag of rubbish has been placed in the tree. It was over 20 feet overhead, so I wondered firstly how someone had placed this rubbish in the tree, and secondly, why anyone would want to place any rubbish in the tree. I took a photo and thought again ‘only in Khush India’. I was soon joined by a man who just looked up to the tree with me, and said something in Hindi that I couldn’t understand. How odd, I thought and we both just stared at this elevated large bag of rubbish. I said the simple question ‘Why?’ But he didn’t understand.
A third guy joined us in the head-raising looking-up process, and then a small boy. So all four of us were looking up a tree at this large bag of rubbish. I spoke again, thinking this was more than just an odd situation, but my language wasn’t understood, so a few gestures were thrown into the communication but still no one explained why this rubbish was placed 20 foot high in a tree on a busy street.
Then I noticed a chipmunk. The two guys and the small boy all started nodding. Was the bag of rubbish deliberately placed in the tree for the chipmunks? The chipmunks were having a feast so I can only assume it was. I smiled at the two guys and the young boy, laughed and walked on, as if it was just another normal thing to see. I know in India the people feed and look after the roaming and wild animals that walk the streets, such as the cows, dogs and birds. But I was surprised that they would go to this much effort to feed the chipmunks, or was the rubbish place in the tree for another reason?
That was not my only encounter with the chipmunks here in Mumbai. I was always fascinated by their agile abilities, and their cheeky personalities. I would often see them running across pathways and moving from tree to tree where they would always seem to have less difficulties in crossing the road than myself. You would see them everywhere: on roadsides, climbing buildings, and they always seemed to put a smile on my face. They seemed somehow more friendly and cleaner than their cousin, the rat. They can be described as similar to the chipmunks you would see in the USA. Grey in colour, with stripes of brown and black markings down its back. In the UK, they are smaller than the grey squirrel with a much thinner face. Here in India, they call them squirrels, but because of the stripe, for me, they will always been known as chipmunks.
A few months after seeing the chipmunks feasting on the rubbish placed in a tree, I had a more memorable experience involving these wonderful little creatures.
Our apartment is situated on the fourth floor, and surrounded by trees, so seeing these chipmunks from our balcony is a regular daily occurrence. We had almost got used to the way they communicated to each other, with a high pitch shrieking sound, which at first we thought was a bird. Every morning, this shrieking sound would permeate through the closed windows, into our bedroom and wake us up.
It was a normal day for me – working in the slum, jumping on a train and then in a rickshaw to get home. I was tired and the heat was taking its toll on me. I walked into the apartment and sat down at the table and soaked up the wonders of air conditioning. I started writing my diary of the day’s events while it was still fresh in my mind. I looked up towards the kitchen where I thought something had caught my eye. I stopped and thought I had seen something run across the kitchen floor. I continued to write again, but out of my peripheral vision, I saw something again. Was that a rat?
I got out of my seat and went to investigate, but before I reached the kitchen, something small ran under my feet into the lounge. It was a chipmunk and by the size of it, it was a baby. Without realising what I was doing, in panic, I found myself chasing the poor little chipmunk around the whole apartment. I stopped when the little creature had found refuge behind the sofa. I knew I was scaring it and that I had to think of a plan how I could help this little baby out of the apartment and back to its family.
I waited and worked out a plan, I needed to get this chipmunk into a room that had a balcony. Then when it felt ready, it could go back out into the outside world and join its family. After a while, the chipmunk poked this head out from behind the sofa and just by pure luck, fled to our bedroom. Great. I closed the bedroom door and opened the balcony door for it to move on. I left it under our bed, and when I returned, my plan had worked. It was sitting, hanging or balancing with its sharp claws upside down, on the outside wall of the balcony. Panic over, well not completely. I kept returning to the window and it had not moved for over an hour. It was obviously lost and didn’t know how to move on. I thought about how it had come into our apartment and the only way in was through a hole in the kitchen window. The kitchen was on the other side of the apartment from our bedroom, and so it didn’t know how to get back to its home.
It stayed there all night and all the time, made a high pitched shrieking noise I assume, to try to communicate that it was lost. I did think about trying to chase it back through the apartment and out of the kitchen the way it had come, but thought maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.
Again, in the morning I went to work and when I returned, it was still on the balcony. I collected the boys from school and when we returned to the apartment, something quite amazing happened that we were all so lucky to see.
Another chipmunk had join our little friend and was sort of playing with it on the rail of the balcony. We stayed silent and watched. At first we thought that this little chipmunk was mating with its newly joined friend, but then we realised that the new chipmunk was nearly double its size. It had to be his mother. They were wrestling each other, and at times it was scary to watch, thinking that the poor baby might lose its balance and full to its death.
It seemed that the mother was trying to get the baby to hang onto her back and she was going to climb the walls back around the outside of the building and back home. But the little baby was not finding this technique too easy, and kept falling off. After about 10 minutes of this technique not working, we witnessed something that I have never seen before, and I probably will never see again. The mother picked the baby up with its teeth, just like a cat would do with its kitten, and carried it along the rail of the balcony and back to its home.
We all smiled at each other feeling privileged to witness such a caring action here in our own apartment in crowded Mumbai.