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PART ONE Toronto and Pondicherry Chapter 1
My suffering left me sad and gloomy.
Academic study and the steady, mindful practice of religionslowly brought me back to life. I have kept up what somepeople would consider my strange religious practices. After oneyear of high school, I attended the University of Toronto andtook a double-major Bachelor's degree. My majors werereligious studies and zoology. My fourth-year thesis for religiousstudies concerned certain aspects of the cosmogony theory ofIsaac Luria, the great sixteenth-century Kabbalist from Safed.
My zoology thesis was a functional analysis of the thyroid glandof the three-toed sloth. I chose the sloth because itsdemeanour – calm, quiet and introspective – did something tosoothe my shattered self.
There are two-toed sloths and there are three-toed sloths,the case being determined by the forepaws of the animals,since all sloths have three claws on their hind paws. I had thegreat luck one summer of studying the three-toed sloth in situin the equatorial jungles of Brazil. It is a highly intriguingcreature. Its only real habit is indolence. It sleeps or rests onaverage twenty hours a day. Our team tested the sleep habitsof five wild three-toed sloths by placing on their heads, in theearly evening after they had fallen asleep, bright red plasticdishes filled with water. We found them still in place late thenext morning, the water of the dishes swarming with insects.
The sloth is at its busiest at sunset, using the word busy herein the most relaxed sense. It moves along the bough of a treein its characteristic upside-down position at the speed ofroughly 400 metres an hour. On the ground, it crawls to itsnext tree at the rate of 250 metres an hour, when motivated,which is 440 times slower than a motivated cheetah.
Unmotivated, it covers four to five metres in an hour.
The three-toed sloth is not well informed about the outsideworld. On a scale of 2 to 10, where 2 represents unusualdullness and 10 extreme acuity, Beebe (1926) gave the sloth'ssenses of taste, touch, sight and hearing a rating of 2, and itssense of smell a rating of 3. If you come upon a sleepingthree-toed sloth in the wild, two or three nudges should sufficeto awaken it; it will then look sleepily in every direction butyours. Why it should look about is uncertain since, the slothsees everything in a Magoo-like blur. As for hearing, the slothis not so much deaf as uninterested in sound. Beebe reportedthat firing guns next to sleeping or feeding sloths elicited littlereaction. And the sloth's slightly better sense of smell shouldnot be overestimated. They are said to be able to sniff andavoid decayed branches, but Bullock (1968) reported that slothsfall to the ground clinging to decayed branches "often".
How does it survive, you might ask.
Precisely by being so slow. Sleepiness and sloth-fulness keepit out of harm's way, away from the notice of jaguars, ocelots,harpy eagles and anacondas. A sloth's hairs shelter an algaethat is brown during the dry season and green during the wetseason, so the animal blends in with the surrounding moss andfoliage and looks like a nest of white ants or of squirrels, orlike nothing at all but part of a tree.
The three-toed sloth lives a peaceful, vegetarian life in perfectharmony with its environment. "A good-natured smile is foreveron its lips," reported Tirler (1966). I have seen that smile withmy own eyes. I am not one given to projecting human traitsand emotions onto animals, but many a time during thatmonth in Brazil, looking up at sloths in repose, I felt I was inthe presence of upside-down yogis deep in meditation orhermits deep in prayer, wise beings whose intense imaginativelives were beyond the reach of my scientific probing.
Sometimes I got my majors mixed up. A number of myfellow religious-studies students – muddled agnostics who didn'tknow which way was up, who were in the thrall of reason,that fool's gold for the bright – reminded me of the three-toedsloth; and the three-toed sloth, such a beautiful example of themiracle of life, reminded me of God.
I never had problems with my fellow scientists. Scientists area friendly, atheistic, hard-working, beer-drinking lot whose mindsare preoccupied with sex, chess and baseball when they arenot preoccupied with science.
I was a very good student, if I may say so myself. I wastops at St. Michael's College four years in a row. I got everypossible student award from the Department of Zoology. If Igot none from the Department of Religious Studies, it is simplybecause there are no student awards in this department (therewards of religious study are not in mortal hands, we allknow that). I would have received the Governor General'sAcademic Medal, the University of Toronto's highestundergraduate award, of which no small number of illustriousCanadians have been recipients, were it not for a beef-eatingpink boy with a neck like a tree trunk and a temperament ofunbearable good cheer.
I still smart a little at the slight. When you've suffered agreat deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable andtrifling. My life is like a memento mori painting from Europeanart: there is always a grinning skull at my side to remind meof the folly of human ambition. I mock this skull. I look at itand I say, "You've got the wrong fellow. You may not believein life, but I don't believe in death. Move on!" The skullsnickers and moves ever closer, but that doesn't surprise me.
The reason death sticks so closely to life isn't biologicalnecessity – it's envy. Life is so beautiful that death has fallen inlove with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can.
But life leaps over oblivion lightly, losing only a thing or two ofno importance, and gloom is but the passing shadow of acloud. The pink boy also got the nod from the RhodesScholarship committee. I love him and I hope his time atOxford was a rich experience. If Lakshmi, goddess of wealth,one day favours me bountifully, Oxford is fifth on the list ofcities I would like to visit before I pass on, after Mecca,Varanasi, Jerusalem and Paris.
I have nothing to say of my working life, only that a tie is anoose, and inverted though it is, it will hang a man nonethelessif he's not careful.
I love Canada. I miss the heat of India, the food, the houselizards on the walls, the musicals on the silver screen, the cowswandering the streets, the crows cawing, even the talk ofcricket matches, but I love Canada. It is a great country muchtoo cold for good sense, inhabited by compassionate, intelligentpeople with bad hairdos. Anyway, I have nothing to go hometo in Pondicherry.
Richard Parker has stayed with me. I've never forgotten him.
Dare I say I miss him? I do. I miss him. I still see him in mydreams. They are nightmares mostly, but nightmares tinged withlove. Such is the strangeness of the human heart. I still cannotunderstand how he could abandon me so unceremoniously,without any sort of goodbye, without looking back even once.
That pain is like an axe that chops at my heart.
The doctors and nurses at the hospital in Mexico wereincredibly kind to me. And the patients, too. Victims of canceror car accidents, once they heard my story, they hobbled andwheeled over to see me, they and their families, though noneof them spoke English and I spoke no Spanish. They smiled atme, shook my hand, patted me on the head, left gifts of foodand clothing on my bed. They moved me to uncontrollable fitsof laughing and crying.
Within a couple of days I could stand, even make two, threesteps, despite nausea, dizziness and general weakness. Bloodtests revealed that I was anemic, and that my level of sodiumwas very high and my potassium low. My body retained fluidsand my legs swelled up tremendously. I looked as if I hadbeen grafted with a pair of elephant legs. My urine was adeep, dark yellow going on to brown. After a week or so, Icould walk just about normally and I could wear shoes if Ididn't lace them up. My skin healed, though I still have scarson my shoulders and back.
The first time I turned a tap on, its noisy, wasteful,superabundant gush was such a shock that I becameincoherent and my legs collapsed beneath me and I fainted inthe arms of a nurse.
The first time I went to an Indian restaurant in Canada Iused my fingers. The waiter looked at me critically and said,"Fresh off the boat, are you?" I blanched. My fingers, which asecond before had been taste buds savouring the food a littleahead of my mouth, became dirty under his gaze. They frozelike criminals caught in the act. I didn't dare lick them. I wipedthem guiltily on my napkin. He had no idea how deeply thosewords wounded me. They were like nails being driven into myflesh. I picked up the knife and fork. I had hardly ever usedsuch instruments. My hands trembled. My sambar lost its taste.
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