03 September 2015

There's an ant story waiting for you

This is the forty third in a series I am writing for the JEANS section of 'The Nation'.  The series is for children. Adults, consider yourselves warned...you might re-discover a child within you!  Scroll down for other articles in this series. 

Many years ago a little girl was throwing such a tantrum that her mother just couldn’t calm her down.  Maybe she was teething.  Maybe she was suffering some indigestion.  The parents couldn’t quite tell because she couldn’t talk yet. Well, she knew some baby words and appeared to understand what was said but she couldn’t say what was troubling her.  

The mother was distraught.  She tried the entire set of tricks that mothers acquire and use to calm down their babies.  The baby girl was in a foul mood, clearly. The mother found it tough to stop the little one from jumping out of her arms.  Finally, more out of desperation than conviction, she said ‘appachchi gen koombiyaage kathaava ahanna’ (listen to your dad relating the story of the ant).  

The father, already worried, had an added reason to fret.  He did not know any story about any ant!      The baby had stopped crying for a moment, perhaps wondering if relief of some kind might come her way from her Appachchi.  

All he knew about ants was the generally held view that they were industrious creatures.  However, he had read, as a kid, a short essay called ‘The Idiot Ant’ in a book called ‘My family and other animals’ authored by Gerald Durrell.  Durrell was a naturalist and he probably knew what he was talking about.  His ant was stupid.  It was industrious of course. Spent a lot of time and effort too.  But in the end achieved very little.  

So the father was at a loss.  However, the hopeful look on his little girl’s face may have been the inspiration he needed.  The following is the story he related.  He may have made it simpler and used a lot of baby words, but you can imagine all that.  

‘You have heard that ants are kadisara (energetic, industrious) creatures, right?’  The baby might have nodded or blinked or in some other twitch of facial muscles expressed an ‘yes’.  He assumed she had.  So he continued.

‘Well there was this ant, on this table…yes, this very table…and do you know what it was doing on the table?’  Again the blank expression was taken to mean ‘I don’t know, but I really want to know so please continue!’

‘It was carrying a grain of rice.  You have heard how ants collect and store food, right?  Well, this ant wanted to store grains of rice.’

So he continued.  He took the ant along with the grain of rice across the table, down one of the legs, across the dining room, up a wall and over a window sill, into the garden, around blades of grass, over pebbles and bricks, across the lawn and up the jumbu tree, straight to its nest.  Yes, he didn’t know if that kind of ant built nests in jumbu trees, but that was not his biggest problem at that time.

All the while he held the baby in his arms, rocking her and hoping that she would fall asleep.  Once he had safely deposited the ant in its nest, he glanced at the girl.  Eyes-wide open, she was clearly waiting for more.  

He had to continue for an hour and a half before the baby finally fell asleep.  He had to bring back the ant, get the ant to carry a second grain of rice and later a third.  To stretch the story and to make it different he made the ant lose its way in the grass and on the jumbu tree.  

Maybe you’ve heard similar stories.  Maybe you have related similar stories.  But here’s something you could do if you have the time.  Pick an ant.  No, no, let the ant be…what I meant is, select one.  Observe it.  Try to find out what the ant is up to, what the ant does and where it goes.  You probably won’t have to climb a jumbu tree but you’ll end up knowing a lot about ants.  You might find out that they are indeed industrious.  You might find that they are stupid and that Gerald Durrell was right.  Either way, you’ll probably have a story to tell.

Other articles in this series