Padma Rajagopal Tribute
Padma's Writing: Various
"The Wild Ant Chase", inspired by Iwan
15 August, 2000
A good friend of the family, Iwan Hedlund, recently wrote to me about a special ant that a travel writer of a past age, Arrian, mentions in Book VIII of his Anabasis Alexandri. It is described among other remarkable creatures in the Indian fauna. Arrian writes about these ants:
"Nearchus says that he himself saw no ant, of the sort which some writers have described as native of India; he saw, however, several of their skins brought into the Macedonian camp. Megasthenes, however confirms the accounts given about these ants; that ants do dig up gold, not indeed for the gold, but as they naturally burrow, that they may make holes, just as our small ants excavate a small amount of earth; but these, which are bigger than foxes, dig up earth also proportionate to their size; the earth is auriferous, and thus the Indians get their gold. Megasthenes, however, merely quotes hearsay, and as I have no certainty to write on the subject, I readily dismiss this subject of ants."
This seemed a cavalier way to dismiss such a fascinating subject, and so, I decided to research the subject further. Surely, anyone who could track down these legendary ants would be wealthy beyond their wildest dreams! With this in mind, I pored over the many books in my family's extensive and dusty collection, old and new. I lost my way sometimes, reading old thrillers that I'd forgotten about, and recipe books where I found a long-lost recipe for guava jelly, which I ought to have tried out at once, because the guava trees on our farm were groaning with the weight of their fruits, only I didn't want to be distracted from my quest. Finally, in a tattered copy of the bible, left here long ago by a friend, I found, in 'Psalms' :
"Idler, go to the ant;
This was all very well, wise words indeed, and somewhat uncomfortably topical, but strange as it may seem to certain blinkered folks, there are many kinds of industriousness, and treasure seekers are not the least industrious of them all. I continued my labours elsewhere.
I tried discussing ants with my farmer friends, without letting them know the reason for my interest. Everybody was in agreement that there were many more colonies of ants around today than there had been, say, ten years ago, though some said this was not necessarily a bad thing: ants open up the soil, aerating it and creating channels for rain water to sink into the sub-soil and charge the water table. One of them told us of his method of controlling red tree ants by sparking off inter-specie warfare. He would leave jaggery near the nest of the red ants, who would ignore them because they were strict non-vegetarians. However, big black ants would come looking for the jaggery (sniffing it out, rather), and then there would ensue a great battle, which the black ants would win. The ground nearby would be covered with the corpses of dead red ants, interspersed with smaller numbers of their victorious adversaries.
This gory story stirred up one of my pacifist friends, who said that we should not interfere with nature. She hinted that the earlier speaker would be reborn as an ant because of the bad Karma he was accumulating through the violence of his deeds. Some of the group got into a heated discussion as to whether or not that would be a bad thing, considering the blameless life led by an ant, devoted as it is to Queen and community. One, a prolific reader, wanted to tell the rest of us about a book she had once read by Lyall Watson, author of "Supernature", called "The Romeo Error", where the writer claims that a single ant, separated from its nest or hive or whatever, cannot be said to be alive at all, as it had no sense of identity or a survival instinct, or any reason to be, on its own.
From here the whole group moved on to cult groups that revolve around a single personality of the Guru, or Mother, or some such figure, and whether devotees who tried to submerge their personalities in the group's could be said to be really alive as individuals or not. Could that be the reason why, when they found another faith, they were called "Born again"? Or would the correct term be "Unborn again"?
All this wasn't getting me very far in my quest, so I tried putting in
This reminded the prolific reader about a book she had once read, about Napoleon's childhood and adolescence, and his lack of self-esteem due to his small size which led him to later try to conquer the whole of the civilized world. This infuriated a Swadeshi-oriented friend, who spluttered,"What do you mean, civilized world, they were still running around painting themselves blue when we were writing the Vedas and discovering the zero", and the rest of us had to rally around and pacify him. When the conversation had returned to polite decibel levels, everybody was discussing the price of coconuts and what globalisation would do to the small farmer. I did not dare to bring up ants again.
I am still looking for clues about the gold-digging ants, and have to
choose between looking in stacks of old "National Geographic"
magazines in the nearest City's public library, where nobody would be able
to find out why I was researching ants so studiously, and talking to the
local village story-teller, who would certainly know whether such ants
were mentioned in local lore, but who is not known for his capacity to
control his loquacity. Surely, anything he told me would be repeated to
the whole village, and that would be the end of my private little treasure
hunt. I am undecided about how to go about things. Meanwhile, I poke about
disconsolately on the farm, and look into all the ant's nests I can find,
but though I have seen many other curious things, which I may some day
tell of in detail, I've not seen any gold.
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