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Lovely uglies

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on May 20, 2016

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Bins is determined to interest me in a book called A Beastly Menagerie: Sir Pilkington-Smythe’s Marvellous Collection of STRANGE and UNUSUAL Creatures. The author’s real name is Danny Beck, says Bins, “but he pretends he’s an eccentric old man.” “No wonder you like him,” I say, “being an eccentric old man yourself.”

Bins narrows his eyes at me. “You wouldn’t smile if you had a tongue-eating louse in your mouth!” he says. It’s a nasty little crustacean that crawls up inside a fish and effectively replaces the creature’s tongue with itself. “Or what about the bone eating snot-flower? It lives off the skeletons of dead whales.” I say that I don’t see the point of knowing about such creatures. “Human politicians are worse than any cookie-cutter shark or deathstalker,” I remark, while reading the contents list. “I try very hard not to know anything more about predators and parasites than I need to. So why should I bother, just because these are the animal versions?”

“Because of the way the author writes,” says Bins. “He presents true facts as if they are jokes. For example, what’s funny about mating Leopard Slugs? Nothing! But this is how he describes them: ‘... suspended in mid-air and spinning around, a huge penis comes out of each of their heads and each of these tangles around the other. The penises fan out into a rather smashing flower-like structure, at which point they exchange sperm. Sometimes the penises will become so entangled that things really do get to the worst possible scenario — one will chew off the other’s penis ...’ You see? He makes zoology seem like a porn film made by clowns!”

Bins looks up, expecting to see me writhing on the floor with laughter. Instead I have wrinkled my nose to resemble a star-nosed mole (also in the book). “Yuck!” I say, “that’s beyond disgusting! Isn’t there anything in there that’s cute or pretty?” I grab the book away from him. Sure enough, from the Texas horned lizard which squirts blood from its eyes to the frightful blobfish which looks exactly like a giant glob of mucus, most of the creatures in the book are gold medallists in the ugliness Olympics.

But Bins disagrees. “If a creature is able to reproduce, it means that somewhere, somehow, he has a sweetheart who thinks he is beautiful. Even the camel spider, the aye-aye, the naked mole rat ... each one has found a lover to mate with in order to produce little ones. It is your eyes which are blind to Nature’s beauties! Your mind which has narrow standards!”

I leaf slowly through the whole book. “Well,” I say, pointing to the picture of the turbellaria, “this one’s quite pretty with its fluorescent green back and graceful frills. And the civet cat has a sweet little face. But the gelada monkey with that bright red patch on the chest? Supposedly imitating female genital parts? And the hooded seal with the red balloon in its nose? Eeeesh and double eeeesh.”

When I finally look up I see Bins grinning like the Cheshire cat (not in the book). “You did read my book after all!” he exults. And enjoyed it too.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US in this weekly column

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Published on May 20, 2016
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