Octopus love

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on March 04, 2016

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Kookie, my not-so-tame raccoon friend, drops by for a chat. “What’chu reading these days?” he wants to know. “You might not like the book I’ve just finished,” I say as I hand him a cookie. It’s hard to keep him focussed unless he’s chewing on something. “It’s called The Soul of an Octopus,” I say, by Sy Montgomery.

“Sounds great,” says Kookie, as he crunches away. “After all it’s about an animal, right? All animals are great. Even octopi – ” I stop him in his tracks. “Apparently, the correct plural of ‘octopus’ is ‘octopuses’,” I tell him. “Because it’s a Greek word. The i-ending belongs on the plurals of Latin words.” Kookie is not impressed. “Whatever,” he says, as he holds out his paw for another cookie.

The author is a keen naturalist, screenwriter and well-beloved non-fiction author, whose books include a best-selling memoir called The Good Good Pig. One day, she stopped by at the New England Aquarium in Boston to make the acquaintance of an inmate there, a giant Pacific octopus by the name of Athena. Despite the extreme differences between molluscs and humans, the author is quickly drawn into a close emotional relationship with the eight-limbed creature. In the course of the book, we meet and grow to love at least three others.

“She learns to love an octopus? REALLY?” Kookie is incredulous. “Even though it lives in a tank of cold water and doesn’t have a spinal cord?” I shrug, smiling. Like all air-breathing mammals, Kookie has an instinctive superiority complex concerning Us versus Them, in this case the boneless creatures of the sea. “I agree, it seems really amazing. Yet, as she describes it, octopuses are very smart. They have excellent eyesight. They can taste using the entire surface of their skin. And their tentacles are covered with incredibly powerful and sensitive suckers. Just one of them can lift a weight of 30 lbs. A big octopus like Athena can have over 1,600 suckers!”

Kookie’s eyes have grown round with amazement. He knows that humans are quite selective about which animals we choose as friends or foes or food. Raccoons, for instance, are not exactly friends. Even though they’re cute to look at, very intelligent and seem to like all the same foods as us, still: we humans regard them as “wild”, not acceptable in our homes as pets. Yet here’s a solitary, predatory creature that spends its entire life in the ocean, being accorded the same kind of deep affection as a human companion!

“I agree,” I say, “it does sound unlikely.” But the author’s description is very persuasive. “[Athena] was an individual — who I liked very much — and also, possibly, a portal. She was leading me into a new way of thinking [...] of imagining what other minds might be like. And she was enticing me to explore, in a way I never had before, my own planet — a world mostly of water, which I hardly knew.” I look up to find that Kookie has fallen asleep. His ears are twitching, as he dreams. Perhaps of eating cookies, in an octopus’s garden, by the sea.

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 March 04, 2016
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