Snail male

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The journey to Hartford, where my sister now lives, takes all day by Peter Pan Bus. There are two long halts: one hour in Fall River, two-and-a-half in Providence at the terminal. Bins is reading The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. It’s a tiny hardback, with a charming illustration of a snail on its dust cover. I get motion-sickness from reading on cars and buses, so Bins, always eager to share his treasures, attempts to read out key passages to me.

“You will LOVE this leetle book,” he says, exaggerating his French accent for no reason at all. Bins is in an aisle seat so that he can stretch his long legs, I have the window. He leans towards me as he reads and the stray hairs from his wiry moustache tickle my ears. “Stop whispering!” I say. “And I’m the one who suggested the book to you, remember? I already love it.” Bins is unconcerned. “Maybe you didn’t understand it the first time,” he says, continuing to whisper. “For instance, did you know that snails have more than 2,000 teeth?”

However irritating it is, I appreciate his need to share. It’s that kind of book. Small enough to be read in the space of an hour, it’s the true account of an American woman and the bond she develops with a tiny woodland snail. She had fallen seriously ill in her mid-thirties and was eventually confined to a bed in a studio apartment. She was cared for by friends and visiting nurses but was otherwise alone. One of these friends, while walking through the nearby woods, picks up a diminutive creature with a shell and four eyes on stalks. She settles it into a pot of wild violets and brings it to the invalid.

In the solitude of her convalescence and her own immobility, the author discovers a world of sweet beauty, right beside her. Initially she is troubled by the responsibility: why should an innocent wild creature be forced to share her prison? But her small companion seems unperturbed. It explores its new surroundings with interest, chewing tiny square holes in any paper it encounters, preferring withered flower petals to fresh. “She can hear him eating,” says Bins admiringly. “Like a miniature person crunching a miniature celery stalk!” I try not to be impatient. I tell him that anyone can listen to this sound now. “Someone posted it online,” I say. “Just search for the book’s title? I’ve heard it already.”

Bins shakes his head disapprovingly. “Pooh! That is the wrong way. We should get our own snail and listen to what he sounds like! Maybe Indian snails sound different to American? Maybe we can feed him red chillies?” I try not to shriek. The bus is full of passengers and most of them are trying to snooze. “Don’t be mean!” I whisper. “The poor snail might go up in smoke!” Bins gets a wicked gleam in his eye. “You know, in France, we eat snails...” I stop him with a frown. “Not me! Never!” he assures me. “After reading this book only a murderer would eat a snail!”

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

Last episode: Muddled memory

Next episode: Miracle materials

Published on March 25, 2016

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