Smelly stories

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The temperature has plunged and I don’t want to budge from under my comforter. I often wish I could hibernate all through the winter, like squirrels and bears. But of course that would mean jettisoning the hyper-active langur called Bins with whom I happen to live.

He’s reading a book called DO SPARROWS LIKE BACH? that he found in my backpack. It’s the kind of book I always think I’m going to enjoy reading while travelling, but never do because I’m always too anxious to read. “Did you know,” he whispers, his scraggly grey moustache tickling my right ear, “that the human soul weighs as much as a slice of bread?” “I still don’t know,” I mumble, “coz I’m ASLEEP.” He continues undeterred. “They found out by keeping a dying man on a weighing scale,” he tells me. “He lost three-fourths of an ounce at the moment of death.”

The book is a collection of brief essays based on stories in the New Scientist. The focus is on the bizarre end of the science spectrum. Typical titles include: “Furry Submarines Embarrass Swedish Navy” and “Bleeping Miss Daisy.” The editors must have had fun putting the book together. The furry submarines, for instance, turned out to be otters and minks swimming underwater, apparently mimicking the sounds made by submarines. Miss Daisy refers to cows with radio collars that play musical tones to tell them when to return to their milking stalls.

“These scientists are crazy,” continues Bins, in his whiskery whisper. “Look at this: Canadian biologists have discovered that herrings can produce audible farts!” I groan and push him away. “They expel air from the anus with a high-pitched sound. It’s not the same way humans do it, though,” he rattles on, “because fish don’t breathe air ...” I sit up. “You will soon not be breathing air either,” I promise him, “unless you stop!” He grins, jumps out of reach and goes on reading. “The researchers believe the herring use the sound perhaps to locate one another in the dark.”

“Why is flatulence funny?” I wonder out loud, as I finally get up. “I don’t know,” says Bins, “but it says here that, ‘The average adult in the Western world farts roughly 10 times a day, releasing enough gas to inflate a party balloon.’ And farting can sometimes be fatal! The hydrogen and methane produced inside the gut is flammable. During surgery, sparks from electric equipment have caused explosions!” It must have been horrid for the family of doctors and patients alike but it’s hard not to giggle at the thought of bum bombs.

“This one’s about naughty bits,” says Bins. Male spiny anteaters have four-headed penises. Their ladies are equipped to receive only two of the four at any given session. This makes these mammals vaguely similar to reptiles. Snakes for instance have two dingdongs and can choose when to use which one. “Meanwhile male rhinoceros beetles ...” “Enough with the weird stories!” I cry. “— or what about this one about Whale Poop? Or Shouting Bombs?” asks Bins. “Okay! I’ll make tea,” I say. Bins smiles happily. “And in case you were wondering? Sparrows DO like Bach.”

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

Last episode: Murder poem

Next episode: Octopus love

Published on February 26, 2016

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