Lenin the lizard by M. Krishnan

Peeping from under a rafter in the ceiling, I see a pair of eyes — cold, beady eyes that search every nook and corner of the room for something to eat. And I know that Lenin, the fat and rascally lizard who patrols the walls of my room is out on his nightly rounds.

Lenin has been there ever since I can remember. Once, long ago, he was small and lithe, and moved with a swift, easy grace. His tail would twist nervously from side to side, specially when some insect was near, for Lenin was eager and excitable in those days. His body would shine a warm, translucent orange in the glare of the wall lamp, as your fingers would if you closed them over the bulb of a powerful electric torch. At times he was almost beautiful.

All that is gone. Tonight (for he comes out only in night) he is fat and repulsive. His tail is thick and rigid, with a kink at the end of it, and he is no longer translucent. I never liked Lenin, but in the old days, I used to admire his sinuous speed as he raced about the walls on his career of rapine and murder. Now he has no saving grace: he is just six inches of squat, warty ugliness.

Lenin lives to eat. I have followed his career from time when he was three inches long. He has grown older and bigger, and more expert in the art of catching and eating insects, but he does nothing else. He is silent, and unsociable, resenting acquaintance except with moths. Lizards are not noted for their passionate and affectionate nature, but I feel that Lenin would be considered a sour old recluse even by these cold-blooded reptiles. Once, another lizard came into Lenin’s province — a much smaller, much younger lizard: a lizard whose delicately curved tail and elegance of carriage lent a vague feminine touch to the walls.

For a moment I was distress by a vision of Lenin, his wife, and a young family of Lenins crowding the walls of my room, but this passed like all visions. Lenins’s attitude towards the fair visitor was shockingly ungallant and cannibalistic. He chased her round and round, and only her youth and superior speed saved her from a most unhappy end, for lizard are cannibals, and will eat their kith and kin if they are small enough to be eaten. Other lizards might indulge in friendship and family life but not Lenin. I’m afraid he is a confirmed misogynist. He never gave up trying to eat her. That brave little lizard, she stuck it out for a week, defying Lenin. In fact she almost conquered the territory for, being quicker than Lenin, she either got the insects or drove them away before he could move. But it was a short-lived triumph. One night Lenin planned a cunning rear attack, and before she knew where she was, he had her firmly by her tail. There was a terrific struggle, and then down she fell, with a whack on the floor, leaving squirming tail in Lenin’s mouth. I was reminded of Tom O’Shanter’s mare and the devil

The Divil caught her by the rump.
And left puir Maggie scarce a stump.

It is a curious provision of Nature that the tail of lizard, normally pliant, becomes quite bristle when anyone lays hold of it. ‘Aha!’ cries your inexperienced lizard-catcher as he grabs the tail of his victim, "I’ve got you at last!" And the tail, suddenly fragile, comes away in his hand while the rest of the lizard scuttles hastily away to safer regions. And so ‘puir Maggie’ escaped. I never saw her again. Perhaps she went into hiding — into some dark and secluded corner — till she’d grown another tail, before venturing elegantly out again in the full splendour of a new-grown one. For it is an even more curious provision of Nature that lizards which have lost their tails grow new ones.

Which brings us to the question, "Do lizards really need tails?" Of course, the do — in fact, I think that they would be utterly lost without tails. The tail is the only organ of emotional expression that lizard has. It compensates for his voicelessness. There are frogs that pipe shrill tunes and crickets that chirp quite half a dozen different notes, but everyone knows that the Lizard on the Wall never says anything beyond laconic "Tchut, Thcut". But then, he has, in his tail, an organ that expresses the entire gamut of a lizard’s emotions. Whenever he is excited by any feeling, he twitches his tail. It is true that very few things outside the imminence of food excite him, but that is truly beside the point. Watch a lizard as he stalks a moth and you’ll know what I mean. Only the tip of his tail twitches as he advances, carefully, inch by inch, upon his unsuspecting victim. The rest of him is tense and rigid — only the tail betrays his eagerness. Or again, watch him as he passes another lizard and note the gay, friendly wave of his tail as he salutes her. He has another use of his tail — a far more practical use. He clings to the sheer faces of the walls by the suckers in his pads and the tail is his rudder. Without it, his progress against the force of gravity, as he races along the wall, would be more erratic….

I have wandered far from Lenin. Lenin is so unemotional, and unsociable, the perhaps he does not need a tail. Life, for him, is one continuous orgy. Beetles, moths and garden bugs are, to the zoologists, widely different things. But to Lenin they are the same: all things to be gobbled up. Once I saw him actually swallow a small scorpion, with no more fuss than a child would make over sugar candy! It’s during the monsoon that he is truly happy, for with the rain the insects come and cluster round the wall lamp. Just now, as I write, a moth has come in, and settled on a rafter just above the fatal lamp; one of those brown-and-yellow, mottled moths that look, when at rest, exactly like a chunk of wood. Indeed I can scarcely believe that it is not a piece wood, but Lenin will not be deceived. However still that ill-fated moth may stay, however much it may imitate a chunk of wood, Lenin will get it; for Lenin eats everything that comes his way, chunks of wood included. Why, only the other day, he gobbled up a big, nickel four-anna bit I’d left carelessly behind the table! You do not believe it? Only Lenin and my servant could have got it; and my servant swears that he has never, in all his life, seen such a coin — it seems the poor, ignorant man simply did not know that the government of India struck nickel four-anna bits!

M. Krishnan 1938

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About Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.
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