Offbeat - My family and other animals

Today, January 7, is the birth anniversary of Gerald Durrell, beloved author to some, and to others a path-breaking conservationist who changed the flavour of the word 'zoo'. I have been inspired by Durrell for most of my life, although circumstances (and a general lack of guts and initiative) have prevented me from following in his footsteps. As a child, though, I kept whatever animals I could find around the house - and these included but were not limited to snails, scorpions, toads, centipedes, millipedes and those delightful transit passengers - caterpillars. Often, I journeyed far to collect specimens for my menagerie. They were well looked after and never suffered for want of nourishment, exercise or entertainment. I had then a band of schoolmates with similar afflictions and, frequently, we fell in and out over ideological and egotistical issues. Yet, we remained united in our reverence for Gerald Durrell.

January 7 also marks the day, six years ago, that my wife and I decided to be fellow-travellers on life's journey. I have her to thank for enduring my babble 24x7, and for her encouragement for keeping this blog alive.

This piece, titled 'My Family and Other Animals', was written for the October issue of M magazine. Wildlife Week is observed in October.

Gerald Durrell (1925-1995)

The Octobers of my childhood were awaited eagerly for Wildlife Week. I’d re-read Gerald Durrell until the red colobus monkey appeared in my dreams. I’d wear out tapes of David Attenborough’s Living Planet recorded from TV. I’d win painting and essay competitions urging the world to save wildlife. It was a time of celebration. 

It was also a time when neighbours kept away from my family.

At first it puzzled my parents why the sight of me made the usually affable Mr Murthy bound across the road like a wallaby. Or why Mrs Ambujam, the fat lady next door (who never sang, mercifully), forbade her son from speaking to me.

The answers weren’t blowing in the wind, but in time my parents learned that they crawled in a cubbyhole at the back of the house. Here I kept racks of bottles, buckets of dark fluids trembling with unseen life, and glass tanks that seemed to most people to contain nothing unless they looked very carefully (and then shrank back in horror).

This was my Laboratory of Life, a place of many happy discoveries.

It was also my long-suffering mongrel’s kennel, but Titu had vacated it with gracious urgency once her pups became guinea pigs… er, beneficiaries of my animal nutrition research program (which involved the undignified labour of attempting to extract and bottle her milk).

I grew interested in Mr Murthy’s daughter when my sister informed me that she had lice in her hair. In a secret tryst officiated by Titu (and, I suspect, the Murthys’ guardian deity) I extricated six healthy individuals for my breeding program along with a sample of blood from her head collected as hygienically as possible under the circumstances. Being inordinately generous, I didn’t send her home empty-handed (or empty-headed, if you will).

The exact memory is foggy – flustered parents can exaggerate details – but it appears that the family deity had snitched to the senior Murthys. Fuming, Papa Murthy told my father that he’d call the cops if I dared touch his little girl again. Curiously, and to my relief, he said nothing about my return gift – ten fleas from Titu’s coat.

With Mrs Ambujam fate took a kinder turn. Her son, eight years my senior, entered an agricultural sciences college where he encountered a punishing entomology course, which required him to collect a hundred insect samples within a week. Having neither courage nor aptitude for it, he approached you-know-who. I seized the opportunity to mend fences and fetched him his quota in two days. Eyes brimming with gratitude, the newly-fledged agriculturist offered me the two gold medals he had been conferred at his convocation, but I waved them away. Grasshopper diplomacy had triumphed.

In a city big game is hard to come by, at least not on the Jim Corbett or Joy Adamson scale of things. I settled for the leopards and lions of the microcosm. In the Laboratory of Life, hairy caterpillars rolled up into golden-green pupae and became gaudy moths. Under quilts of mud, colonies of termites munched sleepily on shards of old furniture. In the monsoon tadpoles from every puddle and gutter were gathered, nourished and allowed to overrun the garden when they grew legs – the event gained repute as the Woodstock of amphibian civilization.

My parents tolerated my madness, though threats of eviction were routine (the phrase “boarding school” was dropped frequently as a hopeful but ineffectual deterrent). In truth, I think they were secretly proud that their son wasn’t a gook who traded stamps for matchbox labels. That accounted for something.

As I grew, so did my pets. The Laboratory shared a ventilator with a toilet in the house. Crabs and scorpions stranded on nocturnal jailbreaks would often find themselves inside, scaring their captive audiences shitless. That, too, accounted for something.

Up to my neck in accumulated liabilities, I found my luck running out.

Every other year, my dad dragged me on a pilgrimage to Sabarimala. I gritted my teeth through 41 meatless days of abstinence only to hear hill mynas and watch giant squirrels en route to the forest shrine in the Western Ghats. On my last trip, before I learned it was illegal, I brought back a souvenir: A green lizard.

Reptiles freaked my dad out. To complicate things, he had contracted a mystery fever. The situation was delicate. On the bus back home I stayed up, alternately checking on him and my prize catch. Near dawn I saw, silhouetted against the first rays, a green shape perched on Dad’s bald head and surveying the enticing scenery outside.

Dad stirred. A twitch or scream from him would catapult my precious catch out the window. I whispered to him to remain still and in one sweep collected my quarry and restored it to its jar.

Shortly after that episode I went away to college. Two years is a long time to leave a Laboratory of Life unattended. Dad wasted no time in constructing a room at the back of the house. It was for me, he said, for when I returned burdened with newfound knowledge.

Sweet revenge it was, but he served it warm.

- Bijoy Venugopal

The series "My Family and Other Animals", televised for the BBC, really brings the book alive, though Durrell frankly needs no help from the moving image. Here are the first ten minutes.

Published in M magazine, October 2010
Image: Gerald Durrell, Wikimedia Commons