Sunday, February 17, 2008

Beautiful Blue eyes

Baba has a small greying briefcase tucked away somewhere. It is old now, very old, and yet, Baba is so fond of it. And we understand why. I must not have been 10 years old that afternoon. Baba was sitting in the winter sun in our courtyard, mixing colours on his palette, when I spied that briefcase. He used it to keep his oil paints. I sat next to him, picked up a brush, dipped it in paint and began to lavish attention on a discarded scrap of paper. Now children would be children and fathers don’t understand that, so inevitably, I dropped a few sticky drops of Prussian Blue on the briefcase. Baba seemed irritated. He pushed the briefcase aside. That bothered me. Why did he lug that crappy thing around. It was old and ugly, and unlike his scooter, we could surely afford to change it. I asked him why he wouldn’t. Baba smiled, picked up the case and placed it between us on its head. He motioned for me to come closer and pointed at three parallel scratch marks at the bottom, near the spine and said, “Jyoti did this!” I looked at the scratch marks in wide eyed wonder, looked up at him and smiled.

New Delhi, 1968: Baba was a struggling artist and musician in the 60s. He spent his time teaching music and painting animals in the zoo. But when he got a job at ‘Kala Kendra’, he stopped visiting the zoo. That day, he was entertaining old friends, and for some reason, the old longing came back. So off he went, dragging his guests to the zoo. Water birds here, monkeys there and soon it was afternoon- feeding time for the big cats. In the distance, a gentle aaoom-aaoom trickled into their ears, grew in intensity, until the roars, like thunderclap, boomed across enclosures and into the very hearts that were beating, albeit irregularly, in the vicinity. By the time Baba and his guests reached the enclosure, a crowd had gathered, like a flock of flies, gathering around an open wound, in the heat of summer. They couldn’t get a clear view past the huddle of greasy heads so they moved to the far left corner where iron bars separated visitors from the moated enclosure. Inside, to the far right, a white tiger, was pawing the grille that led to the feeding quarters. A few visitors were throwing sticks and stones at the beast, trying to aggravate it. The snarly 200-kg cat looked hungry, angry and distressed. A wave of memories flooded Baba’s mind. Something about the tiger seemed familiar. Is it possible? It was so long ago…Baba wondered. “Too far away… can’t see”. His friends were walking away when Baba screamed “Jyoti!”. The crowd turned. “Jyoti! Jyoti!”, Baba screamed again. The tigress looked at Baba, froze, and then, like a huge rolling snowball, bounded across the enclosure straight at Baba, crashed against the bars, stood up on her hind legs, and towering over Baba, she pushed out her muzzle through the bars. Baba stretched his arm, and to every one’s disbelief, rubbed the big cat’s nose as she aaomed…. And aaomed… the keepers opened the gate to the food quarters… but Jyoti stayed… aaom… Years ago, Baba would go to the zoo and sketch for hours, briefcase in tow. Sometimes, he would make portraits of the keepers. The vet at the time, would let Baba play with all the cubs and calves in his care. When a tiny white tiger cub was brought to the vet because the tigress wasn’t nursing, Baba happened to be there. The struggling artist and the tiny tigress hit it off straight away. They called her Jyoti. As a cub, she would jump into Baba’s arms, run off with his drawing sheets and once, as I later found out, used his briefcase to test her tiny little claws.

“That day, when she looked into my eyes, I saw this emptiness. While leaving, she looked at me, her sad blue eyes seemed to plead for me to stay, and as we walked away, she let out a long mournful sound, more of a bay than a roar… maybe she was lonely”. Baba went back after a few months with his sketch book. The enclosure was empty. ‘Is she pregnant?’ Baba thought. He went to the zoo hospital and asked the vet about Jyoti’. “Jyoti is dead… she just died…”

Jyoti’s story used to be my favourite bed time story. Recently, while flipping through an old album, I came across her photograph. I asked Baba, why did she die. “She had a far-away look in her eyes that day,” Baba said, “eyes that said that all she cared about was release… from this cage… from this existence. I wished I could’ve taken her away with me. A part of me wasn’t surprised.” I looked at the grainy black-and-white photograph of a younger version of the man sitting before me and the naughty eyes of an adorable tiger cub peering from behind his shoulder … This isn’t what a zoo was supposed to do to those eyes.

The zoo story

Zoos have a more significant reason for being than just a desirable option for kids’ outing or a rendezvous with wildlife. Conservation of animals endangered, owing to our apathetic rush towards development, is the reason why these animals have to be caged in the first place. Various species are protected in zoos for captive breeding and also to facilitate studies and research.

Indian zoos, unfortunately, are not entirely serving the purpose they are meant to. In the 258 zoos in India, about 10-15% of the confined animals die every year. Away from their natural surroundings, the animals are further subject to trauma by visitors tempted feed, irritate and even tease the animals. An unconcerned administration and the absence of a full-time vet – a legal mandate – has only compounded their woes. Besides, hygiene remains disconcertingly inadequate. Now, however, with increased diligence of the Central Zoo Authority of India, steps are hopefully being taken to make the imprisoned wild denizens feel more at home.


No comments:

Post a Comment