Thursday, February 2, 2012


I was too young to remember how old I might have been, but remember that I was in love. Those deep round melancholy eyes, her soft chestnut tresses and the gentle touch of her fingers as I held her hand in mine will stay with me forever. As we gazed into each other’s eyes, I realised that we were about the same height, though she must have been a fair bit older, at least in her mid-teens. Her other hand brushed my hair away from my eyes and traced the bridge of my nose, and then slowly, caressed my cheeks and then she looked into my eyes, and then with a naughty gleam, touched my lips with her fingers. The fingers ran the length of my mouth and then stopped at the corner where the upper lip turned into the lower lip and stopped. I stood there transfixed.

A strange unfamiliar thrill raced up and down my spine while my heart was beating like a tribal drum at a drunken feast. Pinky, as cool as the cucumber she must have had for lunch (I could tell… we were that close), shuffled closer on her dainty feet and then tried scrape the corner of my mouth with her finger. I remembered that I had just polished off two sticks of candy floss and a sugary wisp or two had been clinging to my mouth. Pinky scraped them off, with her index finger, very carefully, and in a manner not unbecoming of the adult film stars of the day, popped that finger in her mouth and rolled her tongue around it. She seemed pleased and I felt accepted, like I had made an inadvertent offering to a deity and she had conferred an intimate blessing. At that point, Pinky’s chaperone, a thin little man in his 40s seemed a little confused about where this might lead and screamed out at her to behave herself. Pinky’s face was inches away from my own and she pouted and moved in closer… I instinctively edged towards her, and was millimeters away from my first real kiss with an unrelated female when my father’s hand on my shoulder restrained my forward drive while the Pinky’s minder rebuked her and pulled her away by the arm.

I was heartbroken, and as she was being dragged away, she threw one last look my way and those sad eyes told me that I wasn’t alone in my despair. I pressed my face against the bars that separated us and my hands gripped them tight as I watched her walk away from me, hand in hand with that heartless man, into the gloom. Half way down the dark corridor, she stopped and I wondered if she would pull free and run back to me like I had seen them do in the movies… but no, it was something on the ground that had caught her eye. She bent down and picked it up from the ground and stared at it for a brief while. She took it to her lips and seemed to nibble at it for a while. Then she turned one last time and threw it towards me with as much gentle grace as she could muster and the object, as if in slow motion, carved a gentle arc through the air and skidded to a stop, just inches from my feet. It was a half eaten cucumber…

It was almost evening, closing time at the zoo, and even though I was a little sad to have had to let go, there was this exhilaration that I found difficult to contain. I had never been this close to an Orangutan before and I was pretty sure none of my friends had either. I couldn’t wait to tell them about Pinky’s sad eyes and her surprisingly gentle touch. And I had to come back again, to see Pinky… and to see the others. I loved the zoo. It was my favourite haunt…

My father is a hobby artist and he has spent many happy hours sketching animals in the Delhi Zoo ever since he moved to this city, and he was good friends with a zoo vet and many of the keepers. By the time I came along, he was a bit of a privileged guest at the zoo and we had access to many of the ‘off limits to public’ zones of the park. I loved the zoo from the moment I first set foot in it. The water birds, the deer and the antelope, the giraffes and the gaur, the big cats, the apes and the elephants.. I loved watching them all and the wide open spaces and the happy energy of the visitors had infected me with an enduring love for the place.

As I grew into my teens, I became obsessed with sports and spent all my weekends playing cricket for whichever club would have me. I missed the zoo but lure of the game, like that of a new lover, was all consuming. The years rolled by, and I hung up my bowler’s boots, and then came a Sunday when I didn’t have a game to go to. So I picked up my camera and went to the zoo instead. It had been a while but all the old memories came rushing back as soon as I walked through the gates and entered.

I hurried past the water-birds, and the white tiger enclosure and then past the basking hippos. I had to meet Pinky. It had been a decade or more since I had last seen her but orangutans live for half a century in the wild and even longer in captivity. There was every reason for me to believe that I would be looking into those limpid pools of mischief soon. It felt a bit like I was going to meet a childhood sweetheart from school long aft er we’d both grown up to be mature adults.

Mar gayi sahab! Bahut time hua… pata nahin kya kha liya tha!” I had not ruled out this possibility and yet these words hit me harder than I had expected them to. I trudged away without looking at the exhibit that had replaced Pinky in her enclosure. And like a scene from a Christopher Nolan film, the happy zoo changed in front of my eyes into a grim and depressing freak show. It’s not that I was depressed about Pinky. Well, maybe that too, but more than that it was as if I had stumbled and dropped my glasses and suddenly could see this once upon a time wonderland for what it truly is – a prison for unhappy beasts that have been reduced to pathetic caricatures of their wild selves.

I took my camera and went from enclosure to enclosure, looking for the old happy winds that had carried and coloured my childhood but all I could see everywhere were neurotic unhappy animals eking out unhappy unhealthy and unnatural lives, shortened by disease and boredom and stress and neglect. The small cramped cages, which I had found rather convenient as a kid because of intimate access, I now realised were thoughtlessly cruel living conditions. The sloth bear enclosure was surrounded by visitors pelting stones and empty mineral water bottles at the animals. The enclosure was strewn with litter that had been thrown by visitors trying to tease a reaction out of these bored beasts. One of the bears was chewing on a plastic container. It was surely a matter of time before one of the bears swallowed something dangerous and then died. All they would have said is ‘…pata nahin kya kha liya tha’. There were no keepers in sight I could run to and inform about the plastic bottles. There was no one there to tell the crowd about the animal, or to stop them or at least tell them that their actions could end up killing the bears.

Callously, perhaps even unwittingly, these visitors went from enclosure to enclosure, teasing and tormenting the animals.

In their gloomy little coops, the macaws, brilliantly coloured and exceptionally intelligent birds, were pining away. Their boredom had made them neurotic and some of them had plucked most of their own feathers out. But the saddest soul in the zoo would have to be the big male Asiatic elephant. He must have been a magnificent tusker but in all my trips to the zoo, I never once saw him roam free in his enclosure. His keepers were afraid of him and kept him chained in his stable. A magnificent animal whose spirit was designed to wander is doomed to a dreadful prison sentence at the end of a short chain.

I used to love the zoo as a child but now I wondered if inflicting so much pain and suffering on these mute beasts for our own selfish ends was worth the effort? Animal rights groups have been screaming themselves hoarse about the need to close down all zoos and focus energies on conservation efforts in the wild instead. On the other hand zoos, no matter how terribly shabby they might be, helped me fall in love with the natural world, and its a love that still endures.

So are all zoos hell holes in disguise, which have spread nothing but misery and disease? Or are they essential partners in educating both children and adults about those we share this planet with? Is it possible to rehabilitate zoo bred or zoo-raised animals back into the wild? If not, then why do we need to bother with zoos at all?

Pertinent questions all, and I’m going to spend the week to come searching for answers in the offices of the Central Zoo Authority, in the placards and slogans of animal rights activists, in eyes that peer at us from behind bars that hold the innocent, and in the corridors of my own heart. And whatever the answers may be, once I find them, I will come running to you, so that together we can change the world… one more time!


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