We had a Zoo in Our Backyard

I grew up in a joint family with my parents, grandparents, two sisters and two brothers, and my father’s two youngest siblings. They called him respectfully as Anna or elder brother and our mother, Manni and so did we. Anna was in the Indian Forest Service in his home state, Kerala. He used to travel all the time into some forest or the other and return home with an injured or orphaned baby animal. The five of us lavished love and care on them and when they recovered, left them at the Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram) Zoo, one of the oldest in India. We didn’t miss them because another animal or bird would have taken over our lives.

Just as we had never thought it odd to call our grandparents Appa and Ammai, it didn’t occur, to me at least, that at different times we were looking after a black monkey, a Malabar giant squirrel, a mouse deer, a pair of peafowl, fantail pigeons, rabbits, guinea pigs and budgerigars, with the last three multiplying like crazy. We also had our own pets. My brother, Kumar, proudly named his Rajapalayam hound, Devil, after Phantom’s part wolf part dog. His desire for a white horse remained unfulfilled because with Devil becoming taller, meaner and stronger, my brother didn’t get time to pester Anna for the horse. Just as well because with Devil running away all the time and Kumar clinging to the leash, we were known in our locality as ‘Devil’s Family.’

My sister, Vijaya, the quietest and most intelligent child in the family, cried when her pets, Mr. and Mrs. Peafowl, had to be sent away to the nearest Subramania temple. By then, I had learnt their call and practiced it zealously. It earned me a great deal of wrath but I became adept at mimicking its sound loudly and clearly. If you don’t believe me, ask my children. They hadn’t believed either when they once saw a peacock in front of a house opposite ours. They were about ten and five years old and challenged my claim. Then and there, I called and what do you know? The peacock came running to us. Thank God that it was a peacock because the only other bird call I know, which my siblings did too, is that of the Asian koel.

Vijaya wept when she returned from school and found her dove cote empty. Some visitor had told our grandmother that the gurgling, mmms and coos of the fantail pigeons were inauspicious so off they were despatched. Anna pacified my sister with a few budgerigars that quickly spawned generations in pure yellow, blues, and whites and also in mixed colours.

I earned a white Pomeranian when after failing in arithmetic, I actually managed to top my class in the subject. This miracle happened only once but Maxi was soon joined by another pet, a rose ringed parakeet chick which fell from a tree after a storm. I named her Psitta, (with the ‘P’ silent) and tried to teach her to talk. She, however, preferred to learn the newspaper boy’s whistle and ‘Cheechu, padi da’ from the adults in the family who always asked my youngest brother to study. Psitta followed this command with a riotous laughter of a neighbour that upset Cheechu no end. He couldn’t fight with a bird so he fought with me instead.

Feeding deer at Neyyar Dam
With Maxi and Tiffy

Too soon, we became adults and were left with only memories of our pets and of several members of our family including Anna. After his demise in 2006, I regretted that I had never thanked him for our unusual and lovely childhood. As a tribute to him I wrote a series of humorous articles on the lines of my favourite book, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. They appeared in a fortnightly column called ‘Kookaburra Laughs’ in the Deccan Herald newspaper between 2007 and 2008. My daughter’s friend, Teamea Costa’s lively illustrations captured the period (60s and 70s) in the clothing and architecture and also the hilarity and mood of each article.

Kesavan, the black monkey on a rampage
Cheering the actor uncle

Many readers wrote to me asking for the articles to be compiled in a book format. However, Anna’s influence lingered and made me take up the cause of saving Puttenahalli Lake. Nurturing the lake and other book projects prevented me from compiling the articles till last year. When the manuscript was in its final proof stage, Vijaya suggested that I contact Gerald Durrell’s wife and eminent naturalist, Dr. Lee Durrell, for a Foreword. To our great delight, she read the manuscript, agreed to write the Foreword and sent it promptly. Manipal Universal Press brought out The Zoo in My Backyard in August 2020.

The pandemic ruled out a formal launch of the book. However, I wasn’t done with paying my debt to Anna. I contacted the Kerala Forest Department where he had spent his entire working life. The Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Mr. P.K. Kesavan, IFS, kindly agreed to include the release in the inaugural function of Wildlife Week 2020 on 2nd Oct. The Minister for Forests, Mr. K. Raju, did the honours. I got just a minute or so to thank the Chief Guest and KFD but I think Anna would have been happy.

The Zoo in My Backyard was released exactly a year ago, today. I’m thrilled with the response from readers, the oldest is 86 years old and the youngest, nine! May their numbers grow.

Ramith Hegde, age 10

Krishna, 9 years, roaring over Kesavan’s antics

Buy the book here

Published by Usha Rajagopalan ("Lakeika")

I am a writer, translator and lake conservationist based in Bengaluru, India.

26 thoughts on “We had a Zoo in Our Backyard

  1. Excellent recap without missing anything, whether from the book, or the events that followed. Anyone, who has not read the book till now, is bound to rush to the nearest bookshop to buy a copy, after reading this blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I liked the book immensely. So did my wife, daughter, son in law and elder grandson. Everyone has a story to tell, they say. But to be able to tell it, and tell it really really well, is a great thing. Having been a fan of Durrel from my teens, I was really reminded of him.
    May you write many more.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It was nostalgic in so many ways …the writing simple clear. Quick reading too ! Thank you usha ! Waiting for the next release !

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Enjoyed reading this – just as I enjoyed reading the book. The book enchanted me specially because it made me nostalgic about my own childhood in a six-sibling family in Kerala where a cosy environment of never-demonstrated but deeply felt love persisted side-by-side with frequent quarrels mostly arising from mischievous acts of trickery perpetrated against each other. Deep thoughts and sentiments vividly expressed in surprisingly simple language!
    Hope there is more of the same coming from you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Usha, I read and enjoyed the book thoroughly. Recall early childhood’ comic book heros, Tarzan and Tantor his elephant buddy who saves him many times, Phantom the “ghost who walks” loyal mate Devil etc…I am delighted the book was a hit…I have preserved for my grand daughters who are already book worms.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh! What a fantastic childhood u all had! Blessed to have such a unique experience. Nice drawings and beautifully week written interesting article.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Heartiest congratulations Aunty! It’s so mesmerizing to be transported to your world of animals with your writing. I wish I could hear Psitta saying “Cheechu, Padi da”. That’s my favourite! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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