Bats in our Belfries

(Published in Outlook Traveller, October 2010)
If it hadn’t been for a decade of reading Gerald Durrell, I may never have dated a man who was the companion of the Princess of Patparganj.

The Princess, who was treated like royalty and had better manners than most of the nobility, was a young, comely pink piglet who had been rescued from a possibly fearsome fate in the bylanes of Feroze Shah Kotla. The man in question had gone to the Kotla market to buy razais; he and the Princess crossed paths, and it was love at first sight. Other gently nurtured women may have found his story odd, but I found nothing at all unusual in the fact that he came back sans razai and with the piglet; I, you see, had read my Durrell.

The Durrell books, depending on your taste, are either up there with the greatest of the wildlife and conservation classics in the company of Jane Goodall and Joy Adamson, or nestle comfortably alongside stylists of the ilk of PG Wodehouse. The books were thrust upon me by a wonderful school teacher—“You’ve never read Durrell?” she said, and dumped a shelf-ful of Durrell on me, starting with his fictionalized account of travels with an alcoholic elephant, Rosy is My Relative.

They had the most alluring titles—Catch me a Colobus, Beasts in my Belfry, The Bafut Beagles—and the most seductive illustrations, done by Ralph Thompson, who had a knack for getting both the detail and the humour of the Durrell oeuvre down in a few neat lines. It was one of the absolute joys of a very brief stint in publishing to be part of the Tranquebar team that brought the books back into print in India, with cheerful new illustrations by Gynelle Alves.

Durrell was born in Raj India, though the family moved back to England when he was three-and-a-half, and then to Corfu. “I travelled with only those items that I thought necessary to relieve the tedium of a long journey: four books on natural history, a butterfly net, a dog, and a jam jar full of caterpillars all in imminent danger of turning into chrysalids,” writes Durrell, already the young naturalist. It was in Corfu, as he sets down in My Family and Other Animals, that his fascination for both kingdoms—the animal and the human—came to the fore.

Gerald Durrell graduated from keeping snakes in his room to travelling the world, building zoos (A Zoo in My Luggage), collecting rare and on-the-verge-of-extinction species (The Whispering Land, The Drunken Forest) while learning how to change the nature of zoos, from prison to animal-friendly resort (The Overcrowded Ark). But what made his books work was his zest for life, and his ability to collect lugubrious tango-singers, White Horse whisky drinking African chiefs, and mad Greeks alongside the colobuses, lemurs, pangolins, tapirs and chimpanzees that were the stock-in-trade of his profession. The brothers Durrell—Lawrence was the author of the Alexandria Quartet—were natural writers, and there was nothing of the dry scholar in Gerald’s description of animals:

“We had a pair of slender lorises of which we were inordinately proud. These creatures look rather like drug addicts that have seen better days. Clad in light grey fur, they have enormously long and thin limbs and body; strange almost human hands; and large lustrous brown eyes, each surrounded by a circle of dark fur, so that the animals appears as though it is recovering either from some sort of ghastly debauchery or an unsuccessful boxing tournament.”

His writing was not for the sentimental, Disney-influenced animal lover. Durrell was equally strong on describing the proper procedure for pulling out maggots from an animal’s skin, or the problems of building cages strong enough to withstand a young leopard’s temper tantrums.

The Durrell books, as anyone who has read them knows, are insidious in their appeal. Little by little, he expands your world, whether you live in Delhi or Corfu, until it’s peopled—and I use that term with meaning—with the animals who’ve travelled with him, the owl who looks like an indignant vicar, the little flirtatious pig called Juanita, solemn seals who mate with exquisite care and slow delicacy, chimpanzees called Cholmondoley who arrive for tea equipped with their own, large, battered tin tea mug. The younger brother of the teacher who lent me the Durrell books became a conservationist, and she continued, in her profession, to campaign for wildlife rights.

I followed a more muted path, adopting the odd mongoose here, a stray baby hawk there. The Princess of Patparganj grew too large for her habitation and escaped the bacon fate, living out her years on a friend’s no-kill farm. As for the man, it seemed the only way to stop him from rescuing pythons, monkeys and piglets was to turn him to a life of caring for cats and more manageable creatures, and the only way to do that was to marry him. I had a feeling Gerald Durrell would have approved.





4 responses to “Bats in our Belfries”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Lovely piece Nilanjana. 'My Family And Other Animals' was one of the very few books I must have read more than a hundred times, and the rest of Durrell also rarely failed to entertain. I probably also have you to thank for reasonably priced Durrell's being published in India. Incidentally, was the teacher Doita Dutta?

  2. Anu Avatar

    Nice post.I must have read Gerlad Durrell's book many times over. I recently saw the film adaption of "My Family…" starring Imelda Staunton. It was quite a nice adaptation.

  3. anu Avatar

    while on cats and blankets, maybe you'd approve of this one too: http://www.anumajumdar.comhave finally mustered courage to do a website and hope to be forgiven for inflicting this on cyberspace.Anuradha

  4. Pranav Avatar

    Stumbled on to this through someone on Twitter. What a truly wonderful piece. Approximately three minutes after I finished reading this, my old Durrell books were unearthed, dusted, and are now staring at me from a place of pride on my bookshelf. To be re-read very soon, no doubt.

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