Last Weekend I went to see a zoo.
I knew it was a very small zoo – not a large affair with fancy expensive animals. It was just a few enclosures within a children’s park. But even I wasn’t prepared for the star attraction of the zoo – the animal enclosure that had drawn a huge crowd of children and their parents around it.
An enclosure for billy-goats. Yes – simple, bearded goats that roam the streets in India.
The kids were hysterical with enthusiasm – they were trying to feed the goats through the fence. Back home, the goats ate up our garden through the fence and we had to struggle to keep them away.
They seemed undeterred by the typical billy-goat smell emanating from the animals. Back home in India, when we have to describe someone with the strongest of body odours, we compare him to a billy-goat. I agree that animals will have a bit of body odour and zoo goers have no option but to stand it, but we are looking at goats, for heaven’s sake, not tigers that we have to hold our breath and ogle!
Some children were teasing the goats by tempting them with food, and then running along the fence while the goats ran after them greedily. Alas, these children have never had the experience of being chased down the road by a billy-goat as large as a calf that really meant business. Oh, the joys of growing up in Allahabad! On one hand, it prepares you for all kinds of situations you may find yourself in later in your life. On the other hand, your mind forms certain rather unfavourable and inflexible generalizations about the behaviours of certain species which you may find difficult to change later in life. I, for example, have learnt to adore goats, but only when they are on my plate.
The next enclosure held roosters and hens. The only difference that I noticed between these birds and the ones that are found around our house in Hooghly is their increased self-confidence. These chickens were trying to fly. Every now and then they flapped their wings frantically and made a glorified jump of a couple of feet or so. Or it may have been due to their heightened stupidity. I could not tell which, so I moved on.
The next in line was a fox. The raised ears, the bushy tail and the clever eyes reminded me of the little fox that I had nearly tamed back in Hooghly five years ago. He was a wild creature who lived in an overgrown plot of land close to our house. I had not read Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s “The Little Prince” back then, but my interactions with that doglike yet vastly different creature went just as described in that book.
"What must I do, to tame you?" asked the little prince."You must be very patient," replied the fox. "First you will sit down at a little distance from me – like that – in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me, every day..."The next day the little prince came back."It would have been better to come back at the same hour," said the fox. "If, for example, you come at four o'clock in the afternoon, then at three o'clock I shall begin to be happy. I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances. At four o'clock, I shall already be worrying and jumping about. I shall show you how happy I am! But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you... One must observe the proper rites..."
I had observed the proper rites. I fed him bread every evening at six, until I had to leave for Chennai to join my first job. Now all these incidents seem as if they are from a previous birth. My fox was a free creature. This one was in a small cage. It made me sad, so I moved on.
There were raccoons, coyotes, a sleeping boa constrictor and some birds (geese, doves, pheasants) in the next few pens. There was one marked “pot bellied pig” and I was almost thankful that it was empty. I have seen enough free pigs since my childhood, pot-bellied or otherwise, to want to see one in a zoo. Why, there was this gigantic pig that lived right next to our gate in Allahabad, and whom we jokingly called our guard. The glum faces of the children around me told a different story though – they wanted to see what a real pig looked like, I mean outside the cartoons, and they were disappointed.
I was also thankful that the donkey enclosure was empty. I think a donkey is one of the most thoughtful and serious of God’s creatures. We used to see the free donkeys (probably not really free – they were just out grazing while their masters washed clothes) near the Allahabad University while returning home from school. They were always so deeply engrossed in thought that it seemed the busy street had ceased to exist around them. Running and jumping are for frivolous creatures like horses – a donkey enjoys a life of procrastination. In fact the only creature that I have seen enjoying procrastination more than a donkey is a Ph.D. student, but I’d rather not get into that right now. The donkeys in this zoo were absent and I preferred absent donkeys to absent-minded ones behind bars.
As we approached the next plot of land, we saw something that can be described as a dwarf horse. Horses are, of course, quite abundant even here in the US. I have seen police horses all over Newark and New York City. Horses were even more abundant in Allahabad where I grew up. In fact there was an old one that was kept tied to a park railing in front of our house. The black horse in the zoo was, however, very different from the horses that I had seen before. This one was about as big as the billy-goat that had chased me in Allahabad and had really long hair on its neck and tail. It seemed too bored to even walk around inside its enclosure. Or it may have learnt a lesson or two in philosophy from the donkeys next door.
Next there was a llama, a couple of emus and a deer. They were pretty interesting creatures on paper, but were quite boring in reality. The emus chose the corner farthest from us to engage in their domestic conversation, the deer behaved like the goats next door (yes, there were more goats next door – they could have supplied a banquet) and the llama was the most shabby looking creature I have ever seen. It may have been unfair of me to expect it to come close to me and spit on my face like the ones in “Prisoners of the Sun” did, but at least it could have given some indication that it acknowledged my existence. Nothing. Quite insulting, really!
But the question that comes to the mind after this zoo visit is: which is a better environment to grow up? One where you have to dodge buffaloes while stepping over cow dung every time you step out on the street, or the one where you have to visit the zoo to see goats and pigs? I don’t know the correct answer to that question, but I definitely know which one I prefer.