The Zoo in My Backyard
by Usha Rajagopalan
Publisher: Manipal Universal Press (2020)
I read two stories in The Zoo in My Backyard and immediately ordered for a copy to be sent to my pre-teen nephew. I read another two and added more names to my give-as-gift list! Bengaluru based writer and lake conservationist Usha Rajagopalan’s new book is that delightful, funny and thought provoking. This very Indian story is written on the lines of Gerald Durrell’s classic, My Family and Other Animals. Indeed, according to his wife, Dr. Lee Durrell, Usha’s book “typifies the genre (of nature writing) most charmingly.”
The author grew up in a joint family in Kerala. What was unusual about her childhood is the host of animals and birds that she and her siblings had as pets, which flitted in and out of their lives. Her father, an official in the Indian Forest Service, would go on tours “into the deep and dark forests in Kerala” and bring back “a black monkey, a pint – sized mouse deer or a fluffy giant squirrel, all orphans or abandoned, too young and helpless to survive on their own.” The children nursed them back to health before handing them over to the Thiruvananthapuram Zoo. Settling down in Bengaluru, Usha wrote about her childhood capers in a fortnightly column in the Deccan Herald between 2007 and 2008. They feature in the first section titled “Creatures, Great and Small”.
By the time I reached the end of the first section, I wanted to know more about the family members. They followed in the second section “Creatures, Human.” The book is simple, easy to read and hilarious! Usha Rajagopalan seems to have a natural flair for humour. I actually found myself laughing out loud several times. Her vivid descriptions and deft use of imagery add to the charm.
Scratch the surface, this fun collection of short stories throws up little gems on life lessons, beliefs and wisdom. The stories which are essentially about relationships, man-man and man-nature, are bound together by the transience of it all. Some pets fly away, some are surrendered to the Zoo and some others die. The events in the book have happened because of one truth – sacrifices are integral to maintaining the balance and sanctity of one’s family. Making a life and finding one’s purpose and happiness within one’s restrictions is the way of life for majority of people. Through the eyes of the children who form the central characters in the book, the author also gives an insight into the traditions and customs prevalent in a time and place where life is less complicated and more to do with living in the moment.
Though it is a book for all ages, it is a must-read for children. Those in villages and small towns may be able to relate to it and could bring out the writer in them. Those growing up in cities with gadgets need to know about the joys, pleasures and the countless adventures the outdoors holds. All the 37 stories in the collection are supported by wonderful illustrations by Teamea Costa. The cover page is designed by Malika Virdi.