Monday, December 03, 2012

Trivandrum Zoo and the Genesis of Richard Parker

A little over a week ago, Ang Lee's 3D fantasy movie 'Life of Pi' released in theaters. I was in Trivandrum that morning and had half a mind to book myself for a late night show. After spending a little thought on it I realized it wouldn't really fit into my plans.

I was there for a conference and booked into the Mascot Hotel where the food quality of food ( for a hotel of it's repute) was abysmal. Trivandrum's hotels, including KFC, were famous for all the wrong reasons. People were falling ill and even dying after eating in hotels there so  I wasn't sure it was always like that or only because a bunch of ophthalmologists were going to be swarming the premises for a three day conference. Whatever the reason, the breakfast and lunch we got that day had us searching for more palatable stuff outside it's walls!

We had an evening to kill and the 'Life of Pi' was ruled out because we felt it had nothing in it for a 10 year old and his priority seemed to be the dinner rather than a movie. I would have to wait for the movie to hit theaters in my town, whenever that would be. Meanwhile, I thought it would be appropriate to show my son the Zoo that told a story.

Yann Martel says that "most books come from the same mix of three elements: influence, inspiration and hard work".

You can read the essay he wrote on 'How I wrote the Life of Pi' here. 

While he was researching for his book he spent time in South India scouring the various zoos for six months in 1996. Richard Parker actually changed avatar from a elephant to a rhino and finally to the tiger. So, to understand a tiger's life he spent 15 days at the Trivandrum Zoo observing them! I'm just wondering, if 15 days at a zoo watching caged tiger can inspire a book, I should have material for many!  Perhaps, I should signup for a refresher course in English to polish up my writing skills!

Anyway, I wanted to see what was the inspiring thing about tigers he saw in the Trivandrum Zoo so I thought I'd go. Besides, it would keep my son busy till dinner!

There is a rather unflattering report of the Zoo and it's visitors from the Guardian by Luke Harding after Yann Martel was awarded the Booker Prize. Of course it would be too much to expect anything else from the Guardian. After all anything that is not British is not proper!

Read the Guardian article here

A Bit of History:
The Trivandrum Zoo, considered the oldest in the country, took shape during the time of Swathi Thirunal (1813 - 1847)  a King and composer. He had a collection of animals in the royal stables that were caught and caged from the forests in and around Travancore. The Zoo itself, in it's present form, was created in 1859 under the rule of Uthram Thirunal Maharaja. The carnivore house was apparently designed on the model of cages in the Zoological Gardens in London. The zoo today is more animal friendly and most of the animals roam in open enclosures.

Entry into the Zoo is by tickets and no plastic is allowed inside. You can deposit your bags and plastics at the entrance. There are kiosks and water coolers inside in case you want a bite or quench your thirst.

The last time I went there was many years ago and I could see things had changed. Unfortunately, we were constrained by time on this visit because it was a rather impromptu trip to the zoo.

The lion tailed macaques are the first creatures you encounter and they look bored. I was wondering how these simians never felt like climbing over the wall of their enclosure. There was no netting to prevent their exit and the trees in their enclosure had branches that reached out to the trees outside! Even a bunch of bananas failed to enthuse some of them.

Across the macaque's enclosure is a traditional Kerala building that could pass off as a house. House it is, but belongs to the King Cobras.

You cross a few monkey cages to reach this ancient building that house a few raptors and owls. Photography in most of these cages is very difficult. They have bars and meshes in multiple layers,  not only to prevent the creatures from escaping but also to stop annoying tourists from disturbing them.

The rhino was not in a mood and neither was the lion. Both of them were in another world perhaps like Africa!

The black bear wouldn't even lift up its nose from the ground it was digging into. The hippos were the happiest lot; wallowing in the pool, occasionally lifting up their heads and snorting in bliss.

The big cats are all above and beside the hippo enlosure. You can hear them growl long before you see them. All of them look well looked after, though most of them have that vacant look of a prisoner who has been watching the world go by monotonously.

This guy was pacing his cage and growling. A magnificent specimen that could be Richard Parker.

This one was growling without lifting it's head. Maybe annoyed by the ruckus the two males on either side of her were creating!
 The other big guy too was pacing his cage looking across at the other male. Perhaps the lady was the cause of their impatience!

The lone jaguar was nowhere to be seen. It is a creature of the night and was likely sleeping off the daylight as were the lioness'.

The most majestic of them all, who could have been Richard Parker, had a larger enclosure. His attitude seemed to suggest that us lesser mortals were not worth even a passing glance. A mongoose had got into his space and was taking quick bites off his meat (see to the left of the tiger), but he chose not to react except for turning his ears backward occasionally.

The tigers of Trivandrum Zoo were all in excellent condition. It speaks of the care that the keepers give them. Perhaps they would have a personality disorder, being confined to the barred enclosures.  They should be more adventurous, like Marty the lion from Madgascar (the movie)!

It still leaves me wondering what Yann Martel could have learnt about the behaviour of tigers from a zoo in 15 days. He'd have learnt more if he could have spent time with a person like Ullas Karanth in the field or reading Kenneth Anderson or Jim Corbett!!

I'm still waiting for the movie to release in a theater near me. Maybe I'll change my opinion about Martel after that!

1 comment:

R Niranjan Das said...

It is a lovely zoo. Had been there 8 years back. Nice images.