We took Puttachi to the Mysore Zoo. My only intention was to show her the animals she loves, live. But what I had not bargained for was a barrage of memories bouncing out of the recesses of my mind, of my visits to the zoo as a child.
We would be terribly excited as we alighted from the auto in front of the gates, stone walls on either side. The tickets would be bought and checked by a very short man who was a fixture at the gates for as long as I remember. An old museum stood right at the gates. It contained stuffed animals, and relics of long dead zoo inhabitants. My mother never understood why I loved climbing up those creaking wooden stairs to stare at those stuffed animals when I could well be looking at live animals. But they had a kind of inexplicable charm. On the ground floor of this building were half a dozen mirrors that made you look fat, curved, tall, crooked, and turned you upside down. Preening oneself before these mirrors was a must-do too.
After this would begin the round of the zoo. Each animal would be observed and the board outside the enclosure, with information on the animals, and their names and scientific names would be read seriously.
The elephants and the big cats were the star attractions of course. Once a baby elephant was being taken around the zoo and we got to touch its prickly head and wet trunk and feed it bananas. The big cats had names - Rani, Prema, Vijay, and there were boards with their dates of birth written underneath their names. We would compare our ages with those of the lions and tigers and feel strangely connected to them. My grandparents would sometimes call us, when we were in Bangalore and tell us that Priya gave birth to twin cubs or Vikram died, and we would react as if they were family.
Each time a new animal came to the zoo, people would flock to see the new entrant. Thus we saw penguins, kangaroos (both of which are not there any longer), and zebras and giraffes. The last was the greatest attraction for me. I still remember the first time I saw the pair of giraffes. It was a heady feeling. But the giraffes haven't grown in number since that time. The female giraffe Honey has given birth to a dozen baby giraffes and refused to feed any of them - they have all died, as far as my knowledge goes.
Giraffe bending towards Puttachi, with Chamundi Betta in the background.
The other attractions of the zoo were a smelly, dingy aquarium, outside which you got a great view of Chamundi Betta. Then there was this humungous stone slide. It was quite some time before I summoned up the courage to slide down that slide, and when I did, I felt like the queen of the whole world. Near the slide was a maze made out of bushes which was really easy to navigate, but we felt incredibly proud nevertheless when we reached the centre. Near the slide were shops were we bought and slurped orange candy and continued on our way.
There was another attraction, years ago, in the form of Sally Walker, a zoologist and conservationist who started the Friends of Mysore Zoo. We saw her once, in a t-shirt, shorts, in the lions' cage. INSIDE the lion's cage. Peevee and I were hooked ever since. Sally Walker was our heroine. Other kids wanted to grow up and become teachers and train drivers, but I wanted to grow up and become Sally Walker. Sometimes she passed near our grandparents' home, and we used to stand outside in the evenings just waiting if we could spot her. I don't think we ever did, and I don't think I saw her again after that, but "Salivakar" (as I thought her name was spelt) remained a fascinating figure of our childhood.
Chimp up a tree
When we took Puttachi to the zoo, I looked out for the familiar sights and sounds of the zoo. We were short of time, wanting to show Puttachi everything before she fell asleep, so we made it quick. The short man was gone, but the museum building was there, though we didn't visit it. I couldn't spot the slide at all, nor the maze. Perhaps we didn't go that way at all. There were no directions for us previously, we just went where we pleased. Now, they have boards pointing to the animals, and arrows telling us which path to take so that we can see all the animals. There are also new animal enclosures, and they have a huge aviary with a high net - one we can pass through and see the big birds from up close. There was another major difference. The old Mysore zoo in my memory was dry and hot, and I remember my walks to be very sweaty and tiring. But the zoo of today is very, very green. There was shade almost throughout the way, and that place where you could get a view of the Chamundi Betta? No view anymore... too much foliage to even see the horizon.
But many things remain the same. The giraffe was still as tall as ever, and Puttachi fell over backwards in excitement. The tigers drove her crazy, and she roared and growled near the tiger's enclosure until the tigers went into hiding, terrified. Ok, I am exaggerating, but you get the picture. The lions and the leopards drove her nuts, and the monkeys drove her wild with glee. And what about her favourite elephants? She was sleepy by the time we reached it, and she just stared at them for five minutes, eyes blank. I was kind of disappointed because I was looking forward to seeing her reaction. But five minutes later, something clicked in her brain, her eyes lit up, and with a whoop and a squeal, she danced and waved her hands with abandon, pointed at the pachyderms and said "Aate! Aate!" (For Aane - Elephant). Yes. Mission accomplished. After that, she fell asleep in S~'s arms.
I can foresee many more visits to the zoo in the coming years. But no, I am not complaining!