Visiting the Darjeeling Zoo

I tried my best, beguiling smile. C'mon, I said, Tashi has been SO looking forward to seeing a snow leopard and we might never get another opportunity to return to Darjeeling, so won't you reconsider? The attendants grinned, but didn't melt. The snow leopard might eat Tashi for sushi, said the witty one. I thought you kept them in cages, I persisted, c'mon, she'll remember her first visit to the zoo her entire life. The grins broadened. Alright, I said, what about the Himalyan Black Bear, can she say hello to him? The grins grew, if anything, fonder. They didn't get eccentrics like me every day. But, nope, Tashi couldn't say hello to the Himalayan Black Bear. Or, for that matter, to the Langurs or the Red Pandas either. Dogs, even if they were four-month old Lhasa Apsos, were just not allowed in the Darjeeling Zoo, no matter how desperately they wanted to see anything. What we could do was leave her with them at the main gate and go in and say hello to everybody on our own. And that was quite out of the question. No way I was leaving her alone with total strangers. So, after some discussion, we decided that my sister would go in first while we waited outside and I would take my turn later.

The grinning attendants fetched a chair for me and we made ourselves comfortable in the early morning sun. Tashi let out a loud yawn and curled up to sleep almost immediately. I took out my sketch book and began the first sketch of the day. After a while the attendants came over to have a look. Oh, an artist, they said as if that explained things, and made admiring sounds which sort of took the sting from the first. Then the usual tourist trickle began and I found myself to be the principal object of attention for all comers - a sort of opener for all the great things to see inside. People seem to go ballistic when they see an adorable puppy sleeping - 'Dekho Kukkoor! Ha! Ha! Ha!' ('See that Dog' in Bengali) - or an adorable artist (:D) drawing - 'Dekho Artist! Ha! Ha! Ha!' - together, we got a double dose of 'Ha! Ha! Ha!' If you're a sensational, attention-seeking sort, I highly recommend sitting in front of a ticket office, with an unusual-looking puppy in your lap and a sketch-book in your hands.

I'm not. I was such a wall-flower back in college, they had to practically scrape me off the surface. And if you ever put me on-stage and expected me to deliver a speech, all you would hear is the sound of two knees knocking. However, over the years out of necessity, I've trained myself to tune out the distracting crowd when I'm drawing/painting, and the stares don't bother me anymore. What can be irksome though is some people attempting to question me on my art - leaning close over my shoulder to see what I'm viewing and asking me what I'm painting, or, better still, dabbing their finger right into the wet paint and inquiring why I did that - last time somebody did that I didn't wait for Tashi to wake up, I barked at them myself. I absolutely dislike talking, forget answering inane questions, when I'm working and I definitely don't want to be explaining every single move to anybody - I'm not one of those step-by-step artists, I don't understand half the things I do. Anyway, so I usually ignore most of the public - except the unbothersome, motivational types that say something nice and move me up a notch or two in my art quest - and don't worry anymore about appearing rude - better rude than to have a picture spoiled.

However, ignoring doesn't mean not noticing - I'm something of a people watcher and the weirder the specimens the better. Somewhat contradictory that, I suppose, but that's the way it is. So there I was sitting there and I think I had as good a time outside as I did later inside. The admission ticket for the Zoo was Rs. 10 for Indians and Rs. 100 for Foreigners - it was written on the board next to the window - but the concept was still unclear to many. There were many questions. I'm at college, said one girl, can you give me a concession? Your college is not affiliated to our zoo, retorted the attendant. I'm studying in Pune, said one blond-haired man, can you give me concession? Studying in Pune, remarked the attendant, never got anyone an Indian citizenship - a U.S. one, I would say, the way they all take straight off. My child can go in for free, right, asked someone else. Wrong, since the child in question appeared older than six years. He's tall for his age, insisted his thrifty mother. Well, if you don't want to pay, said the amazing attendant, he can join the artist outside. The child appeared game - "Kukkoor!!!!!!!!!!!" - his mother, fortunately, was more attached to him. Then came the mixed couples. But I'm an Indian and my wife is married to me, argued one man, that makes her an Indian too by law. And the mixed teenager. Maybe I should pay you Rs. 5 for being half-Indian? And the VIPs in the big car - what do you mean we can't take the car inside? We're VIPs! So on and so forth.

My sister came back and I transferred Tashi to her and went inside. The Himalayan Black Bear was sitting at the edge of his enclosure, gazing back at the visitors and not sharing their delight - he looked bored stiff - seen one, seen all, that sort of attitude. The adjoining Mynas were livelier, whistling back at the teenagers watching them. I took the uphill path to see the Red Pandas. The previous night I had seen a program on Animal Planet about an escape-prone Red Panda at the London Zoo. The ones here weren't likely to ever get the chance - there was a netting over the top of their enclosure. Most were asleep in their man-made, above-the-ground nests, except one that kept racing about wildly, running up and down and around all the paraphernalia in his place - if this had been a Disney film, he would have vented his feelings out loud, "Same, same, same, every day, everything, it's the same, same, same, back in the jungle it was always a whole different game!!"

After strolling past the civets and the pheasants, I did an about turn and walked back the way I had come. The Bear had turned his back on his admirers. A sign on the right said 'Ladies Toilet' and I went to check that out. Clean enough, but I don't know what the designer was thinking of when he designed that extra large, open window. There was no entry fee, which, together with the Front Gate policy, reminded me of the Jehangir Art Gallery in Bombay, where the woman attendant charges 50 paise unless you want to go 'Western Style', in which case you pay Rs. 1 (charges might have gone up in the current economic atmosphere). From here I walked once more past the Bear - now dozing - and up a steep incline to look at the snow leopards for which this zoo is renowned. There was a sign en route, near the Langur Enclosure, that asked visitors to imagine themselves in place of the animals and refrain from teasing them. This appeared to work more as a goad rather than a preventive on the group ahead of me. The Langurs, however, continued grooming one another, calmly ignoring the noisy characters that were jumping up and down outside their cage. As my grandmother always said, never, never ape the cretins. Especially unimaginative, illiterate ones.

The wolves ahead were asleep in the mid-morning sun. So was the Siberian Tiger - I didn't see him until someone pointed him out - great camouflage. The Snow Leopards - at last! - were awake and stalking one another along the chain-linked fence that separated them from each other. They looked like, well, over-sized cats, somewhat scruffy in bargain - not, unfortunately, like the National Geographic award-winning type of picture that comes into mind when you think 'Snow Leopard' - but I guess it's difficult to keep up magnificent appearances when you're part of a breeding program. I took a couple of photographs and walked on to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute.

Here you will find information, photographs, and mountaineering equipment of famous climbers like Tenzing Norgay, Edmund Hillary, and a host of others. Quite interesting stuff, but no photographs allowed. I walked over afterwards to see what they had in the Souvenir shop right across, where a smiling lady was dozing slightly over her knitting. Not much there, so I continued to the door at the other end, down some steps, past a pond with algae and goldfish, and back to the front. There were some souvenir and costume stalls here and, more welcome, since I was feeling half-starved, a stall serving food. I had a plate of momos and a glass of tea. Then I waited until a batch of people finished posing in front of the mural on the Institute building, took a photograph of it myself, and walked back.

Outside my sister had started to suffer from the pangs that I had so recently assuaged and Tashi was looking a trifle vexed - somebody had just asked if she was a cat.

I hope they had a whale of a time identifying the animals inside.
By Sonal Panse
Published: 12/3/2004
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