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Updated: November 23, 2012 18:16 IST
My Husband And Other Animals

Life in a zoo

JANAKI LENIN
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In the nursery: Rom with a baby gharial Photo: Shekar Dattatri
In the nursery: Rom with a baby gharial Photo: Shekar Dattatri

In one of the photographs, I spot Rom’s HAM radio callsign, VU2WIT, scrawled on the wall. Rom got a radio licence to communicate with Alok Mallik who managed Croc Bank’s station in the Andaman Islands. Occasionally, Rom would turn on the instrument and eavesdrop on conversations. I don’t recall hearing him say anything, not even to Alok. One night, a lightning bolt hit the antenna and fried the radio.

In the photograph, I see the edge of the wooden cassette shelves against one wall. The office always had rock ‘n’ roll playing on an automobile tape recorder because when it reached the end of one side, it would automatically play the other side. Frequently, the same tape played over and over for hours before someone popped another in.

Whenever Rom visited his brother in New York, he recorded a radio station that played music all day long on numerous tapes. Once home, he painstakingly edited out the advertisements and DJ chatter, and we had cassettes of shuffled music labelled Mix 1, 2, 3 and so on. Music was a necessity for Rom to function, and our radio stations didn’t measure up.

Rom holds a baby gharial in the nursery. When drawing up film budgets became tedious, we had plenty of outdoor work. There were feeding and cleaning chores in the croc nursery, plants to be replaced in enclosures, seeds to be planted in the plant nursery, vegetables to be chopped for tortoises, and leaves and flowers picked for iguanas. If there were any research or animal work going on, I recorded it on video and stills.

Rom and I bob in the ocean waving our hands. On hot afternoons, we fought the rough currents in a bid to cool off. But when the sea was calm, we floated with our eyes shut against the brilliant sun. We did have to make sure the current wasn’t taking us farther down the coast. If it did, we’d have to walk back on the hot sands, and that was no fun. Besides us, there was not a soul on the beach.

A hundred little pinpoints of light gleam out of the darkness. Croc eyes. It was usually dark when we left the office, and in the torchlight, hundreds of croc eyes reflected back at us like stars. This was the best time at the Bank, when there were no visitors or workers. Staff and researchers had retired to their own homes elsewhere on the grounds. There was just Rom, me, and hundreds of crocodiles. The buzzing of tree crickets was punctuated by a croc coughing, one sliding into the water, or a minor scuffle. The magic lasted until clouds of whining mosquitoes sent us fleeing.

Later, we nursed our drinks on the beach, and watched the lights of trawlers on the horizon. Rom taught me the names of constellations. I repeated what I had learnt to a guest who knew better, and it was soon clear Rom was making it all up. That ended our astronomy lessons, although Rom still proclaims his expertise.

My memories are vivid, but those quiet private moments were few. Rom travelled most of the time, and when he was home, I had to surrender him to colleagues.

While I enjoyed living at the Croc Bank, I also remember aching to get away. It was an island of civilisation back then surrounded by miles of casuarina plantations and occasional holiday homes; we only had other staff for company. We were in each other’s homes and lives much more than was healthy. Even the best friendships could dissolve in such a fish bowl. Some did and brought grief.

When I slowly return to the present, it takes me a moment to realise I’m no longer at the Croc Bank, the power has long since gone off, and I’m staring out the window without seeing. It isn’t the roar of crashing waves I was hearing, but Cyclone Nilam making landfall.

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