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Life in a zoo

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Village women and crocs Many years of acquaintance Photo: Janaki Lenin
Village women and crocs Many years of acquaintance Photo: Janaki Lenin

Rom and I sit in front of the computer looking at the newly scanned images of old photographs. When pictures of our life at the Madras Crocodile Bank in the early 1990s light up the screen, old memories rush up from deep recesses. Meanwhile, Cyclone Nilam is revving up its centrifugal engine offshore, bringing steady rain and a cold, turbulent wind.

A picture of me as a young woman leaning back against a tree. I was sitting on a rise overlooking a pond. It was early morning, and out of camera frame, were our mugs of hot tea.

Young rohu and catla fish hung around in shoals patiently waiting to be fed. But that morning, Rom was intent on taking pictures. We had recently fallen in love. In the photograph, my face is clear; I was unaware that a few months later, our relationship would go into a tailspin.

It was our ritual to drink tea by the pond while feeding fish, or to be on the beach before sunrise, hoping a school of dolphins would come by. Occasionally, a catamaran pulled up. Men shouted rhythmically and in unison as they dragged the heavy nets ashore. Sometimes rays, squids, and sea snakes lay motionless among the flip-flopping fish. After buying a bunch of fish for lunch, we trotted over the hot sand for the shelter of Croc Bank.

Some memories arise unbidden by images, for instance, waking up to the steady metronome of waves crashing ashore, the earth’s heartbeat I called them. Then, the ceaseless sound was an addictive lullaby. If I were to spend a night at the Croc Bank today, the roar of the waves would keep me awake.

A group of people cleaning a croc enclosure. Young women from the village across the road came to work with a string of jasmine flowers tucked in their braids. The sand muffled the tinkling of their silver anklets. The women tucked their colourful nylon saris higher before leaping over the enclosure walls.

Round-bellied Ganga or sprightly Paindy acted as bodyguards, armed with nothing more than a casuarina pole to keep the toothy crocodiles at bay. The women swept up crocodile dung deftly into large aluminium baskets. I can’t see their faces, but I can guess who they are. Most of them are mothers of teenage children now.

I am standing by a table in the office, printing faxes and letters. I remember being impatient with Rom that morning as he was getting in my way. I was trying to beat the 9 a.m. deadline, when two men set off in opposite directions. One went to Madras city to do our shopping, while another went to Mahabalipuram to send faxes and pick up mail from the post office. If we needed anything, we tore off a sheet from a pad of printed Requisition Slips, and wrote down what we wanted, how many, from which shop, and which account would pay for it. One morning, a researcher fed up with hand-washing her laundry scrawled ‘washing machine’ on a slip. Clothes are hand-washed to this day.

Rom stands outside the office speaking on the phone, the cord snaking through the window bars. There were no telephones at the Croc Bank for a long while. Mobile phones were a few years away. Riding pillion and hugging Rom, as he gunned the motorbike down the empty strip of coastal road for 14 km in the midday sun to make a phone call is a fond memory.

Then land line phones arrived, and they were a nuisance. There seemed to be an unwritten rule that the person needed on the phone would be nowhere near at hand. Many times a day, I ran down the length of Croc Bank to fetch the person.

These days I catch myself before I spout off like an old crone, “You people don’t know what it was like without walkie-talkies and mobile phones.”

(To be continued)

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