Autobiographical Stories Books

Breakfast with Kuttan: Review of Usha Rajagopalan’s ‘The Zoo in My Backyard’

Reading The Zoo in My Backyard, the first thought that comes to mind is how apt the title is. In just the first few chapters, a black monkey, a baby elephant, a mouse deer, and numerous birds and rabbits have pranced through the pages, kindling amusement, occasional bouts of trepidation, and a heavy dose of nostalgia.

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“Our friends’ fathers went on official trips to Madras or Delhi and brought them clothes and sweets; ours went to the deep forests of Kerala and brought us young, abandoned wild animals,” Usha Rajagopalan writes at the beginning, aware of how different her growing-up years were. Her father, who worked as Conservator of Forests, is the man at the centre of all the adventures, be it giving a home to an exotic flying squirrel or tending to an injured common parakeet. The animal guests weren’t always entirely welcome — like the baby elephant, Kuttan, with his “bottomless pit for a stomach”, or the surly bear cub — but they were definitely tolerated until they found a new home.

Author-conservationist Rajagopalan combines her two passions — for animals and for writing — in this book. Her childhood spent amidst a large, loving family at their ancestral home in Thiruvananthapuram is presented vividly and with a generous dose of humour. The gentle grandfather, the patient mother, the actor-uncle and a host of feisty siblings all come alive in her stories. The newspaper boy nicknamed ‘Pathrows’ (because he threw the patram, newspaper); the pointy-faced squirrel named Judie because of its uncanny resemblance to a teacher; the pomeranian Tommy rechristened Tommynathan to better fit into the South Indian family — all these sketches attest to Rajagopalan’s ability to coax a chuckle out of you.

The Zoo in My Backyard is written in a breezy, anecdotal style popularised by legendary conservationist and writer Gerald Durrell. Followers of Rajagopalan’s former newspaper column may find some of the stories familiar, but it is worth reading them together to get a glimpse into an idyllic life in a family where man-animal boundaries are blurry in the best of ways.

The Zoo in My Backyard; Usha Rajagopalan, Manipal Universal Press, ₹290

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Printable version | Mar 4, 2021 4:15:46 PM |

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