Having lost their home — the dense forests where canopies cover the sky in large patches — to woodcutters, Gundu and Keeri, the mongoose couple is moving closer to a village with wide fields and even wider skies.
In her latest book, Adventures of the Humongoose Family , author and conservationist Zai Whitaker takes a topic as serious as deforestation and loss of habitat, then treats it with gentle humour. For the 65-year-old, mongooses aren’t just an academic subject; they are family.
It was the early 1970s. Zai, the daughter of the late conservationist Zafar Rashid Futehally, who was Honorary Secretary of the Bombay Natural History Society, and grand niece of ornithologist Salim Ali, had moved to Madras as Snake Park founder Romulus Whitaker’s young bride.
The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 had not come into implementation yet and the young couple often set out to observe mongooses in the wild.
“On these trips, we would often find abandoned, injured baby mongooses and I would take them with me and nurse them to health,” says Zai. They became a part of her family; at one point she had five or six of them living with her.
“We released most of them into the wild again, but a couple of newly-borns remained with us. We gave them all sorts of embarrassing nicknames,” she laughs, “but Poochie stuck for both.”
Zai’s life started revolving around the animals: feeding them, hunting for insects, and looking after them.
“Rom and I discovered that they loved boiled eggs — something they couldn’t find in the wild!” she says.
Raising them, she found exactly what “inquisitive, maddening and affectionate” characters, mongooses can be. In particular she recalls an eventful trip to the Anamalai hills, looking for King cobras with Rom.
“Like any family, we thought only we could take care of our pets and I took the two with me in a cane basket,” she says.
They were staying at a tea plantation near Valparai, and had gone to the forest in the morning, leaving her pets in her room. “When I got back, I could find only one in the basket,” she says.
She let out a screech that brought everyone in the huge house running to her. They eventually found the mongoose inside a toilet bowl looking lifeless. “It had nearly died. We rescued it, dried it, and gave it a little bit of brandy.”
“You’d imagine that after such a traumatic incident, it’d learn to stay away from toilet bowls, but in a few hours it was fine and running around again, peeping inside the bowl. You could see its little brain going, ‘hmm, what would happen if I were to jump in again’,” she recalls.
That, to her, was the epitome of what a mongoose is: “They would wake us up at 4.30-5 am in the morning nipping on our ears. They constantly needed attention, entertainment and company” — dogs times 10.
Writing for children
A trademark feature of her book is the observations Gundu and Keeri make about the ‘human herd’, much like those children would make about adults.
“When you write for children, the perspective completely shifts. Your concerns, fears, and priorities as children are vastly different,” explaining why she never takes children’s books lightly.
While she is the director at The Madras Crocodile Bank Trust now, for many years in Kodaikanal, she was a school teacher. “I would sneakily test my stories on my students first, to get an idea of the response they’ll get,” she says.
In fact, it was during a workshop for children that she met her ex-husband. “Rom was giving a presentation on Indian snakes via a projector, and it was pitch dark. Suddenly one of the grass snakes got loose and it was pandemonium, the children were jumping on us for protection,” she recalls.
The two went on to raise not just mongooses, but two humans of their own as well: their son Nikhil is a wildlife management expert, and Samir, a conservation biologist.
As much as Adventures of the Humongoose Family is about the human-animal conflict, it’s just as much about the rollercoaster ride Gundu and Kerri’s babies put them through. It seems that her experiences as a mother too, translate into the book. “Parents will want the children to be safe and the children will want to have fun. That’s a conflict right there!”
Adventures of the Humongoose Family , by Tulika Publishers, can be pre-ordered at www.tulikabooks.com.