In the Jungle Book, Mowgli is surrounded by a litany of animals, from jackals to tigers to bears to boa constrictors, who talk to him, and play with him, and generally kick ass all over the jungle. The show, along with the superb title song created by Vishal Bharadwaj and Gulzar, made the idea of animals fascinating to me.
I had gone to a zoo only twice in my life. The first was as part of a school trip at school during my Prep, where we sat on a train and shouted ‘Lion, lion’ and ‘Tiger, tiger’ all through the journey. The second was during my graduation at the Nandankanan zoo at Bhubaneswar. This Nandankanan zoo takes interaction with wild animals to a new level, especially when monkeys snatch food from your hands, make faces at you, and run away.
I never liked the concept of zoos too much. The idea that the animals were caged and captivated didn’t appeal to me.
I have always found our attitude to animals funny. In our country, for an animal to be treated with some respect, it has to be associated with some god. Snakes are worshipped on Shivrathri and beaten with sticks on other days. Monkeys are left alone if they hang out near a Ram temple, because that automatically makes them incarnations of Hanuman. If a pig loiters around a temple, it becomes a ‘devoted pig’, but otherwise, it’s just, well, a pig.
So I was not very kicked about going to a zoo again.
The zoo had all the usual customers. The family with annoying kids who wanted to see ‘exciting’ animals, the bored husband, and the couple who had come in to find some quiet time to explore their animalistic tendencies. Then there were the parents who were bullshitting to their kids just to shut them up: “The tiger is growling because he wants to eat food.” The tiger was probably roaring to remind itself of its species, but anyway.
A board at the entrance informed us about the animals in the zoo. Emus, peacocks, pheasants, other owls, and then the big cats. The animals were interesting by themselves, but what was more interesting was the reaction that people had when they saw them.
The more ‘exotic’ the animal was, the more time people spent in front of them. It was like an audition for ‘Jungle’s Got Talent’, and we were all Anu Maliks and Kirron Khers. So while groups of people would stand in front of a peacock and marvel at it, the next cage had a white peacock. And the people would just move on, saying “Abba! Just a white peacock.”
The white tiger got all the attention. People oohed and aahed when it walked, or looked their side, or just farted. Its enclosure was created in such a way that no matter what it did, it was always within eyeshot of the onlookers.
It was a magnificent creature. With deep, blue eyes, and the feline grace of a cat, it walked about majestically, looking at each and every one of us.
Once I got over the sheer beauty of the creature, I felt a tinge of sadness looking at its surroundings. Made to live in an area of about 50 meters radius, it was like kidnapping the Sheik of Dubai and making him live in a 1 BHK.
The white tiger obviously got all the attention. People stood in front of it, and made sounds to get its attention, and took photos with flashes. If only the tiger could talk, it would be abusing them like Captain Haddock after a bottle of Blue Label.
While more and more people accumulated near the tiger, it was funny how we human beings had reduced the space into a supermarket. Those that are attractive to us are given attention, the others are left ignored, while we move on to the next cage.
And then I thought, who was I kidding?
We were human beings. We fucked the whole planet for our needs. The very concept of capturing wild animals and keeping them in an enclosed space so we could watch them from a distance to get our kicks spoke more about us than anything else.
“Screw the pheasants,” I said. “Let’s check out the cheetahs.”