As a daughter of a forest officer, I had plenty of privileges. For starters, I had a zoo. Yes, I literally had a zoo as my playground!
My father used to be a Zoo Director at Padmaja Naidu Himayalan Zoological Park. I loved that place with all my heart. It could be a childhood illusion but I think we had the best house in Darjeeling. From the French windows in my parents’ room, we could see the entire Kunchenjunga range. From my room, which my sister and I used to share, we could see the garden with its beds of bright red poppies in the spring and summer on one side and a jungle, which probably only had jackals, from the other. Even though I knew from the beginning that I would have to leave this magical place – my very own Narnia – someday, it did not stop me from being friends with the diverse animals that lived there. And of course, I had my favourites too.
The zoo campus was my fortress. I surveyed it everyday, stopping to admire the beauty of the clean and green environment that came alive with the chirping of exotic birds and the roar of Siberian tigers. Everyday, the zookeepers and the guards would tell me stories and happenings that went on in the zoo. Trust me, it felt exactly like being in the fairy tale of Narnia. Only these animals did not speak English.
My favourite anecdote was one where the leopard broke a visitor’s umbrella. Some tourists got excited after they saw the leopard. But they were soon disappointed when it wouldn’t act in a way a carnivore is supposed to. I guess they expected it to be growling and inflicting fear on passersby. So they poked it with an umbrella until the leopard got angry and snatched the umbrella and broke it. After that incident, Achilles (mispronounced as Ac-chilis by the zookeeper) became my favourite leopard.
I also enjoyed playing with the fluffy looking snow leopard. Each time I was near his cage, he used to mirror my movements. If I ran, he ran. If I walked, he walked. At times, he used to hide and watch me from the corner of his eyes and then surprise me by suddenly jumping out of his hideout. Sometimes, under supervision, I even stroked the back of his furry ear. I could say that he really enjoyed it by his throaty purrs.
I used to love how I had found secret hideouts in the zoo. On every holiday, if we were not out on a family getaway, I would walk all the way up to the Siberian Tigers enclosure, which was at the far end of the zoo. And even though they were not very friendly, I enjoyed looking at them. I was also very jealous about the fact that they had a nice looking cave where they could nap.
I did not like the deer family and mountain goats too much because they spent all their time eating. Nonetheless, I did make a friend. A little mountain goat called Pooja Bhatt. I gave the goat this name since it had a cute little fringe that was sported by the popular actress. However, I’m not sure if the goat was even a female. But I loved feeding it grass and it definitely had a big appetite.
Like I said, there were plenty of advantages of being a zoo directors’ daughter. One of them was being able to play with and care for the cute and helpless looking cubs that grow up to be majestic yet fearful looking creatures.
The tiger and leopard cubs were extremely cute. If you kept a stuffed toy right next to them, you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart, until the real one moved. It’s funny how everyone is so scared of these carnivores. Each time a cub was born, we would wait excitedly for it to grow up and play with us. Sadly, cubs abandoned by their mothers did not do very well despite all the warmth and nourishment we tried to provide to simulate the care it would have got from its mother. It was heartbreaking to watch them die. When you looked at the scared and shivering cubs with their wide-eyed innocence, you forgot that when they grow up, they could kill you with a casual flick of their paw across your face.
But if I had to pick a favourite, then it would definitely be the bear cubs, Sunny and Mani. I don’t remember how they ended up staying in the guard room outside the house when they were first brought to the zoo hardly a month old, but I do remember them biting the bottom of the wooden door with their moderately sharp teeth.
I wouldn’t say we had the best garden but we did have some nice looking poppies, petunias and fuchsias among a few others. However these adorable yet destructive pair of cubs hardly took half an hour to ruin our gardeners’ hard work. But how could we be mad? These cuddle worthy cubs never let us get angry with them by being so lively and funny.
My memories about my stay at PNHZP have faded a little over the years. But what I still remember and will never forget is that I only had friends and no enemies. I had a good day everyday. I was in Darjeeling a little while ago and made it a point to visit the zoo. The place looks much grander now. But sadly, it’s no longer my Narnia. I saw Sunny again. He is old now and of course, didn’t remember me. But that doesn’t matter because I have the best memories of him and they will always stay with me.