Friday, October 16, 2015

The call of the not-so-wild

In my first year at the Meenakshi College for Women in Chennai, I met Gee, with whom I quite reasonably soon (for me) became best friends – mainly because she had enough friendliness and gregariousness in her for the both of us (and spill over to include dozens of others, but that’s beside the point here).

What thrilled me to bits was that, in her, I’d found someone who also loved books (actual books without pictures or cartoons) and reading, and who read nearly as voraciously as I did. All through school there had been a drought of book-loving friends in my life, so it was doubly sweet that we had so many favourite authors and books in common. At that point my biggest craze was Gerald Durrell and his fabulously funny books, and we spent many happy hours discussing his writing with great enthusiasm. 

I always love anybody with a sense of humour, and Gerald Durrell had that in spades. Along with a pronounced funnybone, he also had the ability to make every animal, bird and insect that he came into contact with seem really attractive to be around, and his lifestyle appeared to be incredibly fun (even though he went to great efforts to talk about just how difficult it was really). I've always had this amazing ability to completely ignore things that don't fit into my world view, so I just skated right past the difficulties and dangers that he described, and latched on to the fun bits - which, to be fair, were aplenty! 

So then I had this fabulous and original (to my thinking) idea of writing to Mr Durrell at his Jersey Zoo, describing just how much I loved his humour and his writing and his life and the animals in his zoo, and expressing the hope that I could one day work there and help look after the livestock. Given that I was in my first year of college - 17 years old! - my naivete in expecting him to reply personally to my lovingly hand-written letter was really rather extreme. (It never occurred to me that he would probably have been getting hundreds if not thousands of such fangirl letters, nor that he probably didn't have the time to reply personally to each letter - not unless it was accompanied by a fat cheque for his zoo, I guess.) 

I told Gee that I'd written to him, but she felt that I would likely not get a reply. However, remember what I said about ignoring things that didn't fit into my world view? Of course I brushed off what she said and waited impatiently for a reply. A few weeks later, when I got a letter with the Jersey Zoo address on the envelope, I was thrilled beyond words! My hero had written to me, and Gee was wrong! Eagerly, enthusiastically, I tore open the envelope and unfolded the letter...only to have every last atom of enthusiasm extinguished within the space of the first three words of the letter: "Dear Mr Shyamala". 

Dear Mr Shyamala??? My hero had called me "Mr Shyamala"! He thought I was a man! Seriously, how I expected anybody in Jersey to realise that "Shyamala Ramanathan" was not a man is beyond me, but the fact all the same is that I was crushed, absolutely crushed. And embarrassed. Bad enough that my hero had not seen my letter, but worse, not even the minion who had replied had bothered to read it (proof: I was addressed as "Mr Shyamala" - and anyone who'd read even a few lines would have realised from the gushing that the writer could only have been a teenage girl). Worst of all, it was a classic "money begging" response, asking me to send a donation if I wanted the animals in the zoo to continue being looked after. 

So that was one reason why I decided that becoming a naturalist and conservationist like Mr Durrell was not for me. The other reason, of course, was that it occurred to me (eventually, after the tears had dried) that I decidedly did NOT like slugs, spiders, caterpillars, earthworms, bees, wasps, ants, snakes and such like creatures that Gerald wrote so affectionately about, and that I did NOT want to be stung, scratched, bitten, poisoned or otherwise harmed in any way by getting up close and personal with them. My heart had finally caught up with what my head had been trying to tell me - basically, that I was not cut out to work with animals. With some relief, I came to the conclusion that I was much happier reading about them, and that it was much easier to love them all by proxy and within the confines of a book. 

That was the end of my naturalist dreams, but it didn't stop me enjoying Gerald Durrell's books, and I still persisted with a few daydreams about how when I was in a job and earning money, I would send the Jersey Zoo a big fat cheque and THEN ol' Gerald would send me a hand written letter to thank me for my love and loyalty... My dreams die hardest of all, I'll have you know. It would make John McClane green with jealousy. 


Anu said...

Loved Gerald Durrel's books too. Pity they are out of print now.

Shammi said...

Anu, you can get his books on Amazon - and they're pretty expensive considering how far back they were originally published! :)

Kamini said...

Ha ha Shyam, we must be peas in a pod! I, too, wrote to Gerald Durrell - the same snivelling, breathless teenager one like you did - only I never heard back. Just as well, I suppose. But I did get a letter addressed to Mr. Kamini by an astronaut I had written to and who had been, until that letter, my hero and heart throb! Those were such innocent times, weren't they?!