One of my favourite children’s books was Grandfather’s Private Zoo by much loved Indian author Ruskin Bond. Reading the delightful tales of Toto, the mischievous monkey, a kleptomaniac crow, a narcissistic python and Harold the hornbill, I, too, would fantasise about having my own private zoo. Well, wishes have a strange way of coming true. As the national lockdown yawns into its 36th day, I find that my childhood wish has strangely come true. Not in a lush and sprawling hill station bungalow, but in my cramped 2BHK, which boasts a private menagerie in a Mumbai suburb which is a Covid hotspot.
It all began with cats. Like the Egyptians, I have high regard for the self-possessed animals. They are interesting, fun, sporadically affectionate, pleasing to look at, very low maintenance and really the perfect apartment pet. When I moved to Mumbai, I hated coming home to an empty lifeless home—that is how I got my first cat. The number of rescued cats kept increasing and after going up to five at one point, I decided that three was a respectable number of felines without my developing a reputation of being the ‘Crazy Cat Lady’. Then, a few months ago, after interacting with numerous dog lovers, I began to feel like I ought to adopt a dog. My opportunity came soon enough when a friend who had been fostering a rescue pup for four months needed to travel; the canine needed a ‘forever home’. I took the plunge and brought the energetic, not-very-small pup home and named him Godot after Samuel Beckett’s iconic play. I began to have uninterrupted quality time with Godot much to the visibly expressed feline chagrin of Lailaa, Kulfi and Utti—my cats.
A few days into the lockdown, on an evening walk with Godot, I tugged at his leash assuming that he was sniffing at a bundle of trash. Godot resisted, the bundle trembled and the unmistakable talons of a predatory bird appeared. The bundle was an infant black kite—a category of urban wildlife that continues to dot the Mumbai skyscape even as concrete swallows the landscape. The guard said it has fallen out four days ago; its mother was nowhere to be seen and one did not know where the nest was! I nervously picked up the baby raptor and told myself it was not a predator—yet! I brought it home and named him Changez after the legendary warrior Genghis Khan, hoping that my tiny rescue would one day rule the skies of Mumbai. But, in 24 hours, I knew that once a predator always a predator. Changez was a feisty little fellow with no fear, a very sharp nip on his beak, a stinging clutch on his talons and a shrill cry that brought more than one neighbour to my door. Godot and the cats were in uproar, and feeding Changez raw chicken proved to be a dramatic saga ending in bitten and scratched hands. My house help, Bikesh, flatly refused to participate in this jaanlevaa karyakram (life-threatening programme). I realised that Changez would have to be handed over to professionals, and contacted RAWW—Resqink Association for Wildlife Welfare; a wildlife rescue NGO in Mumbai. They came and Changez was given a much photographed farewell.
A week passed, but the story of Changez had spread in the building. At midnight, some days ago, the bell rang. A neighbour from the building requested that I come down urgently. Downstairs in the building garden a worried looking group had surrounded a furry ball of black. A palm-sized kitten, whose eyes had barely opened, was not letting size get in the way of a loud and consistent yowl. Apparently, the kitten had been screaming since morning. “It won’t drink milk,” said a boy. “It can’t,” I replied. “It needs to be dropper fed.” The group looked at me expectantly—“What?” I exclaimed and then sighed. And that is how another feisty orphan survivor came home; he was christened Hukum Singh. A week has passed. Hukum Singh is a dauntless explorer of the bed and floor, he is unfazed by Godot, hisses at the cats and demands his feed unsparingly. The cats are in a sulk, Godot has lost conception of the differences between species and Bikesh has twice threatened to hand in his notice after the lockdown is lifted.Me? I feel like a frazzled, sleep-deprived, scratched and unappreciated single parent of an ungrateful brood. I look at the calendar and then realise with a smile, it is Day 36 of the lockdown and I have not been bored once!
The writer is an award-winning Bollywood actor and sometime writer and social commentator.