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The World in a Wall

Published : Aug 3, 2018, 1:10 am IST
Updated : Aug 3, 2018, 1:10 am IST

Durrell life’s work and lasting legacy was in establishing the great zoo in the island of Jersey a part of the Channel Islands.

Gerald Durrell
 Gerald Durrell

The best-selling author and writer of wonderful stories on nature Ruskin Bond, drew our attention  to the monsoon and to the varied natural life that emerges from the inner recesses of the house to enjoy the cool refreshing conditions, in an article recently.

“House spiders emerge from their homes to enjoy the cool, moist air. Folklore tells us that when a spider runs up the wall, rain is going to fall. And when it runs down the wall,  the house is going to fall!”  The house spider in his home could not quite make up its mind,  sometimes it was running up the wall, sometimes it was running down the wall. But mercifully, Ruskin's house in the hills stood up to the fury of the monsoon and did not fall down. Ruskin  consoled himself by reflecting that perhaps the spider was looking for a mate. Monsoon time was mating time. Grimly, he also reminded us that when the female spider finished mating, she lost no time on feasting on her helpless and perhaps very tired husband!  Ruskin also wrote about beetles that come in varying patterns and colours, nature’s true gems and sometimes nature would provide  a bounty. In his previous house, Ruskin would be visited by giants of the insect world, bamboo, rhino and stag beetles.

It calls for a special temperament and a strong bond with nature and all its creatures to write so well about “all creatures wise and wonderful” to borrow a title from James Herriot’s book. But it calls  for some special skills to write so lovingly about the “creepies and crawlies”. Ruskin possessed this in abundance but another writer  Gerald Durrell made it his life mission to set up a home for wildlife and particularly, endangered species. But above all, Durrell too loved the creatures that  crept and crawled and these included trapdoor spiders and even scorpions. Where sometimes others would be struck with revulsion and sometimes  with fear, Durrell saw a whole life world in observing them. He also treated them with great respect and compassion.

Durrell life’s work and lasting legacy was in establishing the great zoo in the island of Jersey a  part of the Channel Islands. This zoo, home to many exotic and rare creatures, now bears his name. But his lifetime legacy was to sensitise everyone to all creatures great and small, that they too had a right and purpose in living in this world. Durrell traveled the world to source creatures to populate his zoo. His book A Zoo in My Luggage chronicles his expedition to west Africa to collect animals and his hilarious experiences in transporting them. Among the two dozen books Durrell wrote, the most famous is My Family and Other Animals, a part of the Corfu trilogy that recounts the family’s adventures in the island of Corfu. This has been part of a television series and has been the subject of adaptations and narrations.

In My Family and Other Animals Durrell recounts the whole family consisting of his mother, his  brothers Larry and Leslie along with their sister Margo shifted to Corfu to be among the warmth and sunshine away from cold and miserable England. But the move was chiefly orchestrated by Larry  who needed inspiration for his writing. Larry or Lawrence Durrell, the eldest brother, was to achieve fame later as the author of The Alexandria Quartet.

Not many are perhaps aware that Gerald Durrell was actually born in our own Jamshedpur in 1925. His father then worked in construction here. In January 2015, Jamshedpur started the Jamshedpur Initiative to honour the 90th year of Gerald Durrell’s birth. As part of the Initiative, it was decided that in collaboration with XLRI and educational publisher Ratna Sagar to put up a skit based on one of Durrell's stories by children of a leading school. This skit would help to create a greater awareness of Durrell and also sensitize our children to wildlife and to the environment.

The skit chosen was an excerpt from the chapter on scorpions in Durrell’s  My Family and Other Animals. Appropriately titled The World in a Wall, it tells the story of young Durrell scraping a  part of the plaster off the wall to discover a family of scorpions scurrying from his gaze. Durrell is  fascinated and entranced by the family of scorpions.

However, he is soon interrupted by the maid Lugaretzia who calls the family in for lunch. Durrell  packs the mother scorpion along with babies on her back into an empty matchbox to observe them at leisure. He places the matchbox on the mantelpiece intending to retrieve it after lunch. After lunch, Larry as the oldest male has the unique privilege of smoking and taking up a cigarette looks around for a matchbox.  His eyes light upon Gerald's matchbox and he opens it with disastrous consequences. The mother scorpion runs up his arm. Larry drops the matchbox in fright and the baby scorpions scurry off in all directions. “Scorpions” screams Larry. “Scorpions” screams Margo and promptly climbs atop a chair. Leslie, who firmly believed that scorpions could only be  subdued with water, throws a pitcher of water at them, misses and soaks mother instead. In the  midst of all this noise and confusion, Roger the dog charges in, barking furiously. He feels the  family is being attacked and bites Lugaretzia, she being the only non-family member present. Finally, peace and calm is restored by a very wet and bedraggled mother who orders Gerald to find the mother scorpion along with all her babies and carry them outside.

This, the crestfallen Gerald does rounding up all the babies in a teaspoon and placing them  carefully on the mother scorpion's back. Then they were all carried outside on a saucer and  released on the garden wall with young Gerald insisting the scorpions were quite harmless and  would not harm anyone unless attacked first.

Needless to say, the children did a great job with the skit which was staged appropriately in the  Jamshedpur zoo. There was a brief introduction to Durrell and the story in the beginning and due care was taken to ensure that Larry held only a “mock” cigarette in his hand.

An exasperated mother then decided that Gerald's education was suffering and fixed up tuition in French for him with the Belgian consul. Durrell is at his best in his description both of the consul and the Jewish quarter in Corfu where the worthy lived. The maze of narrow, cobbled streets were crammed high with stalls selling anything from silk cloth, silver ornaments to fruits, vegetables and sweets. The streets were so narrow that one had to back up against the wall to allow donkeys, the only form of transport to pass laden with goods. Right at the very centre of all this on top of a  rickety old building lived the consul.

The consul was an eccentric and Durrell’s description was worthy of Agatha Christie’s “Hercule Poirot”. “He had a magnificent three-pointed beard and carefully waxed moustache. He took his job rather seriously and was always formally dressed in a black cut-away coat, striped trousers, fawn  spats over brightly polished shoes, an immense cravat held in place by a gold pin and a tall, gleaming top hat completed the ensemble.”

Unfortunately, Durrell’s French lessons were short-lived. For some reason, the consul thought  Durrell's mother spoke fluent French and would frequently accost her in town in rapid French all  the time pressing her hand passionately into his beard. Mother could only reply weakly, “oui, oui”. Thereafter, mother took to avoiding the exuberant consul. Later, realizing that Gerald was the cause of this new familiarity, she removed him from French tuition.

Tags: ruskin bond, gerald durrell