Published: 04th November 2020
Why Usha Rajagopalan's new book will help you fall in love with animals and nature again
Famous conservationist and author, Usha Rajagopalan speaks about her new book, The Zoo in My Backyard and why everyone must this beautiful book
They say you carry memories from your childhood for a lifetime. But Usha Rajagopalan, who is an author and a conservationist, carries some 'wild' memories from her childhood. In her new book, The Zoo in My Backyard, Usha takes us back in time - to a world where she filled with different animals and birds both indoor and outdoor in her home in Trivandrum in Kerala.
You may remember this author for the role she played in the conservation of the Puttenahalli Lake in JP Nagar - something that served as an example for how other lakes could be reclaimed in Bengaluru. She says, "My childhood days and my father's lessons of co-existence inspired me to take up the conservation of the lake in 2010."
Apart from this newly launched book, Usha is the author of three other novels, two volumes of poetry translated from Tamil and one collection of short stories. Excerpts from an interesting interview:
What led you to write The Zoo in My Backyard?
I grew up in a joint family, not just among human beings but a variety of creatures around us. My father was with the Indian Forest Service and we were living in Trivandrum. Whenever he came across an injured or abandoned baby animals or birds, he did not have the heart to leave it there. He would bring it home and all of us would take care of it. Later, when it was able to move, we would free it in the forest. That's how we ended up having a variety of animals and birds at home. When my father passed away in 2006, I felt that I never really thanked my father for giving me such a wonderful childhood. That's when I started with writing a column for one of the English newspapers. This series of a column included all the humorous incidents that I experienced in my childhood days. It went on for a year and the time came when I had to take a break from writing these columns because I started translating the Tamil poems of Subramania Bharati.
Meanwhile, I had understood the importance of conservation of nature, animals and birds. I realised that they have a greater role to play in our lives. Growing up with various creatures sensitises both adults and animals. At the same time, I observed that the Puttenahalli lake in front of my home in Bengaluru was on the brink of dying. My father has instilled the thought of saving the environment and there was no room for keeping quiet. Thus, my friends and I formed an organisation called Puttenahalli Neighbourhood Lake Improvement Trust in 2010 to save it. I felt strongly that it was time to make more people understand the importance of animals, birds and the nature around us. This was the reason behind compiling all the memories of my childhood into a book.
You mentioned that your father was into IFS and that you spent a lot of time outdoors - which were the different animals that you came across?
Of course, we had varieties of animals at home. But my siblings and I were fond of dogs. My father had promised me to get three dogs if I would pass Maths. Because every time, I had flunked this subject. True to his word, and when I managed to clear the exam, he gifted me a dog. He never gave the other two dogs, though! Another animal we had with us was a mouse deer. He was so tiny and shy that we named him Mini. My brother and I were crazy about reading Phantom comics and we would fight to be the firs to read these books. My brother liked Devil, which looked half dog and half wolf. Though he begged my father to get a wolf at home, he got a Rajapalayam dog instead and named it Devil. That name suited the dog beautifully.
The home we lived in Kerala was very huge and was surrounded by trees. Once, a chick had fallen from its nest. None of my cousins picked it up because it looked too ugly. I was the one who picked it up and took care of it. It grew up to be a rose-ringed parakeet and we never caged it. Similarly, my father got a black monkey that was badly injured. We took good care of him and named him Kesavan. Every evening, Kesavan would go and pulled the electric fuse from the box plunging us into darkness. As soon as we called his name, he put it back in the box. In fact, this was the reason why I wrote the book - because my childhood stories with the animals have been unique.
Puttenahalli Lake in Bengaluru's JP Nagar
In metro cities like Bengaluru which are essentially a concrete jungle, how do we help kids discover animals and nature?
While we know that it is difficult to make kids grow up with nature in metro cities, we need to save lakes and the ecology that is surrounding the lakes. Hence, at Puttenahalli Lake in Bengaluru, our trust organises programmes, especially for kids. We invite them on their birthdays and let them plant saplings around the lake. Even before this pandemic, we dedicated a particular day of the week where children along with their father and mother would come to plant a sapling and observe it growing bigger every day. We would teach them to make their own compost for plants. There were activities like bird watching. You need not have a huge forest to teach them about nature. A few trees or plants in your garden can help you teach them about insects and butterflies. You can hear the birds sing and see parakeets in a city like Bengaluru. It is just a question of keeping your eyes and ears open.
What are the takeaways for youngsters or kids from your book The Zoo in My Backyard?
When you take pleasure in something then you become sensitive towards it. This, is turn, arouses the curiosity in you to know more about the subject. In my book, The Zoo in My Backyard, I have not only painted a happy picture. I have spoken about the rabbits in my house that would multiply like crazy, the guinea pigs and a pair of pea-fowls. We would dig the Earth and get earthworms to feed the large fish in our pond. I can also never forget the day when we first saw a rabbit die. But all these experiences taught us the circle of life that is filled with happiness, joy and sorrows. Every time, we had to let go of an animal, we would be upset.
Sadly, wildlife conservation is going down day by day. What kind of policies do you think that the government must frame to involve all the stakeholders especially public?
Any policy for that matter must involve the public, otherwise it is not going to be of any use. For instance, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the person on the road must stop spitting and littering waste here and there. First of all, it is important to implement policies that people understand. A common man must be involved even at the planning stage of policies. The government has to make the environment a top priority when it comes to urban. Cities must have lung spaces and not just high rise buildings. Planning of a city has to be balanced.
Do you think education against cruelty towards animals is sufficient if imparted in schools and colleges today?
If parents can sensitise children at a young age then they grow up to be thoughtful citizens. What pleasure do people derive from throwing stones at animals on the road? I think people should stop thinking in terms of money and derive happiness by being kind to creatures around them.