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The Zoo In My Backyard

Longlisted | Book Awards 2021 | Writings for Young Adults

The Zoo In My Backyard

What can you expect in a family of quirky adults, hyperactive children, and an assortment of pets? The author and her siblings shared their childhood with Kesavan, the incorrigibly curious black monkey; Judie, the nimble giant squirrel; Mini, the shy mouse deer that strayed; Psitta, the cackling parakeet; Devil, the runaway hound and many more creatures great and small. The adventures of the children and antics of their pets, together with the adults in the family make for a whole lot of fun and laughter - not just in the backyard but indoors as well.

Full Title: The Zoo In My Backyard

Author: Usha Rajagopalan
Publisher: Manipal Universal Press

Award Category: Writings for Young Adults
About the Book: 

A memoir of a childhood with a variety of pets, this book is in the genre of nature writing that was popularized by Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. His wife, Dr. Lee Durrell, says in the Foreword that, “The Zoo in My Backyard typifies the genre most charmingly. Usha Rajagopalan, in an easygoing, fun-to-read writing style, portrays her large family and the even larger number of animals that shared the familial home in southern India in the 1960s.”
As children, the author and her four siblings eagerly awaited their father’s return from official tours. Anna was in the Indian Forest Service and travelled extensively in the forests of Kerala. Occasionally, he would bring home abandoned or injured baby animals which the children named, nurtured and loved before leaving them at the Trivandrum Zoo.
In Part 1, Usha narrates their capers with myriad rabbits, guinea pigs, budgerigars and fish, the short-term exotic visitors (a pair of peafowl, a Malabar squirrel, a mouse deer, even a baby elephant and a bear cub) and the long-lived favourites (three dogs, a parakeet and two black monkeys). These anecdotes had appeared previously in a fortnightly column in the Deccan Herald newspaper accompanied with lively sketches by Teamea Costa.
The exuberant Usha, her elder sisters, Akka and Vijaya, and younger brothers, Kumar and Sridhar (aka ‘Cheechu’) meet their match in Kesavan, a black monkey who learns to douse the house lights by pulling out the fuses. When confronted, he would put them back and feign innocence. Likewise, Hari, the hare, leads them on a thrilling chase till they corner him in a dead end alley. Judie, the Malabar squirrel, gives the entire family anxious moments when she scuttles up an electric pole. Anna brings her down and grows in stature with his adoring children.
Kumar names his Rajapalayam puppy, ‘Devil’ and defines its personality. The tall, lean and mean hound would run away when unleashed, dragging his young master along. Usha’s pet is a parakeet chick which falls from a tree. She tries to teach Psitta (the P is silent) to talk but, learning from the adults’ constant refrain to Cheechu to study, it prefers to say ‘Cheechu padida’ and invite the boy’s wrath. If her dog, Maxi, accompanies her singing lessons with a howling descant, Usha’s next dog Tommynathan is such a ‘gentleman,’ she has to teach him how to bark. The studious and absent-minded Vijaya walks barefoot to school but doesn’t forget to feed her precious budgies and fantail pigeons.
Given the intrinsic link between humans and animals, Part 2 features the author’s family, friends and devoted domestic help. Their portraits are woven with details of the ancestral house with three kitchens, the culture, cuisine, and taboos prevalent at the time.
The respect for all life forms that they imbibed as children made Usha a lake conservationist. Her siblings too retain a deep interest in flora and fauna.


About the Author: 

Usha Rajagopalan is a writer, translator and lake conservationist. She is the author of three novels, a collection of short stories, two volumes of poetry translated from Tamil to English, and a writer’s manual (ed.). Her latest book is for children titled, The Zoo in My Backyard.
She has received national and international recognition with The Quest Poetry prize and three times consecutively in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition organized by the Commonwealth Broadcasting Foundation; Andrew Fellow in Fiction at the University of British Columbia, Canada and Charles Wallace Fellow at the University of East Anglia, UK. She was a writer-in-residence at the Sangam House International Writers’ Residency and at Le Château de Lavigny, Switzerland.
Usha led a campaign to save the Puttenahalli Lake in south Bengaluru in 2008 and continues to nurture the lake through her Trust. Among others, they were awarded the prestigious Namma Bengaluru Award, 2012.


Excerpt: 

I peered outside. He was bold in his summons but seemed a shy fellow otherwise, flitting from branch to branch and taking care to keep out of my sight. Our scales grew sharper, shriller, shorter. Normally the bird would have stopped after a few calls, but this one was made of sterner stuff. He was not going to be the first one to concede defeat. Well, neither was I. I cooed back while my eyes bored through the branches for the pestilential bird. He seemed to have gone to the other side of the house.


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