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Chapter no 34

Life of Pi

Father said, “We’ll sail like Columbus!”

“He was hoping to find India,” I pointed out sullenly.

We sold the zoo, lock, stock and barrel. To a new country, a new life.

Besides assuring our collection of a happy future, the transaction would pay for our immigration and leave us with a good sum to make a fresh start in Canada (though now, when I think of it, the sum is laughable—how blinded we are by money). We could have sold our animals to zoos in India, but American zoos were willing to pay higher prices. CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, had just come into effect, and the window on the trading of captured wild animals had slammed shut. The future of zoos would now lie with other zoos. The Pondicherry Zoo closed shop at just the right time. There was a scramble to buy our animals. The final buyers were a number of zoos, mainly the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and the

soon-to-open Minnesota Zoo, but odd animals were going to Los Angeles, Louisville, Oklahoma City and Cincinnati.

And two animals were being shipped to the Canada Zoo. That’s how Ravi and I felt. We did not want to go. We did not want to live in a country of gale-force winds and minus-two-hundred-degree winters. Canada was not on the cricket map. Departure was made easier—as far as getting us used to the idea

—by the time it took for all the pre-departure preparations. It took well over a year. I don’t mean for us. I mean for the animals. Considering that animals dispense with clothes, footwear, linen, furniture, kitchenware, toiletries; that nationality means nothing to them; that they care not a jot for passports, money, employment prospects, schools, cost of housing, healthcare facilities

—considering, in short, their lightness of being, it’s amazing how hard it is to move them. Moving a zoo is like moving a city.

The paperwork was colossal. Litres of water used up in the wetting of stamps. Dear Mr. So-and-so written hundreds of times. Offers made. Sighs heard. Doubts expressed. Haggling gone through. Decisions sent higher up for approval. Prices agreed upon. Deals clinched. Dotted lines signed.

Congratulations given. Certificates of origin sought. Certificates of health sought. Export permits sought. Import permits sought. Quarantine regulations clarified. Transportation organized. A fortune spent on telephone calls. It’s a joke in the zoo business, a weary joke, that the paperwork involved in trading a shrew weighs more than an elephant, that the paperwork involved in trading

an elephant weighs more than a whale, and that you must never try to trade a whale, never. There seemed to be a single file of nit-picking bureaucrats from Pondicherry to Minneapolis via Delhi and Washington, each with his form, his problem, his hesitation. Shipping the animals to the moon couldn’t possibly have been more complicated. Father pulled nearly every hair off his head and came close to giving up on a number of occasions.

There were surprises. Most of our birds and reptiles, and our lemurs, rhinos, orang-utans, mandrills, lion-tailed macaques, giraffes, anteaters, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, zebras, Himalayan and sloth bears, Indian elephants and Nilgiri tahrs, among others, were in demand, but others, Elfie for example, were met with silence. “A cataract operation!” Father shouted, waving the letter. “They’ll take her if we do a cataract operation on her right eye. On a hippopotamus! What next? Nose jobs on the rhinos?” Some of our other animals were considered “too common”, the lions and baboons, for example. Father judiciously traded these for an extra orang-utan from the Mysore Zoo and a chimpanzee from the Manila Zoo. (As for Elfie, she lived out the rest of her days at the Trivandrum Zoo.) One zoo asked for “an authentic Brahmin cow” for their children’s zoo. Father walked out into the urban jungle of Pondicherry and bought a cow with dark wet eyes, a nice fat hump and horns so straight and at such right angles to its head that it looked as if it had licked an electrical outlet. Father had its horns painted bright orange and little plastic bells fitted to the tips, for added authenticity.

A deputation of three Americans came. I was very curious. I had never seen real live Americans. They were pink, fat, friendly, very competent and sweated profusely. They examined our animals. They put most of them to sleep and then applied stethoscopes to hearts, examined urine and feces as if horoscopes, drew blood in syringes and analyzed it, fondled humps and bumps, tapped teeth, blinded eyes with flashlights, pinched skins, stroked and pulled hairs. Poor animals. They must have thought they were being drafted into the U.S. Army. We got big smiles from the Americans and bone-crushing handshakes.

The result was that the animals, like us, got their working papers. They were future Yankees, and we, future Canucks.

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