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Mosquitoes, Rats, Lizards and Other Beings


Ranjit Lal

ZOO IN THE GARDEN
By E.H. Aitken
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 277, Rs. 395.00

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 7 July 2005

If there’s one genre of Indian writing in English that has been dreadfully neglected it is popular nature writing. Writing that makes you and me sit up and take notice of what’s happening around us in the natural world, a world that surprisingly still flourishes even in the most cement-clad of cities. Whether this is because too few of us are interested in nature per se, or simply because those that are interested cannot express their appreciation well enough is a moot point. Over one hundred years ago, Edward Hamilton Aitken (EHA) made a similar complaint about Europeans in India: in a country stuffed to the eyeballs with all kinds of weird and wonderful creatures, there were hardly any Europeans who really noticed them, let alone wrote about them. And what nature writing there exists today tends not to pander to the ordinary mortal, but more to the scientific academic, or (especially these days, and sadly with some major justification) the doomsday environmentalist. Doomsday stories alas, have the unfortunate tendency to turn people away, towards pleasanter prospects.   EHA (as he was famously known) changed all that, and today we have Permanent Black to thank for bringing it to our notice by publishing Zoo in the Garden. The book comprises two volumes, The Tribes on My Frontier and The Common Birds of Bombay, both classics. But first a brief background sketch of the author: Born in Satara, in the then Bombay Presidency, he topped his graduation and post graduation from Bombay University and taught at the Deccan College in Poona between 1870 and 1876. He entered the Customs and Salt Department of the Government of Bombay and was posted at Khargoda – which became the famous ‘Dustypore’. He was one of the founder members of the Bombay Natural History Society and became one of its Vice-Presidents before his retirement. His writings on natural history were published in the Times of India under his nom de plume of EHA. And The Tribes on My Frontier, first published in 1883 was in its seventh edition by 1910, showing clearly that people were interested in reading about nature, if the writing was good enough.   And good enough it certainly was, and always will be. Keen and patient observation, affection for his subjects, charm, enchantment and humour, a touch of the poetic, and a regard for them as creatures sharing their lives with him, (even if some were ...


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