New FrontiersT. SHER SINGH
Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Strange though it may seem, I can actually remember the very first time in my life I became aware that language was more than mere words and sentences; that it could excite and entertain, titillate and possess, and transport you to distant worlds within seconds.
And that, in the hands of a craftsman, it came alive.
I was 12 and had just started Grade 9, and one of the new books prescribed for the year was Gerald Durrell‘s “My Family and Other Animals”.
I dived into it early as an escape from homework, having convinced myself that reading it was in itself homework, and soon discovered that I could not leave it alone. It consisted of a string of stories and experiences from the author’s childhood, but related in poetic prose and humour I had never encountered before.
I recall being swept into what was for me yet an undiscovered world of nature. Living in small-town India, we were surrounded by nature and it freely invaded our indoors too, but as a result we took it for granted and rarely took notice of it.
For the first time I learnt that there was nothing which wasn’t marvellous in life: the trick was in having the time, or allowing yourself the time, to notice it.
I specifically remember being caught up in the excitement of young Gerry gulping down his breakfast so that he could run out and explore the Greek country side with his dog.
“Eat it slowly, dear,” Mother would murmur; “there’s no hurry.”
“No hurry? With Roger waiting at the garden gate, an alert black shape, watching for me with eager brown eyes? No hurry, with the first sleepy cicadas starting to fiddle experimentally among the olives? No hurry, with the island waiting, morning cool, bright as a star, to be explored?”
As eager as Roger, the dog, I followed Gerald Durrell, the author, through every laneway and grove, into every nook and cranny of Corfu, the Greek island, where they often spent their winters.
I met his inimitable family in those pages. And the glorious characters: Agathi and Yani, the Rode-Beetle Man, Achilles, Quasimodo, Spiro, Theodore, the Magenpies, Kalesfsky, Alecko, Dodo, Kosti.
And, of course, Mother.
And the ill-tempered clown of a brother, Larry - who, I was to discover a decade later, was no other than the novelist Lawrence Durrell of The Alexandria Quartet fame!
It mattered little that of these characters, some were animals and others were humans. In fact, they behaved as if there were no boundaries between the species. They were all equally interesting and worth befriending. The eccentricities of each made it impossible to say who or which had more human or animal traits.
Or to forget them.
Through the years, I read the dozens of books that further emerged from Durrell’s lifelong travels, during the course of which he discovered new or little-known or threatened species, and brought them back to his now world-renowned zoo on the Channel Island where he had established the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust and a mini-university for the purpose of training scientists and others how to help save the world’s threatened species.
And then, when my daughter turned 12 - the same age that I had been when I was first introduced to Gerald Durrell - and we decided we were ready to travel and see the world together, we zeroed in on … where else? … Corfu!
Thus, in the thick of summer, we flew into Corfu Town after fleeing an oppressively polluted Athens within a few hours after we arrived in Greece.
It didn’t take us long to realize that the island paradise too had changed, because the wind-surfing crowd had long discovered it.
We rented a scooter and fled to Sidari, a sleepy village in the north part of the island. One fine morning, a local resident offered to take us for a day-long hike through the country-side.
We left the paved road, cut across the hills and … found Durrell’s Corfu, exactly as he had painted it forty years earlier.
I couldn’t possibly improve on his own description.
We made our way up through the olive-groves, striped and dappled with white sunlight, where the air was hot and still, and eventually we clambered above the trees and out on to a bare, rocky peak, where we sat down for a rest.
The island dozed below us, shimmering like a water-picture in the heat-haze: grey-green olives; black cypresses; multi-coloured rocks of the sea-coast; and the sea smooth and opalescent, kingfisher blue, jade green, with here and there a pleat or two in its sleek surface where it curved round a rocky, olive-tangled promontory.
Directly below us was a small bay with a crescent-shaped rim of white sand, a bay so shallow, and with a floor of such dazzling sand that the water was a pale blue, almost white …
I’m still not sure how much of the joys I have had in my life I owe to this one man.
When he passed away a few years ago, I felt a deep personal loss - there would be no more new books from him!
But he has left behind endless solace, nurture and pleasure in the world.
Conversation about this article
1: Aryeh Leib (Israel), September 11, 2012, 2:12 PM.
Years ago I too was alternately bewitched and convulsed by the power of this man's utterly unique writing.
2: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), September 11, 2012, 4:18 PM.
I thought I would take a break from commenting, and there you go with a most provocative Gerald Durrell. What a delight to bring him fore. I had read completely whatever he had written. This must have been in the late 50's. I suspect you have also devoured Betty MacDonald, starting with her most humorous autobiographical tale and other books adding richly to the fund of humour.