Thursday, February 16, 2006

Drawing On A Great Experience

(Hoots, Mon - which celebrity sketched this owl?)

YOU could, I suppose, call it `The True Tale of My Family, Gerald Durrell and Other Animals'.

The owl above was sketched for me in 1978 by the late Gerald Durrell, the best-selling author and naturalist who was born in Jamshedpur, India, in 1925 and died in 1995.

Having spent part of my own Indian childhood chuckling over his books `My Family and Other Animals’, `A Zoo in my Luggage’ and `The Overloaded Ark’ among others, I could scarcely believe my luck when, as a cadet journalist in Calcutta in early 1978, I was told that Durrell was to be the subject of my first published interview.

It was the only time in my life I did not have to do any research on a subject. Having read his books, I already felt as though I were a part of the extended Durrell family. There was also an interesting coincidence or two, as it turned out.

Durrell’s older brother, Lawrence (1912-1990) was born in Darjeeling, the stunning Himalayan town where I was educated. The elder Durrell even spent his early school years at St Joseph’s College in the Darjeeling outpost of North Point. A novelist, and playwright, Lawrence Durrell’s most famous work was (and still is) `The Alexandria Quartet (1957-60) which was considered his best shot at a Nobel Prize for literature.

During the interview, Gerald Durrell was quick to play down any hint of a comparison between him and his brother. ``Larry writes for posterity,’’ he told me, without a trace of irony, ``while I write to fund my expeditions and projects.’’ He was completely at ease, happy to talk about character portrayal in `My Family and Other Animals’ and quick to point out that the multi-skilled family retainer, Spiro, was still alive.

At the end of the interview, Durrell complimented me on the fact that I had done my homework before speaking to him. A trifle embarrassed, I then pointed out that I had read most of his books as a child and he clapped his hands in glee. This was a good time, I thought, to ask him if he would mind autographing the copy of `My Family’. No problem at all, he said.

He signed the book with a flourish. Then, before he handed it back to me, he swiftly sketched the owl that is reproduced here.

In truth, however, it was the young rookie journalist who thought the whole experience was quite a hoot.