Photographs copyright: DAVID McMAHON
There’s an owl in our house. That’s right – IN our house. He’s a bit squat. He’s a bit nondescript. He’s almost thirty years old. He doesn’t belong to any recognized breed. And he lives on one of the shelves in my study, with hundreds of books. Dunno what breed he is. Barn owl? Nope. Screech owl? Naaaaah. Despite all that, he has impeccable genes.
You see, the unique owl was created by the late naturalist and bestselling author, Gerald Durrell. The British conservationist, a man ahead of his time, was born in Jamshedpur, India, in 1925 and died in 1995. When he was three, the Durrell family returned to England and between 1933 and 1939, they lived on the Greek island of Corfu.
As someone who 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 I first joined the workforce. 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 so keenly, 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.
The first coincidence is that 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, where I was also educated – albeit many decades later. 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.
The second coincidence is that I would not have dared to dream that one day I would also be a bestselling novelist. Nor could I have imagined that Penguin - publishers of `My Family And Other Animals' - would publish my own work one day.
During Gerald Durrell’s 1978 India trip, the naturalist had attracted some negative publicity as a politician churlishly questioned his motive for a planned expedition into the country’s interior. It was either a very bad time or a very good time to be seeking him out for an interview. My childhood friend Nirmal Ghosh probably doesn’t even remember this, but his father, on the board of what was then the World Wildlife Fund, rubber-stamped my request for an interview. After a high-profile press conference, a car whisked Durrell and me back to his rambling guest house in Alipore.
He was a pleasure to talk to. Modestly, he played 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. When I pointed out that I had read most of his books as a child, he clapped his hands in glee. This was a good time, I thought, to ask him if he would mind autographing my copy of his most famous book.
No problem at all, he said. He signed the book with a flourish. Then, just before he handed it back to me, he swiftly sketched the owl.
I still have the book. And the unique owl. You know, the one with the shelf esteem.