Sunday, July 20, 2003

Delhi doesn't usually rate much in the way of wildlife, but if the zookeeper is a pal, then maybe it does. We've been here the past week, hiding out from the monsoon and dreadful humidity in the Sunder Nagar neighborhood of South Delhi. We've shopped a lot more than I like, and been to the National Gallery to see the Buddhist art and ancient sculpture; it's quite a swell place, even if the roof leaks. India rivals Greece and Egypt with regard to its ancient civilization, and the museum remains a great place to glimpse the past. The new miniature painting displays also come recommended for those passing through Delhi anytime soon.

Ah, but the critters at the zoo... Those who have been loyal (or even occasional) readers know by now that I've had something of a tiger fetish since landing on the Subcontinent. When C and I stopped by to Mr. Bonal, a member of the Darma tribe she has been study in the Himalaya, he suggested a tour of the zoo (pronounced "jew" to my amusement) where he is director.

"This is probably the only place in India where you can request to see a tiger," I joked. Bonal checked his watch at that crack, and paled slightly. It was 4:30, and the cats were being moved inside for the night. Well, that's tough luck, I thought.

Then after visiting the elephants in their pen, and checking out the flocks of ibis and cormorant in the bird sanctuary, we made a detour. Around to the back of the tiger enclosure, where we entered a room with the sour, ammonia smell of cat piss, and found ourselves face-to-face with four massive, panting tigers. The largest fellow snarled while laying on his side, and his queen licked a leg of lamb and eyed us warily.

That would have been a satisfactory end to things, but Bonal had one more trick up his sleeve. After seeing the big orange Bengals, we took a gander at the white tigers that the Delhi Zoo is perhaps most famous for. Ordinarily, I find zoos a bit depressing, but these cats looked healthy and fit, and not too much more miserable than the tiger I had spotted being chased by jeeps in Corbett. The white phase is a mutation, and like their orange brothers, this was essentially a family of cats -- with Mom and four daughters, an uncle and Papa Tiger enjoying the shade of their feeding pens.

The biggest tabby went to work on his dinner right in front of us, tearing at the lamb leg in just such a way to remind us anywhere else in the world, he'd be boss.

Tonite, with this image ingrained amongst all my memories of this India swing, we'll board a plane for the West. Sorry am I to leave these tigers behind; while I wonder what transformations I'll find when we get back to Texas.