Guest Column: Zero on Zero

by Zai  Whitaker

The children of fisher folk grow up in the atmosphere of nets, buoys, fishing lines, and the heady smells and odours associated with fish. This is their world, and it is  a natural and smooth  transition to them also becoming fisherfolk.  Similarly, I grew up in a household of reading and writing, and to my mind, this was what life was all about, this is what one did.  My father, a conservationist, was forever drafting wildlife petitions, writing minutes of meetings, and lobbying for the creation of national parks and sanctuaries. My mother, a landscape designer, had syndicated spaces in newspapers and magazines, and “deadline” was a word we learned as children.  “Amma has a deadline,” my sister and I would say to one another, without quite knowing what it meant.

So, as children, my sister and I had our own paraphernalia of writing paper and pencils, and later pen and ink (this was before the age of the ball pen). We couldn’t spell, but we could “write”. We wrote small, incomprehensible books and read them to our dolls.  Incidentally the dolls were also expected to write, and we gave them zero-on-zero in their reports if they failed to meet our expectations.

Zai Whitaker.jpg

I’ll never forget the excitement of seeing my first “publishing success”.  It was a sentimental and pompous poem, which the Junior Statesman was good enough to print. I walked on air for days, and thought up ingenious ways to sneak the news into conversations.  Soon after this, my father started a family newspaper to be written, edited and distributed by my sister, me, and a few cousins and we took it very seriously. His poor secretary was given the task of typing and cyclostyling it. We kept this up for several years, and the learning was immense including a court martial by an aunt whose stinginess we had reported—with name and circumstances changed, but we hadn’t been sneaky enough. This caused a bit of a rift in the family, and was our first bitter lesson in the perils of editing and publishing.

Our school, Bombay International, was pretty informal, with an elastic curriculum and classes often sliding into a free-for-all with an exhausted teacher shouting “Okay, fifteen minutes of independent time!” which meant reading comics, throwing chalk, or crawling around on the floor pinching and kicking classmates. A few of us used this time to start and run a school newspaper, which was full of complaints about the school and our teachers.  My writing career really took off and I churned out essays, stories, poems and book reviews.  I even wrote a scathing review of Pride and Prejudice, holding forth that Darcy was not a proper character at all and should have been killed off early in the novel.

The next chapter of my writing career began when I arrived at the Madras Snake Park as a young bride, and was asked to write pamphlets, articles, sign boards about reptiles and their conservation.  I loved it, because it was a combination of what one was “supposed to do”- i.e. conservation, and writing.  I became proficient at rephrasing our standard reptile missionary message: “There are four common dangerous snakes in India- cobra, krait, Russell’s viper and saw-scaled viper, and polyvalent anti-venom serum works for the bites of all four.”

And this was the beginning of an exciting journey into wildlife and conservation writing, which will be left here for now because I have exceeded my word limit!

Zai Whitaker is a conservationist, educator and author who has written many endearing books for children with the elemental world of animals and nature as the central theme. She comes from a family of naturalists whose membership includes the iconic birder Salim Ali. Along with husband Romulus Whitaker, she founded the Chennai Snake Park. She is a consultant on wild life preservation. Zai was gracious enough to agree to write for Ripples. We are the beneficiaries.