Thursday, July 04, 2019

A boy on a Greek island: my relationship with Gerald Durrell’s Corfu books

[my latest “Bookshelves” column for First Post]

I have always felt the term “comfort reading” is a little over-used, but I unequivocally relate to the phrase when it comes to Gerald Durrell’s trilogy of books – My Family and Other Animals; Birds, Beasts and Relatives; and The Garden of the Gods – about his blissful childhood on the Greek island Corfu in the 1930s. As is the case with much comfort reading, revisiting these books also brings a tinge of melancholia, as one reflects on the small ways in which one’s own life paralleled (or might have paralleled) the author’s – and the very big ways in which it diverged.

Rewinding to my own resolutely non-Corfu-ish childhood: if a schoolteacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, the answer was “a vet”. This came out of a hazily defined interest – encouraged by my mother – in cats, dogs and baby birds. Never mind that the house I lived in till age nine was on south Delhi’s busy Ring Road, an urban space that was not welcoming to non-human creatures. (A kitten we had adopted was run over in the service lane and had to be taken, throbbing, not fully dead, to be anesthetized.) It was also around this time that I discovered the adventures of little Gerry Durrell, as told – probably with some embellishment – by the adult Gerald Durrell. By the time I was done with the first of the books, my answer to the teacher’s question might have been “a naturalist”.

All readers know the joy of discovering magical new settings through literature. Mine included the little village Peterswood, where Enid Blyton’s Five Find-Outers solved mysteries and infuriated their policeman nemesis Mr Goon; the moors that Heathcliff and Cathy roamed in Wuthering Heights; Tolkien’s many vistas, expanding outwards from the cosy Shire to the daunting mythological landscapes of The Silmarillion. But few of these compared with the sunlit paradise that Gerry lived in with his colourful family (his mother and elder siblings), exploring the wildlife-rich countryside with his dog Roger at his side. “I stared down the hill at the beckoning sea and planned my day. Should I take my donkey Sally and make a trip to the high olive groves to try to catch the agamas that lived on the glittering gypsum cliffs, where they basked in the sun, tantalizing me by wagging their yellow heads and puffing out their orange throats? Or should I go down to the small lake in the valley, where the dragonfly larvae should be hatching?

I marveled at Gerry’s attention to detail as he discovered and analyzed countless insects and birds. The sense of drama he brought to a bloody battle between a gecko named Geronimo and a praying mantis named Cicely. And his clear-eyed understanding of the innate violence in nature – the knowledge that there would always be random suffering and cruelty, that creatures would not live in perfect harmony with each other, as if on a giant ark. There was the anger and pain of the moment when a beloved hoopoe was slain by a cat, but there was also a wisdom about the unsentimental workings of the natural world.

For a young reader, there were many other vicarious pleasures. I remember yearning for someone in my life who would be like Theodore Stephanides, the shy, taciturn genius who played a huge part in Durrell’s development – and who, despite being a brilliant scientist, treated the little boy as an equal. (Later, I was thrilled to discover that Stephanides had, like Gerry himself, been born in India.)

For years after my first reading of the Corfu trilogy, I thought of them as children’s books. But on revisiting them, I realise this was misleading, and that I must have sped-read a few passages as a child, impatiently fast-forwarding to the funny conversations between the Durrell family and the adventures that really fascinated me. Despite the impression of effortlessness, a lot of care went into the writing. The prose in the descriptive passages and establishing scenes is polished and elegant, while sacrificing none of the sense of wonder. “Watermelons,” Gerry tells us, “their flesh as crisp and cool as pink snow, were formidable botanical cannonballs, each one big enough and heavy enough to obliterate a city. The green and black figs burst with the pressure of their sap, and in the pink splits the gold-green rose beetles sat dazed by the rich, never-ending largesse. Trees had been groaning with the weight of cherries, so that the orchards looked as though some great dragon had been slain among the trees, bespattering the leaves with scarlet and wine-red drops of blood.”

A function of literature is to show you worlds removed from anything you have personally experienced – and yet, to allow you to find small echoes in your own environment. Having lived the last three decades in another concrete jungle in south Delhi, it would be ludicrous for me to claim any similarities with Gerry’s childhood. Yet, as the writer-naturalist Ranjit Lal reminds us in such books as Wild City, all we have to do is open our eyes, briefly step out of our anthropocentric selves, and we will be awakened to the many treasures around us: the insects that nest in the nooks of an old house; the cry of birds like the shikra heard above the deafening roar of traffic.

Despite my professed childhood ambitions, I was for many years inattentive to the other species in my vicinity. But in more recent times this has changed. The little park where I walk my dog Lara every day has squirrels, peacocks, ladybirds, butterflies, occasionally visiting monkeys, four parrots that spend most of their
time flying about a single specific tree. There are a few outliers like a purple pigeon that looks normal in every sense except that its head is fully white. I once saw four large peahens, presumably searching for a place to lay their eggs, circling wildly, one behind the other, atop a corrugated green roof near our house; if I were to write a Durrell-like book, I would probably describe them as doing a version of the “ghoomar” dance.

At other times, my mind plays tricks on me. Once, looking closely at a patch of mud (to ensure that Lara didn’t swallow something harmful), I saw what looked tantalizingly like a little sandy door. It reminded me of a passage in My Family and Other Animals where Theodore tells Gerry about the unusual dens made by “trapdoor spiders”. But this one turned out to be a tiny bit of dusty cardboard, embedded in the mud in a way that resembled an insect’s burrow with an attached door. You can only go so far when you try to merge your comfort reads with your own world. 

[My earlier First Post columns are here]


  1. yup, I told people (and teachers) I wanted to be a zoologist (or sometimes an ornithologist) when I grew up, and Durrell's books were the reason, mainly. then at some point of time somebody showed me what a zoology textbook looked like, and all that went to hell.

  2. and on a related note, I was vaguely disappointed to learn that there was a fair bit of embellishment in (in? on? at?) Durrell's books. never bothered to investigate further. the corfu books were probably the best, but quite a few of the others were good too.

    and also, on shikras, they look pretty drab from a distance, but I saw one at close range a few months ago, and it looked like it had come out of a glossy magazine, compact and neat and kind of glowing with... good health, I suppose. far from the banged up and bedraggled specimens you expect to encounter in delhi. a really nice looking bird.

    1. yes, I read an article a long time ago mentioning the embellishment.

  3. Oh, this post touches a chord in me. Like you, the bit about the trapdoor spider lingered the most in my memory. I was frightfully fascinated by it when I had first read about it. Recently while vacationing upon a beach, I came upon a stretch of sand full of tiny holes. Instantly my mind went back to the trapdoor spider. Of course, there is no connection between the two (the holes were made by baby crabs I guess). But I was similarly fascinated.
    Like you, I often wonder at what might have been. I dutifully spent 9 years in the IT industry and then I finally snapped and left. It's been two years since and still I have no clue what to do next. For the last 4-5 years I have been agonizing over joining a Biodiversity course, fancying myself to explore strange species like Durrell. But the course is expensive, the jobs scarce. Neither do I have a background in science or biology, nor do I have the mental-makeup to actually handle any species or go roughing out in the wild. It's all just a pipe-dream and like Norman Bates I am simply clawing futile air. The worst part is that I can't bring myself to read Durrell anymore. Just recently I ventured to open My Family and Other Animals to dip into again after all these years and I had to put the book down shortly since each word was a little dagger in me taunting my lack of courage.

    1. Thanks for the comment. (And especially for the Norman Bates reference! I like to think the Durrells considered having their mummy stuffed after she passed -- and that she approved of the idea.)

    2. "There is a pleasure sure
      In being mad, which none but madmen know"
      a quote which begins My Family and other animals.
      //I like to think the Durrells considered having their mummy stuffed after she passed -- and that she approved of the idea
      That's a great call, but isn't there already a ready-made Mother character suitable for that role? I am of course referring to Kralefsky's Mother, the one who can hear flowers speak.

  4. Definitely a comfort read for me too, the writing is sublime. I thought the TV series- ‘The Durrells in Corfu’ is excellent too, though told from the mother’s POV. The cast is perfect, the light and colors are captured beautifully. Both the book and the show are pleasurable in their own way.

    1. Might be interesting to watch it, but Mrs Durrell's perspective? I feel a bit ambivalent about that (though I can see why such a show might want to give equal weightage to the other siblings, especially Lawrence)

  5. I'm a little late to this having just discovered your blog but everything you say here, might I say so beautifully,resonates with me Nd my childhood. I similarly lived in a city and loved the Corfu books.