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Was the zoo in Life of Pi fact or fiction?

Bijoy Venugopal
Editor, Yahoo! India Travel
Yahoo Lifestyle Entertainment
Nobody waits for the Joy Train at Pondicherry Botanical Garden.

“Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can. But life leaps over oblivion lightly, losing only a thing or two of no importance, and gloom is but the passing shadow of a cloud...”

That's Piscine Molitor Patel, named intriguingly after the famous swimming pool in Paris, summing up his extraordinary life.

Piscine, or Pi as we've now come to know him, love him, and relate to his extraordinary odyssey with a tiger on the open Pacific Ocean, is the protagonist of Canadian Booker Prize-winning author Martel's novel Life of Pi. Martel constructs with vivid clarity the zoological garden in Pondicherry that Pi's father administered. In the book, Pi and a raft of animals are the only survivors of a shipwreck that drowns his family, a scene that Ang Lee reimagined along another spellbinding dimension in the Oscar-winning film adaptation. Lee populated the zoo with stunningly realistic CGI zebras, rhinos, leopards and, of course, the Bengal tiger Richard Parker, Pi's unpredictable travelling companion.
When life imitates the art that imitated it, memories can run off the rails. If you have done both -- visit Pondicherry and watch the movie -- the image that most gnaws at the memory is perhaps of the toy train -- or the Joy Train, if you will -- that runs between two stations in the zoo.

Teased by what we believe to be fiction and tormented by what we imagine to be fact, the mind boggles. Was there a zoo at all? Was there a train?

On the Great East Coast Road Drive, we went to find out, to pry apart the interwoven strands of fact and fiction. At the southern crook of Goubert Avenue, where the seaside promenade yields to far less picturesque, semi-urban huddles of dwellings made more execrable with kitschy flex signboards, we asked for the Botanical Garden and were led in circles until we saw its gates, nondescript and uninviting, right before our eyes. Encouragingly, we heard the hoot of a train whistle, but were soon sobered by the fact that it came from the railway station nearby.

A night of rain had washed the dust off the leaves and dishevelled the trees. We were 30 minutes past opening hour, but there was no one at the ticket counter. So we walked right in. The Botanical Garden was vaster than I expected. Schoolboys playing truant lingered among the broken concrete benches, contemplating the possibilities of a long day to while away. Flicking its tongue, a rat-snake hunted fearlessly among shrubbery in the muggy daylight. The earth swarmed with mating red bugs tugging each other in opposite directions. It was impossible not to be overcome by the feeling of not neglect but lax, resigned abandonment.

Through all of that the great ancient trees, labelled by rustic hands, survivors of many years of quiet apathy, pressed their quiet domination over this overgrown maze of untrimmed lawns and potholed pathways. In their bedraggled canopies large fruit bats dangled, like strange fruit, in screeching, flapping clusters. Lovers had been here before us, and they had etched their names into the trunks. One prays the trees outlived their love. Some of these fine forest trees, with their enormous buttress roots spread-eagled over the mulchy earth, must have inhabited this alien coastal soil for longer than some of us can trace family trees. After all, as a triptych of tackily painted placards informed me, the garden was planted by the enclave's French administrator's back in the 1740s. Official records, however, date the actual garden (then much larger than now and encompassing over 17 hectares) to 1826.

Of the zoo there was no mention at all. I explored the grounds, looking for signs of cages that must have held tigers and moats that restrained elephants. Nothing. This was just a garden of plants. Animals, if any, were wild vermin like the bats, snakes and bugs that still thrived here.

And what of the train?

Chancing upon what seemed to be a narrow-guage railway track, I followed it until I found myself at a station stop. 'Fern Hill', declared the white lettering on the dark blue board. The track was caked with a thick skin of rust but its surface, I observed, was smooth, almost shiny. Did a train possibly run on them?

Presently, as if in answer, the ground vibrated. A horn tooted. From behind a curve, out of the thicket of trees and shrubbery, a dinky blue locomotive emerged dragging a clattering daisy chain of coaches painted with a menagerie of characters that would have got Disney's lawyers in a bind. A guard clung to the back of the caboose. Force of habit, perhaps, since there was ample room for him to sit inside if he so wished. Grown men and women sat huddled in the coaches, as did our truant schoolboys drumming up a din. They waved enthusiastically, caring little for my snobbish glare. 

I followed in the wake of the train, breathing its effluvium of diesel vapour, rust and engine oil. The walk took me past many more unsung trees to a station, identified by a board for 'Jagjivan Nagar' where tickets could be bought for the ride. There was really nothing here for Pi's patrons to cherish, not even a faint echo of Richard Parker's padded footfalls.

Beside a fine old African Mahogany gnarled with age, a fallen signboard stared up at the sky bearing the legend to anyone who cared to know that this, indeed, was the oldest specimen of the tree in our country. It felt a bit like walking in a graveyard of martyrs without knowing any of their names or why they died.

Life does leap over oblivion, but ever so slightly.

Did you follow our live travelogue, The Great East Coast Road Drive? Enjoy the full recording and archives here