Reuben David – the Last Magician of Ahmedabad – Esther David

Lecture given at Jyoti Sangh for Story Telling session about 600 years of Ahmedabad.

This story is about my father Reuben David and the gift he gave Ahmedabad with the zoo complex.

This story revolves around him. It is about a man, who was one of the last magicians of Ahmedabad.

He gave Ahmedabad a zoo, a children’s park and planted more than a thousand trees around the Kankaria lake.

He created an awareness of nature in Ahmedabad and put it on the world map, by making one of the best zoos in Asia.

Today, he is forgotten.

The title of my first novel is The Walled City; because I grew up in the old city of Ahmedabad. The family house was very close to Delhi Darwaza, from where once a Moghul Emperor returned back as the howdah of his elephant, touched the inside arch of Delhi Darwaza. This place is known as “salat-wada” as most stone carvers lived here, since ancient times. In Ahmedabad, most Indian Jews lived in small settlements in the old city, which was closer to the Magen Abraham Synagogue at Khamasa crossroads.

I grew up in a joint family and in this scenario; I was the youngest and had many story tellers, like the elders of the house, my grandmother, Mani the cook and the family library, where I read books, I did not understand, nor was I allowed to read them, but I did. On summer afternoons when the house slept, it was the perfect time to dream in the family library with its fragrance of leather bound books.

This library was used as a clinic in the late evenings as most men of the family were doctors. This clinic had a side door, which opened into the street and it appeared to me that an entire mass of humanity was suffering from scorpion bites and stomach aches.

The house had an open courtyard, where everybody met. They relaxed on charpoys; as the hookah changed hands and the women kept themselves busy in the kitchen. A common discussion between men and women was, where the best mutton samosas, farsan and boondi laddoos were available. Most food stuff came from tried and tested regulars.

I have also inherited this trait.

My grandmother often commented that my head was in the clouds, so she forced me to help her in the kitchen and taste whatever she cooked. These flavours stayed with me and then disappeared from my life, until I started researching for my novels in Alibaug in Maharashtra, which is our Jewish home town, where I discovered these flavours all over again. Back in Ahmedabad, I met Julieben, wife of the cantor of our Synagogue and asked her to make the same dishes for me, as Julie had grown up in Mumbai in a predominantly Jewish area. These recipes found a place in my novel Book of Rachel.

Later, in the nuclear family with father and mother, I lived in a houseful of dogs and we lived like one big canine family, although my mother had an allergy of dog fur, she never complained.

Then, the zoo happened.

And, while sitting under the belly of a huge stuffed lion in our drawing room, it was a pleasure to see father control dogs, made canaries sing or taught parrots to talk.

I knew he was a magician.

But, as a young man, he was a would-be actor and part-time mill worker. Later, he became a wild life enthusiast and he became known as a man who understood birds and animals. That is when the civic authorities of Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation approached him to create a zoo around Kankaria Lake.

When they arrived at our Shahibaug house, father was attending to a dying dog. He asked them to wait and while waiting, they decided, that they had found the right man to make a zoo. One of them also said; father could revive dying dogs; just with the touch of his hands.

My mother Sarah, a school teacher was not at home and I was sitting under the lion and listening.

Before my father made the zoo, he had given up shikar and gifted his guns, rifles and knives along with his prize Chinese sword to friends, but kept an air-gun to frighten langoors around our house.

Father had given up shikar because he could not untangle the intestines of a wounded hare from a thorny bush in the forests around Palanpur and it died in his hands. The other incident was when another hunter shot a female deer and her fawn spilled out of her womb.

During this period, a panther was shot from a machan, while the animal was standing face to face with father, who was taking a breather at ground level. The panther was shot by father’s friends, as they assumed it would attack him. All this and much more, made him lay down his guns. He was happier looking after dogs like Buchabhai a Pekingese belonging to the royal family of Palanpur and breeding dogs at ‘Sarah Kennels,’ which he started in our garden . Mani our cook came withBuchabhai to Ahmedabad to look after me. Often, my grandmother Shebabeth also spent time with me and told me that great-grandfather had also been a man of nature. During his many forays in the forests near Pune, he had seen the vision of a seven hooded serpent with a magical gem resting on his hood. According to her, this was a divine message that, someone from the family would reach great heights in an unusual field and she was sure, it was father, as he could talk to birds and animals.

When father agreed to make a zoo for the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, he was not a zoologist, veterinary doctor, engineer or architect. But, he was all this and much more rolled into one. He had something stronger than education, which is known as instinct and love for wild life.

The hillock, where the zoo was to be made was just a lake with mounds of a few trees and banana plantations.

During this period, he was also my baby sitter and often took me to the zoo, which was housed in a green-house. His office was a log cabin, which still stands there today at the ‘Tiger Gate’ facing Kankaria Lake. The green-house had parakeets, water birds, fish, snakes, rabbits and a variety of small birds and animals.

During, this period, father met Babu; alias Mohmedbhai Rasoolbhai Shaikh, a small time pickpocket, who tried to flick father’s wallet. Father caught him, but saw an innocent sparkle in his eyes and trained him to become a man of nature.

Babu became father’s life long aide.

The zoo was then known as Hill Garden Zoo.

At that point, the lake had crocodiles and one evening; two crocodiles walked into the zoo. Babu saw them and cycled down to our house in Shahibaug to inform father. Both cycled down to the zoo, buying bamboo sticks and ropes. They were captured almost bare handed and housed in a well, which existed in the zoo premises. Later, they were shifted to an open enclosure with a pond, where they bred in large numbers.

During those years, flamingoes were hunted for meat by people living around Nalsarovar. These poachers trapped flamingoes along with other water birds, broke their legs and sold their meat. Father sent Babu to befriend them and paid them more than what they normally earned. This is how, father created breeding colonies of flamingoes and other water birds at the zoo.

With the family of crocodiles, he created world records for breeding them in captivity, which were published in the prestigious International Zoo Year Book.

By then, father’s close friend and mentor Zabardustkhansaheb, a royalty from the ex-state of Palanpur sent his aide Sidi Bashir to help father, as he had a knack with big cats. He also sent a panther cub for the zoo, as he knew that father was ambitious about getting tiger and lions for Hill Garden Zoo.

When, father informed the authorities about the panther, they refused permission to keep carnivorous animals in Ahmedabad, as Gujarat was a vegetarian state. So, for a while, father kept the panther in the house, much to my mother’s discomfort, who bore all my father’s eccentricities with a smile. Later, father shifted it to a friend’s bungalow and informed the officials that the panther was a gift from the royal family of Palanpur and the authorities reluctantly gave permission to keep it.

This is the beginning of the zoo-story.

In those days, some miracles happened at the zoo, which caught the attention of the media.

Once, Sidi Bashir thought, he had locked the lions in their cage, but he had not, and he entered their open enclosure coming face to face with the newly caught wild lions Vanraj and Vanrani from Gir forest. Father was informed and he rushed to the cage, saw the situation from behind bars, close to where Sidi Bashir stood, he told him to move backwards, by not losing eye contact with the animals. Stealthily Sidi Bashir started moving backwards and as soon as he reached the door of the enclosure, father opened it slowly and Sidi Bashir came out of the cage, unhurt. Father was unarmed, but was sure that he would rescue Sidi Bashir from the lions’ fury.

A year later, two full grown tigers walked out of their enclosure, as their keeper assumed that he had locked the door, but had not. Father was informed that the tigers, were roaming free in the zoo. Babu informed father about their location and father started walking towards them. It is said; he was standing ten feet away from the animals and started roaring like a tiger, almost ordering them to return back to their cage. It was a mystical moment, as immediately the tigers turned tail and walked back into their enclosure like pet dogs. The trap-doors were quickly closed and father coolly walked back to his office.

Eventually, for all these amazing mystical qualities with wild animals and birds, he was known as ‘The Gentle Animal Keeper of Ahmedabad.’

While the zoo was growing, Vanrani the lioness abandoned her cubs and father got a stray female dog to feed them. One of the lion cubs, who survived wasMontu, who was to become father’s companion, as long as he lived. With Montu, father, performed his famous “Experiments in Co-existence,” as a full grown lion lived with his canine mother and allowed his foster brother Tommy to bully him; father was also part of the experiment, as he was often seen with them in the same enclosure and they became known all over the world.

But, my mother had a rival in Emily, the Chimpanzee. She was very possessive about father, who could not pass her cage without stopping his car and shaking hands with her. She hated the Orangutans in the enclosure next to her, especially so, if father stood longer with them.

Besides this little love affair with Emily, he was known as Tarzan, as he had the power to capture animals, birds or reptiles unarmed, without the use of tranquillizer guns or other weapons. In this way, he captured man-eater crocodiles from Kankaria Lake and Chaloda, along with panthers which had strayed into Ahmedabad and Vadnagar.

At the end of his life, while travelling in Gir Forests, he came face to face with a lioness, which stood there watching him for full five minutes and then left. Eventually, for all these amazing mystical qualities, he received the Padmashree from the government of India and was known as ‘The Miracle-Man of Ahmedabad.’

But, somewhere along the line, the roars died within my father and he lost his voice to cancer. Later, he regained a different voice with esophagus speech and an electro-larynx. Interestingly, even when he lost his voice, birds, animals and reptiles recognized him. This was the reason, why he always wore a standard khaki dress, as he said, this is how the animals recognized him, especially so, with his brigadier moustache. A dress style he never changed till the end.

The zoo was his life and he was there, till the end.

After the structure of our joint family broke up and father was making the zoo, we moved to Shahibaug, where father had rented a small outhouse in the compound of Laxmi Nivas Bungalows. When the hundred year lease of this property ended, we moved to Vasna, where father was making a farm to breed exotic birds and poultry.

All along, the people of Gujarat loved father, because during the riots, mobsters helped him reach the zoo, leading the way, although he was in a car driven by a Muslim driver. Then, there was the time; when he stood voiceless in front of a rioting mob at the zoo, challenging them in his electro-larynx voice, “You can enter the zoo, but over my dead body,” and they left.

Father often joked, “People come to the zoo, to see me, instead of the animals, as I am voiceless like my animal friends.” His contribution is best described in the words of Australian anthropologist Colin Groves, “I feel honoured to have known Mr. Reuben David, the doyen of Indian zoo directors and one of the most remarkable human beings I have ever met. He is like an endangered species on earth!”

In the process of making a zoo in Ahmedabad, my father had transported me into another world. From Delhi Darwaza onwards, it was a magical world. It helped me look at Ahmedabad as a magical city, with ‘chalte pir ki dargah,’ the ‘jhulta minara,’ ‘hasti bibi no gokhlo’ and the ‘naubat-khana.’

For this reason, the old city is the real Ahmedabad, which overflows with so many magical stories, while the west is west, where I live with my ‘patara’ of memories.