The Class Hero (written Bangalore, 22 March, 2006)
A version of the following story in graphic format, titled 'The Zookeeper's Son' was published in Tinkle in July 2010.
The Class Hero
Apratim hated coming back from school. No, it was not that he loved school so much, he hated the return journey. It was very complicated. He would get off the bus at Alipore zoo and then have to wait till it passed out of sight. Then he would look furtively to the left and right, cross the road, and enter the zoo.
Apratim’s father was a keeper in the zoo, and he lived in the zoo staff quarters. But Apratim was unwilling to tell this to his classmates. If they knew, they would have lots of things to say to him which could do without. He told them instead that he lived in an apartment two blocks away from the zoo gates.
Apratim’s behaviour puzzled his friends. When some of them, who lived near Alipore wanted to come to his house to see his toys and games, he refused to give his address. He said that his mother did not like boys playing in her house, and his elder brother who was studying for engineering exams would not like to be disturbed.
One day, the bus broke down. Apratim had just gotten off, and the bus had moved a few yards before the engine failed. However, in the busy traffic of Alipore road, he did not notice the bus. As usual he looked left and right, and crossed the road. Prabir, who was getting bored in the immobile bus, caught a glimpse of Apratim going into the zoo. He immediately told all his friends.
“Hey Abhijit, Bibhas, Chandan, come here. Look, Apratim is going into the zoo!”
“What is he doing there?”
“I don’t know. We’ll ask him tomorrow!”
There was no avoiding his classmates in the recess next day. They pressed him to tell them why he went to the zoo after school. Apratim refused to tell.
“Hey Apratim, you better tell, or Krishanu will eat all your lunch!” said Prabir, and snatched his lunch box.
“I am not going to tell you. Why do you care?” said Apratim.
Though he was horrified to see the class glutton Krishanu eat up his tasty lunch of fish curry and rice, his lips were sealed.
Abhishita threatened to tell Ms. Sen, their class-teacher. “I will tell Sen Ma’am that you go to the zoo everyday after school instead of going home.”
Even then Apratim kept quiet.
Abhishita, who could never keep any matter inside her for more than ten minutes, complained to Ms. Sen at the start of the mathematics class. Apratim was furious, but he kept his peace. When returning home, he would remove her hair-clip and throw it out of the bus.
Ms. Sen was not surprised.
“I know that, Abhishita. He lives in the zoo quarters. His father is a keeper there.”
Apratim told himself that Ms. Sen would find a pin in her seat the next class. Now his cover was blown.
They were ready for him when the bell rang for recess the next day.
“Which cage do you live in?”
“Hey monkey, have a banana!”
“Hey pigeon, have some grams!”
“Bengal tiger, like some fish?”
Apratim ran after them, and got into a scuffle. They all had to kneel outside the class after recess as punishment for fighting. This went on for several days.
But he didn’t have to keep up his drama anymore. After getting off the bus, he could walk straight home.
Towards the end of the school-year, an annual picnic was organized. Apratim was horrified as Ms. Sen said, “Class, we will go for our annual picnic to the zoo on Sunday.”
The class cheered. After long last, they would get to see Apratim’s home!
On Sunday, everyone in the class (except Apratim of course), was at the zoo gates by 10 o’clock. A sullen Apratim met there. He was to show them around, as Ms. Sen had declared.
After they had bought their tickets, he started the tour. He took them to the reptile enclosure first. He wanted to take his revenge by giving them a good scare. He pointed out all the deadly snakes and lizards behind the glass walls.
“Hey Prabir, you are so brave no. Get into the cobra cage and see!” He pressed his nose against the wall, as a cobra came sliding towards them. Prabir gave a frightened yell.
Ms. Sen gave them a scolding and hustled them out of the scary enclosure. They went to the Primate section next.
“Hey Apratim, which cage do YOU live in?” asked Krishanu.
“Definitely not the gorilla cage; that is for you” retorted Apratim.
“Apratim lives in the langur cage” said Abhishita, as she saw the langurs come towards them.
And then it was their turn for a surprise. All the langurs recognized Apratim and called out to him. He pulled out some gram and thrust his hands into the cage. A little langur came up to him, and nibbled at the seed. Then he patted it, and it squeaked with delight.
Everyone looked at him open-eyed.
“See, I told you. Apratim lives with the langurs!” screamed Abhishita.
“Maybe I do. But can you feed the langurs just like me?” retorted Apratim.
“Huh! Anyone can do that.” said Abhijit.
“Then here are some grams. Try!”
Abhijit thrust his hands into the cage. The langurs drew back, screeching and hissing. Frightened, he too pulled his hand back.
“Now, now. You should not do things like that.” admonished Ms. Sen.
“But how did he do it?” wailed Abhijit.
“He lives here, and he knows all the animals.”
“Yes” said Apratim, “all the animals are my friends. Come, let’s make friends with Chunni.”
“Who is Chunni?” asked Shamita.
Everyone watched dazedly as Apratim boldly climbed into the rhino enclosure. She docilely let him pat her on the back. He then went to the enclosures of the hippopotamuses and did the same thing.
He took them to the big cats enclosure. Everyone was amazed to see the leopards and tigers let him pat him on their heads, instead of biting his hands. He invited them to do it, but they declined.
He had another surprise for them at the bear enclosure.
“Wait a minute”, he said, and disappeared behind the walls.
After sometime, he came out with a person who was leading a bear-cub.
“This is my daddy. He takes care of the bears here. And this is Bhondu, who is my friend. You can touch him if you like”
Under Apratim’s father’s supervision, all the boys and girls touched Bhondu and patted him on the head. Apratim showed them how to tickle him behind his ears. In a few minutes, he and Bhondu were wrestling joyfully on the ground, as everyone watched.
“Apratim, you are really good with animals.” said Abhishita.”
“Yes” said Shamita, “we are sorry.”
“We can never be friends with animals like you do.” admitted Krishanu.
“No, no. If you come to my house, I can get you make friends with all the animals too! There is very little difference between you and them anyway!” he said with a grin.