Tuesday, March 28, 2006

An Obit for Old Adwaita

I read today that the oldest animal on earth died last week In Calcutta. He was a tortoise called Adwaita. In Bengali, his name meant ‘The Only’.

He was - they think - some 256 years old.

He was born in the Seychelles but was captured there by British sailors and brought to India, where he was presented - along with three of his brothers - to Robert Clive, the man who forged the British Raj in India for the East India Company. This would have been sometime in the 1750s or 60s.

For one hundred and some-odd years, Adwaita lived on the sprawling estate of the Adventurer, Robber Baron, Statesman, Opium Eater, and Suicide, Robert Clive.

Eventually, Adwaita outlived his three brothers, Clive, and the British Empire.

In 1876, he was moved to the Calcutta Zoo, where he lived the life of a bachelor until his death last Wednesday.

About a month ago, his massive shell cracked and he developed a wound that wouldn’t heal. His keepers came to feed him one morning and found him collapsed under his own weight. They will preserve his shell and use carbon dating techniques on it to ascertain his age with more certainty than was possible while he lived.

Having had, at one time, a pet tortoise of my own (Shellbert, by handle), maybe this all hit me harder than it otherwise might have.

Shellbert hibernated nearly all the time. He was usually buried somewhere in the garden - his preferred situs for his project of endless sleep. When he reappeared occasionally, we’d ply him with strawberries, which he ate with abandon. You could hold them in front of him and he would rush at them with a speed you would not expect from such a slow little creature.

Strawberries are a tortoise's favorite thing in the whole world, in my experience.

One day he simply disappeared. Either he had buried himself yet again in the flowerbed and we simply didn't see him on the days he happened to emerge or he had escaped our backyard for the wide world. I think about him sometimes.

I read once about the tortoises that were kept by the Ottoman sultans on the Topkapi Palace grounds on the Golden Horn. They wandered freely through fields of tulips with gigantic candles fixed to their backs and at night, the candles were lit so that - in those days before electric lights - one could look up at the gently sloping hill from the banks of the Bosphorus and watch the sad creatures’ nocturnal movements by the slow, pendulous motion of the flickering candles on their backs.

I like to think Adwaita’s days on the Clive Baronate Estate were like that: full of balmy nights under quiet stars, with a belly full of flowers.

I hope that his long years at the Calcutta Zoo weren’t anything like the only tropes I know for zoo animals. I hope they gave him strawberries sometimes.

I hope he didn’t have the kind of memory we do - one that endlessly ferments everything into treacly nostalgia, no matter what we pour into it; I hope he didn’t think much about the Seychelles or about other tortoises.

The Egyptians have this thing they say about the Pyramids:

“All men fear Time, but Time itself fears the Pyramids.”

The story of Adwaita the tortoise feels like that to me, mixed up with the sensation I get when I see homemade posters stuck on stop signs advertising lost dogs and cats.

I am strangely moved by the passing of this reptilian monument to time and I never even knew he existed until today. If I ever go to Calcutta, I will be sure to look for his great shell, horny and calloused, wherever it hangs - as it is sure to do - for a reverent public to view. Maybe I will feel like I feel when I visit the grave of someone I admire.

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