Snakeman: The origin story

Published : Mar 21, 2024 11:00 IST - 5 MINS READ

Romulus Whitaker in Chennai in 2018.

Romulus Whitaker in Chennai in 2018. | Photo Credit: R. Ravindran

Romulus Whitaker’s Snakes, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll is a delightful tale of his exciting wildlife adventures and enduring love for India.

Its delicate teeth shone in the sun like shards of glass. Its cold body wriggled in my hands. I was 9 years old, at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology, and it mattered nothing to me that I was holding a baby mugger crocodile: Romulus Whitaker, the Crocodile Bank’s founder, had prepped me. “Hold it with your thumb and forefinger behind its head, or it’ll turn around and snap your fingers off,” he chuckled, gently handing me the reptile, entrusting me with the beautiful fledgling creature. My daughter was even younger, 6, when she got to run her tentative little finger over the shimmering scales of a python at the Crocodile Bank.

Snakes, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll: My Early Years
By Romulus Whitaker with Janaki Lenin
HarperCollins India
Pages: 400
Price: Rs.699

“Most kids would be interested in snakes if it weren’t for their parents. It kind of bugs me that they can’t learn from an early age that, yes, there are some snakes that are venomous, sure, but the rest are fine. They are interesting, they are fascinating,” Whitaker told me the last time I met him, a week after he was awarded the Padma Shri in 2018.

Whitaker was 4 when he caught his first snake—a milksnake—in upstate New York. When he brought it home in a jelly jar, his mother said: “How fabulous, let’s keep it!” And thus began his immersion into the world of reptiles and, later, their conservation in India. In Tamil Nadu, in the 1970s, he roped in the expertise of the Irula tribal community to capture four of the country’s deadliest snake species—saw-scaled vipers, kraits, cobras, and Russell’s vipers—to extract their venom for life-saving anti-venom. Together, the “big four” kill some 50,000 people every year and maim hundreds of thousands in India.

India at heart

Whitaker recalls his childhood spent in the big outdoors in the US: “I stuck my hands into tree holes, watched butterflies and beetles, and suffered itchy rashes from poison ivy…. I turned over rocks to find crayfish, grabbed slippery frogs and squeezed toads to hear their peculiar ‘let me go’ calls’,” he writes in his new autobiography, SnakesDrugs and Rock ‘n’ RollMy Early Years, co-authored with his wife, the writer Janaki Lenin.

“Whitaker was four when he caught his first snake—a milksnake—in upstate New York. When he brought it home in a jelly jar, his mother said: “How fabulous, let’s keep it!””

In 1951, an 8-year-old Whitaker, his mother, and siblings set out by ship to Bombay, where his stepfather, Rama Chattopadhyay (the son of Harindranath and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay), worked. “I felt like I’d landed on another planet,” writes Whitaker, who would, in a few decades, come to be known as the Snakeman of India.

Soon he enrolled at the Kodaikanal International School, where he shot woodpeckers and flying squirrels that he either devoured for dinner or stuffed with a taxidermist’s skill; discovered a roomful of creatures pickled in formalin; scraped up snake roadkill and draped his dorm walls with their skin; and bought himself a pet python—“trapping rats became part of my routine”. And his reputation as a “snake boy” was growing fast.

When he found himself back in the US in 1961 to study: “I didn’t stand out among the hordes of White people… but I felt as if I belonged to a breed apart…. I was more an Indian at heart than a Whitey. This cognitive dissonance has lasted all my life.”

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And then came The Letter. “Greetings. You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States.” Whitaker had been drafted to fight the Viet Cong in 1965. “I didn’t want to kill people or be blown up in Vietnam.… Shall I run away to India?” he pondered. Whitaker tried his best to evade the war. He had a bad back, he told the doctor. And a lump in his foot. Also, a terrible dust allergy. But none of it worked with the US Army medic. “Look, shithead, hippy, rat shit, loser boy…. Here’s your choice—two years of serving your country or three years in prison.”

But Whitaker made it through the training with “excellent scores, the kind I didn’t get in school or college”. And when the sergeant read out the orders, he found, to his relief, that he would not be killing Vietnamese people: he was recruited into the department of medical pathology at a hospital in Texas. But there was a problem: Whitaker was colour blind and could not see blood. “But I didn’t want to own up to the affliction for fear of being sent to the battlefront.”

Cover of Snakes, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll

Cover of Snakes, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Living with snakes

His obsession with snakes did not wane. On one snake hunt, Whitaker came across a prairie rattler on the tarmac in Texas: the reptile dealt him his first, near-lethal bite. As the car’s flashlights disoriented him, the snake nailed his right forefinger, disfiguring it for life, “affecting my ability to shoot”. The 80-year-old Whitaker writes: “Today I can’t even shake a dirty snake bag. Venom dust and dry shit make me sneeze, my nose drip and my eyes tear.”

Meanwhile, reports of the US torching Vietnam with napalm horrified Whitaker. “I couldn’t be part of the peacenik group or join in the conversation as my GI haircut gave me away.” After a stint of war duty in Japan, Whitaker made his way back home, India, after six years away. “Bombay’s smells and sounds carried me back to my first arrival here in 1951…. It seemed like I had been away for at least two decades…. I was home at last.”

If this volume captures the making of the Snakeman, the sequel, if there is one (the subtitle, “My Early Years”, suggests one might be in the offing), would necessarily tell the extraordinary tale of his rehabilitation of the Irulas, who lost their livelihood—hunting snakes for the skin trade—after the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 was passed. At the Irula Snake Catchers’ Industrial Cooperative Society, founded by Whitaker, members of the Adivasi community now expertly track and catch the reptiles alive and make a living extracting venom for medicine. Thanks to the Irulas, this organisation has the distinction of being the main source of snake antivenom in the country, saving thousands of lives every year.

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