Conservation

Snake man

Print edition : September 06, 2013

Snake Shyam with a cobra he has just "rescued". Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

Snake Shyam's easily recognisable minivan, which he uses to ferry schoolchildren. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

Snake Shyam posing on the road in Mysore that is named after him. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

A well-known and flamboyant personality of Mysore, “Snake” Shyam has made it his mission in life to rescue snakes that have entered homes or factories and take them back to the forest.

MYSORE is smaller than the metropolises in India but almost 10 lakh people live in this historically rich city. Going anywhere with the flamboyant “Snake” Shyam in this city is like walking into a college campus with the president of the students’ union. Mysore is his college campus and he its undisputed president.

As Shyam zips along the boulevards of Mysore on his brightly painted motor scooter, almost every second person he encounters waves to him and yells out a greeting, which is sometimes lost in the wind. Shyam responds gregariously to all: some by name, while others are dismissed with a friendly wave. When he stops his scooter, people surround him immediately, but there is wariness mixed with their curiosity. Their eyes scrutinise his backpack closely before shifting to the knotted pillow cover that he carelessly carries in his left hand. Shyam seems indifferent to their eager glances as he banters with almost all of them simultaneously.

Finally, a girl asks him to show his latest “catch”, and he gently unknots the pillow cover before pulling out a common wolf snake. He holds the finger-thin brown snake with serrated white markings by its mouth. The girl screeches as it wraps itself around his thick fingers, which are adorned with around 20 scary looking rings.

“The wolf snake that you saw today was the 27,007th snake that I have rescued since I started maintaining a record of my rescues from 1997. I must have rescued over 40,000 snakes till now from 1980,” Shyam says proudly as he shows me his ledger. Each entry lists a date, time, address, mobile number of the caller and the type of snake that Shyam rescued. It is an astounding figure even for an established snake rescuer like Shyam who receives panic-stricken calls on his two mobile phones when snakes slither into houses or factories. This means that he rescues four or five snakes every day. “Yes, that sounds correct. There are times when I receive up to 20 phone calls a day during summer and monsoon seasons, while the number drops during the colder months,” states Shyam. It is also interesting that he uses the word “rescue” and not “catch”. Clearly, for him it is the snake that needs rescuing from humans.

Shyam was born Balasubramania in 1967. He discovered his ability to handle snakes when he was a teenager. “One day when I was coming back from school, a girl was screaming as a snake had entered her house. I must have been 13 then and I had seen an English film a week before in which a tribal boy caught a snake. I went and caught hold of the snake just like the boy in the film. There has been no looking back since then as my reputation as a snake rescuer spread. I had no fear of snakes after I caught my first snake although I have been bitten four times... as a rescuer.”

After his schooling, Shyam got a diploma in the electrical sector at a local industrial training institute. He continued rescuing snakes after starting work. He soon realised that his meagre salary doing odd jobs in factories could not sustain him, so he acquired an autorickshaw and began ferrying schoolchildren. This continues to be his main vocation, and the four hours every day, two in the morning and two in the evening, that he spends taking children to and from school are sacrosanct.

His transformation into the eye-catching, easily recognisable person he is today also began around this time out of a desire to create his own distinct identity. He began to dress jazzily and to grow his hair long. What marks him out though are the 10 or so rudraksha necklaces that dangle around his neck, his rings, his 10 to 15 bracelets and his tattoos: a snake, a dragon and a cockroach, among others. His mirrored sunglasses add to his colourful persona. Shyam is aware that he stands out in a group of people as a bird of paradise would in a murder of crows.

“Children in Mysore schools win fancy dress competitions when they dress like me,” Shyam says. His scooter, autorickshaw and minivan are plastered with multi-hued slogans. Shyam is noticed wherever he goes for his distinctive style, but he would perhaps have been reduced to a sideshow if it were not for his spectacular ability to handle all varieties of snakes.

“I have caught all sorts of snakes but the most numerous are cobras. Almost 60 to 65 per cent of the snakes that I caught were cobras, 20 to 25 per cent were rat snakes and the rest included vipers, sand boas, green vine snakes, trinket snakes, common wolf snakes, kukri snakes, racer snakes and pythons,” he says. His favourite snake is the trinket snake because “...it is an innocent snake”. He usually leaves the snakes he rescues in a forest outside the city.

Mysore is in southern Karnataka and is located close to large forests, and the rapid expansion of the city is leading to loss of habitat for a variety of animals, including snakes. With increasing interaction between snakes and humans, the number of calls that Shyam receives has seen a 10-fold increase even though there are almost 15 recognised snake rescuers in Mysore now compared with 20 years ago when there was only one, Shyam. Most of the calls that Shyam receives are from the newer extension areas. “We are encroaching into the snake’s territory; the snake is not coming into ours,” he says. While Shyam has a conversation with me, he holds on to a four-foot-long cobra that he has just rescued.

Shyam’s efforts have been recognised by the Mysore City Corporation, which named a road in the city after him, and the State government, which awarded him the Rajyotsava Award (the second-highest civilian honour in Karnataka) in 2010. He has been featured in shows on the National Geographic and History channels. Banking on his popularity, Shyam has forayed into electoral politics and was recently elected to the corporation from Kuvempunagar on the Bharatiya Janata Party ticket. “My intention is to serve and not to make money. Till now I served society by rescuing snakes; in the future I want to serve society by addressing people’s basic needs. I will see whether I want to continue in active politics after my term ends. With my work, I want to become part of history,” he states.

Shyam does not demand any money for his rescues although he does not hesitate to accept money that is given to him willingly. “If I start charging a fixed sum for my rescues, many residents who encounter a snake may kill it rather than call me,” he explains. Shyam claims that he has also trained over 700 people from all over the country in the skills required to rescue snakes.

“If one wants to catch snakes, there are three important requirements: they should learn the distinction between venomous and non-venomous snakes; second, they should have courage; and third, they should have concentration. Every time you catch a snake, you should think that you are catching your first snake.” Shivakumar B., 23, his latest protege, nods his concurrence. He has been with Shyam from the time he joined college and has started rescuing snakes.

In Shyam’s world view, a good human being needs to have respect for nature, parents, farmers, teachers and soldiers. He lives his life respecting these five things, and this is what he teaches schoolchildren when he is invited to schools as he often is. He concludes the interview on a quirky note: “See, human beings evolved from monkeys and we fear snakes because monkeys also fear snakes. We need to stop being monkeys to overcome our fear of snakes.” Shyam has just received a phone call: a black snake has been sighted in the cable room of a factory on the outskirts of Mysore. That truly sounds like looking for a needle in a haystack but it is just another day in “Snake” Shyam’s life. He quickly locates his snake hook and sets off to rescue his 27,09th snake.

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