Snakes in the City

On my vacations, I'd pass through the sleepy city of Madras on my way between Kodaikanal School in southern Tamil Nadu and my home in Bombay.​ My main memory of those days in the 1950s is of cars and taxis driving right up to the platform of Egmore Railway station, making boarding and alighting a real pleasure.

In the mid-1960s, when I returned from the US after an abortive attempt at higher studies, I set up a venom production lab at Gaimukhbandar, on the outskirts of Bombay. I travelled around the country finding snakes (and high adventure too). One of my regular trips was to Madras, back to the Tamil Nadu where I'd lived for a decade as a child. I remembered a lot of the Tamil I had learned as a boy and felt right at home. I read an article about a tribe of snake hunters by a journalist called Harry Miller who was the head of the photography section of The Indian Express in Madras. So I went to the Express Estates to meet him and he kindly introduced me to an aging Irula tribal, Arjunan, who specialised in the fine art of catching snakes.

Meeting the Irulas was the primary reason I moved to Madras. As a lonely snake hunter, it wasn't easy to find a peer group, friends who shared my interests, and here was a whole tribe of them! Over the next few years, I roamed the local forests and farmlands with these very skilled naturalists and hunter-gatherers without rival.

​The first reptile park in India was set up on a farm that I rented for Rs 125 a month near a village called Rajakilpakkam, about 30 km south of Madras. My brother Neel, sister Nina and several friends helped me make the snake enclosures, looked after our collection of cobras, vipers, rat snakes and vine snakes (to name a few) and we were in business. It was an instant hit and I got good press coverage. But to attract the crowds, I really needed to be in the city.

... contd.

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