Monday, March 5, 2012


SNAKE! This monosyllabic word has the capacity to send terror and a bolt of electricity down our spines. I am sure all of us, one way or another, have encountered these creepy crawlers. We detest any type of snake – poisonous and non-poisonous – as much as we fear them. But despite our fear, it is said that in Goa everybody has a snake story – whether fictitious or real – to tell. (I remember Venita Coelho once remarking about the same in the Indian Express). As a boy, any news about a snake in the vicinity of where I lived would fill me with fear. (I don’t like to accept it, but they still terrify me…just a bit!).
Rahul Alvares, the author of Free From School, has come out with a collection of stories – or rather reminisces – about his various stories that involve catching and rescuing snakes called The Call of the Snake. “No two snake calls are alike. Some end up funny. Some even end up sad. Almost every call holds a surprise. This is a reason why I am always willing to drop whatever I am doing, get into my jeans and boots, grab the snake stick and the zippered bag – my tools of trade, as it were – and rush out to answer the call. If only people knew that the call of the snake is more irresistible than their anxiety-ridden phone calls, they really wouldn’t have to lie so often,” says Rahul in the Introduction, explaining why he gets so excited in receiving any distressed snake calls.
            Rahul’s stories are told in a humorous, tongue-in-cheek and relaxed manner. Surely he enjoys doing what he does and hence the narration flows very smoothly. It seems that Rahul was not only meant to catch snakes and rescue them but also write about his myriad adventures with the easy flourish of a mature writer. As much as Rahul can easily hop on and off roofs, climb down wells and rummage through heaps of rubble and junk to locate the snakes, he can also sit down and write about them.
            But in writing down his experiences and reminisces, Rahul is also trying to make a case for the protection of snakes and also to allay the unnecessary fears that the generic public have about snakes: “Thanks to the false portrayal of snakes by movie makers – intentionally done to add action and drama to a film – as well as the inexplicable willingness on the part of educated people to deliberately keep themselves in ignorance about these creatures, the public by and large continue to believe that snakes are waiting to attack them, that they are always revengeful and perpetually spoiling for a fight. Nothing is further from the truth. The simple fact is that snakes are cowards and would much rather run away than attack a person, any person, big or small.”
            One chapter is solely dedicated to bust the many myths about snakes that cloud and clutter our minds. In doing so, this book tries to create a discourse about how shabbily we misunderstand these reptiles. For instance, while talking about snake-charmers, Rahul enlightens, “Some snake charmers – to add excitement – have a mongoose at hand as well. The mongoose is the natural enemy of the snake. The animal is made to fight the same cobra at every show. The teeth of the mongoose are broken as well, but the cobra obviously does not know this. All the while it believes that it is about to be attacked by its mortal enemy and therefore remains in an agitated and alert state of self defence. But the cobra has no fangs either. Does this sound charming to anyone at all?”
            However, one of the most amazing and exciting story of all is found in Getting Bitten. Luke, a friend of Rahul, accidently gets bitten by a Russell’s viper (a very poisonous snake). How Rahul and another friend, Aaron run from pillar to post to get the antivenin that is required for healing their poisoned friend makes interesting reading. What is also worth marveling at is the manner in which Rahul, Aaron and even Luke handle the situation during such a time of crisis.
            Rahul’s experience in learning to catch the King cobra also makes interesting reading. King cobra is the largest venomous snake in the world and nowhere in India is the King cobra antivenin produced, so a bite could effectively prove to be fatal. Of course Rahul learnt to catch the King not in India but in Malaysia and Thailand. The thrill, exhilaration and fear that Rahul felt while handling the King for the first time, is beautifully brought out in recounting this memory.
            Mention also needs to be made of the illustrator who has designed the cover as well as provided the lively and colorful sketches to the book. So kudos to Nicky Thomas for a job well done!
           At the end of the book there are appendices of useful information regarding snakes and also some easy-to-take precautions. For instance: How to avoid getting bitten by snakes, how to prevent snakes from entering your house and how to deal with a snake bite. A list of public health centers which stock antivenin is also given along with the contact details of many snake-catchers and protectors across Goa.
            I would like to wrap up this review by reproducing a reassuring quote from Rahul, “Always remember that snake bites give you plenty of time to get to a hospital. And that antivenin can always save your life. More important, Goa’s hospitals and PHCs have enough stocks of the antidote.”

The Call of the Snake: Real life stories by a young snake catcher from Goa, 2nd edn by Rahul Alvares (Mapusa: Other India Press), 2006; pp. xii + 153, Rs. 125 [ISBN: 81-85569-57-6]

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: March 6, 2012)

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