A driver by profession (he ferries children to a local school and back in a little van), Snake Shyam is the first person the locals send out an SOS to whenever they spot a snake. He gets around ten calls a day.
In a land where snakes are revered, these reptiles are ironically also one of the most threatened species, as their natural habitat is being constantly encroached upon by a burgeoning population.
For a man who undertakes one of the most dangerous tasks, Snake Shyam, who can identify at least 40 species of snakes by sight, uses two very simple tools to accomplish his mission – a pillowcase and an old badminton racquet. But these in themselves are not what gets the snake into the bag. It is his absolute knowledge of the creature's behaviour, split-second decision taking and an impeccable judgement that help him be the genius he is. Once the snake is coaxed into the pillowcase, he knots it up and goes off into the forests, far way from human habitat and then sets the snake free.
Snake Shyam began 'rescuing' (he prefers to use that term) snakes more than 20 years ago and claims to have rescued close to 40,000 snakes to date – an achievement that caught the interest of the National Geographic film crew who filmed a special episode on him that was telecast late last year.
After about an hour and a half's drive, we reached the outskirts of Mysore. We drove past a set of typical row houses and stopped at a house with a white van parked outside.
"That's Snake Shyam's vehicle," said my cousin. Numerous stickers and short slogans in English and Kannada (the local language) dotted the van. 'Snakes are not as poisonous as human beings', 'Care for the rare', and 'Save for the future', are a few that come to mind as I write this.
A large earthen pot stands in one corner of his garden. In response to the look on my face, my cousin said it was to collect rainwater, another hobby of Snake Shyam.
As I was in a snake man's territory, nervousness seemed to be a natural consequence. It did not help to know that he keeps quite a few reptiles in his house as well.
A few moments later, a mid-sized man with a handlebar moustache stepped out of the house. Sporting a large number of bracelets and bangles, he smiled broadly and introduced himself. My son's eyes grew large and round with admiration as Snake Shyam introduced himself.Not wanting to waste any more time, we asked him if he could show us some snakes. Sure, he said before extracting a sack from his vehicle.
I held my breath hoping he would be really, really careful while handling the cargo inside.
Shyam put the bag down and from the mouth of the bag carefully pulled out a long snake which could've easily been mistaken for a rope by an unsuspecting onlooker. He signalled for his son to fetch a bowl of water. He then carefully placed the rim of the cup near the snake. Till then, I had never seen a snake up close and I watched in amazement as the snake began to sip the water. "Would you like to hold the snake?" he asked me. No thank you, I said but my son Sid volunteered and appeared quite comfortable handling the snake for a while before Shyam returned it to the sack.
In the boot of his vehicle were more sacks of varying sizes from which he brought out other kinds of snakes. He allowed each to sip some water before returning them to their 'homes' for the time being. Every movement by him was tender, careful and easy. Once the snake was returned to the sack, the mouth of the sack was secured. For me, the sight of so many different types of snakes was as fascinating as it was intimidating. I spotted a green tree snake, a rat snake, a viper and even a speckled cobra, which hissed and spread its hood in what seemed to me a menacing way.
Having watched the snakes quenching their thirst, we were then invited into his home. I gingerly looked around, expecting to see snakes slithering all over the floor. What I found however were plenty of sacks littering the place and each I convinced myself held a snake or more. Did he warn children who visited his home not to go around opening unattended sacks?
"See these?'' he interrupted my nervous musings as he opened a sack. Inside were a few recently hatched cobras. "I rescued these from a factory nearby.''
Dealing with snake-bite
Has he ever been bitten by a snake? "Yes,'' he said. "Four times. After the last time my doctor told me that I have to exercise more caution when catching snakes.'' Apparently, Snake Shyam has developed an allergy to anti-venom. "The doctor told me the anti-venom might not work on me the next time round.''
So Shyam now no longer uses his bare hands to catch snakes. Instead he tethers an old sack to the handle of an old badminton racquet and much like a butterfly net, brandishes it with utmost care to get the reptile to slither into the sack. However, he does occasionally do away with the sack-and-racquet routine and returns to the use of his bare hands to 'rescue' a snake.
Despite his unquestionable expertise and love for the creatures, he has had his share of raw deals.
"I have been, on occasion, admitted to the hospital following a snake bite.
I would spend the day there and get myself discharged in the evening, so my family wouldn't know about it,'' he said.
A free service
Snake Shyam does not charge a fee for catching snakes. "... because if I do, people won't call me. Instead they'll just try to kill the snake,'' he said. And that's not something he wants. "Yes, it does cost me quite a bit to do this job as I have to use my own vehicle to reach the spot, catch it, then drive all the way to the edge of the forest (of Bandipur or Nagarhole, near Mysore) to release it,'' he explained.
How did it all begin? "It happened when I was around 24. A snake had crept into our neighbourhood and there was pandemonium all around. People were terrified. Most of them wanted to do what humans do as soon as they see a snake – kill it.''
However Shyam wanted a different fate for the reptile. I'll handle this, he told the crowd and as they watched in stupified amazement he blithely captured the snake. Snake Shyam had accomplished his first 'rescue'.
It didn't take long for the word to spread and soon people started summoning him to get the reptiles off their space. Popularity and admiration were inevitable consequences as was the moniker Snake Shyam. (He even has a road named in his honour in Mysore.)
"In the beginning, I didn't know much about snakes," he said of his early tryst with the venom carriers. But as he went about his rescue missions, his knowledge of them grew. Very soon, a professor in Mysore University heard about his feats and took him under his wing.
He taught Shyam how to identify the different species of snakes. Additionally, Shyam also read books written by well known herpetologists like Romulus Whitaker and J C Daniel. He may not have a university degree, but his ability to learn and train himself makes him a scholar in his own right.
A nature enthusiast
As we sat talking about his unusual pursuit, his wife Satyavati brought us steaming cups of coffee. How does she cope living in a house with sacks of snakes all around? She smiled with such benignity, that I got my answer. Over the years, she too has learnt about the different kinds of snakes as have Shyam's kids.
Apart from having a deep concern for snakes, Shyam is also a nature enthusiast and works closely with the Mysore zoo. The zoo seeks his help for the upkeep of their reptilian exhibits. He also educates people about snakes. According to Shyam, people are more likely to die of the fear of snakes rather than from a snake bite. It is his dream to set up a snake park where he can rehabilitate all the reptiles he saves.
Just then the phone rang. A man had spotted a snake close to his house. "I am on my way,'' said Shyam as he readied to set off on yet another rescue mission.
The unique thing about individuals like Snake Shyam is that his knowledge helps keep both snakes, and humans, safe.
Snake Shyam can be contacted at +91-821-2517399/mob-+91-9448069399.