Friday, April 22, 2011

Unusual Family

Many, many years ago, Mr Zafer Fateally, nephew of the famous ornithologist, Salim Ali decided to make Bangalore his home. Zafer, in his own right, is quite well known as a conservationalist, naturalist and despite his advanced age, still writes on his pet subjects. Then, I was a fledging young doctor trying to make both ends meet. Zafer took for rent a portion of a house owned by Mr and Mrs Henry Pais. This was only a temporary arrangement till such time his own house was ready for use which was under construction on the outskirts of the city. After Zafer moved out his son Murad became the tenant. Henry and his wife and the son Prem [then a medical student and now dean of St John’s medical college] were well known to me and for a time, when Prem was abroad I had the privilege to being their doctor. Old man Henry was a very meticulous man and an avid reader and he used to lend me books. He kept track of everything he did and this included maintaining records of all the bills paid and when.

In those days, getting a phone connection was a major issue. The beurocratic strangle hold on the ordinary citizen was much worse than it is now. Therefore or for other reasons, Zafer entered into a sort of unwritten agreement with Henry that any bill in excess of the usual that was normally received before his tenancy will be paid by him. As Henry kept records of all calls he made there was no problem. All was well for a few months. Then came the trouble. The monthly phone rentals shot up. Henry was quite sure as his records did not reveal any additional calls. So was Zafer. In those days it was not unusual for errant lines men to cross connect and favor someone at your cost. Thinking of some such outside mischief, Henry went to the phone department and met the concerned engineer. They agreed to monitor his phone and catch the culprit.

It was soon found out that the reason why the phone bill shot up was due to Zai [daughter of Zafer] who had recently come from Mumbai [them Bombay] making trunk calls to Madras. The matter was thus solved as far as Henry and Zafer were concerned.
But who was she calling so frequently? Now arrives on the scene, the chief character of the unusual family, Romulus Whittaker, popularly called Ron. The calls were made to Ron who was courting her. How did these two meet and who is Ron?

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, a south Indian, Konkani speaking Saraswath Brahmin woman married to a Bengali, was a renowned freedom fighter and a close associate of the first prime minister of the country Jawaharlal Nehru. Kamaladevi is also known for her bravery, good looks and for the work she did with refugee rehabilitation post partition. Later she held important positions and was primarily responsible for the survival and revival of many art forms in the country. When she finally retired she came and settled in my practice area. When I first met her she was past 85 and was pretty unwell. She died of natural causes soon after.

Kamala Devi had one son called Ram [I don’t know much about him except that he married Doris and the marriage was not successful]. Doris Chattopadhyaya became my friend and patient and I was privileged to be her doctor till her death few years back at a ripe old age. She had one son and one daughter [or two?] by her first marriage and a son by the second marriage. The male product of the first marriage is Ron.

Ron is now just past 60 and the story really begins when he was around 10 or 12 when Doris put him for schooling in International school at Kodaikanal in Tamilnadu [then state of Madras]. Young Ron even in those days had an interest in animal life and his lifelong love affair and his later profession of herpetologist began in that young age. He would befriend the wandering snake charmers and would move around with them even spending his holidays wandering all over. These snake charmers belonged to a tribal community called Irulas. These people dwelled in the forests and caught snakes for a living. They also lived a life well adapted to nature. They ate ants and honey along with some live bees and lived on what is naturally available [ there is an excellent picture of an Irula enjoying his meal of ants sitting near an anthill in the book Snakeman, a biography of Ron by his wife Zai]. Ron soon became an expert snake catcher among other things learned in this association. After school he had to do two years of compulsory military service as per the US regulations and once that was done he was back to his old ways and the city of Madras became the centre of his activity and till recently it was so. He established the famous Madras snake park in Guindy which soon became a major tourist attraction. If I remember right he even lived in the premises. A well known wild life organization [? world wild life fund] invited two representatives from the state of Madras to visit Mumbai and young Ron was asked come with another colleague.

Ron took an experienced Irula tribesman to the meeting. This natures man well versed in the ways of forest did not know the basic courtesies of urban life. He was comfortable sitting on the floor rather than on a chair. When asked the propriety of bringing this person as a delegate, Ron is reported to have said.’ He knows more about wild life than all of us put together! The organizer of the meet was Zafer and that is how Ron met Zai which eventually resulted in their marriage. This was about the time Zafer moved to Bangalore and the above mentioned encounter took place at Henry’s home.

Ron ran his Madras snake park for many years and then moved over to a place close to Mahabalipuram and established a crocodile conservation project along with establishing a very successful Irula cooperative society. Once I went there to see his work. The Irula tribals would catch the snakes and bring them over to the society. Here men trained by Ron would remove the venom [a fascinating process] and clip one of the scales [like making a mark] and get the Irula to take it back and release the snake in the wild. There have been instances where the snake is caught again and again by the same of different Irula and brought back to the cooperative. The venom is in demand for making vaccine and for other medicinal purposes and the society is run on financially sound lines. When I was there I found crocodiles everywhere and from all over the world being reared. There were so many which were surplus and the central government under the minister Maneka Gandhi had forbidden export of animals and Ron was stuck with hundreds of Crocks. He even told me that he was fed up with eating crock meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner!

Gharial is a crocodile in the rivers of north India and in particular Ganga. It had a long flat snout very different from the usual crocodile one sees. It plays an important role in cleaning up the river by eating up all the rubbish that is thrown including the half burnt dead bodies. This species was on the verge of extinction and Ron was asked to help revive them. I think his attachment to this magnificent animal began then. I think his love for the Gharial is only next to his love for the King Cobra. He camped on the shores of Ganga and managed to repopulate the reptile in its natural habitat. Gharial can be seen in numbers in his crock park at Mahabalipuram. If you rarely see the floating half burnt bodies in the river Ganga these days, the credit to some extent should go to Ron for having saved the Gharial becoming extinct.

Now coming to his fascination with that magnificent reptile The King Cobra. King Cobra needs a particular environment to survive and ideal environment is in the evergreen forests of Western Ghats and in particular the forests surrounding the town of Agumbe. Incidentally Agumbe gets an average of over 300 inches of rainfall annually. Those of you who have seen the serial Malgudi days [based on R.K Narayan’s novel Swami and his friends] may know that the film was shot in this town. Ron has now made Agumbe his home. People around don’t harm snakes and even worship them but Ron’s presence is welcome as an errant king sometimes gets into their houses and tries to stay there! Hand rearing King Cobra is not easy, not just because of its venom [enough to kill a big size elephant] but because of its staple diet is other snakes. Ron is constantly is in search of this special food for his pets. All this well brought about in his now famous documentary shot for the National Geographic on King Cobra. Having been bitten occasionally in performing his professional duty, Ron has often taken anti snake venom. Now he has become sensitive to this and cannot take it. He carries with him shots of adrenaline and steroids and when I asked him what happens if he is bitten he answered with a rueful smile,’ let us wait and see ’. For his sake and for the King Cobra’s, I pray that doesn’t happen.

What about Doris? She lived a full life studying and writing on Indian art. Ever a gracious host she divided her time between upstate New York and Bangalore and died some years ago here following a brief illness. She too was in her mid eighties when she died.

What about the Son from her Indian Husband? Neil Chattopadhyaya married Arundhaati, a well known Bharatnatyam dancer from Mumbai and has now settled here in Bangalore. Neil provides the back ground music to Ron’s documentaries.

What about Ron’s sister?. I have forgotten her name. Here is small but interesting incident. My US based daughters while on a trip to distant Seattle, on their shopping trip, saw this store selling eastern art. Naturally interested in art, they went inside and got talking to the lady owner. She was [is] Ron’s sister and knew me and was very pleased to meet up with her doctor’s daughters!

The property in which such illustrious persons as Kamaladevi and Doris lived was ultimately sold some years ago and now is a shopping mall on the 100 ft road! Often when I pass by the place, I recollect the unusual people who lived there and how fortunate I was [am still] to have come to know them.

It is two years since I met either Neil or Ron and therefore couldn’t get many more details and get whatever I have written, edited. If there are any discrepancies I own the fault. I had to write about them so that my readers get to know about this remarkable family.


Dip said...

This is a part of history that every young Indian should know ~ more so if he/she is interested in snakes and crocodiles.

I remember having met Romulus Whittaker in 1970 in Guindy Park where he had his Snake Park. I used to take my son from the age of 5 to that park and I remember how Ron took the fear of snakes from him by handling snakes in that Park.

Thanks for bringing this to us.

alby said...

Personally I have a phobia for these reptiles described in your blog, but I certainly can appreciate Ron's love for mother nature and his simplicity. Certainly an unusual family!!
Well written Dr Rao!