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Snakes, Drugs And Rock ‘n’ Roll review: Whitaker’s roller-coaster ride

Romulus Whitaker’s biography is a thrilling narrative of his adventures, making one marvel at the audacity of it all

Romulus Whitaker, aged 27 then, presses the head of a cobra to extract its poison.
Romulus Whitaker, aged 27 then, presses the head of a cobra to extract its poison. (Getty Images)

What are the three things that a self-respecting herpetologist from the 1960s would get the most excited about? Well, they are all in the title of Romulus Whitaker’s biography Snakes, Drugs And Rock ‘n’ Roll. Written with Janaki Lenin, Whitaker’s book nails it from the get go with a pulsating yet poignant account of the early years of his life.

Those of us who have known, admired and been mentored by Whitaker, have heard the lore and listened to him recount his many, often wild, adventures in his casual and inimitably charming fashion. And yet, as you flip through the pages, adventure after adventure jumps out at you, making you marvel at the audacity of it all. This is a roller-coaster ride across continents and oceans, through professions ranging from taxidermist to army lab tech to snake hunter, and from seemingly contradictory positionalities of hunting and a love of nature.

Whitaker, now 81, starts with his earliest years in the US, where he first acquired his love of fishing and snakes, collecting garters and milk snakes on his uncle and aunt’s estate in upstate New York. While he was already in the grip of an obsession with reptiles, his future would be greatly influenced by his mother’s decision to marry into the illustrious Chattopadhyay family and move to India in late 1951 with him and his sisters, Gail and Christine.

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Whitaker writes of arriving in bustling Bombay (now Mumbai) which, despite its unfathomable difference from the world he knew, somehow felt “the same”. There was a comfort that led him to eventually return and spend the rest of his life here. Perhaps it was the affection of his grandparents, social reformer Kamaladevi (Amma) and poet and actor Harindranath Chattopadhyay, and stepfather Rama, who was starting a motion processing lab in Mumbai.

Whitaker was sent to Lawrence School, Lovedale, Tamil Nadu, which he loathed; his time there “planted the seed of aversion to uniforms, military discipline and organised violence”. After a brief interlude as a self-styled pest control agent, killing sparrows and rats for annas, and hanging out with Sapera Asmeth, the snake charmer, Whitaker and his sister Gail went to another boarding school in Kodaikanal. The Kodai days were better. Between being introduced to John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, trekking in the hills, occasional encounters with vine snakes and pit vipers and more hunting and fishing, Whitaker spent several happy years at the school. There are also accounts of his adventures with his new pet python, which he sneaked into school and kept happy with a diet of rats that he caught for it.

After finishing school, Whitaker spent a year learning taxidermy in Mysuru. From learning to stuff animals to looking after rescues, including jackals and jungle cats and a leopard cub, Whitaker writes of a period where he was also seeking the affections of young women. Mostly unsuccessfully at that, he did find another love, a 1943 350cc Triumph motorbike on which he made many trips across south India. It was on one of these trips that he met Brother Romulus, a European padre with a farm in Gumtapuram in northern Tamil Nadu, who offered him a job.

Snakes, Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll: My Early Years By Romulus Whitaker with Janaki Lenin, HarperCollins India,  400 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699
Snakes, Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll: My Early Years By Romulus Whitaker with Janaki Lenin, HarperCollins India, 400 pages, 699

The job consisted of staying up at night to keep elephants from raiding the ragi fields, hunting blackbuck and deer (this before the Indian Wildlife Protection Act was passed in 1972), and accompanying the farm workers to collect illegally logged trees. Towards the end, they baited a leopard that had been taking livestock. When it appeared, Whitaker had the cat in his sights. He missed. Disappointed then not to have bagged a leopard, many years later he would be glad he didn’t. Like a generation of hunters, including Jim Corbett in India, Whitaker’s worldview gradually shifted from killing animals to conserving them. He never lost his interest in how they tasted though. Listening to him give a talk as a youngster, I recall that he spoke of each reptile’s ecology, habitat, behaviour ….and taste.

In 1961, Whitaker returned to the US to pursue a degree in wildlife management at the University of Wyoming, Laramie. Though non-existent in India at the time, fisheries and wildlife management had become a significant discipline in the US. With his general love of nature and reptiles, this seemed like an obvious choice.

After a brief visit to his father and friends in New York, he joined university and struggled with zoology and math, but enjoyed palaeontology. For sociology, he drew on his knowledge of India and extolled the virtues of the Marxist government in Kerala, earning himself the nickname “commie” but also a good grade. He armed himself with a shotgun, a Remington rifle and a handgun. On one occasion, he managed to shoot himself in the leg with his pistol, but fortunately the bullet passed through his leg without causing damage. He also remembers his first encounter with a rattler, a 2ft long Northern Pacific rattlesnake. Each encounter with a new species or family of snake only deepened his fascination for these reptiles.

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Whitaker spent the first year hunting and fishing and consequently, when the exams rolled around, failed math. Since his father had decided to stop paying for his education (because he refused to study medicine), Whitaker dropped out and decided to become a travelling salesman to make money. One thing led to another, and he became a merchant marine. Homesick for India, he planned to find a vessel going there and jump ship. Though he had decided to leave for India by catching a ship from Florida, Whitaker had promised himself that he would go to the Miami Serpentarium to meet Bill Haast, “the world’s most famous snakeman”. Serendipitously, a position opened up and Whitaker took it. Handling and maintaining a variety of venomous snakes from across the world, the time with Haast and his team would teach Whitaker the skills he needed to start his career as a “snakeman” in India. Encounters with moccasins, a large eastern diamond back, gator-catching and other herp adventures mark this seminal period. This all ended abruptly in early 1965 when he was drafted into the US Army.

After a period of training at Fort Gordon Georgia and using his weekend passes to go snake hunting with his friends, Whitaker was assigned as a medical technician in a hospital in El Paso, Texas. Grateful not to have to “kill people or be blown up in Vietnam”, Whitaker learnt a whole bunch of lab techniques and collected blood samples with his team, humorously christened the “Vampire Squad”. He spent his spare time trying different drugs and looking for snakes in the surrounding desert, one time being hospitalised after a nasty bite from a prairie rattler. As the war in Vietnam heated up, Whitaker signed up to be a lab technician in Japan. Soon after, he was done with his army stint and discharged. Catching rattlesnakes (getting bitten again) and doing other odd jobs to buy his ship ticket, Whitaker finally returned to India in 1967.

What a ride. And Whitaker’s not even at the halfway point of his amazing story. In fact, the part that we are all familiar with—his career as India’s snakeman, king cobra wrangler, founder of the Madras Snake Park and Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, National Geographic filmmaker, winner of many awards—starts after this. Whitaker’s impact on conservation the last 50 plus years has been profound. Through inspiring a generation of herpetologists and starting projects on snakes, crocodiles and sea turtles around the country, Whitaker brought much needed attention to the conservation of these fauna. But that comes later—this is just Volume 1 of the autobiography.

The book would be unputdownable anyway but Whitaker spices it up further with endearing anecdotes, a candid style and a deep honesty about both events and experience. At the end, one is left marvelling at the movie-star persona and the thrilling narrative of his life. And more than anything, waiting with bated breath for the rest of it.

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