Last month, a video of Nirzara Chitti, 33, went viral on the internet. She’s in a sari, ready for an evening out, when she’s called to rescue a snake nearby. She tackles the cobra with her usual calm, using a stick picked up outside the home. It’s an art she has mastered over the last eight years or so.
There was a time she feared snakes, though her grandfather had started a school in Dholgarwadi, Karnataka, to help children understand the reptiles—there were a lot of snakes in the area, and many superstitions associated with them. She largely kept away while growing up. But life came full circle when she married Anand, whom she had met through friends, in 2007.
For though he was into farming, he loved the reptiles and was making a name in his area as a snake rescuer. “I was well aware that Anand was a professional snake catcher but had no inclination to join him. In fact, I really feared snakes those days. As long as it was his business, I was fine with it,” Nirzara says.
When she moved to Anand’s home in Yellur, Maharashtra, she started accompanying him on assignments in an effort to spend more time with him. She began to overcome her fear but refused to enter that world, watching Anand, now 38, work from a safe distance. This changed in 2012 when they received two rescue calls simultaneously from the same village.
“Anand went to the spot where they had seen a snake, while I reached the other place where they suspected one was in hiding. Even as we probed where it could be, a cobra appeared out of the blue. That was my first rescue,” she recalls.
It changed her attitude to snakes completely. Over the next few weeks, Anand, who was just 20 when he started rescuing snakes, taught her how to handle the reptiles.
“I was mostly into farming at the time and caught snakes occasionally. But time and again, I would hear of superstitions associated with snakes, which was also why a lot of people would end up killing them. So, in 2005, I decided to start rescuing them full-time and made it my mission to address the misconceptions associated with snakes,” Anand says.
“I had always thought of marrying someone whom I could interest in my field of work. At the start, I just wanted Nirzara to get over her fear of snakes. It was only after five years of marriage that she decided to join me,” he adds.
They set up an organization, Nirazanand Sarpvruksh Sanvardhan, and began work in the area around Belgaum, which has a dense forest nearby and is just around 4km from Yellur. Nirzara watched and learnt from Anand, observing every move—and the snake’s response to it. She would hound him with questions as she made up her mind on how to go about the job.
“Every snake has something new to teach you, so the learning never stops,” she says.
With time, she grew more confident of her abilities—and learnt to take the scepticism about a female snake rescuer in her stride, proving herself through action rather than words. “Even today, a lot of people ask me who I am accompanying for the rescue. There are a lot of doubts at the start, but it soon translates to surprise when they see how confident I am about my work,” Nirzara says.
They don’t charge a fixed fee for a rescue, happy to accept whatever they get. They even get calls from the forest department—though it hasn’t offered them any support.
This, however, hasn’t stopped them from continuing their work. Nor have snakebites deterred them. Anand has pulled off 16,300 rescues so far, among them cobras, Russell’s vipers, checkered keelbacks and rat snakes, while Nirzara has tackled around 2,000, including 12 in a single day. They release the snakes into the forest.
They have also conducted over 700 workshops with schoolchildren, while Anand is in the process of releasing three books on snakes to address some common misconceptions and create awareness.
“When we interact with people, I pose a simple question—what has the snake done to you that you fear it so much? And most don’t have an answer. It’s only when you ask these questions that you can get people to think about this issue and spread the word on conservation,” adds Nirzara.
She remembers her most challenging assignment, last year’s rescue of a cobra stuck in a well that the locals use to draw water from. She tied a rope around her waist, lowered herself and had just a 6-inch ledge to steady herself on. “This snake is so dangerous to deal with on the ground, so under those circumstances it was really testing,” Nirzara says.
The Chittis spend most days as a team. Once their children, Nayasa and Bhagat Singh, in classes V and IV respectively, are off to school, they attend to calls on their motorcycle, before Nirzara returns to deal with the household chores.
“We have no other source of income but at the same time we are clear that all we need money for is to continue our work,” Nirzara says.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.