Romulus Whitaker interview: The snakeman of India on his autobiography Snakes, Drugs and Rock N’ Roll

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Promise me you won’t kill a snake — Romulus Whitaker’s mother said to the young boy, when he brought home his first milk snake in a jelly jar. He had found it under a rock on the pastures of Upstate New York’s Hoosick, where he spent a few of his childhood years. She called the creature beautiful. This precious moment set the tone for Whitaker’s life and career in the company of reptiles, big and small.

And, so it should come as no surprise that his life spills over more than one volume of an autobiography. The unassuming American who is hailed as ‘the snakeman of India’ — for Madras, the man behind the beloved Snake Park and Crocodile Bank founded in 1976 — lays bare his early years in the irreverent, engaging Snakes, Drugs, and Rock ‘N’ Roll: My Early Years (published by HarperCollins), the first part of his autobiography written with author and wife, Janaki Lenin.

Was the title meant to shock? From his home, on the outskirts of Bengaluru, the 80-year-old opens with a hearty, full laugh. “This seemed to be a title that would grab attention, at the snakes level, drugs level or the rock n’ roll level. It also reflects the age that I was talking about, the first 25 years of my life. I have had this title in mind for possibly 10 years!”

The book is an easy read with interludes from Rom’s school days, his time in service as a medic for the US Army during the Vietnam war, and at sea as a sailor, among early days of career. The trajectory catches one unawares.

Whitaker with his pet kite, Bombay; 1959

Whitaker with his pet kite, Bombay; 1959

A long road

It took Janaki and Whitaker nearly five years to put the book together. It was no single moment or incident, rather the conversations that the naturalist had with acquaintances and friends — sometimes over a glass of beer — who incessantly ask about what shaped his early life, growing up, and his time in Agumbe, that led to the idea of an autobiography.

Whitaker says, “I guess people just got sick of me telling an individual story, they said, ‘we wanna hear it all’.” His early years, sometimes in astonishingly vivid detail, thus came alive.

The details make one wonder about how well documented Whitaker’s childhood years were. “Actually, my mom [Dorris Norden] can be blamed for a lot of it because she was wonderful! The main person who shaped my worldview was my mother. She saved so many of my early writings, like the letters I sent home from school, narrating the various experiences I have had. Before she passed, she handed over everything she collected over the years. And it’s not only the letters that I wrote home, but the letters I wrote to my cousins in America. They were very fascinated by my life in India,” he recalls.

Black cobra, Miami; 1967

Black cobra, Miami; 1967
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special arrangement

In all the hours spent discussing the structure and flow of his memories, he is evidently nostalgic for some parts of his early childhood. “Even though I was born in New York City and spent a few years there, the move to Hoosick out in the countryside was just magical. That set the tone for the rest of my life, really. I wanted to be out in the wild then, and I am still the same. If I want to relive something, it would be going back to that place.”

He continues, “On a recent visit, I turned over a rock, and lo and behold, there was another snake. I was thinking to myself it is probably the great-great-great grandson or granddaughter of the snake that I caught back then!”

Gail, Dorris, Rom with Neel and Nina, Bombay; 1955

Gail, Dorris, Rom with Neel and Nina, Bombay; 1955
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Through the narrative, the onus Whitaker places on people and relationships is unmissable. A tiny window into his life and move to India, his school days in Lawrence School, Lovedale, and Highclerc School (now Kodaikanal International) and his relationship with his Indian stepfather Rama Chattopadhyay, and step-grandparents Harindranath and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, all make the narrative personal.

When he started working, a few others became pivotal to his life in the wild. In the US, it was his former boss at the Miami Serpentarium, Bill Haast, and a hero of yesteryear, Raymond Ditmars of the Bronx Zoo, and in India, another hero, a British doctor and herpetologist called Colonel Frank Wall.

A well-lived life lends itself naturally to an engaging read. “Well, it’s my story so it’s a bit hard not to boast too much but we did try to minimise the ‘I, me, mine’ adjectives. The combination of my memory, and Janaki’s editorial skill is what shaped it,” Whitaker adds.

Whitaker with his first milk snake, Hoosick; 1947

Whitaker with his first milk snake, Hoosick; 1947
| Photo Credit:
special arrangement

This volume barely scratches the surface of his life’s work as a naturalist. “The book shows me as a kid who didn’t really gel with academics at all. I had much more fun out in the wild.”

He assures, “The second volume is in preparation and we are halfway through it. I have 100 times more stories to filter out, and I am fortunate that Janaki is very clinical about getting the right story in the right place. We have to be meticulous in choosing the best ones.”

Most mornings now are spent poring over nuggets of found memories and sheafs of research. More from an extraordinary life await, where all the wild things are.



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