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My husband’s laughter upon hearing the title of the book made me want to read it all the more. I confess that I am yet to read the first part—a collection of essays by Janaki Lenin from her column in one of the most reputed newspapers in the country, published some six years ago. But going by the pace with which I turned each page in her latest, Lenin’s book introduced me to a world I had never really wondered about.
A very recent wildlife convert-of-sorts, I had never given much thought to jungle chicken or komodo dragons, raccoons or leopards, civets or macaques. However, Lenin’s simple-yet-engaging style of writing had me hooked from the first page. A combination of science, humour, research and history, her short essays address animal behaviour and human interactions in a way that interests the reader, making them want to know more.
Lenin’s writing instills questions and understanding in the reader’s head, ranging from humorous to serious—why do certain animals, like the green iguana, eat poop; why must wild animals not be fed; why does a pied cuckoo lay eggs in others’ nest; why do animals rape; what is the decisive factor that decides which gender should leave home; promiscuity and baby-rearing duties in the animal kingdom and so forth. Her writing draws comparisons with the human world. She even dedicates chapters to specific communities like Irula and Korava, and their astute ability to catch rats.
The book is interjected with personal anecdotes—how she met and fell in love with her herpetologist husband, their considerable 27-year age gap which was a concern to many including her family, their attempts to reconcile very different lifestyles, even stories about family members like textile historian Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay or ‘Amma Doodles’, her husband’s step-grandmother. “It will be twenty-five years this year, and he still makes butterflies flutter in my stomach”, is a line that stayed with me.
Many of the essays talk about snakes but obviously, different instances, anecdotes and behaviours; a natural subject, influenced by husband Romulus Whitaker’s life and love for clean reptiles. Did you know there’s even a species named after the ‘snake man’ himself—the Whitaker’s boa?
I am what Lenin describes as snake-phobic. Just the very thought of the reptile makes me shiver, increases my heart rate, turns my palms deathly cold. After mentally pushing on to continue after reading about a Demerol-induced Whitaker and a prairie rattlesnake incident in El Paso, learning about the difference between a South Indian king cobra and their Oriya counterparts, their head-butting symptoms in a fight against mongoose enemies, snake venom, the contraband seizes and dubious rumours in the country, even asking if the reptiles have personality types—it’s been a rollercoaster ride of sorts. I was surprised to learn that a water snake, bockadam, is known by the same name in Telugu and an Australian Aboriginal language. A coincidence or mystery?
Despite the easy narrative, there is still a knot in my stomach and my palms are still chilly. But as Lenin says, “Just as we learn to fear snakes, we can unlearn it.” Maybe, but that day is not today.
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