WRITER AND conservationist, Zai Whitaker has worked for years and very closely with Tamil Nadu’s remarkable Irular tribals, famous for their ability to catch snakes with minimal fuss and maximum efficiency. These days glamourous snake catching couples have become a sort of celebrity media sensation, but the Irulars truly are the champions of the art.
This novel is not so much about snake-catching per se as it is a wonderful human-interest story revolving around the fortunes of one particular Irular family, consisting of a grandfather (and a shaman when needed), his son and grandson and granddaughter and daughter-in-law and sundry family members. The plot revolves around what happens when the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 comes into play and effectively takes away their livelihood: catching snakes and selling their skins.
Whitaker gives us an inside look at the way the Irulars live and, though this is fiction, maintains that the characters are based on real-life people. And they are wonderful people; warm, affectionate, witty and with a sense of humour so sadly lacking in modern society these days. Whitaker marvelously brings out the relationships between the members of the family, especially that between Mari and his sharp, observant younger sister Thenee.
The Irulars know that they’re being royally cheated by the “gorement” agents who buy their snake skins and medicinal plants and tubers, who pay them pathetically but can do little about it because they are illiterate: if you cannot read the numbers on a weighing scale there is little you can bargain over.
When the snake skin ban comes into play, one door shuts, but another opens, because now the “gorement” wants the Irulars to catch venomous snakes, which can be milked for their venom, in order to make anti-venom. The tribals are lavishly promised huge returns but know that yet another round of exploitation is about to start up; the “gorement” agents are already licking their chops in anticipation of making fortunes.
Stubbornly reluctant to join school— because she believes there is nothing school can really teach her—and because the Irulars are looked down upon and sneered at by the so-called ‘upper castes’ Thenee realises on her own (along with her grandfather) that in fact learning about numbers can only happen in school and is vital if the cheating is to be challenged and the rapidly changing blue figures on the agents’ weighing scales are to be deciphered. Fully expecting to be turned back when she finally plucks enough courage to venture forth for admission she has a stroke of luck, having chosen Adivasi Day (when adivasis are to be given free admission and everything else required to attend school) to make her bid. There are few takers for this so Thenee is welcomed with open arms by a much-relieved principal.
Whitaker brings out the relationships between the family members and Irulars in general beautifully, especially those between Thenee and her brother Mari, and her grandfather, with whom she shares a special bond. There is despair, anger, frustration, resignation, helplessness but always laced with good humour and affection and hope; this is no doom and gloom tale. Whitaker shows how self-sustainably the Irulars live, their strong belief in the power of medicinal plants and herbs and the gods and goddesses they worship. And also, that they like everyone else are equally susceptible to snake venom, even if they do have more immunity against it than most.
Whitaker has spent years with the Irulars, so the authenticity of the characters and the plot cannot be questioned. We learn that people who may seem so different to us and live so completely differently, basically are the same everywhere—and in fact the Irurlars are better in many ways than us. This is a book that opens our eyes and hopefully should make us better and wiser and needs to be read by all, young and not-so-young; and ought to be made mandatory supplementary reading in schools. I, for one, enjoyed it thoroughly.