Big Snake, Little Snake: An Inquiry into RiskDBC Pierre
176 pages|₹ 799
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
TAKE A RAW chicken leg and hold it like a hammer by the drumstick. Bash the thigh end on a hard surface until it flanges like an anvil. Then take the leg, with the drumstick below and pointed left, and lay it down as if to kiss the top of South America’s head. This is how you arrive at the shape of Trinidad.” This paragraph, from one of the early chapters, took me by surprise. So, from here on, I thought Big Snake Little Snake: An Inquiry into Risk would be an out-and-out hilarious read. But I was wrong. I shouldn’t have jumped to a conclusion solely based on the richness of a few lines.
DBC Pierre’s latest non-fiction book does have some funny passages but nothing really holds it together. What saved me at the end were the small chapters that were centered on ghosts and superstitions. There’s even a parrot. But the parrot is not a ghost. Although, I wish it were, as that would have lent a lot more credibility to the thing called “risk” in the title.
Risks, at the outset, are a hard nut to crack. They provide different images for different people. And their degrees also vary according to the situations we find ourselves in. Eating a rotten fruit is a risk in itself and so is jumping into a river without a life jacket. We take risks in order to attain results that are far worthier than the efforts we put in. Pierre, in this book, takes a look at this interesting subject through the lens of mathematics. He sprinkles a bit of philosophy, too, but you’ll have to use a microscope to find its traces.
I don’t hate mathematics. In one way or another, we all use it to calculate the risks we take. Since we’ve just stepped out of the Indian Premier League season, it would be unwise of me to go ahead without mentioning it. I’m neither a cricketer nor an ardent fan of the game. But as somebody who’s followed the matches for two months, I wasn’t taken aback when Gujarat Titans won this year—they were at the top right from the beginning. Pierre, on the other hand, wouldn’t have stopped at watching the matches on television, or cheering for his favourite players. He’d have placed a bet on the Titans.
And this is exactly where he brings in the numbers. Pierre diligently makes choices because he’s a gambler. Luck is invisible and, hence, undependable. Mathematics, however, can help steer fortune towards the people who exercise their minds.
Pierre is in Trinidad to make a short film with a parrot. And his relationship with the bird is quite wonky. Meanwhile, he encounters snakes, big and small, which the island seems to be full of. The simple sight of a snake can push many adults to the edge of a cliff. If some try to gather the weapons to fight it, some might take to their heels and not return to the same spot in a million years. But our author isn’t one of them.
He assesses the risk—should he shoo it away or should he just stand aside for a while and let the reptile do its business? It’s not an easy decision to make and when it comes to snakes and other wild animals, there’s literally a life at stake.
Pierre doesn’t do the unimaginable. He’s not Steve Irwin. Nevertheless, he does the math and stays out of trouble. Big Snake Little Snake, probably due to the structure it is built in, appears overenthusiastic about the trips it takes, but it doesn’t cover the ground smoothly—mathematically and otherwise.