Vava Suresh leads a charmed life as a snake catcher

My companions in the Tata Indica are a couple of cobras, a python, a couple of trinket snakes and a rat snake. I sit as far as I can from my co-passengers. My only comfort is that I am travelling with Vava Suresh, the celebrity snake catcher. “Don’t worry…,” he assures me.

Well, if this is the only way to get an interview with the man, so be it. He is as elusive to pin down for a chat as the snakes he catches and rescues. Suresh is on his way to Sree Chithira Thirunal Residential Central School, Kunnathukal, some 30 km away from Thiruvananthapuram, for an awareness class on snakes. My companions, … er the snakes, kept in bottles and plastic sacks in the car, are specimens for the class. He is late for the class by at least five hours. He had to “rescue” a cobra in the morning and it is also in the car.

All the time his phone keeps ringing. Once he finishes the class, he has to attend a “case” in Kottarakkara. In the meantime, someone from a television channel wants to know the time of his arrival so that they could be there to capture visuals of him nabbing the snake.

“If there are too many calls, I prioritise them. For instance, if the snake is inside a house, I go there immediately. If it is inside a well or on a wall, I ask them to wait for it might slither away from the spot on its own. Or if it gets inside a hole, I ask the caller to close it so that it won’t come out and harm anybody,” he says. Suresh has caught/rescued over 35,000 snakes, and has survived 266 snake bites over the last 25 years.

In between, a person calls him up from Malappuram thinking that Suresh has been hospitalised after a snake bite. “That was long ago...I am fine… The prayers of a lot of people are with me…,” he replies with a wide grin.

What started as child’s play, at the age of 12, is now his life and much more for Suresh. “My first encounter was with a small cobra I found on the road. When I touched it with a stick, it raised its hood and I went on playing with it. I made it crawl inside a bottle and kept it at home for nearly 15 days. But when my mother found out, I got a spanking for my prank. However, that didn’t stop me from going after snakes. In fact, I used to keep injured birds in my home. That was actually an excuse to keep snakes as well…,” he smiles, flashing his pearly whites.

When his studies stopped after class 10, Suresh started doing various jobs to make a living. But when people came to know about his, well, way with snakes, they started coming to him for help whenever they found a snake in their vicinity. Now, at the age of 38, Suresh is nothing less than a hero for Malayalis; YouTube videos showing his live encounters with snakes are huge hits. Prince Charles, on his visit to Kerala last month, was reportedly amazed by his heroism and, very soon, his exploits will be telecast on Animal Planet. He is Kerala’s version of Steve Irwin.

“Well, I do associate divinity with snakes,” is the only explanation he has for the dangerous job he is doing. “Their habitats is being destroyed and so naturally snakes are being found in places of human inhabitation,” he adds.

Soon we reach the school where the students and teachers are impatiently waiting for his ‘Snake Show’ . Suresh refuses to take the class in an open space, citing the dangers involved. “I try to avoid taking classes for lower primary students because they get really scared,” he says. He breezes through the session at breakneck speed. Snake venom, attending to snake bites, different variety of snakes, myths and superstitions on snakes…. he covers them all.

Soon, encouraged by him, one of the teachers, Chinchu, drapes a python around her neck while some of the children gingerly touch the sluggish mass. “You needn’t be afraid…,” he keeps on saying, even as he holds a cobra in his left hand and a mike in the other. And before winding up, he declares: “You know, there are two beautiful creatures in the world – snakes and Vava Suresh!” Even as he makes his way through the children, he shakes hands and obliges autograph-seekers galore.

Meanwhile, it seems he has to attend three to four ‘cases’ in the city before proceeding to Kottarakkara. The first stop is an open field. After an initial inspection with his torch, he suggests there is little use digging up the land and proceeds to the next spot – a house where a cobra is trapped in a drainage hole. Suresh opens the lid of the drain and when the creepy visitor tries to wriggle out, he picks it up in a flash.

He poses for the mobile cameras with it and kisses it on the hood, before putting it safely in a plastic bottle given by the house owner. He pierces the lid with a pair of scissors he always carries, so that the snake can breathe. “This snake is seven months old,” he asserts. He should know. A few years ago he had taken the trouble of hatching the eggs in his home to study the age and life span of snakes.

There are days when he gets 20 to 30 calls a day, some of which he has to avoid or refer to other snake catchers. The creatures are released once every two weeks into the forest with the support of officials of the forest department. Suresh doesn’t charge any fee for catching a snake or his classes.

So, what keeps him doing the job? “Well… you can say it is some sort of a fascination. I want to finish a lot of work in as much time as I have got. I might not be enjoying life as other people. But I love being busy. I have no worries about the future. I haven’t taken any insurance cover. I haven’t felt any fear till date. After all you get scared when you fear death. Let’s see where it stops….”

Even as he leaves for the next destination, a puzzling question remains. Is he saving mankind from the snakes or vice versa?

On family

Suresh stays with his parents Bahuleyan and Krishnamma and siblings at Cheruvakkal near Sreekariyam in the capital city. His mother used to call him Vava, meaning baby in Malayalam, and the name stuck. Suresh can’t thank enough his family. “They used to be very scared, but now they have got used to my fascination for all creatures of the animal kingdom. I tell them, ‘I’m not living for you’. But if I have another birth, I would love to have the same parents and siblings and do all that which I am unable to do now for them. Well… the good thing is that there was a time when we lived in abject poverty and most of our relatives had turned their back on us. Now, we have a large of network of relatives…”

Fact file

* Besides snakes, Suresh has caught 16 monkeys and 74 civets. Recently, he caught an otter which is now being taken care of at Thiruvananthapruam zoo. It is named Vava!

* According to Suresh, doctors have told him that antibodies have now started forming in his body. Of the bites he survived, nine were critical and in two instances he landed up in the ventilator. Suresh lost the middle finger of his left hand to a cobra’s bite and his right hand is weak, aftermath of another snake bite.