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Updated: August 11, 2012 12:31 IST
MY HUSBAND AND OTHER ANIMALS

My Husband And Other Animals — Single-minded to a fault

JANAKI LENIN
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A temporary career Seaman Rom at Bandar Shapur, Iran. Photo courtesy: Rom Whitaker
A temporary career Seaman Rom at Bandar Shapur, Iran. Photo courtesy: Rom Whitaker

We were sipping tea in Maria’s living room when Amit, her five-year-old son, walked in. Circles of thick muck adhered to the kid’s knees, and he was carrying more dirt in his tightly clenched hands. A trail of muddy footprints marked his progress across the immaculate room. Oblivious to his mother’s distress at his appearance, Amit made straight for Rom to show him a precious little frog he had unearthed in the garden. Maria shooed him out of the house, telling him to go clean up, pronto.

Turning to Rom, she asked, “When did you first start catching snakes, Rom?”

“Oh, four years old,” Rom replied.

I guess she expected Rom to say he had been an adult. She complained that Amit was always mucking about in the dirt and bringing frogs home. She hoped he would grow out of his obsession with the slimy creatures. But Rom’s reply hung a question mark over that hope.

Rom had been interested in snakes from the time he turned a log over in his aunt’s garden in upstate New York, and found a harmless milk snake. Since then, he knew he wanted to spend his life working with the creatures. As a young adult, he did assorted temporary jobs to survive.

When you live with someone who has singularity of purpose, you wonder about your own lack of one. When I was growing up, almost every adult I met asked me the same question, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” I answered whatever came to mind: doctor, teacher, airplane pilot. If my answer met approval, I repeated it a few more times. I once answered “housewife” and immediately drew sharp disapproval. I didn’t ask why so many women in the family chose it, if it was an inappropriate choice.

After school, I decided to become a film editor. I wasn’t driven by a life-defining interest. Even while studying to be an editor, I was learning Sanskrit, Carnatic music and karate. Then when I said I wanted to learn tai-chi, my father lost patience. He said I was interested in too many things and lacked focus.

When you don’t have a single over-riding interest, any obstacle becomes larger than the goal. During the latter part of my 15-year career in television, I unsuccessfully struggled to keep my eyes on the target. That’s part of the reason I admire filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray. Despite numerous obstacles, sometimes lasting years, he never lost sight of the film. I wasn’t made of such stern stuff.

Then I switched careers and worried, “Will I be able to earn a living?”

Rom replied, “Just focus on writing. Don’t worry about the money. It will all fall in place.”

I demanded, “How?”

“If someone had asked me 50 years ago, how I would earn a living working with snakes, I wouldn’t have been able to answer. But I didn’t do badly, did I?”

You could say I’m like Yudhisthira, the eldest of the Pandava brothers. For their archery class, Drona, their teacher, set out a wooden bird as target and asked each brother in turn, “What do you see?” Yudhisthira replied, “I see trees, my brothers, and the bird.” Rom is like Arjuna who replied, “I see the eye of the bird.”

Sometime after that conversation at Maria’s home, Amit’s parents took him to a wildlife sanctuary known for its huge congregations of elephants. As herds of pachyderms left the shelter of the forests and ambled towards the lake, Amit impatiently quizzed everyone within earshot, “Have you seen any frogs?” They smiled, giggled and laughed in response. Maria’s mission to interest Amit in “more normal” wildlife had failed yet again.

I couldn’t help admiring the little boy. He had something I probably will never know. I made another attempt to reassure Maria, “At least he’s interested in frogs, and not in snakes. Imagine what Rom’s mom went through!”

She drew in her breath sharply. Snakes?

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