Trepidation transforms to elation as Soma Basu enjoys every byte of Dr.Aruna Devaraj on ‘many species, one planet, one future’.
An e-mail ID snakearuna@...com can make you feel creepy enough. And when you are briefed about the possibility of being greeted by snakes in her home, imagine how the ride to Periyakulam can turn out to be. My mind was simply clogged with images of slithering and hanging snakes. With goose bumps all over my body, I rang the doorbell of the house of Dr.Aruna Devaraj.
What a relief it was to see her dressed in a bright green silk sari, her hands folded in a ‘namaskar’. “Where are your pets?”, I asked apprehensively searching behind her.
“I surrendered them all two years ago, when I turned 60,” she said and I heaved. And from then on the conversation simply veered to a lively chat replete with anecdotes.
There was absolutely no need to initiate Dr. Aruna into talk-mode. She was every bit her true self – chirpy, ever-smiling, friendly and full of humor.
“My mother was shocked out of her wits when she entered my father’s house after marriage. She had snakes and animals welcoming her. I was born three months premature in a house which had alligators, crocodiles, fox, turtles, chameleons, hyenas, peacocks, dogs, cats, monkeys and of course snakes. It was like growing up in natural forest,” says the eminent herpetologist daughter of well know Zoologist and founder-trustee of Madras Snake Park, Dr.M.V. ‘Pambu’ Rajendran.
Born and brought up in Tirunelveli, Aruna vividly recalls her first day in school when she was walking with her elder sister. “There was a motley crowd a little away from our house trying to kill a small snake. Nobody even noticed me, when I crawled on the ground through the space between legs, pulled the snake by its tail, put it in my pocket and ran!” she shares a good laugh.
The moment she entered the classroom, she found all children climbing on to their respective desks. She thought it was school rule on Day One! But when the teacher came and released a scream, did she realize that the snake’s head was jutting out of her pocket and that is what scared everybody!
With such inherent brevity, this animal lover was her father’s pet unlike her mother and siblings (except one brother who is a WWF member and a Wildlife Warden). “I was like my father’s P.A. I learnt everything from him and my love for all discarded things, plants and animals comes from him,” she gushes with pride, immediately recalling an incident when her father was doing a research on albino cobras and her mother unable to control her anger and fear simply killed the snake in a fit. “My father uprooted a small curry leaf plant she was nurturing. This was his way of punishing to make her understand the value of one’s passionate work.”
It was perhaps quite natural for Aruna to take to B.Sc and M.Sc. in Zoology, like a fish to water. Her State and University first rank earned her a pendant studded with stones and in the shape of a deer in action. “This describes me and I always wear it on special occasions,” she points at it hanging from her chain.
Aruna did her research in total biology of the poisonous viper snake under her father’s mentorship. “There were 200 vipers at a time in my verandah and I put flood lights and neon lights to study their behaviour 24X7,” narrates this workaholic who never fails to ask: “We have eight hours to work and eight hours to sleep. What do we do with the remaining eight hours?”
She happily helped her father with the biodiversity register of 1,058 herbal plants back in 1971. “Now there are only 456 left,” she laments and advocates mini herbal garden in every home. If you happen to visit her on any special or festive occasion, be sure of being gifted a sapling.
As a widely travelled herpetologist and a pioneer in treating snake-bites, Aruna also rues the ignorance among public and even doctors about poisonous and non-poisonous snakes. “There are 246 types of snakes left of which only eight are venomous. In a snake-bit patient, venom can be identified by number of fangs and bleeding sites. Injecting anti-venom for non-poisonous bites can lead to unnecessary side-effects,” warns this retired Head & Professor of Zoology, Jayaraj Annapackiam (J.A) College for Women.
Over the years, she has conducted hundreds of awareness programmes for college students, villagers, scientists, technologists, farmers, teachers, engineers, doctors and other interested professionals or individuals, forest and other Government officials in the State on “Snakes as friends of man”.
“Everyone counts in this world. Let us not drive species to extinction. Let us save nature from fangs of exploitation,” she requests me to put this as her message for the World Population Day (July 11). “Green health is the need of the hour, let us not uproot our lives,” as she appeals her husband , retired TNEB engineer, walks in.
“Meet the villain in my life,” she chuckles but does not lose time to add that he also has been her best student and an all-weather friend.
“Whatever I didn’t want has happened to me, but I love to take on challenges,” she declares.
Aruna even wanted to become a politician after she garlanded Pt.Nehru by virtue of being the school all-rounder when he came visiting her school. She loved mathematics equally but zoology grabbed her. She evaded marriage till 21 and finally gave in after laying three conditions that her husband should be a naturalist, should allow her to work and continue with her research. She wanted to build a home in an isolated village with no travel connection or connectivity.
“I love being lost in wilderness. But I landed in Ooty with an engineer and gave up my assistant professorship at Holy Cross College, Nagercoil. But I grew restless sitting at home and in one of those crazy moments even went and booked an elephant for Rs.7,500 in 1970!,” she shares.
Finally Aruna had her way and arrived in Theni in 1972 joining J.A.College, where she continued till her retirement in 2008. Blessed with a son in 1972, a daughter in 1982 and a Ph.D in 1986, Aruna has 38 years of frontline experience and expertise.
Ask her what she likes the most and without blinking she replies: “Snakes and particularly the green ones (found hanging from drumstick trees). There was a time there were hundreds of them all over my house, I used to carry a few in my handbag, put them as a band around my hair and dress my daughter for fancy dress with real snakes as decoration on her head or around her arm and wrist.”
Her grandson also played with as much ease with snakes and turtles till she surrendered her license to hold wildlife two years ago and released her entire zoo members back to their original habitat. Today, as the founder-director of Natural Resources Management Centre, started in 2000 in her father’s memory, she is as busy as ever. That is because she is not just an acclaimed herpetologist.
Dr. Aruna Devaraj is also a herbologist, leading magneto-therapist, reiki healer, biochemic therapist, woman entrepreneur, environmental biotechnologist, socio-rural health care giver, promoter of child development and women empowerment, herbal medicine researcher and practitioner. Still the list doesn’t cover all for it is as vast and deep as Dr.Aruna’s efficiency and proficiency, sincerity and daredevilry, honesty and hard work which is not easy to describe or summarise.
Her work towers over her diminutive persona, simple living and driving thoughts that even when everything is lost, hope remains.