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A hiss and tell story

At a time when people charge for even a glass of water, here's a man who catches snakes without insisting on payment because he doesn't want the creatures to be harmed, reports bhumika k.

SNAKE MAN Shyam is on the National Geographic Channel tonight PHOTO: MURALI KUMAR k.

Snake Shyam. The name conjures up myriad images, doesn't it? A movie buff will immediately think of the archetypal villain with ferocious moustache, thundering voice, and mean as they come. But Mysore's Snake Shyam is hardly that. He's a real softie with a real jhatang look. And the soft corner he has is for children... and snakes.

Let me uncoil his story for you, just as a snake would in your garden. Snake Shyam is one of the most popular people in Mysore. And the most colourful. This bejewelled man — more than one ring on each finger, a coiled up snake earring, loads of bracelets, layers of chains and pendants strung on his neck, usually in a red T-shirt and a cowboy-ish cap — drives an autorickshaw for a living. He also catches snakes, but not for a living.

He gets at least 10 calls every day from frantic people who've spotted snakes hiding behind a stack of wood or coconuts in their yard, or in their water tank, or have just popped up in the drainpipe.

Countless catches

Over the last six years he's caught — and, more importantly, released into the wild — over 12,915 snakes on record. This apart from the 20,000-odd snakes he's caught before that from 1982, but there's no record of that.

Cobras are big in his life and he's caught the venomous bespectacled cobras, kraits, and Russell's vipers.

Shyam is always there for Mysoreans 24/7, zooming on his bike, auto or van. In his avatar as M.S. Balasubramaniam, he was a daily wager working in factories. He later ferried children to school in an autorickshaw he bought with a loan. "I love children and soon became Auto Shyam," he says, smiling hugely, talking of his own kids, two of them.

Now that he is Snake Shyam, his auto is painted with figures of snakes and with slogans such as `Snakes are not as poisonous as human beings' `Care for the rare'. These days he's graduated to an van to ferry the kids and to rescue his beloved reptiles.

He caught his first snake at 13, and soon discovered he had a flair for the job. Word spread and everyone soon knew whom to contact when they found a snake in their backyard. Friends and well-wishers helped in their own way — some brought him books on snakes, others read literature in English on the subject and translated it for him.

"I never realised I should record my catches. Someone once asked me how many snakes I had caught, and I had no records to show. That's when I started maintaining a logbook. I studied in Kannada medium. I'm SSLC, PUC, ITI pass. I don't know much English," he says with a grin. "I didn't even have any means of communication, no phone. People who found a snake in their house would earlier leave a message on a chit at a particular teashop. I would go to the teashop in between my trips and pick up the message. Then someone bought me a pager. Then another well-wisher bought me a cellphone."

There were hazards too, not from snakes though. He didn't know that incoming calls were charged (at that time when he was given the phone). "My first bill was Rs 4,500," he recalls and laughs. And he had no money to pay it.

Even then in those penurious times, Shyam never did — and never does — charge anyone for his snake-catching service. "If I start asking for money, people will find it cheaper to just kill the snake. Why will they want to spend Rs. 50 on Shyam? I don't want that to happen. Out of 100 people, 10 pay me willingly. Sometimes they give me Rs. 5 or Rs. 10, rarely Rs. 100," he says, looking through his records.

His daily petrol need is around four litres — he ferries kids between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. and then again between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. In between all this and whenever there's a call, he rushes to the "emergency spot". And once a week, he goes to Bandipur to release into the wild the snakes he's caught. He's sometimes called by hospitals to identify the species of snake if someone is bitten, before they're treated with an anti-venin.

Shyam was in Bangalore to interact with the media on behalf of National Geographic Channel (that made a docu on him). During the interaction, he got at least three panic calls from Mysore. "To tell you the truth, this is the first day I've been absent from work. Even the day my grandfather died, I worked."

It is tiring, being on call, going without food for hours together. When NGC's Brady Barr and India's Gerry Martin decided to spend 24 hours with Shyam, they took 20 calls, captured 14 snakes and travelled over 80 kilometres. When the docu was first aired on TV, he got some 300 calls from his fellow citizens who were watching him. "It's only after the foreign channel recognised me that our own people started taking pride in me," he says.

I ask him where so many snakes come from in Mysore. "Snakes are everywhere. We are the trespassers. We take away their homes and they have nowhere to go."

No fancy gear

He has no fancy equipment. No gloves or protective gear. He reasons that he won't get the feel of how much pressure to apply while catching hold of a snake. His tool is a sturdy wooden badminton racket frame, with the gutting removed. At the house he goes to, he borrows an old pillow cover, clips it to the racket frame, and voila! he has a giant trap to tempt the snake into.

He always catches the snake by its tail. He's been bitten only thrice. Doctors have told him that he's developed an allergy to venom antidotes, so he's been warned to be very, very careful. But that does not deter him. It's not uncommon for him to be holding a snake in one hand and his cellphone on the other, attending yet another emergency call.

When he's not catching snakes, he's talking about them and demonstrating to kids about their importance in our ecosystem. He's a regular at summer camps and workshops, having done 4,000 such sessions so far.

His four-year-old son Surya also catches snakes, but Snake Shyam doesn't want him to continue doing that. "I enjoy doing what I do. But I don't have a life beyond this. I don't go to see films or attend family functions. I don't want my son to be like that."

You can catch Snake Shyam on the National Geographic Channel programme Croc Chronicles: Snakes Karma Action today, September 22 at 9 p.m. Snake Shyam welcomes any kind of help in his mission. He can be contacted on 94480-69399.

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