Author Janaki Lenin, whose popular column My Husband And Other Animals in The Hindu MetroPlus, is now a book by the same name, regaled the audience at the book’s launch with anecdotes from the life of her husband Romulus Whitaker — herpetologist, wildlife conservationist, and, of course, the protagonist of the book. Fascinated by animals right from when he was a little boy, Rom, Janaki said, even chose to go to college in Wyoming, U.S, as it had more deer than people.
When he came to Madras, Rom was introduced to the Irulas, who quickly became his buddies, sharing, as they did, a common love for snakes. “And,” she quipped, “when he set up the Madras Snake Park, somewhere else in the city, I was just born.” Janaki first met Rom when he came to her to get some tapes edited; and since then, she admitted with much candour, she’s been “learning to adjust”, as Rom asked her to, when she cribbed about staying in the wettest place (Agumbe) and living on instant noodles…. And when they moved out of Crocodile Bank that Rom had set up to their own farm, she realised their dogs too learnt to adjust and stay indoors to avoid becoming the resident leopard’s dinner. With tree frogs in dishes and toads on bookshelves, she became obsessive, setting up camera traps, only to find out many interesting things about her husband (Rom crawling on the grass) and other animals (hares, mating porcupines and a male leopard so fat it resembled a lactating female!) “These creatures made me question who I was,” said Janaki. “I was wondering about boundaries between humans and animals, and I realised there aren’t any. It’s a continuum.”
In conversation with author Timeri Murari after her humorous presentation, Janaki said the hardest adjustment for her has been just living with Rom; “it’s tough enough,” she smiled. Murari, who admitted to being a great admirer of Rom, spoke about the time when Chennai city and its countryside co-existed, and snakes were common in gardens. He narrated the diverting incident of a snake looking left and right before crossing the road, and Janaki agreed that snakes, indeed, had personalities, ranging from timid to feisty. Commenting on the “polarised issue” of tribals eking out a living outside forests, Janaki said her perspective has been coloured watching the Irulas. “When they’re educated, they join the rat race. They come to the city slums and become electricians and plumbers, because we don’t encourage their skills.” How do we bring the benefits of modern society to the tribals and value their centuries-old life-skills, she asked.
The Irulas are perfect as guides, Janaki said, talking about the pressing need to help urban children connect with nature. “Irulas can conjure scorpions and chameleons out of thin air!” Besides, national parks have become “a tamasha,” she lamented, adding that, even in the crocodile bank, people chuck rubbish into enclosures expecting the cleaning service to be part of the entrance fee; “how do you engage with that attitude?”
Touching upon the pressures of a weekly column, Janaki admitted that it’s strenuous, but that something, somewhere, sparks off a piece. Besides, with her wealth of experiences — sweet ones, from her courtship days, when Rom wooed her with baby mongooses, and some very scary ones, where a King Cobra sat inches away from her bare feet — Janaki gave more credit to the animals. People take credit for their smartness, she said, but they mostly get away only because animals practise restraint.
Taking questions from the audience, Rom explained that snakes were stone deaf, whereas crocodiles had a keen sense of hearing. Refusing to confess, in public, if he had a ‘My Wife And Other Animals’ up his sleeve, he confirmed that snakebites are medical emergencies and need to be treated with antivenom. “We have 50,000 snakebite deaths every year in India; it’s the highest in the world.”
The book launch was hosted by Sheraton Park Hotel and Towers, Madras Book Club and Westland. Author Timeri Murari released the first copy; S. Muthiah of the Madras Book Club earlier welcomed the gathering, and Jayanthi Ramesh proposed a vote of thanks.