The making of a snake expert

Updated - November 10, 2021 12:28 pm IST

Published - September 20, 2013 04:26 pm IST - chennai

Ashok at work From photography to snake i.d. Photo: Janaki Lenin

Ashok at work From photography to snake i.d. Photo: Janaki Lenin

Ashok Captain’s postcards from Pune were always about snakes. In all caps, he asked Rom to identify the creatures he described. The year was 1994, before the Age of e-mails.

Rom grew tired of answering his queries and urged him to get a copy of Malcolm A. Smith’s Fauna of British India: Volume III. Serpentes . The brown hardcover, published in 1943 and reprinted many times over, is a snake specialist’s bible.

Within a few weeks, Ashok learnt how to identify snakes from Smith’s book. Anyone reading his postcards would think the messages were in code.

One said, “Sc 15, V 145, A 2, C 54, SL 7 3/4, IL 7-8, T 1+2, LO -. Bands 24+. Oligodon erythrorachis?” This gibberish is how snake people talk.

Rom had long dreamt of writing an update to Smith’s book, complete with colour photographs, so even an amateur could use it. He thought Ashok had achieved adequate proficiency in snake-people talk to be his co-author.

Since I missed Ashok’s first visit to the Croc Bank, I asked Rom, “What’s he like? What does he do?”

His baffled expression said, “The man is interested in snakes. What else do you want to know?”

When I finally met Ashok months later, I saw a wiry, balding man in his 30s. He’d been a racing cyclist in his youth. His interest in snake identification was sparked because he wanted to label his astoundingly beautiful photographs.

Ashok used multiple flashes and commandeered friends to act as flash-holders. He demanded they stand still as statues, no matter how uncomfortable they were. For their pains, they were paid in pizzas and ice creams.

The snakes got nothing, of course.

Once the rolls of film came back from the lab, he scrutinised each transparency. He kept the best one of each species of snake and destroyed the rest. When I protested, he retorted, “I don’t like mediocre.”

Ashok brought his perfectionism to the snake book as well. He spent late nights counting and recounting scales of specimens in the Bombay Natural History Society’s museum. When he couldn’t sort it out, he contacted the experts.

During the course of writing the book, computers crashed a few times and valuable data was lost. Ashok shrugged off these setbacks with, “Builds character.”

Ten years after the project began, the manuscript was done. Being a photographer, Ashok was particular about printing quality, and being a snake conservationist, Rom wanted an affordable retail price. The more I overheard them discussing the unsatisfactory terms offered by publishers, the stronger an idea took root.

I had just given up filmmaking and had started writing. There was no way I could pay my bills from my writing income. Perhaps I could turn publisher. I thought I knew the market for snake books, and since I was the boss, I could choose the printer and set the price. Both Rom and Ashok thought I was mad, but the book was done to our satisfaction.

Within a decade, Ashok, a nature enthusiast with no formal training became the foremost expert on snake taxonomy in India, and today has two snake species named in his honour.

In 2008, the host of a wildlife documentary opened the snake book to identify a shieldtail snake shown earlier in the film. I thought it was excellent publicity as the second edition had arrived fresh from the printers.

When the producer sought permission to use the book in the film, Ashok refused, “My answer is a flat, absolute no. It is not possible to identify a shieldtail snake using our field guide,” he said. Shieldtails are burrowers and many species look alike; the only way to tell them apart is by counting scales and teeth. I grumbled to myself, “He’ll make us count scales, even to identify obvious snakes like cobras.”

Today, if Rom is uncertain about the identity of a snake, he asks for Ashok’s advice.

God forbid if Rom has the temerity to send a photograph without scale information.

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