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Of snakes and other creatures: A life in Tambaram

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D. Sampathkumar spent the first twenty-two years of his life as a resident of Tambaram. A chartered accountant and financial analyst, he spent the greater part of his professional life as a financial journalist with The Hindu Group of publications.

If, like me, you were a young boy residing in Tambaram, a town just 25 kms southwest of Madras, back in the 1960s, there were only two ways to learn swimming.

One way would be to trek all the way to the Corporation swimming pool at the Marina beach. But at one rupee for a round ticket on the suburban railway line that took you close enough to the swimming pool, it wasn't cheap.

(A girl would have an extra option. One of the city's women's colleges boasted of a swimming pool. But rumour has it that you ran the risk of being ogled at by an old man, through a binocular from a building nearby. Granted that women's swimwear back in those days were designed more on the lines of a tent than anything that Pamela Anderson had sported in the Baywatch television serial. But still ...).

The swimming pool at the Marina lacked even the rudiments of a filtration plant and water was changed only once every week. The joke doing the rounds back then was that at the Marina swimming pool, you could take a ‘swim' on Monday, a ‘wim' on Tuesday, ‘im' on Wednesday and from Thursday onwards, you could only ‘mmmm....' at the pool. Such was the stench that you would have to hold your breath not just while under water but all the way through. Now, that might a very wholesome course of training if you were planning on a career as a pearl driver off the Southern coast of India, in later years. But otherwise it was hardly a pleasurable experience if the objective was to learn to flap one's legs and arms to stay afloat in water.

There was a cheaper, if not a superior, alternative. You could trudge along with slightly older boys to a farm well, a mere half a kilometre away from home, where houses gave way to lush green paddy fields as far as the eyes could see. The farm well was large with stone slabs jutting out from the masonry wall and acted as a ladder to enter the water.

While the older boys would practice diving from one of those stone slabs perched at a height, a beginner must hold on to the slab further down to where it met with water in the well and flap your legs till you wearied of it. After a few days of such training one of the older boys would tie an 8-yard dhoti around your waist and make you jump into the water from a height into the middle of the well. The idea was that you would flap your arms and legs to somehow reach the safety of the stone slabs of the well and climb aboard.

After a few more iterations, the bigger boys certified you as good enough to jump from one of the stone slabs yourself, and join the ranks of expert swimmers.

Or at least, that was the theory. I never got around to actually testing it. I gave up after the first lesson. For one, it was quite tedious. And, the visits the farm well were scheduled only for Sundays with the school work taking up rest of the days of the week. So, I realised it would be weeks before I came anywhere close to the level of expertise that my friends possessed which took the edge out of a desire to continue with the coaching lessons.

But the real clincher was my horror at the sight of scores of small water snakes lying bunched up in a tight coil on the underside of a stone slab just below the one that I was holding on to for paddling in water. The rational part of my mind told me that I was under no threat from the snakes. But a sense of fear still persisted.

Finally, what settled the issue was that if I revealed my inner fear to my friends, there would be no end to the ribbing that I would face in their hands, in the days to follow. So, gritting my teeth, I plodded on, raising up from the water from time to time, by stepping on to the very stone underneath which the snakes lay coiled.

But, I guess the snakes were more petrified of a bunch of boys gambolling in the water than I was of the snakes. For all their fears, it wasn't such a bad deal at all for the snakes. I imagine, they would have rationalised their existence in the farm well thus: ‘There is a vast supply of frogs in the well. Why give it all up if all that one had to put up with was the nuisance from a bunch young ruffians who would disturb the peace of the place for just a couple of hours in a week?'

Staying bunched in a stone slab is a small price to pay for the gourmet feast of frogs that awaited them right through the rest of the week. Of course, the odd one made the mistake of staying away from the sanctuary of the stone slab or couldn't get back in time before the boys arrived. It would be spotted soon enough. Then one of the boys would declare it as ‘water cobra' (Neer Nagam, in Tamil) as it happened on the week I went for the first swimming lesson.

I did not know enough about cobras then, or for that matter, now. But I am convinced to this day that my seniors were painting a garden variety snake with the venomous character of a cobra and make it a fair game thereafter. ‘Water cobra' or not, the snake simply didn't have a chance of survival. Such was the marksmanship of the boys with a stone, a skill honed for years at the mango and other fruit bearing trees in the neighbour's garden. A few of the shower of stones that were aimed at it would hit their mark, and a snake floated belly up.

In my later years, I was to learn that snakes were intrinsic to a farm's ecology. Farms meant water, and that brought in frogs and tiny insects which the former fed off. Along came water snakes that fed off the tadpoles (a mid-morning snack, perhaps) and fully grown frogs (lunch and dinner) fattened by a healthy dose of abundant insect food in the farm wells. The larger snakes had the field rats pretty much to themselves.

Back then, Tambaram was at an evolutionary stage of its civic existence that it hadn't quite shed its rustic roots and was far from a being an integrated functional part of a Greater Chennai. It had only just then gained civic recognition as a grade III municipality from a town panchayat, earlier. The surrounding villages were even much worse off. Tambaram could at least boast of a suburban railway network that went all the way into the heart of the commercial district of the city of Madras. But the surrounding villages had nothing more than the twice daily bus service to the city. So it is fair to say that the entire region was rural with a tiny spark of urbanisation at the core.

Yes, snakes were very much part of the landscape of Tambaram. In fact, the world renowned herpetologist, Romulus Whitaker chose a village just a couple kilometres away from Tambaram to house his fledgling Madras Snake Park. We do not know his reasons for setting it up near Tambaram.

His mail used to land up at the extension counter at the Madras Christian College campus of the post office of East Tambaram. (Romulus Whitaker was a frequent visitor to the MCC campus in the early 70s driving down in his Yezdi 250 cc motor cycle made by the Idea Jawa (India) Company. The motor cycles couldn't serve the brutal competition from the more fuel efficient bikes made by the Japanese companies and folded up in later years.) Yes, it is fair to say that the very fact that the herpetologist chose a village near Tambaram is proof of the fact that Tambaram and the surrounding areas didn't suffer from the drawback of a scanty supply of snakes.

Farm wells were not the only place where snakes found a convenient habitat in Tambaram. It had welded itself to the life around the town in many other ways. There was enough greenery and water bodies in and around Tambaram to sustain a food chain both up and down the snake mark.

While Tambaram did boast of its share of elegant mansions where the ‘swells' lived; the former Indian finance minister the late T.T. Krishnamachari had one. But, the vast majority of the dregs had to stay content with more modest accommodation. Houses in those days were mostly tiled single storey structures.  The tiles were of two types. One was the flat and large factory (not some fancy manufacturing unit but just a little more than a kiln) that made tiles sourced from Coastal Karnataka. Hence the name, ‘Mangalore Tiles', as they were called. The other type was small curved tiles made out of clay in local kilns (‘country' tiles).

Now, Mangalore tiles by virtue of the fact that they were large and tightly baked, were fairly water proof during the rains. So the tiles were simply placed one by the side of the other on a sliding wooden frame to make up the roof. But the roof made of curved ‘native' tiles were porous and hence needed a layer of three or four of them to be placed on the roof to ensure that the roof didn't leak.

The Mangalore tiles were relatively cheaper because fewer tiles were needed but suffered from the disadvantage of radiating heat inside the house. In contrast, multi layered ‘country' tiles absorbed heat. But this was not an unmixed blessing. While roofs constructed out of ‘country' tiles made for comfortable interiors, they also made for a great place of infestation of snakes and scorpions as they could not only coil themselves underneath the little crevices between tiles but also enjoy the best air conditioned comfort that nature had to offer.

Still, when the temperature hit mid-40s Celsius in the summer, even the ‘country' tiles got hot too. Unable to bear the heat, a scorpion or two fell from the roof and land on somebody living underneath. The person cushioning the scorpion's fall was often the victim of its sharp sting. So the folk wisdom was that ‘country' tiles were more hazardous for inhabitants while Mangalore tiles though relatively safer, made for very uncomfortable hot summers.

Mangalore tiles were not always snake-proof, as I found out quite early in my life. A lot depends on where the preys lived. Snakes are not such timid creatures that they baulk at the prospect of visiting a habitation of humans if there was a juicy prey to be found. This is what happened that summer in the 60s.

Our house served as the base camp for innumerable cousins and uncles who, after completing their schooling in interior Tamil Nadu, came to the city in search jobs or some higher technical education that enabled them to land a job in the city, a year or two later.

One of my uncles who came to live with us was something of an expert at handicraft. The kind of things he could make with a piece of plywood and a hacksaw blade was quite fascinating to watch.

Once, on a whim, he made a box-like structure with an open top to serve as a bird's nest. While sparrows, mynas and babblers (seven sisters) after feasting themselves on the worms and insects in the garden, were known to perch themselves on windows and belt out a song in ecstasy, I had never known them to fly through the house. A few would venture into the house in search of grains of rice strewn about on the floor.

So, this uncle of mine perhaps thought that in the fullness of time a sparrow or some such bird would nest in the plywood contraption that he had hung from the rafter on the roof. Everybody forgot about it. The uncle joined the telephone department and was posted to the Bangalore telephones.

But an intrepid sparrow did come in to lay its eggs and they soon hatched. It was early hours of the night. The children were already asleep, and the parents were having a chat chewing over the events of the day. A snake, getting the scent of a prey nearby, somehow made its way to the top of roof and descended on the roost hanging from it. But the wire rope on which it hung was so thin and the knot that held it to the roof was so loose, the plywood box fell down with a thud.

With it came the snake too, near the cradle where my one and a half year old brother was sleeping. I was sleeping on a mat on the floor nearby. My mother let out a scream at the sight of the snake as it quickly scrambled to the safety of the backyard and beyond through an open door. The neighbours landed soon enough.

My mother described it as she saw it- a short somewhat thick-set four feet long creature in brown rings. I didn't know how much she saw in the panic that she was in. But that was enough to convince one of the neighbours who fancied himself as something of a naturalist to declare it as the ‘Common Krait' - a particularly venomous category of snakes found in India. The neighbours eventually departed but not before complementing us on our good fortune. But I couldn't help but wonder if it was the snake or my uncle who put up the plywood contraption up on the roof, had the greater share of the blame.

If Tambaram can claim any kinship with Davos, the resort town in Switzerland, it is this. Both were ideal as a convalescence centre for tubercular patients. While Davos played host to the rich and the famous such as Kamala Nehru, the wife of former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, in the 1940s, Tambaram was the preferred destination for the common public with its well-appointed Sanatorium for TB patients.

There was a railway station too, for the convenience of patients and visiting relatives. We used that station for our commute to the city as the main railway station was a little bit further away. But there was only a narrow pedestrian pathway with the lake bund on one side and paddy fields on the other. The local municipality still hadn't got around to laying a proper road with street lights. But the combination of lake on one side and paddy fields on the other side meant that snakes frequently crossed our path in the twilight hours.

And it was no surprise that when my cousin and I were walking towards the railway station around seven in the evening, a snake crossed our path some distance away. Just then another person waking at a brisker pace overtook us from behind. As a friendly gesture I cautioned him, "Sir, please watch out. There is a snake ...". He didn't let me complete the sentence. At the mention of the word ‘snake', he let out a cry, "Ayyo Amma" and did a hop step and jump that nearly broke the standing Olympic record for triple jump, and then casually turned around and asked, "where". My cousin and I could not contain our laughter. We told him it is nothing and just set him on his way.

Naturalists and herpetologists may say anything. That most of the snakes are harmless and even the poisonous ones avoid human company and so on. We agree. But there is no denying the sense of fear that snakes inspire in the minds of the ordinary Indians. But of course Tambaram's reputation for snakes has taken a beating in more recent times. The lakes have dried up and paddy fields too have died a slow death. You can blame the real estate lobby or you can ascribe it to the phenomenon called ‘urbanisation'.

The snakes are gone.

______________________________________

© D. Sampathkumar 2018

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