Romulus Whitaker's new memoir is a rollicking ride through his early adventures

'Snakes, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll: My Early Years' is the first of three volumes

1090649446 The snake charmer: Rom Whitaker | Getty Images

If Rom Whitaker had his way, the serpent would not be frolicking in the Garden of Eden. He would have caught it with a hook, scooped it up gently and put it in a pillowcase―as he did all his life with his mother’s linen―and studied it.

Whitaker was four when he realised he would always be Team Serpent. Turning over a rock to look for earthworms to use as bait, he and his buddies once encountered a snake. “Snake!” they yelled, and pounded it to death with stones.

“Not having seen one before, I was fascinated but afraid. After the boys stepped back, I squatted near the battered creature and examined it. I carried it home on the end of a stick against their advice,” he writes in his memoir Snakes, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll: My Early Years. His mother looked at the snake and told him that it was a harmless garter snake and made him promise that he would never kill a snake. Breezy―as his mother called him (his sister was Gail)―readily agreed and his life changed.

“That was the bane of my mother’s existence, because I used all her pillowcases to put snakes in,” says Whitaker, in a Zoom interview. “But she was so instrumental in this whole evolution of my life, in terms of loving wildlife and loving creatures, as she had the same feeling that I do about creatures, but perhaps not snakes. But suddenly, I started bringing snakes home when I was four or five years old. And so, like it or not, she got into it. And she just encouraged me all the way. Which mother would do that? Which mother would be crazy enough to let her kid bring home snakes?”

His mother, Doris, was an artist, and after she and Whitaker’s father were divorced in the US, she remarried and moved to India.

Living dangerously: Whitaker with his first snake, at Hoosick, New York, in 1947 Living dangerously: Whitaker with his first snake, at Hoosick, New York, in 1947

The first snake Whitaker brought home was a milk snake. His mother took a photograph of it with him. As a teen, he acquired a pet python bought by his mother’s friend at Crawford Market in Mumbai. “And they remained friends,” said Janaki Lenin, laughing. Lenin―author, conservationist and Whitaker’s wife―co-wrote the memoir.

Whitaker’s pet python brought him adventures that possibly tested the friendship. It almost ate Trichy, Doris’s pet cat. (He had rescued it from a train station.) The python also lived with him in his school dorm at Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu. He kept it under the bed of a truck, feeding it rats.

Everyone thought he would outgrow snakes, he writes, especially in his teenage years, when he loved motorbikes. But the love for snakes never waned; it grew instead. He learnt the proper way to catch a snake. “When you pick up a snake, you usually look at both ends,” he says. “One end is the sharp end, so to speak, which can bite you… so usually you would put a hand around the cloaca, which is near the tail. So you don’t get crap all over. But sometimes it does, of course.”

By 15, Whitaker had a sand boa, water snake and Russell’s viper as pets. Apart from the pet python in school, he also had parakeets.

With a yellow snake in his youth With a yellow snake in his youth

Snakes, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll is the first of three volumes, and it offers a rollicking journey through Whitaker’s life till he turns 24. Vivid, funny and evocative, the memoir captures not only Whitaker’s unusual love, but also a life that possibly could not have been lived today. “I yearn for that time gone by,” he says. “Everything was seemingly so much simpler, and less complex and less threatening.”

The memoir is brilliantly told, and written almost tenderly, with adjectives not usually used for reptiles. The ring-necked milk snake, for instance, is described as “gorgeously patterned”. “The eastern diamondback rattlesnake in the US actually has quite a sweet smell,” he says. “I even thought of putting it into a perfume. Can you imagine?”

The memoir offers a delightful, ringside view of his family. His stepfather, Ram Chattopadhyay, was the son of social reformer Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. “I kind of regret not knowing her much,” he says.

From a childhood where he learnt to fish, shoot, stuff birds, catch snakes and experiment with fireworks, to his military stint in Vietnam, his days in Lovedale in the Nilgiris (which he hated) and encountering snakes in America, Whitaker has had an extraordinary life pursuing his unusual passion. So has this rubbed off on Janaki? “I didn’t think about snakes before I met Rom,” she says. “Obviously, they weren’t in my world. The thing is, his enthusiasm is infectious. We were living in the Crocodile Bank, and you are surrounded by these captive creatures that you are taking care of. I was a filmmaker at that time. And I was always wondering what is that cobra thinking? How is it perceiving the world? It is so alien. I don’t think, in a million years, we will ever be able to figure out how the snake sees us and the world.”

It is, well, hiss story worth reading. “I just lucked out,” says Whitaker. “I didn’t mess with the hard snakes till I was 12 or 13. By then, of course, you know everything. You know exactly what to do. Let’s put it this way: I am probably lucky to be alive.”

Snakes, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll: My Early Years

By Romulus Whitaker

Published by HarperCollins India

Pages 400; price Rs699