We all have a list of mandatory items that we carry everywhere- mostly it is a purse and a mobile phone, but for this Mysuru man, it is a badminton racquet, a pillow cover and a hook.
Weird, you may think, but those are his snake-catching tools for the man who goes by the moniker ‘Snake Shyam’.
“On an average I get close to 15 calls every day for snake rescue and I have to be ready. Now that we are technologically advanced, we also have a snake catchers group where we co-ordinate. So if there is a situation at a place I cannot go to, I make sure a rescuer is arranged,” says Snake Shyam.
This 49-year-old man, who is the epitome of “a man with many feathers in his cap”, uses aphorisms while speaking.
“God has set the stage and our task is to play”, he starts. “I have been an autorickshaw driver for 25 years, an actor for 5 years and a corporator for 2 years. But the role that made me famous is that of the snake catcher,” says Snake Shyam, who won the Rajyotsava award in November 2015, has rescued 30,075 snakes to date
Born as M S Balasubramania into a poor Brahmin family in Mysuru, none of the family members in the snake catcher’s family had any inclination towards snakes. He was 23 years old when he first rescued a snake, which a girl had spotted hiding under a stone. The news soon spread in Mysore (now Mysuru) and people started calling him to rescue snakes, both venomous and non-venomous.
“People just call me and start mumbling. I wait until they finish and ask them to calm down and give me their address,” says Shyam, who has recorded details of every snake he has caught. Out of over 250 snakes, he can recognise 60 types of snakes.
“People added the prefix Snake to my pet name Shyam after a few years. In most of the telephone directories, ‘Snake Shyam’ would be one of the emergency numbers,” he proudly adds.
May be he is flaunting his knowledge of physics, but Shyam explains that the behaviour of snakes (or any animal) is like Newton’s third law. “They will not attack you unless you intimidate them,” he says.
“I save snakes, I don’t save people,” he says emphatically. He throws another one, “Human beings are more dangerous than animals themselves.”
He also says that people just leave all the doors in the house open and leave in fear, when they spot a snake. “Looking for a snake in 10x10 room is easy, but to look for it in 30x40 room, is difficult. They even leave the bathroom door open and nothing can be worse than that,” he says.
He is more than just a snake catcher for people. Many times he has been called a snake god. He laughs and says that many people worship him and fall on his feet once the rescue operation is over. “They say things like “you are the snake god who saved us”.
He adds that only a few pay him for his services. Though Shyam does not insist that people should pay, he asserts that it is important for the government to recognise people like him. “We should be formally registered and given compensation when we get injured during operations,” he said.
The snake catcher is also obsessed with tattoos, especially of animals. Warning me that what is going to come next is going to surprise me, he says, “I have a cockroach tattooed too. I am crazy and very curious about roaches simply because they can survive anywhere.”
“Everything that we do is learnt from animals and we can never stop learning from roaches,” says the snake catcher who has been bitten by snakes four times, all of them during the pre-cellphone days. “I was bitten by a cobra once and called up the hospital from a telephone booth 6 km away. I took half an hour to get there and the doctor had kept everything ready by then,” he said.
He has developed an allergy to anti-venom over time. He has to be very cautious because another bite from a poisonous snake might kill him.
If you look at any picture of Shyam, you can see an entangled bunch of Rudraksha chains and fingers stacked with rings. Asked whether he wears them because of some belief, he says, “I have to do my job, be it acting, driving, snake catching and while doing all this, I would like to set a unique identity for myself. So I accessorize myself.”
Apart being featured in National Geographic Channel and Discovery, the self-taught herpetologist also has a short acting past. He acted in a film called ‘Kalaya Thasmai Namaha’ in 2012 and is currently playing the role of an astrologer in a serial called Gandhari on Colors Kannada.
When he decided to enter politics, Shyam initially decided to stand as an independent candidate in 2013 elections. But he was eventually offered a party ticket by the BJP.
“To survive in politics one has to enjoy listening to peoples’ shouting. People will complain and raise issues, but you should not be bogged down by disappointments when people don’t notice the good things you have done. But I do keep their complaints in mind so let’s not reduce it to being thick-skinned,” says Shyam, who is now arranging for a community library to be built in his ward.