Monday, October 31, 2005

The Hunter and the Hunted

Published in Sanctuary Asia XXIII No. 4, Aug 2003

For the last 10 years I had been watching the legendary Irulas – the snake catching tribe of south India from the periphery. Finally in 2002 I got my chance to spend a week with them (and what a week it was!). Rom Whitaker (my better half) was curious as to what effect the Irula snake catching cooperative had on wild snakes and so we had come to the Chengalpattu district, where snake-hunting for venom extraction was the most intensive. The fact that the snakes were released after the venom was extracted, (unlike other anti-venom extraction set-ups) also made Chengalpattu the right place to ascertain the effect, if any, of the trapping on wild snake populations.

Rom’s life has long been inextricably tied with the Irulas – a tribe he met in the 1970s on one of his snake trips to the south. He was then based outside Bombay and was in the business of extracting venom for Haffkine Institute. He traveled regularly to Bengal for banded kraits and monocellate cobras, to Ratnagiri for saw scaled vipers and to Madras for kraits and Russell’s vipers. Harry Miller, a well known local journalist, put him in touch with the Irulas. Rom was amazed by the Irula’s skill at snake catching; they could literally ‘track down’ snakes! He felt much more at home in south India, having schooled in Kodaikanal, suddenly, for the first time, Rom had a peer group of snake hunters in India. He soon moved to the outskirts of Chennai near an Irula settlement and started India’s first snake park. His first business mates were the Irulas; their easy sense of humour and Rom’s own frugal lifestyle complimented each other.

Around the same time, Rom was discovering that the snakeskin industry was hammering snake populations all over the country. At the industry’s peak, in 1966, 25,000 snakeskins were processed countrywide every day. In an average year, it was still about 17,000 skins per day. So every year, for probably 50 years, 6 million snakes were being killed for watch straps, belts, shoes and handbags. And this is a conservative estimate. The snakes being killed included cobras, rat snakes, Russell’s vipers and pythons. When the large snakes became harder to find, the industry settled for water snakes. The Irulas were the largest suppliers of skins. With their incredible tracking skills, the snakes just didn’t stand a chance. Rom and other conservationists lobbied hard to have the snakeskin industry shut down and eventually the government listened, declaring the industry illegal in 1975.

Overnight, thousands of Irulas were without a livelihood. Although Rom felt sorry for them, he never regretted the ban on snakeskins. While drinking toddy and chatting with the Irulas in the evenings, Rom grew confident that they could do what he had been doing – extract venom from snakes and sell it to the antivenom manufacturers. The idea was to form a tribal cooperative, but this was easier said than done. There were so many legal and bureaucratic gauntlets to run that soon the focus was in danger of being lost. Snakes were now all protected by the forest department, while venom was construed as a chemical, regulated by the Department of Industries. Neither wanted the Cooperative under their jurisdiction. It was an anomaly – the only cooperative utilising wildlife. Finally, it was thanks to the gumption of one lady that the cooperative became a reality at all – Revati Mukherjee. After months of waiting in the corridors of the State Secretariat, Rom was getting despondent. Revati, a good friend and no respecter of obstructive bureaucracy went straight to the top, browbeating the secretaries in charge until they buckled, probably just so they could be rid of her! And thus the Cooperative came into being.

It took another four years for the reluctant Forest Department to issue licenses to the Cooperative’s members. Finally in 1982, the Irulas had leave to catch the Big Four venomous snakes - cobras, kraits, Russell’s vipers and saw scaled vipers. The Cooperative bought the snakes and extracted venom to sell. At year end, the profits were tallied up and distributed among the 60 members. Venom was extracted thrice in three weeks from each snake. Then, in a unique break from the procedure followed by every other venom facility in the world, the snakes were returned to the wild. In the last two decades, the Irulas have caught close to 100,000 snakes. All the snakes have their belly scales clipped in code – year and month of capture and date of release – so that they aren’t caught again any time soon. It is important that this not happen because the snakes need time to feed and recover. The scales eventually grow back obliterating the code but by then the snake has recuperated. In any event, the chances of catching the same snakes are very slim. The Irulas hunt along paddy fields, catching rats, mice and snakes. (The farmers are happy to get rid of both the pesky rodents and the dangerous predator that preys on them.) After the venom is extracted, the snakes are released in forests; the Irulas would probably be lynched if they released the venomous snakes back in the fields where they were originally caught .

So 20 years after the Cooperative became operational, Rom decided to have a casual look at the snake populations in the district of Chengalpattu. For a week, we went trudging along rice field bunds, looking for snakes. It was July – the heat was searing. The northeast monsoon was a few months away and the land was parched. We picked up Kali, the son of a legendary Irula snake hunter and healer, Chockalingam. Kali had married when he was 18 and already had two children at 22. His hamlet consisted of about 20 huts on the outskirts of the village of Manamadi, about 30 km. south of Madras. They had no electricity; just a lone street light that lit the whole village at night. Water was brought from a kilometre away by the women. Hardly any of the kids went to school. Their hair was copper-coloured from malnutrition. All of them are sparsely built from a life of hard work and poor nutrition. These are among India’s poorest people. Most adults work as casual labourers in farms and rice mills. The Cooperative could only handle 300 members from a 25,000 strong tribe.

Kali has been hunting snakes since he was 10 years old. At 14, a saw-scaled viper bit him on his forefinger. While he was not in any danger, the pain searing through his finger was so intense and unbearable that he thrust his finger into the fire. He’s too embarrassed to talk about the incident so we don’t know whether there was any relief from the pain! Now he has a slightly deformed finger. That’s one thing I’ve noticed about most snake hunters – shaking their hand is like shaking a crab’s claw. When I comment on it, Rom reminds me of his adage “Snake hunters never die. They just rot away!” Joking apart, most snake hunters live dangerous lives. There's no such thing as too much concentration or caution when dealing with venomous snakes. There can be no distraction, no hesitation, no mistakes. And as you hunt, you go deeper and deeper into the countryside, and further away from the main road, transport and any possible help.

The remoteness of the location is one thing but Rom’s various allergies (to antivenom serum, to cobra venom, to krait venom) are complications that we could live without! Thus the constant refrain about concentration.

Rice farmers don’t like too many trees. It was a vast flatland of rice fields with little stands of trees, the only shade in the whole landscape. It is to these copses that we headed, looking for tracks and rat burrows along the dykes. When Kali did not pause over several burrows, I asked him why. He nonchalantly replied, “There’s nothing in there. It’s an old hole.” He was looking for fresh tracks, fresh diggings, scat outside the holes and where there were none, he didn’t pause for a second glance. To my untrained eyes, I couldn’t tell where to look for tracks on a baked earth with dry stalks of grass sticking out all over the place.

It was getting hotter and hotter and it was only 10 a.m. I could have sworn it was 2 p.m. I was exhausted. We had been walking for 4 hours. We walked along a field of cotton. Kali found a burrow with snake tracks. It looked like any other hole to me and I did have my glasses on! And then to add insult to injury he proclaims that the tracks go in but don’t come out. Now how on earth could a slight little smoothness on the earth say so much? But Kali was certain and he began digging. Rom found another hole which was part of the same burrow system, while Raju, Kali’s snake hunting partner, scouted around to see if there were any escape routes. I wanted to find the next rat burrow with a snake in it but the heat was making me listless. So halfheartedly I walked along an adjoining dyke looking for burrows and tracks while the boys were busy digging. One of them yelled and I raced back - Kali was just handing Rom a young cobra by the tail and he continued digging. He thought there was a second cobra in the same hole. And no prizes for guessing if he was right!

In a ditch overgrown with Ipomoea, Kali found a whole clutch of baby Russell’s vipers. They were such perfect miniatures of the adults. I cannot tell what science caused Kali to believe that tramping around in the Ipomoea would lead him to baby vipers. I suppose a combination of skill and several years of hunting knowledge would tell him that this is the season when Russell’s vipers drop their babies and when he sees the right habitat, he checks it out. So where I just see a ditch overgrown with Ipomoea, Kali sees the ideal hangout for baby vipers. Where I just see a rat hole, Kali sees a cool place where a cobra would want to lie low to beat the heat.

Walking back to the car in the evening, Kali stopped at a palmyra tree and poked around with a stick. A minute later, he pulled out a saw-scaled viper. Now, how did he do that? He couldn’t tell me what made him check that particular palm tree and not its neighbour. This was crazy – either he was having us on (he could have come over the previous day and secreted a saw scaled viper in the tree) or it was some kind of magic. Thinking about it now, may be Kali caught a movement out of the corner of his eye and investigated. I suppose the trick is also to get under the skin of the snake to figure out where it could be. Rom says snake hunting is actually a systematic search of all possible snake hiding places – literally and figuratively leaving no stone unturned. But still that requires a greater skill than one realises. There’s no way I was ever going to learn anything about tracking. Give me sand dunes with big game any day where animal tracks are written as large as bold print!

At the end of our 7-day hunt, we totalled 55 snakes of 10 different species. Rom made it a point to collect shed skins as indicators of relative snake abundance, even ones we didn’t see, and the tally was 158 shed skins. For a preliminary survey conducted during the worst time of the year for snakes, it was obvious that the four species of snakes were doing very well indeed, and capture-release methods being followed by the Irulas were having no negative effects on the snake populations. But what we’d really like to do is radio track some of the snakes that the Irula Cooperative releases and insert PIT tags in others so we have an idea of where these released snakes go and what they do. If there is any snake freak out there who’s looking for a project, here’s one that desperately needs doing.

Dragons Alive

Published in Sanctuary Asia, XXXV No.3, June 2005

We (Rom Whitaker and I) were standing knee-deep in a stinky cesspool. The muddy water was filthy with village effluent and the body fluids of a rotting shark carcass lying just above the tide line in the mangroves. I had modified my earplugs into nose stoppers to better handle the nauseating aroma that permeated everything including my clothes. The only animals that probably found this scene appealing were the water monitor lizards arriving from further upstream. They ripped and tore into the shark carcass with gusto, fought with their neighbours over scraps and one even crawled right into the belly cavity of the fast-disappearing carcass to get the entrails. I gagged on the thought that the lizards found the putrid carcass tasty. Most of them were over 1.8 m. in length; the largest was a hefty 2.4 m. As long as we didn’t make a move towards the feast, the lizards didn’t seem to mind our presence. Taking a step forward not only stirred up the buzzing dark cloud of flies and the overpowering stench but also brought on a chorus of whipping tails, the lizards’ way of reminding me that I was intruding. The scene I was witnessing could have been out of some primeval time when humans were not even a gleam in the eye of any primate.

We were in Sri Lanka, wading through one of the numerous rivers that drain down the island’s west coast. The scene described above was to play out over and over again in virtually every single water system along this coast – Maha Oya, Kelaniya, Bolgoda Lake, Kalu Ganga, Bentota Ganga, Gin Ganga, to name the major ones. The Sri Lankans practice that endearing Indian habit of chucking any kind of garbage into the nearest river. Here there is one exceptional difference – you won’t see many stray dogs fighting over the organic scraps; instead you’ll witness huge semi-tame water monitors trying to cram as much food as possible into their already bloated stomachs. A lizard lying on the shore after one such meal is totally incapable of moving away should you approach too close. In one extreme case of grossness, the lizard’s stomach was so distended that the legs could barely reach the ground! Such satiated saurians just lie there and put on a lethargic threat display – hissing and slapping their tails. Usually this half-hearted warning should suffice to send any timid soul on his way. Should you wish to catch them, for whatever crazy reason, all you need is sheer muscle power; the lizards aren’t about to run. These overfed beasts are so powerful that it took the combined weight of two admittedly not-in-shape humans to restrain one lizard from walking into the water. We eventually did manage to measure his length and weight (2.25 m; 55 kg. should you be interested).

Meet the beast

The winning formula that goes into the making of these supremely-adaptable creatures is: keen eyesight, nostrils with valves that shut out water when its time to submerge, a tongue that smells the faintest odour of any food at least two kilometers away if the wind is blowing or the water is flowing their way, a long rudder-like tail that propels them powerfully through water and doubles as a defensive weapon, talon-like claws that provide the animals amazing purchase on smooth barked trees, and teeth more like those of flesh eating sharks than any living reptile or mammal.

Although amazingly there is no literature to support this, it is obvious that water monitor lizards can hear. I have mimicked the squeaking of a rat, the distress call of baby palm squirrels and common tree frogs and usually drawn a gratifying reaction – they turn around and fix me with their curious gaze.

As if a regular pair of sharp eyes was not enough, the creature has a pineal eye in the middle of the forehead. It has no eyeball or eyelid, although it has a functional retina and a nerve leading to the brain. The third eye lies beneath the skin and its position is merely hinted at by a slight bulge and marked by a large yellow spot. What purpose it serves is still a mystery; some scientists believe that it maintains a sense of daylight (circadian rhythm), and season. In one ghoulish, but interesting study, conducted in the 1960s, a scientist removed the third eye surgically to see what would happen to the lizard. Compared to a normal lizard, the pineal-eye-blinded lizard’s reproductive cycle and locomotor activity was speeded up, and it spent a lot more time sunning itself. Whether the lack of a pineal eye was actually detrimental to the lizard was never established.

Unlike more sedentary reptiles, monitor lizards patrol their territory actively seeking food; investigate objects with curiosity and display an exceptional level of intelligence and awareness of their world. Their bodies are not knobby and bumpy like crocodiles, nor do they unnervingly slither out of the way like snakes. Their active pursuit of anything that moves or smells is reminiscent of small carnivorous mammals like mongoose and civet cats. People seem to easily relate to monitor lizards because of all these ‘mammalian’ traits. Yet, they are reptiles more closely related to snakes than other lizards.

A Quick Tour

An hour-and-half drive north of Colombo is an endless stretch of beach resorts where planeloads of burned-out European tourists come to chill out in the sun. One such village is Waikkal, on the edge of a tributary of the river Maha Oya. The mangroves have been chopped away a long time ago and the river is crisscrossed by fishing nets. Swimming gingerly between these nets are big water monitor lizards. One popular water monitor lizard myth here is that it is venomous. In the past, warriors apparently hung water monitor lizards by their tails and collected their mucousy saliva. This ‘venomous’ substance was used to poison enemies. The truth is that lizard saliva is a suitable growing medium for several different kinds of bacteria but there is no venom. The second popular myth is that lizards can cut you badly with their tails. They can certainly slap hard with their tails and I had several red welts across my thighs to prove it but they certainly didn’t cut me up. Some lizards do get entangled in the nets and the frightened fishermen would rather hack the net than risk getting bit or cut in half by the lizards. The nets are gauntlets the lizards have to run everyday and they could easily drown if not quickly freed. We were summoned several times by local fishermen to help disentangle lizards from nets. All we ever got in return for the favour was a well-aimed tail slap from the lizards or clawed arms.

Anthony’s Resort

It was in Waikkal that we discovered Anthony. His house sat right on the edge of the river, the highway of water monitors. They were the bane of Anthony’s life. He took all the kitchen waste from the resorts on contract to feed his large sounder of pigs. Recently, a lizard had grabbed a piglet and Anthony’s determined wife had saved it by chasing the lizard away. Anthony stitched up the piglet’s ripped-open stomach and nursed it back to health. Two days after it joined the rest of the sounder, it got taken again and this time Mrs. Anthony didn’t see it happen. While we were interviewing Anthony, his wife burst out of the house, shrieking and we immediately understood why the lizard had dropped the piglet earlier and ran! This time she had spotted a lizard lurking around the chicken coop and went after it with a broom. By the time we could comprehend what was going on, the triumphant lizard was swimming off fast with a bedraggled white chicken in its mouth. Mrs. Anthony stood on the waters’ edge beating the water with her broom and swearing in Sinhala.

If the Sinhalese believe that these reptiles are venomous and pesky predators, why don’t they just exterminate the animals? One reason for this tolerant attitude could be the lizard’s tendency to gobble up snakes. The lizards quickly learn how to deal with venomous and non-venomous snakes. Non-venomous snakes are grabbed anywhere along the body whereas a venomous snake would be chased and then shaken to exhaustion before being swallowed like a long noodle. Sri Lankans have learnt to value this service.

While we stood there commiserating with Mrs. Anthony, we were inwardly admiring the lizard’s gumption. This was when we discovered Anthony’s regular job. A number of big aluminum pots and pans connected by pipes stood by the chicken coop, hidden from the road. He was the local bootlegger and entrepreneur. He brewed his intoxicant with choice pickings from the resorts’ kitchen waste mixed with the river’s septic water. He was making a profit with minimum investment, just as enterprising as his nemesis, the water monitor lizard. The very thought that any part of that filthy river water goes down people’s throats was too unappetising a thought. In no time at all Anthony’s place was sarcastically branded, Anthony’s Health Spa!

Resilient lizards

In the resort itself, the water monitors lead a low profile life. They hang around the tourist cottages scavenging fallen pieces of fish fingers and French fries; they lurk behind the kitchen for scraps, keeping the stray dog population down (the lizards take almost every puppy, thankfully out of sight of visiting tourists). Life is clearly as good for the reptiles as for the tourists at these resorts.

A boat ride along the River Kelaniya was another lesson in lizard resilience. Kelaniya is one of the most polluted rivers in Sri Lanka. At least Anthony’s Maha Oya was an organically septic river; Kelaniya was brimming not just with organic waste but heavy-duty inorganic effluents released by factories along its banks. Although there weren’t as many lizards in this river as the others, we tracked down the local haunt of the lizards – the effluent discharge gate of a sausage plant!

Bolgoda Lake, which has several lake front houses along its banks, comes alive over the weekends when speedboats tailed by water skis zoom around. But through the week when the owners are in Colombo, the lizards enjoy the facilities – neatly trimmed green lawns to bask on, the local fish market along the main highway for food and a choice assortment of boat houses to sleep off their eating binge.

Water monitor heaven

The cesspool in which we were standing was further south, in the middle of the village of Balapitiya. The mangrove fringe skirted a coconut plantation, which was the frequent hangout of the big monitor lizards because it was next to the bridge over the Madu Ganga River, the local garbage dumping spot. The commonest fish caught on this coast is tuna; and the river was one huge stinky garbage can for fishy leftovers. Tuna tails are too stiff and big to be swallowed by the lizards. It drove me (if not the lizards) crazy with frustration to see the lizards move their neck from side to side for hours in an attempt to swallow the damn things. Some gave up and swam around with the tails stuck in their mouths. Many a beautiful lizard photograph had to be trashed because of the fish-tail-stuck-in-the-mouth syndrome. It was also comical to see lizards whose mouths were already stuffed up with a tuna tail trying to pick up yet another tuna tail!

Lizards frequently brought morning peak traffic on the bridge to a stand still when one decided to cross the road. But once the lizard got onto the road, it would suddenly see the vehicles on either side and sit down petrified. The people waited patiently until the lizard mustered up enough courage to either cross or slink back in retreat. But some big ones just slowly ambled across like they owned the place.


Clearly, the people along the wet west coast of Sri Lanka and the water monitor lizard have learnt to live together. Although much of the island’s once extensive mangroves are gone, the absence of poaching for leather or meat allows the lizards to live unmolested. The villagers recognise the critical role the lizards play as scavengers in the ecosystem as Sri Lanka does not have any vultures to do the job.

But elsewhere in its range, the water monitor is being driven out as its habitat, the mangroves are being cleared to make way for shrimp farms. Shrimp farmers do not welcome the presence of water monitors and as a result, there is less and less space for them along Southeast Asia’s waterways. They are also slaughtered for their highly prized pretty skins. Approximately two million monitor lizards are killed every year throughout Asia for the leather industry. Indonesia alone takes anywhere between 600,000 to 1.5 million water monitor lizards from the wild each year for people who think they look posh with a lizard skin watchstrap or handbag. The only things going for the wily lizards is their resilience, their adaptability and the few people in some parts of the world that tolerate their presence.

The end

Just as we were getting ready to leave, a boat zoomed up creating huge swells that threatened our balance in the festering waters. One of the local boat drivers had heard of our interest in the ‘kabaragoya’ (Sinhala for water monitor lizard) and had helpfully scraped up the carcass of a run-over civet cat from the highway for us. A bemused Rom took the squashed remains closer to the lizards on the shore and they began to swarm all over him. For a moment the wild creatures appeared tame but as soon as Rom began retreating, the lizards took up defensive postures ready to use their tails as weapons. I feared one of them might just decide to make his point and drench me with the unsanitary water. Thankfully that never happened and we could hear the lizards ripping and skirmishing as we withdrew.

An Atheist among Gods and Ghosts

“Janaki Lenin, are you a Christian, Hindu or Communist?” This question was the bane of my growing years. The questioner said the word “Communist” sinisterly and although I didn’t know what it meant, I clearly understood it was evil. I was very confused about why I should be associated with evil and didn’t know how to respond. However, only a few knew the significance of the name. Most frequently I was asked if I was a Hindu or a Christian. To a Hindu, any foreign sounding name that wasn’t overtly Muslim was a Christian name. So the Hindus assumed I was a Christian and the Christians thought I was a Hindu.

When I was seven I was sent to a Catholic convent school. During the first hour of school every day all the Catholic kids attended catechism while all the “heathen” (Protestants included) did Moral Science. The majority of the kids were Hindus but there were some Muslims, Sikhs, and Jains too. We were taught about Jesus Christ and that the Christian God was the only true god and the Pope the only intermediary; and we sang hymns. The rest of the time we filled scrapbooks with pictures; I cannot remember what these exercises were about but they were very boring. When I looked around the class, the other kids were variously engaged in something other than what we were meant to be doing – some were completing math homework that had to be handed in later in the day, some were tearing note paper and making rockets and various projectiles, others were reading story books, some gossiped in whispers. Nobody took Moral Science seriously.

I daydreamed while gazing out of the window at the sea. A fishermen’s village was below the window on the beach and there were always some interesting goings-on to watch. At that time of the morning the men would be mending their nets while their wives were away at distant markets haggling over that mornings’ catch. If the catch was late it was exciting to watch the catamarans pulling in; all the fishermen in the colony would pitch in and drag the heavy nets ashore. Their kids didn’t go to school and hung around the settlement amongst the adults helping with the chores. The rest of the day the kids just ran around on the hot sands flying kites or romping in the waves. I remember wishing I were a fisher-kid who didn’t have to go through the drudgery of learning math and science and geography.

Every time I moved up a grade in school I had to explain my strange name to my new teachers. They wanted to know whether I was a Christian or Hindu; I didn’t know what I was. To simplify things they asked what god we worshipped at home and I said none. What festivals did we celebrate at home? I stood there tongue-tied, pinned like an accused criminal under the interested gaze of the teacher and all my classmates. The teacher suggested “Christmas or Diwali?” I nodded yes to both. Were my parents of two different religions? I didn’t know. This was a country where everyone wore his or her religious identity obviously and sometimes flamboyantly. So the teachers couldn’t be convinced that I was unable to explain my religion and would ask the same questions for the next few days until they got tired. I hated these public trials. I wanted to conform as much as possible. I would have given anything to be as interesting as plain cardboard. I didn’t care which religion I belonged to as long as I belonged to something just like everyone else. When I complained to my parents that everyone, but I, had a religion, and that the teachers were always troubling me about it, they replied that religion was a private issue and shouldn’t unduly concern my teachers. They weren’t convinced I needed a religion to gain acceptability and I had no choice but to grit my teeth and put up with the endless questions.

It wasn’t just the teachers who were curious. When I got friendly with another girl, her parents wanted to know what religion I belonged to. I never had a lasting friendship, as the parents were suspicious of my background. It seemed like a big deal to everyone except my parents. I felt miserable as I seemed to be the only one not part of any gang. I melodramatically contemplated running away from home. Perhaps a fisherman would adopt me and I could fly kites all day long. It remained a mid-day reverie and I was too chicken to actually run away.

At home I looked in the phone book. There were Leenas, Legays, and a column of Lekhas. Finally there was the lone beacon Lenin, the only one in Chennai, a city of 4 million people. Why did Father not have a common name like Venkatasubramanium, or Hussein or Thomas?

When I turned thirteen, I realized that I was born a Hindu but my parents had strong socialist leanings and were practicing atheists or rationalists or whatever fancy word Father came up with. I asked Father how I got my name and this is the story he told me:

Back in the 1930s the Justice Party, a political group from the South, was not only fighting for freedom but also grappling with socially oppressive practices plaguing Tamilian (a people in South India) society at that time. People of the lower caste were treated abominably, women were little more than heir producers and the condition of the serfs under the feudal agrarian system was worse than animals. The Party proclaimed atheism as a revolt against the religious hegemony of the Brahmins. Mr. Ramanathan was an office bearer of the Justice Party.

In late 1931 Ramanathan and Periyar, the father of the Dravidian movement wanted to study the political systems of other countries. Periyar came from a wealthy family but did not know English. He made a proposition to Ramanathan that if he would be the interpreter, Periyar would finance the trip. So both men embarked on a journey that covered almost every country in Europe. They had wanted to visit Soviet Union as well but the British Government refused them permission. When their ship dropped anchor in the Russian port of Odessa, Ramanathan and Periyar jumped ship and traveled to Moscow. They had heard so much British propaganda about the Communist regime that they were curious to see the country for themselves. Coming from a nation where grinding poverty in the villages was common, the visitors were overwhelmed by the seeming prosperity of the Soviet countryside and the emancipation of women and serfs. The Indians returned home determined to kick-start reforms.

Soon after his arrival in 1933, Ramanathan visited his family; he had been away for months and while he was abroad one of his sisters had delivered a son. The house was festive and bustling with activity when Ramanathan arrived. The naming ceremony of the baby was to be held soon and the foreign-returned gentleman was given the honour. He named his nephew, Lenin. There are no records to suggest whether the family was shocked or dismayed by this unorthodox name. Some of Father’s aunts and uncles couldn’t even pronounce this funny name – they called him a lilting “Lelin.”

Tamilians do not have a tradition of family names. We, however, have an intricate system of initials – my name under this system would read L. Janaki and I formally belonged to the house of the oldest living patriarch of the family. This curious practice had one interesting consequence – women didn’t have to take on their husbands’ name. I would be L. Janaki, whether I married or not, until I died. I was the only girl born in my father’s family and was hence named after my grandmother, Janaki, meaning “daughter of the earth.” When I began going to kindergarten, the Western system of taking a family name came into vogue. Many took on their caste affiliations as their family name. Some made family names of their father’s given name, like my parents did for me. So I became Janaki Lenin. How I wished later in life that I were an anonymous L. Janaki instead of the shocking Janaki Lenin!

At about the time I was learning about this history, Moral Science became interesting. I paid attention to what the nuns were saying. They narrated several parables from the Bible, which highlighted the omnipresence of God. It was all based on having faith – only if I had faith could I know God and if I didn’t have any, I would be blind to His Presence. I told Father that even if he didn’t know if there was a god or not, the nuns were sure there was one.

Father asked, “Do you believe in ghosts?”

“I think so.”

He asked, “Have you seen any?”


“Then why do you believe in them?” he countered. I was baffled. “Besides,” he added, “God and the Ghost are the same thing.”

And he quoted, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost”.

Those were the years when we girls scared the wits out of each other with ghost stories and rumours of impaled mutilated bodies ran through the school like a gas line on fire. The school was situated in the middle of a vast woodsy property. We walked the narrow path among the trees watchful for legs or headless bodies dangling from the branches or for malevolent apparitions who might appear unexpectedly out of the dark corners. I never saw anything out of the ordinary but the vivid descriptions of some of the vile things that the others had seen made me uncomfortable. Mother had been reassuring me every night for several years that there were no ghosts. After each report of a sighting, we’d all rush over and, of course, there was nothing. Most of our lunch hour was spent chasing ghosts. A lot of the girls swore that they had seen ghosts and I thought since I wasn’t seeing any, I had no faith. That’s exactly what the nuns said too – I wasn’t seeing god because I had no faith. Or was it the other way around? When classes resumed, we’d struggle to calm our nerves down and concentrate on some complex mathematical problem. Several times a girl would go into a complete panic about a ghost she had seen and the nuns would be called in to calm her down. They would lecture that there were no ghosts and only people who worshipped the Devil believed in or saw ghosts. Now I was really confused.

During Moral Science hour the next day I muddled an explanation about gods and ghosts. As I saw the nun’s expression getting stranger and stranger, I abruptly clammed up. The trouble over my spiritual soul had begun. Every evening brought a new argument from Father and the next morning I would get into a fresh dispute with the nuns.

The question of god, devil and faith was to occupy my thoughts so entirely that I gazed off into the sea trying to figure out what Father meant – How could God be the same as the ugly, scary headless ghosts? And the nuns said ghosts were the Devil’s work. So what was this strange relationship between God and Devil? This tendency to daydream got me in trouble with everybody. The teachers complained to Mother that I was a dreamer.

None of my friends were having a problem with God and they somehow remained immune to the religious preaching of the nuns and disinterested in Moral Science. I felt I was being put to the test by being torn between two didactic polarities. Out of exasperation one evening I asked Father “So is there a God or not?” and he answered “No one can prove there is one and no one can prove there isn’t one and we all have to live with that.” And he loved to quote Mark Twain, “God created man in his image and man, being a gentleman, returned the compliment.” Or this one by Oscar Wilde was another favourite: “Most religious teachers spend their time trying to prove the unproven by the unprovable.” While I considered this exploration seriously, Father was always a tease and was deliberately tripping me up.

The nuns said we needed God to keep away from evil and to receive pardon for our sins. That seemed reasonable and I was willing to accept it. Just like I needed my parents and teachers, everyone needed a god to discipline us. After mulling over it for a while I came up against this: If there was no God to pardon my sins, would that not keep me from committing sins in the first place? What was the point in committing a crime and then seeking forgiveness for it? By this time, the nuns had privately nicknamed me The Devil. I was at an age when I was questioning authority and doubting everything my parents as well as the nuns said. So I set out to find out for myself.

I started to read the Bible but didn’t get very far beyond the first pages of the Old Testament. All of us got free copies of the Bible every year. Like any other book I began with the first page of the Old Testament and promptly got tangled, like so many others, in who begat who begat who and who girded his loins to do what. I visited the cathedral every evening after school. I didn’t know Mass was held at certain times of the week; I would open the creaky massive door and let myself in. This disturbed a bunch of blind bats that eerily swooped around me. Keeping one eye open for bats and other spooky things, I’d imitate the nuns in Moral Science class and murmur “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” Soon the brush of a bat’s wing or the deadening silence would send me running out. Besides I didn’t want to walk across the woods alone. I copied every gesture a Christian made and pretended I was one too. I hung pictures of Jesus on my wall, crossed myself when one of the girls swore, and refused to wear the red bindi on my forehead. No doubt the nuns were delighted with my transformation from a combative “Communist” to a devout soul that they had had doubts of saving from hell fire. I can’t remember how long this phase lasted but it’s no wonder that it got me nowhere.

I next tried being a Hindu. I didn’t know what the Hindu spiritual book was. Father said there is not one but several. I didn’t want to cloud my confusion any further by involving Father and kept my quest a secret. If I asked him too many questions then I’d have to divulge the whole thing. With no one to guide me, I had to settle on going to the temple every evening. It was moderately fun as it was very social. All the men, dressed in white sarongs, sat under the sacred tree and name-dropped; the women, in colourful saris, sat on the cool granite corridor of the temple, with fragrant fresh jasmine flowers in their hair, singing while the kids ran helter-skelter. Inside the temple, the priest began the evening by bathing the idols of the gods with sacred water. He then decorated them with sandal wood paste and vermilion and gold jewelry. After he was ready, everyone gathered for the puja (prayer ceremony) around the sanctum sanctorum. There was the sonorous chanting of Sanskrit verses, and bells rang. Everyone clapped their cheeks in reverence and joined their hands in prayer. The priest then brought out the offerings – some ash and vermilion that was promptly applied to the forehead. Once the main puja was done, you walked around the temple corridor clockwise paying respects to all the minor gods installed in their own niches along the corridor. This held my interest for a few days but again it didn’t do much to explain the nature of god, much less enlighten if there was one.

I asked my Hindu friend what she thought. She went along with what her parents taught her about God and that was all there was to it. I asked her if what the nuns said during Moral Science made her think again. With a peculiar look she said, “I’m sent here to study, not pay attention to their Christian teachings.” And I realized that was probably the attitude of my parents as well.

Late in March Indians celebrate a boisterous festival called Holi (the Spring Festival). While on every other festival we wore our best clothes, for Holi we wore the oldest, because friends will soon dust and drench you in gaudy colours. This festival was widely celebrated in North India but when I was fifteen, South Indians were slowly adopting it too. They restricted themselves to throwing colours on each other but didn’t get into drinking bhang (a sweet milk drink spiked with marijuana). In North India, everyone from grannies to little kids got harmlessly high on it. That year, some friends and I decided to celebrate Holi. After school got done that day we ran riot smearing virulent pink and nauseating green colour powders on each other. The powder mixed with sweat left an indelible mark that lasted a couple of days. Into this wild party walked a group of nuns in their immaculate white habits and in sheer exuberance I threw some colour on them. Suddenly everyone came to their senses and the gaiety stopped abruptly. I knew I had made a terrible mistake. The nuns suspected some devious religious infraction had taken place but weren’t really sure. Since I, of indeterminate religious breeding, was the culprit; there could be more to it than met the eye.

I was marched off to see Sister Teresa, the head of the school. I must have looked a sight – my hair in disarray, my face and clothes smeared in garish colours while I tried to look as repentant as possible. Sister Teresa was a morose person and would always reprimand us for laughing or running “too much” as she made her way sedately like a giant penguin around the school at recess. Her nickname among the girls was Sister Grumpy. A terse letter of complaint was written to my parents about my abominable behaviour, my arguments about the existence of god with some oblique comments about their own godlessness. I smirked to myself thinking that should surely get Mother going. But instead she shouted at me. Why was I bringing dishonour on the family by behaving wildly? Why did I have to throw colour on anyone? I really wished I hadn’t taken part in the rowdy party and brought all this unpleasantness on myself. It had just seemed like simple fun then. I was allowed to return to school the next day if I apologized and I did. But something soured inside me; I didn’t think it was such a big issue that they had to complain to Mother. I had been apologizing from the moment I realized I had made a mistake but instead they made a scene at school and at home before I was finally let off. The nuns singled me out for special attention during Moral Science, preaching with renewed vigour while making snide remarks about the devil in our midst. The more the nuns tried to stuff religion down my throat, the more I rebelled against the Christian god. Mother forbade me from getting into any arguments with the nuns. Since I wasn’t making much headway on the issue of Gods and ghosts I relapsed to a semi-comatose frame of mind during Moral Science and resumed watching the fisher kids flying their kites.

Our Board examinations were coming up and we had to get down to the serious business of studying and doing well. The pressure was on to not only do well, but to do really well. Moral Science class was scraped for the weeks leading up to the exams and God was relegated to the low priority corner of all our minds. We attended special classes in school over the weekends, had long assignments to do in every subject; it was tedious. There was hectic competition between schools to outperform each other in these examinations. The more First classes the students achieved, the higher the school’s prestige. Teachers and parents invested a lot of time and effort in every student. The day before the examinations began, as we all began suffering from pangs of anxiety, God suddenly figured prominently. The Christian girls went to the cathedral and the Hindu girls appeared at school with the holy marks of having visited a temple. I didn’t pay any attention to what the girls from other religious backgrounds did. I felt completely alone with no god of my own to look down on me but realized that if there was anyone I could rely on, it was I. Being an average student academically, I surprised the nuns by outdoing myself. Even Sister Grumpy happily commented, “Even the Devil did well!” That was the first time I heard my nickname. We had done the school proud and there was a lot of backslapping. The moment passed but I was never to forget the nasty nickname and hereafter always equated nuns with the moniker.

The last two years of school were spent in a daze of cultural activities, meeting boys, parties, discovering make-up, and developing deep crushes on movie stars and sports heroes. God still remained low priority. Parents didn’t interfere anymore in their daughters’ lives and so finally I had friends. I went to film school after graduating from high school and I was thankful that nobody there really cared about religion. That was when I resumed that unfinished business.

I had just turned eighteen. This time I knew which books to read and I covered a vast spectrum. I settled finally for the agnosticism of Zen Buddhism combined with elements of Sufi mysticism as it calmed my parched restless soul. I suppose this is what my parents wanted for me – to not take any religion for granted and to seek my own crutch (or faith as some would have it). I am now thankful I got that name because not only did it help me find my non-conformist feet but taught me to scrutinize everything – question, question, question.

The only time I felt any trepidation about my name was when I first traveled to the United States years later. I wondered what the Immigration officials would say. I stood quaking in that queue exhausted from the long flight and unsure of myself in a strange land. There were strong socialist parties in Europe and I hadn’t felt out of place or unwanted there. But in America, Communism was an evil word. I convinced myself that I was going to be deported. When it was finally my turn, the official merely commented “Interesting name” and then wanted to know what I was doing in the country. “I’m going to Jackson, Wyoming for a film festival, sir,” I squeaked through my tension-clenched throat. He exclaimed, “Really! I’m from Jackson. Oh! You’ll love it there. It’s the most beautiful place in the world,” and stamped my passport. I remember thinking, If America can accept me, I must be all right.

These days if any one asks me about my name, I say, “Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you about it.” Depending on my mood I might either spin a yarn or tell them the simple truth.