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How the villagers of Ratnapuri learnt to live with the Russell’s viper

Curled up A Russell’s viper enjoying its space. Janaki Lenin

Gerard Martin studies a species that won’t win even a rigged popularity contest. Russell’s vipers have a reputation for being irritable. Like other vipers, they tend to freeze rather than flee in encounters with people. Besides these traits, their enormous venom glands and half-inch-long fangs make for a lethal combination. The species bites more humans than cobras in parts of India.

Martin and his team talked to the rural community of Ratnapuri, near Mysuru, Karnataka, about conducting a study. For hundreds of years, the locals had killed serpents on sight. He told them, “But that hasn’t stopped people from getting bitten. We want to see if there’s a better way of coexisting with snakes.” Intrigued, the villagers agreed.

More than 20

Over the past 10 months, Martin and his team caught 24 Russell’s vipers and implanted radio transmitters. They released the snakes in the same location from where they were taken, the farmlands where farmers work daily. People are terrified of them since many had lost lives and limbs to snakebites. The vipers have no religious sanctity that cobras enjoy. Yet, the villagers cooperated. Curious kids stopped to chat with the researchers about the snakes that had a chain of circular markings on their backs.

Views and a vision

There were difficult moments too. When a group of tipsy men harassed the researchers, the researchers showed them how they were studying the snakes. Within an hour, the hecklers became enthusiastic supporters of the research. “If you can introduce people to a Russell’s viper and change their view of it, you can introduce them to anything,” says Martin. People’s acceptance of these creatures is as remarkable as the vipers adjusting to life with humans.

Martin’s tagged snakes sat tight as the unaware trudged past them, sometimes within a few centimetres. The research team even found fresh human faeces next to one of the vipers. In none of these cases did the vipers strike. Instead, they flattened their heads into their coils and stuck to the ground to avoid detection. Contrary to their notorious reputation, the vipers’ first reaction was to hide, relying on their ability to vanish in plain sight.

Sometimes, the trackers couldn’t spot a snake even though the radio signal told them it was right there. Martin found one less than a foot from him. If these masters of camouflage are reluctant to lash out, why do so many people get bitten?

Watch your foot

In all the cases Martin analysed, Russell’s vipers bit when humans stepped on them. They aren’t interested in us, he says, nor do villagers want to have anything to do with them. Practices such as keeping yards clean, pruning the lower branches of hedges, and using a torch at night can prevent accidents. But people are reluctant to change their ways. They think, ‘I’ve been doing this every day for 20 years, and nothing happened to me’.

When Martin is called to remove a snake from a yard, he tells the residents to get rid of debris. If they call him again and they haven’t cleaned up, he scolds them. “They are beginning to understand the snakes really don’t want to bite them,” he says. “Staying safe is up to them, not the snakes.” He hopes that the villagers can eventually live without conflict with one of the most dangerous creatures in the country. By not reaching for a stick when they see a viper and by allowing research on their fields, they have made a start.

Seven-minute match

getty images/ istock

Respected Madam/Sir,

Yesterday I was sitting at home and reading Vixen 03 superhit thriller novel by Clive Cussler. Whether you have heard of Clive Cussler? He is writing so many novels maybe weekly basis. Action means non-stop action. Thrills means non-stop thrills. Masala means more masala than factory of Shakti Masala company in Mamarathupalayam. It is near Erode. Have you been? I have been.

Maybe 15-20 years ago I was working in Gobichettipalayam branch. And Mrs. M’s some relatives came for visiting. They said Mr. Mathrubootham please let us do some sightseeing activities in nearby areas. Please show all the highlights of Gobichettipalayam. Aama, as if I am working in Bank of India branch in Constantinople. How can everyone in Mrs. Mathrubootham’s family except Mrs. Mathrubootham be so irritating. Maybe some issues in DNA.

So after seeing two-three things in Gobichettipalayam and then going to Pariyur Kondathu Kaliamman Temple I thought ok now what to do. At that moment Tempo Traveller driver said, “Sir, one masala factory is there shall we go?” Like that only I saw Sakthi Masala factory. Very grand. Today is international company with Jyothika posing in photos.

Madam/Sir, one minute. Why I am writing about masala company? Retirement age means brain turn into muttakos.

What I was saying? Ah yes. Novel. Suddenly during reading of novel one thought came to me. Whether old video cassette of Raise the Titanic! is still there in house. It is based on another superhit Clive Cussler novel. But where is the cassette? I thought maybe I can give it to nearby photo studio. They are transforming video tape into DVD within 24 to 48 hours.

I looked inside almari. Nothing. I looked inside storeroom. Nothing. I looked inside bookshelf. Nothing. I looked under bed. Nothing.

So I went to Mrs. M and said excuse me do you know where is my video cassette of superhit film from 1980s Raise the Titanic!? She said, “You first answer this question. If in one house one man and woman is there and man is spending all day doing useless timepass, and woman is trying to make lunch and man is coming and asking stupid questions, and then woman is deciding nonsense I will go with friends to hotel for ladies lunch, then what will old man have for lunch? Bread and jam. Banana. Tumbler of cold water. Which is the right answer?”

I said, “Thank you, Kamalam for valuable inputs, please continue. Madam/Sir, secret of happy marriage is very fast movement in reverse gear.

Madam/Sir, then I thought I will look in balcony. Some boxes are there. Video cassette and all gone forever. But I found one exciting item. Badminton rackets and some balls. I ran to kitchen and said, “Kamalam, after lunch shall we go and play ball badminton for few minutes? It has been many decades.”

She said, “Old man finally you are asking me to do some youthful activities; 4 o’clock we will play. You please wear yoga dress, I will wear sports saree.”

Madam/Sir, we had two rackets and three balls. We went to badminton court in housing complex common area. We did warm-up and all. Then my first serve went into main road. Mrs. M tried serve after that and ball went into the sky, no other information we have got from that ball. Last ball I served very slowly, then she returned, then I returned, then she tried one smash and it went inside Dr. Shankaramenon’s balcony. He has gone to Bombay for two weeks.

Then we went back home for tiffin. In total we played ball badminton for seven minutes.

Yours in exasperation,

J. Mathrubootham

Several inaccessible villages in Malkangiri have no basic health services. What they do have is a doctor whose visits are eagerly awaited

Door to door Shakti Prasad Mishra, the only doctor for miles around in Odisha’s remote Malkangiri district, gives a young girl her medicines outside a home in the forested hills of Kusumpadar.

On call Dr. Mishra packs up medicines in his home in Maliguda village, ready for his next day’s rounds of Govindpalli.

His regular beat A makeshift bench is the clinic at Kusumpadar village.

Base camp The doctor checks his register to make sure he has everything before he begins his trek across the hills and forests.

Pill time Awareness building, treatment of common diseases, distribution of medicines and check-ups of pregnant women and children are all part of the Dr. Mishra’s routine.

At work always The doctor examines a tribal woman en route; she is pregnant.

Food for thought After work, it’s time for the doctor to cook dinner.

When Kumulu Kirsani, a tribal teenager, fell seriously ill on a dull grey morning on September 17, all the ills that keep Odisha’s Malkangiri district backward seemed to conspire against him. Kumulu’s problems rose from just the fact that he lived in Nuagada, a poor, backward village inaccessible by any mode of transport. The nearest ambulance was parked 5 km away.

As usual, the village fell back on Shakti Prasad Mishra, an Ayurvedic physician, who devised a sling to carry Kumulu to the ambulance. “Having no other way to save the patient, the ambulance driver Gobind Nagulu and I decided to carry him on the sling,” says Dr. Mishra.

Dr. Mishra’s ‘clinic’ is the entire remote district of Malkangiri, one of the worst affected by Maoist violence, and he is the only hope for health and sanitation in Khairaput block, where even mobile phones go dead.

Every morning, Dr. Mishra and his team start from Markapadar for their routine monthly visit to any one village. Since 2012, the doctor has been serving marginalised tribal communities under a Union government project. Some 50 remote villages, several inaccessible tribal hamlets, and two residential schools at Badadural and Markapadar eagerly wait for the doctor and his mobile health team.

During the four monsoon months, his camp shifts to Govindpalli, as the road to Markapadar becomes unmotorable. To reach villages such as Kusumpadar, the team treks around 2 km through hilly jungle terrain. “The smile on the faces of the waiting villagers makes us forget the sweat and slog,” Dr. Mishra says.

He treats over 1,000 patients a month. Regular awareness building about health and sanitation, treatment of common diseases, distribution of medicines, timely check-ups of pregnant women and children are his regular tasks.

His team transports pregnant women and seriously ill patients to the nearest hospital during emergencies. He distributes allopathic medicines using the basic diagnostic skills learnt during his BAMS course. “Service to the needy as obeisance to God was the motto of the sages who propounded Ayurveda. I am just trying to follow it,” he says.

What does it mean, at a time like this, to take one’s eyes away from headlines and hashtags and whisper private stories from the kitchen and the bedroom and the classroom?

Getty Images/ Istock

We hear the story from Arifa, a 45-year-old art curator who has two boys studying in a school in the outskirts of Delhi.

A major terrorist attack happened the night before. Walking into Class V, where Arifa’s younger son, Saad, is a student, the English teacher picks up the newspaper lying on her desk and reads out the headlines about the attack to the class. “What is happening to the world!” She sighs.

“Saad, yeh kya kar diya tumne?” A student calls out. “What have you done, Saad?”

The story is told by Nazia Erum in her book, Mothering a Muslim. The evocative title tells much about the book, as do the stories recounted there. The intimacy of a mother recounting the story of her son being bullied deepens the shock in a way the spectacle of horror upheld in a newspaper headline can never do.

Intimate knowledge

Good news about the world now feels like a lost dream. On one side of the world the Amazon rainforests vanish in a blaze of flames; on the other, innocent minorities face the madness of lynch mobs. Governments are formed at the behest of jingoistic populism; social groups who have historically dwelt on the margins continue to be excluded from all forms of rights, voices and privilege.

What does it mean, at a time like this, to take one’s eyes away from headlines and hashtags and whisper private stories from the kitchen and the bedroom and the classroom?

In the last decade of apartheid rule, the black writer Njabulo Ndebele had carved a sharp polemic against what he had called the “spectacular” events of the public domain in South African “protest” literature as a way of understanding the ethics and politics of racial oppression.

In contrast to this public spectacle of violence, Ndebele advocated the minute details of the “intimate knowledge” embedded in the private, internal consciousness, which go beyond the simplistic binary of good and evil celebrated in this spectacular aesthetic. For which, he argued, “the rediscovery of the ordinary” was an essential precondition.

The rediscovery of the ordinary in a time of trauma. Something which sounds ethically unsustainable, perhaps even politically escapist, has time and again proved to be a vital way of understanding power and oppression that is easily missed by the glare of the psychedelic drama in the public sphere. From the parliament to the kitchen. The nation to the isolated individual.

The rediscovery of the ordinary has folded into that resonant manifesto of an earlier generation of feminist activists. The personal as political. And that is how unforgettable stories are created. For art is resolutely singular, magically particular, and deeply intimate, even in the face of the collective nature of political experience.

Do you see?

Erum’s book is not an outlier. Over the past few years, we have seen a number of evocative, deeply intimate narrative responses to the unbearable nature contemporary reality. It is not a coincidence that these are all memoirs or personal accounts by women — all first or sometimes second books, writers setting out on their journeys, screaming in delicate whispers on the way.

In Sharmila Sen’s Not Quite Not White, a book sadly more relevant than ever for Trumphant America, race and the guilty aspiration of racial passing speak silently to what becomes the “invisibility” of the basti-dwellers to middle-class eyes in India. But the medium of violence, there too, is always the intimacy of personal experience.

Sen remembers herself as a 10-year-old on her bed one afternoon, glancing at the 13-year-old Prakash, the son of their housemaid, as he mopped the floor around her. A few times, their glances met. The burden of that interlocked glance, always held in grim silence, was to haunt the writer for decades.

What does one see? What remains invisible? Sen’s beautifully narrated, deeply experiential book asks the vital questions. When her family went for their visa interviews, an African-American security guard stood outside the U.S. consulate in Kolkata. His image, witnessed by Sen at the age of 12, stayed with her. Did she see a black man, she wondered. Did she see race? Or did she just see a man with dark-brown skin, like many on the streets of Kolkata?

Migrant stories

Did the man, Sen wondered, see the Indian family keen to emigrate to his country as Homo Economicus, human beings in search of a better living? Did he believe, as Toni Morrison had written unforgettably, that the immigrant’s road to becoming American is built on the back of blacks?

Later on, as a student at Harvard, Sen finds it impossible to continue with her part-time job as an interpreter for the court, as most of the time it involves telling poor Bangladeshi immigrants that they will be deported. There isn’t, Sen realises, a word for ‘deported’ in Bengali, but her anguish with her moonlighting job isn’t merely linguistic.

It is the stories of such dispossessed immigrants that make up Simran Chawla’s Searching for Home: Stories of Indians Living Abroad. As opposed to the usual stories of middle-class, professional success powered by education and software engineering, Chawla’s Indians searching for homes abroad are desperate stragglers.

Many of them risk their lives, identities, and entire savings to find themselves in countries they realise consider them unwanted rubbish. In this book, community centres become the nuclei of heart-rending stories, be they shelters in Southall or Montreal, or the homes of the few success stories, be it as far-flung as in Anchorage, Alaska.

Migration means staggeringly different things for different people. For Sujatha Gidla, moving to America from India is to flee the inescapable visibility of caste and her life as an “untouchable”.

Introducing her book Ants among Elephants, she tells of how when she came to America at the age of 26, she realised people here cared about skin colour but not birth status. Even though some people love Indians and some hate them, their feelings have nothing to do with caste. “One time in a bar in Atlanta,” she writes, “I told a guy I was untouchable, and he said, ‘Oh, but you are so touchable.”’

Felt on the skin

Being in America made the personal story of her family possible, articulable. “Only in talking to some friends I met here,” she says, “did I realize that my stories, my family’s stories, are not stories of shame.”

In the midst of a turbulent history and the traumatic end of the violent history of modern Telangana, the riveting core of Gidla’s story is also its most personal one: the story of the growth and education of Satyam, through school, college and politics. It offers the epiphanies of a moving bildungsroman, but what a bildung it is, against what terrifying odds!

At the end of the day, if anyone is left with any doubt that our country is capable of inflicting unimaginable pain and horror on the weak and the dispossessed, they should face the brutal reality of Priyanka Dubey’s No Nation for Women: Reportage on Rape from India, the World’s Largest Democracy.

This is perhaps the most public of all these books, and clearly the most spectacular in its depiction of violence. And yet Dubey shows that journalism, when done with a heart and a conscience, creates the intimacy of a deeply personal stakeholder.

Each chapter of this visceral book chronicles a rape, often a gang-rape. The nightmare of police proceedings and the willed inertia of law courts that follow remind us that the rape of rural, Dalit, and tribal women — the poorest of the poor — in India is always a gang-rape, even when committed by a single man. Because it is a system that ravages her even when the physical perpetrator is an individual.

The rape of the Badaun sisters is branded afresh when we watch the film Article 15. Dubey’s terrifying book invokes the image that traumatised the nation, the image that captured the visceral singularity of a particular story, of two human lives — not the abstract data of official narratives: “the image of the bodies of these two children hanging from the mango tree — slowly swinging in the burning afternoon winds of a North Indian summer.”

The writer’s most recent book is The Scent of God. @_saikatmajumdar

On the eve of International Translation Day, a look at how the Panchatantra became the ‘magic herb’ for readers across the world

Everywhere (From left) A page from the Persian Kelileh wa Dimneh where Damanaka tries to manipulate the lion king; a page from the Arabic version, Kalila wa Dimna (1210 CE), showing the King of Crows conferring with his political advisors. Wiki Commons

On May 24, 2017, the United Nations General Assembly declared September 30 as International Translation Day. It’s the day of the feast of St. Jerome, who, having translated the Bible into Latin, is celebrated as the patron saint of Biblical scholars, librarians and translators. In the resolution passed on this day, the UN General Assembly acknowledged “the role of language professionals in connecting nations and fostering peace, understanding and development”. Translators brought about globalisation long before that word came into being. Translation has been an effective tool of exchange among different cultures since antiquity, as the story of the Panchantantra’s travels around the globe demonstrates.

Persian poet Firdausi’s epic poem, Shahnama (written between 977 CE and 1010 CE), contains a curious tale which goes like this. The sixth century Persian emperor, Khusro, hears about a magical herb called sanjeevani, which can reportedly bring the dead back to life. His trusted ministers tell him that the herb and its potion can be found only in the remote land of India.

Driven by the desire to become immortal, the emperor sends his physician, Burzoe, to India. After having searched the length and breadth of India for the herb, Burzoe is on the verge of returning empty-handed when he comes across a wise sage, who tells him that the elixir is neither a potion nor a plant. It is a book called Panchatantra, which is a rich repository of knowledge and hence a source of immortality.

Lessons in statecraft

Burzoe takes a copy of the Panchatantra to Iran, where it is translated into the Pahlavi language as Kalileh wa Dimneh. The names Kalileh and Dimneh are the Persian versions of Damanaka and Karataka, the two jackals in the famous Panchatantra story about conniving friends. In the Shahnama, Firdausi celebrates this story in a chapter titled ‘Burzoe brings the book of Kalileh and Dimneh from India’. This translation of the Panchatantra turned out to be immensely popular in Persia. Subsequently, princes in ancient Persia were taught the Panchatantra for its ability to convey complex lessons of statecraft and good governance through stories.

The Pahlavi edition was subsequently translated into Arabic and from Arabic into Hebrew. Thereafter, from Hebrew into Latin, from Latin into Italian, and from Italian into English. Sir Thomas North, a British judge and translator, introduced the stories of the Panchatantra to the English speaking-world in 1570. This came much before Orientalists like William Jones or Charles Wilkins started translating seminal Sanskrit texts into English in the 18th century.

Incidentally, during his maiden visit to Iran in 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi released a manuscript copy of Kalileh wa Dimneh to commemorate the ancient cultural ties between the two countries.

Since its first translation, the Panchatantra has mesmerised writers across the world. Boccaccio, the Italian storyteller of Decameron fame, was in all likelihood familiar with both the Latin and Italian versions of the Panchatantra since there are structural and thematic similarities between Decameron and the Indian text. The Panchatantra and the Jataka tales are some of the earliest texts to use the literary device of the frame narrative, in which several stories emanate from one central story. The technique was used not only by Boccaccio but also by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales.

Bridge between cultures

Written around 200 B.C., the Panchatantra belongs to the tradition of Nitishastra — a book advising us on wise conduct. It teaches us how to win trustworthy friends, how to overcome difficulties, how to deal with foes, and above all, how to live in peace and harmony. Perhaps it is the ability of the Panchatantra to explain complex notions through simple stories that has fascinated readers down the ages and inspired its many translations.

In these fractured times, we need translators more than ever before. Gone are the days when a translator was seen as the poor cousin of the author. There are thousands of texts in Sanskrit and modern Indian languages which are waiting to be translated into English for readers worldwide. At the same time, there are important English books that are still not available for non-English readers. Translation can not only play a pivotal role in facilitating cultural exchange, but can also help save the humanities from losing relevance.

The Draft National Education Policy 2019 proposes an Indian Institute of Translation and Interpretation (IITI) to “carry out high quality translations of materials of importance between various Indian languages as well between foreign languages and Indian languages”. The Institute will have the task of strengthening and continuing the commendable job being done by the Sahitya Akademi and the National Translation Mission over the years.

In contemporary times, translation is the sanjeevani booti which can revive our shared sense of humanity and rejuvenate us. We will always need a Premchand to translate Tolstoy into Hindi, and a Gandhi to translate Tukaram into English.

The writer teaches English at Deen Dayal Upadhyaya College, University of Delhi.

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