Once upon a time in Mumbai

17 February,2024 07:55 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Arpika Bhosale

Romulus Whitaker, the legendary conservationist, and now an author, talks to Sunday mid-day about Bombay, and how it shaped him into who he is today

Whitaker with his pet Kite, Shangrila, in Bombay, 1959

When Romulus Whitaker landed at Santa Cruz airport in December of 1951, he was delighted. It was as if Mumbai's energy came out to match the
eight-year-old American's.

Whitaker, also known as the Snake Man of India, shares memories of old Bombay in his recent autobiography - Snakes, Drugs and Rock ‘n' Roll: My Early Years - authored by him and his wife Janaki Lenin. For the uninitiated into the world wildlife conservation and is also associated with the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS).

Whitaker, who last visited the city in 2018, says that other than some areas of South Mumbai, he found the city unrecognisable. "In relation to snake rescue and its supporting work I would often visit Thane, but when I visited in 2018, I couldn't recognise where I was," he says over a video call from his farm Chengalpattu, at the outskirts of Chennai.

Whitaker was fascinated with snakes right from a young age, he holds his snake in Hoosick, New York, 1947; (right) Whitaker studied wildlife management in Wyoming in 1961 and worked with wildlife in the country like this yellow rat snake in Miami back in 1964, until moving back to India in 1967

When Whitaker first arrived, his first home was in the then-idyllic part of the city - Juhu of the 50s. The family of five - Whitaker, his mother Doris Norden and his older sister Gail, infant Nina and stepfather, Rama Chattopadhyay, lived in a quaint little bungalow in the suburb which had rat snakes in the garden. "I was friends with the fishermen who would bring in their fish early in the morning. In the beginning, they would look at me as this crazy white kid, but then I guess they got used to me," he says while recalling his boyhood days. The fisher wives and men would often give Whitaker a part of their catch to take home. "I was always appreciative of that," he adds.

Whitaker had a difficult school life - his days were split between Mumbai and Kodaikanal International School. While Mumbai sated his appetite for the big city, Kodaikanal, he admits both in the book and during our conversation, was where he started trekking and learned how to appreciate nature.

Whitaker's memoirs can put any modern-day hustler to shame. He relates incidents in the book where his devil-may-care attitude made him try things most local boys might have not. To make money in his formative years, he became a pest catcher for his Juhu neighbours. "I never thought I was doing anything different. I just wanted to make some money for some Coke and ice cream," he says.

Gail and Doris (Whitaker' sisters) Breezy (Whitaker's pet name) along Neel and Nina, his half siblings, in Bombay, 1955

The neighbourhood had a collection of expats from varied nationalities, and a pet peeve among most were the potholes lining the roads outside their bungalows, which Whitaker and his friend Craig made a booming business out of. They filled them in - at a price.

Whitaker eventually moved to another residence, a bungalow that was a 10-minute walk away from Worli Sea Face. This is where he first encountered an eel. When we rue the loss of such flora and fauna around the city today, he says, "You are right, the city has lost a lot of wildlife due to urbanisation and yes, it is an unfortunate loss. But at the time I had the privilege of seeing and experiencing these things in Bombay and absorbed it with open arms. I have been lucky that way."

With some luck and persistence, the young herpetologist also picked up his first Hindi words in Mumbai. "Most of them were swear words," he says chuckling. "But I did learn useful bits and pieces throughout my stay that got me more than from point A to B. Hindi in Mumbai and Tamil in Kodaikanal, and that opened a lot of doors for me. When people saw I was making an effort to learn the language, they were appreciative and exceptionally friendly," he adds.

After graduating Class XII, Whitaker set off to Mysore to work as a taxidermist for a year. He left Mumbai only to head back to America to study at the Wyoming University, Laramie, to study wildlife management in 1961 only to return to live in Chateau Marine, aka Nargis Bungalow at Marine Drive, a name that is still used to give directions to any auto driver to date.

This book and the conversation with Whitaker leaves us jealous of his almost fairytale-like life. As his wife, Lenin says, "I think his childhood makes me envious. The time to go fishing and looking at animals is something I can never understand how he got away with. My mother would obsess over my report card or whip me for loafing around," she adds while turning to look at the king of snakes whose ever present grin now spreads upwards touching each ear.

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