Armed with a milk can and a herdsman’s staff, Salim Khan doesn’t make a very convincing picture for a snake handler. But whenever panicky residents place him a call on spotting a serpent, this former tailor quickly gets onto his scooter along with some ‘desi’ equipment and rushes to get the intruder out of the house.
Last week, Khan played a wait-and-watch game to retrieve the lethal Common Krait from a water pipe in the residential quarters of Panjab University. A magnificent four-feet black cobra was rescued from type IV quarters at PGIMER on Friday after it got stuck between a wire-meshed door. Khan is a Class-VI passout but when it comes to snakes, his eyes shine, his command over the subject, undoubted. “I left my family vocation of tailoring as that wasn’t very profitable. I earn some money from rescuing snakes. For the last eight years, I have been rendering this service in Tricity. I have been bitten a couple of times, but have survived,” Khan told TOI.
A resident of Nayagaon, Khan starts out to work every morning, a spitting image of the domestic helps that run the city’s kitchens. When he wants to test a snake’s toxicity, he dips a sewing needle in the venom and injects in a poultry hen. If the hen dies, Khan knows the snake is dangerous. Khan used to love showing his prowess with snakes. Once he put a Cobra in his mouth. It bit him on the lip. “I spent the entire night trying to cut the poison out with shaving blade. However, the blood did not flow out easily. I thought I would die but probably, not much poison had been injected,” said Khan. He now makes sure that the snakes he puts in mouth for media photo-ops are the relatively-harmless varieties.
Though he may lack the technical know-how, Khan’s understanding of the creature is sharp. For instance, he knows that the baby Indian Rock python is often mistaken for the highly-venomous Russel’s Viper and people and snake charmers get bitten while toying around with vipers. Hailing from Uttarakhand, it is not for nothing that Khan proudly claims he has earned a “desi PhD” in snake handling. “I always tell people, do not go to quacks. They will cure a person bitten by a non-venomous snake and become heroes. When a venomous snake bites, they have no answer. Rush a snake-bite victim to a proper hospital. That is the only thing that can save him. Snake charmers dupe people. When they are called to rescue a snake in a house, the charmers secretly release four or five de-fanged cobras they have brought along. The householder is charged more than Rs 1,000 per ‘rescued’ snake,” said Khan.
He is wise when it comes to grasping popular psyche. He knows people kill snakes on sight. When Khan releases the snakes captured in urban areas, he normally chooses an isolated forest at the back of Shiv Mandir in Saketri.
On the flip side, Khan’s detractors say he suffers from a touch of ‘arrogance’. Then, there are the ‘jealousies, rivalries and insecurities’ of wildlife activists. His handling of snakes with bare hands is also not advisable, given the discovery of safe methods like snake hooks and tube snake bags. He handles snakes alone, without a team in case of emergencies. Yet, in the absence of a cohesive infrastructure to handle ‘snake emergencies’, Khan’s tireless work to rid city residents of snake paranoia begs recognition as an essential social service.