Thursday, March 28, 2013


“Maar diya sahib! Bada zehrila naag tha!”, said the gardener as he stood in front of me, flanked by four others. At the end of a long wooden stick that he held out like a bayonet hung a snake, about six feet long. Its head, once a beautiful greenish black seemed to have been crumpled out of shape and was dripping thick sticky blood.

I shook my head and picked up the now lifeless form of the serpent and pried its mouth open with a twig. I displayed the snake’s dentition for the men. Row upon row of saw-like teeth looked formidable, but then I made the point I was trying to make as I stuck the twig under the rat snake’s teeth and said, “See? no fangs! Iss saanp mein zeher nahin hota! No venom! These snakes just catch rats and bandicoots. They just give you guys a helping hand.”

The men didn’t know how to react to that. What I had just said had collided with their understanding of their world, that all snakes were dangerous, venomous and almost evil beings and the only possible outcomes of an encounter with one were either an agonizing fatal bite for man or a lethal blow from a stick for the snake. On the other hand I could see why a non venomous rat snake could so easily be mistaken for a venomous cobra or krait. So, what should one do when one encounters a snake?

For an answer to that question I had to go looking for a man who knows his snakes like the back of his hand… also because he often has one wrapped around the back of his hand.

Meet Debanik Mukherjee, a herpetologist by trade and an evolutionary biologist by passion, and a man who his friends described to me as “this crazy guy, he catches venomous with his bare hands..”. Warm, unassuming and extremely passionate about his subject, he reminded me I was late for our appointment when I showed up half an hour later than the agreed hour. But instead of making me feel awkward about it he immediately apologized for the state of his field station, dusted an old chair in the corner before offering me a seat and then politely requested an attendant to get us some tea.

A few sips of sweet tea later, I asked the question that had been bothering me. How does one differentiate between a venomous snake and a non venomous one? Debanik Mukherjee rolled his eyes and smiled. “Th at’s a tough one. Th ose with an experience of handling snakes can easily tell the differences in coloration and subtle changes in shape. For instance two of India’s relatively more common venomous snakes, the saw-scaled viper and the Russell’s viper, like most vipers, have slightly triangular heads. But it is tough for a layperson to tell the difference between a krait and a rat snake for instance, or a cobra for that matter, unless it has raised its hood.”

Then what is one to do if one encounters a snake inside one’s garden or room? Just wait for it to leave? Mukherjee laughed a wry good natured laugh and said “Carbolic acid! Keep that handy if snakes like visiting you. Carbolic acid or phenol is known to ward snakes off. I think its fumes interfere with the snake’s ability to interpret its environment through its senses. Th at, or a flame wrapped around a long stick should be enough to drive the snake off in a safe direction and distance. Remember this, that except for an aggressive species like the African black mamba, most snakes will want to avoid conflict with humans, and given an opportunity, would be happy to retreat.”

But what if one does get bitten? What are our options then? Doctor Mukherjee looked into my eyes, leaned across his table and said, “Then there is a problem. Snake venom acts fast. It gives you only hours, often only minutes, about 30 or so, if bitten by a krait for instance. So if you know nothing about snakes and are bitten by one, you must rush to the nearest hospital. Most large hospitals would have access to antivenin. In the old days, people would have to kill and carry the snake to the doctor so he could identify the snake and administer the antivenin accordingly. But today, while carrying a picture on your phone might help, you needn’t fret too much about it for modern polyvalent antivenins would cover the bases for a wide variety of snake bites.

Stay calm – More often than not, even if the victim has been bitten by a cobra or a krait, the bite would be a ‘dry bite’. This means that even though the snake did bite, it did not pump any venom into the blood stream. Venom is precious and snakes would rather not waste venom on humans who are too big to be eaten. (Unlike cobras and kraits, vipers however cannot control or restrict the amount of venom they inject in their victims)

In the rare event that one does get bitten, you must try and relax and control your breathing. Getting excited and anxious would only make the heart beat faster and this would lead to the venom reaching the organs sooner than later.

Check for fangs – Look out for deep punctures made by the venom squirting fangs at the site of the injury. If you can locate distinct puncture wounds that stand out from the rest of the bite marks, this would usually be a sign that the snake was venomous.

Tourniquets – Th ough rather popular in the past, tourniquets aren’t a very good idea, especially if tied too tight. Tourniquets would do more harm than good in such cases and could even trigger gangrene. Then Debanik revealed an interesting bit of trivia. “Mithridatization is the process of building immunity from snake bites by injecting small doses of snake venom into the human body. And crazy as it might sound, there are people all over the world who are experimenting with the idea. It works, but one small mistake could be the last one for these modern day Mithridates. So take my advice, mind your feet and stay away from snakes and snake venom if you haven’t been trained to handle them”, added Debanik.

I will take his advice, and so should you. But all that you just read might make you think that having snakes around really is a lot of trouble. Why go through this trouble and effort in order to coexist with this cold blooded killer? Well, here’s why...

Snakes, like all apex predators, are one of nature’s prime indicators of environmental well being. But if that seems too esoteric an idea for you then you should know that snakes are one of nature’s best rodent regulators. For a variety of reasons, snakes do the job better than any human pest control interventions. In fact, in parts of rural Vietnam, where snakes had been exterminated by paranoid human actions, the reptiles are being reintroduced to keep rodent populations in check. And why are rodents such bad news? Umm, where do I begin… they destroy crops worth millions, their feces and urine contaminate our food and our water, spreading diseases and death, and they are host to fleas and ticks and mites that can routinely ring in epidemics. Without snakes, our barns, yards and dinner tables would be overrun by rats. So join me as I say ‘thank god for snakes!’ And next time you run into a snake and know just what to do, come on, you could thank me too… and of course, the redoubtable Mr. Mukherjee!


Thursday, March 21, 2013


Animal Planet is crawling with them. So is Nat Geo Wild. It’s snakes and the modern day snake charmers, herpetologists with a penchant for one way conversations – folks like Austin Stevens, Jeff Corwin, Brady Barr, the man who started it all, the late great Steve ‘Crikey’ Irwin, and of course, our home grown sweet talking snake wrangler – Gerry Martin, who seem to have taken over all the prime time slots on animal tv.

They make for wonderfully exciting viewing, I will give you that. Most folks, even those that love dogs and cats and birds, and find monkeys cute and white mice adorable, shudder at the thought of a snake slithering along their arm. Snakes inspire revulsion and reverence in equal measure. The scales, the forked tongue, the unblinking eyes and the possibility of a lethal liquid flowing through their switchblade fangs elevates them to the status of a god for a few and the very devil for the rest.

So I can understand why it is like standing barefoot on the very edge of reality tv to watch a man as mortal as you and me, literally kiss death as his lips touch the raised hood of a king cobra. These men catch mambas by their tails, taipans by the neck and play with rattling rattlers like they were a child’s toy. The tiniest scratch from any one of these snakes could lead to a painful and hideous end for these experts. Even with antivenom, the recovery process is uncertain, slow and very painful. So those men are risking a whole lot for good television. Should you try this at home? Sure, go ahead. If you’re as incredibly lucky as I once was, you will survive both the encounter and the feeling of having been monumentally stupid when the realization of how close you were to a grisly death has washed over you. And if you are not, you will be in that privileged ringside seat to the spectacle of watching the limb that suffered the hemotoxic bite disintegrate in front of your very eyes as you writhe in the kind of agony that might make getting impaled on a stake feel like a vacation. Or you could try guessing which of your organs is shutting down first as the neurotoxins motor along your arteries. Whichever the nature of the venom, it is unlikely to be a quiet death, I promise.

Here’s my story that I might have shared in bits and pieces on earlier occasions but this time I present it to you in its entirety as a prelude to ‘what to do when the naughty one from Eden comes calling’.

A few springs ago, I was walking out of my office which was then sitting pretty near the green glades of Sanjay Van near Qutab Institutional Area, when I spotted the guards crowding around a pair of flower pots. I peered over their shoulders and saw them poking at a long slim snake with sticks. More than two feet long, a deep dirty brown with bands running rings around it. Some wanted to kill it with sticks, some suggested burning it while a few where of the opinion that it should either be left alone or carried outside the premises and released.

One of the men said that he had often seen these snakes around the area. Now that got me thinking. If this snake was common in the area, it was important to know whether this snake was venomous or not and what should one do if one of these snakes just pops up around a corner. So I suggested that they put the snake, unharmed and whole, in a container so I could take it to the zoo and get it identified and find suggestions for a viable protocol if this kind of an encounter was to happen again (mobile phone cameras weren’t really de rigueur in those days and so physically carrying the snake was the only way out).

A plastic bottle was procured and the snake, still sluggish in the cool of the morning was poked and picked and placed inside the bottle. One of the guards thought the snake might find the confines of the bottle claustrophobic and punched a few holes into the cap. But now the holes seemed big enough for the snake to escape through them and so he stuck a few twigs to plug the holes. Equipped thus I stuck the bottle between the seat and the door to keep the bottle upright and drove off to the zoo. A speed breaker later, the bottle keeled over and a forked tongue flickered out of the port window in the bottle cap. If the snake got out, it would be impossible to find in the folds of the car’s insides. I had to pull over and set things right. Like I said, it was a monumentally stupid decision to transport a potentially dangerous reptile in this fasion and then to drive with this distraction through Delhi’s notoriously hostile traffic.

Anyway, we both survived the trip to the zoo where I explained my situation to the folks manning the gate and I was ushered in to reptile house. I held out the bottle with the gaping holes in the cap (the twigs had given in to gravity and had fallen through. The little snake had climbed along the length of the twigs and was now poking its head out of the bottle). The man at the reptile house shrank back in horror. “Krait! It’s a Krait”, he whispered. My hands must have started shaking involuntarily at the exclamation for the bottle vibrated in my hand and the snake dropped down again to the bottom.

A krait?! I had been cradling a krait all this while? t krait in Re first time I came across those five dreaded letters was in Rudyard Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, that unforgettable tale that pitted a pair of cobras against a brave and wily pet mongoose. In the story, Kipling’s krait was smaller but as venomous (as a matter of fact, ounce for ounce, krait venom is even more potent than cobra venom) and dangerous as those hooded emissaries of doom. “It is still a little chilly these days. This one got out a little too soon and that’s why you are still alive”, snapped the zoo ‘expert’. “Half an hour is all it will take for this little devil’s neurotoxins to take you to the brink of respiratory failure”, he added.

Beads of cold sweat oozed out of my pores as I stuttered, “ Ab? Now what?”. My friend from the zoo just shrugged and walked away with a “can’t keep him here…”

So there I was, standing with this genie of death in a bottle, the prospect of another drive with this speckled co-driver and a whole bunch of questions and not an answer in sight.

It has taken me a while since then but I finally have the answers I needed that day. Wait a week and you’ll have them too. And until then, take good care and don’t get bitten...


Thursday, March 14, 2013


I promised you a gusher of a fountain of youth on your plates last week. And here it is, as promised. And it isn’t about the donts but the dos of a good diet… Basically, stuff you must stuff yourself with, everyday, to get the most out of yourself and the day, for all the days that you have in you.

But before I begin, a caveat: this dietary opus is the inspired work of a man exploring vegetarianism and would therefore include his bumbling stumbling along the green walls of that world. Vegetarian but not vegan, so figure that one out before you wonder why eggs figure in my list of recommendations and soy doesn’t. And no meat or fish either, but I will offer substitutes.

Fish was a tough one to let go of. Omega-3 fatty acids are absolutely essential for good health and for keeping the two vital organs at the two ends of the spine healthy and functional into our swinging seventies and the decades beyond. And fish, especially marine fish, are some the most plentiful sources of omega-3. It was the presence of this essential fatty acid that made parents pump their kids full with ‘Seven Seas Cod Liver Oil’ in the eighties and nineties. The fish in turn get if from algae and sea-weed and coastal diets like those in Japan and Okinawa often get enough omega-3 from weeds like nori alone. But where was I going to find nori in New Delhi? And so the dilemma about fish continued until I discovered flaxseeds. They do just as well, and better, because with flaxseed or flaxseed oil, your system does not have to contend with the heavy toxic metals that are found in coastal fish.

Another problem with a largely vegetarian diet is the lack of vitamin B12, found mostly in animal products. And while the lack of omega-3 affects the body over a relatively longer period of time, B12 deficiency can hit you hard and fast. So if you’ve gone vegetarian and then had problems with digestion and are generally not feeling as full of beans as you used, your body might be complaining about not getting its regular dose of B12. So avoid the meats by all means but compensate with eggs, milk and cheeses.

If I may, my two pennies worth on balanced diets before moving on to the super foods…

For most of us, the usual recommendations of two-three servings of lean protein, similar servings of dairy products (low fat if you aren’t particularly active and walking the dog for 20 minutes or a round of golf doesn’t qualify as active, training like a Navy SEAL does), five to twelve servings of whole-grain carbohydrates are all par for the course for most of us. It is the remaining two categories, fruits (about two to four servings) and vegetables (up to about five servings or more) that don’t quite measure up on our plates, especially if we eat out often. So take note and take care…

And at last the super foods, i.e foods that have the power to change a lot of whats wrong with your body and set it right. These are foods that fight diseases like coronary heart disease and cancer, lower cholesterol and free radicals and keep you feeling upbeat through a beat-up day. And while every expert has his or her own list of favourites and top-tens, let me introduce you to the ones that show up on almost every list and are ones that you would find at your doorstep and not necessarily only when you’re on vacation to a first world destination or a tropical paradise.

First up on the list, a little fruit family - the berries. Blue and black and every hue, cran and rasp and strawberries too, these little do-gooders and vigilantes protect the body from a variety of cancers, keep the immune system in top gear and are packed with antioxidants that keep the body healthy and fight signs of ageing. No breakfast’s complete without a handful of these.

Garlics, onions and other alliums is the next category of super foods. Cooking styles in most parts of India have a healthy dose of these foods and if not overcooked, are very good at maintain cholesterol levels and fighting certain cancers.

So just dig into the alliums and don’t worry about the breath and the tears for the next superfood will take care of that.

Coconuts! These big hairy guys must be amongst the happiest of fruits. They usually have a great view growing up on those swaying palms by the sea and that makes them rather giving. There’s the flesh and the oil and best of all, the water.

Tender coconut water is perhaps the best sports drink on earth. Bursting with electrolytes and without the preservatives, sugars and chemicals that make a lot of sports drinks rather murky, this is the drink to reach for after a sweaty workout or a long day in the sun.

Herbal Tea is one of the best sources of antioxidants that fight cancer and what is even cooler is the fact that green tea for instance had these anti-ageing agents that drive off chemical residues in the body that trigger the ageing process. So before you look up that botox surgeon your aunt recommended, go buy yourself a pack of green tea and give them a chance to turn back the clock.

Nuts and seeds are an absolute must for everybody, and even more so for vegetarians. I have already documented the joys of a mouthful of flaxseeds. And now I must let you in on another secret. Brazil nuts are a rich source of selenium which by the way is essential for rebuilding muscles. Seafood is a good source of selenium but if you want to stay vegetarian, Brazil nuts and barley are even better options.

Nuts and seeds are full of good fats, proteins and fibre. And walnuts are great for correcting heart arrhythmias and are for a must for a healthy heart.

Tomatoes have always been around and you might wonder what is so special about them, but if you’ve been having them anyway, that’s great because here’s what they do for you. Sure, they are packed with vitamins E and C and fibre but the really cool thing about them is lycopene. Apparently, it is that which gives them that rich red colour and, more importantly, it is this that neutralizes cancer-causing free radicals in the human body. Research says that while we all eat tomatoes, we perhaps don’t eat enough of them often enough. So here’s a good reason to fix that…

Green leafy vegetables! From Popeye to mommies all over the world, they’ve all gone on and on about why they are so good for us and yet we don’t want to eat them. Let me help with that. If you don’t want to end up with cancer, heart disease, blood pressure issues or diabetes (and no, it isn’t inevitable, no matter what your genetics), leafy greens are one of your best bet so make sure you have more and more of these in your daily diet.

Beans are gassy and that’s why a lot of people avoid them in the West. But here in India, we love our rajma-chawal and that’s great, because beans are good for you. Great sources of fibre, beans also contain essential fatty acids and are a very good source of protein. Add them to diet containing oats and you meet pretty much all your protein and amino acid requirements.

Just a word of caution for a superfood from the last category… Soy is undoubtedly a great source of protein and fibre and good fatty acids but on the flip side, there is a case for soybean consumption increasing estrogen in the body. Too much of it, some researchers say can give women breast cancer and men could become effeminate and it might even trigger gynecomastia. So the jury is still out o that, but until then, tread the path of extreme moderation with this superfood.

There you have it. A bunch of anti-ageing, cancer fighting foods that should always show up on your plate, every day and if you stay at it long and often enough, you might find yourself changing into red underpants in a phone booth and going up, up and away for high flying adventures long past your retirement age… All the best with that.


Thursday, March 7, 2013


A colleague of mine reminded me yesterday that it’s Women’s Day week this week. Yes, yes, the one who reminded me happened to be a woman, and for all my fellow men and well meaning feminists who didn’t care to remember when, it’s the 8th of March. And for all those of you wondering why there isn’t an International Men’s day or a bunch of masculinists clamouring for one, we actually have a day to ourselves and it is on the 19th of November, but then who cares to remember… we men aren’t so good at doing this ‘Day’ thing anyway, and the women just can’t be bothered with yet another day for us, they say.

So with our day sinking without a trace, I thought of celebrating this International Women’s Day by getting in touch with the woman within, the yin in the yang and taking a look at my life through her eyes and fixing whatever might need fixing…

I began in the half light of dawn with the dressing closet and waded through the tangled vines of hanging shirt sleeves and stepped over a writhing mass of hooded cobras. I almost let out a high pitched shriek before the man in me reassured me and helped me see the serpentine mess for what it was – a collection of ties I had forgotten to stuff back in the drawer. Footprints on the carpet and halfway up the wall after an impromptu park our session, and the guilty sneakers caught mud-footed lying in the corner…

Hmmm, this place needed to be cleaned up. I was shocked with all I had not been doing and even more shockingly, blissfully overlooking. Something had to be done and soon. Just that the task was too formidable for the rather fragile woman in me. I decided it was best to leave it to a real woman.

Next up was the bathroom… Okay, don’t cringe, I will spare you the details and take you someplace else. Eventually, extremely upset with the masculine me, I tore myself from the shower cube and tiptoed (No, I wasn’t wearing stilettos… I’d just grown a sensitive bone and didn’t want to wake up the family with my waddle) down to the kitchen and toyed with the idea of wrangling up some breakfast for everybody. And that’s when lightning struck…

As I sat rummaged through the refrigerator to fish out a few articles for breakfast, I had a sudden epiphany. My food choices until now had been yang driven and more about what I shouldn’t eat rather than what I should eat. My yang me was busy setting up high defensive walls against fried foods, sweets and meats and focusing on the broader food groups of proteins, proteins and proteins and some more proteins and then some carbs and fats. Having turned vegetarian, I had been obsessing even more about consuming enough proteins now than I used to when I was consuming meats.

Though I had apparently made healthful dietary decisions, I wasn’t necessarily any healthier today than I had been in the past. I had begun training with weights in my teens and that is when began focusing on what I ate. I used to be skinny and the bodybuilding advice of that time was that any self respecting physique athlete must consume a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight if he wanted to grow. And sure I did grow on a diet of whole milk, eggs and chicken. But the problem with the muscle building diet plan. Protein is your bride at this wedding, and everything else pretty much makes up the numbers and nothing really gets noticed.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who are looking to get leaner and all they do is look at avoiding fats. So there you have it… Two diet plans that pretty much describe most of us who put in any thought about what to eat. And while both these seem to work for a while because our bodies begin to change, we stick to the plan and hope to live happily ever after.

Well, we are wrong. And I got a wake up call when I had to undergo a blood test before making a donation. I was working out regularly, avoiding my fats and stuffing in my proteins and in pretty decent shape and yet when the results came out I had a barely borderline hemoglobin count of 13. The doctor almost refused to accept my blood but then thought my group was needed for a Thalassemia patient and allowed me my good act for the day. At the time I had been a little irregular with my meals and thought maybe that was to blame for my score.

But today, unencumbered by a man’s keen desire to cook his kidneys in muscle-building proteins and with the benefit of a woman’s insight to clear my perspective, I began to see my diet-plan, one that I had conscientiously followed for years, for what it was – skewed, incomplete and self-righteous.

Fruits to go with milk in the morning, eggs in the day, cottage cheese for lunch and mushrooms or soy for dinner with a salad for fiber made for a rather incomplete diet. Sure I didn’t smoke or drink or eat junk but in many respects my diet was rather poor still.

I went down to the library and picked out all the books that offered dietary advice and leafed through them. Having left my bull-headed male ego upstairs, I began to realize that the craft of designing a good diet lay not in focusing on what to leave out but what all to include.

 This refrigerator needs a bit of restocking so I better go and pick up a few lifesavers before the folks wake up. You hang in there for more on this, be you in yin mode or yang, and I promise I will return with stuff that will turn that sprinkler on that fountain of youth in your body gushing like never before.