The nameplate on his shirt flaunts the words ‘Lallu Sapera’. But Lallu is no snake charmer. Nor does he carry a pungi or bean (wind instrument used by snake charmers). Seated on a chair outside his humble hut, he displays his prized possession: a splendid pair of cobras. While he pulls the female out of its box, the male, sensing escape, slithers aggressively towards a bush.
Alarmed but maintaining his composure, with one hand firmly gripped on the slender tail of the female Cobra, Lallu skids towards the escaping male and grabs it by its tail. In no time, he has the cobra couple in his hands almost like an expert juggler about to perform, to the awe of a small crowd of curious but uninvited onlookers.
'They have their venom intact,' he says and puts the snakes back into their lid.
Usually the snakes stay inside Lallu’s hut, hidden from sight yet everywhere: rolled up in cloth bags, earthen pots and rectangular aluminium boxes. You open something and chances are you will find a snake.
The 62-year-old snake-catcher lives with his family under a flyover close to the splendid Allahabad High Court premises. Drains overrun the compound and an unrecognisable stench surrounds the air. But behind it, there lies a genius. One who understands his subjects better than anyone else.
As a professional, Lallu clears homes, gardens and almost any place of snakes. When he’s not summoned, he spends days hunting for the creatures in forests. The scars on his body bear testimony to his many encounters. He was once bitten 18 times by the same snake. Unlike his brother and nephew, Lallu has been lucky.
Snake catching is more than mere quick reflexes. The iron rod or stick, wire and gunny bag he carries are an eye-wash. Much of the work is done in the head. Lallu possesses two key qualities in his repertoire: instinct gained from his ancestors and experience; scientific know-how acquired from his stint as in-charge of snakes in a zoo in Lucknow. His expertise on the behaviour and characteristics of snakes has won him an invitation to lecture students at a local college.
Lallu’s calling often comes in the monsoons and winters. 'There are many ways of doing it. In the forest, I identify the snake’s marks. They leave behind their skin. I also follow the marks left behind by their writhing movement.'
In much of the domestic cases, the snakes are cornered and instantly grabbed hold of. But in the wild, sometimes it comes down to a duel — one that can even turn fatal. 'I put it into terror through eye contact,' he says. 'But if the snake is ferocious, aggressive or not intimidated, I have to show submission in my eyes. If the snake feels threatened, it will escape or strike.'
And sometimes surprises are in store. Lallu was once assigned to catch a snake that was stuck in the motor of a well. He saw the snake and quickly dropped the bag. 'Just then I heard an intense hissing sound below me. I went down and found three more snakes. Luckily I managed to grab them all!'
Other times, he has had to prone down a snake from underneath somebody's bed or chase it down a garden. But he never kills the snake and releases it at a location where it is safe and can fend for itself. If the snake dies, it is put into a jar or a box and buried. After a few months, the decomposed remains are extracted and various body parts put to use accordingly, for instance, for making medicine and anti-venom. The medicine comes in handy during snake bites, but also fetches some money for Lallu in the market.
However, like his contemporaries in the southern states, snake catchers like Lallu are awfully underpaid. In most cases they rely on rewards or tips. They have no organisations or unions. To make up the deficit, Lallu sometimes sells mahua in the market.
It seems the hereditary trade will continue for at least another generation as his son Rajesh is looking to take over the mantle. But Lallu would like to go on as long as he can. Keeping aside the risks involved, he believes what he does is more than a means of livelihood. 'It’s social service.'