The phone rings in Raipur, Chhattisgarh. Manjeet Kaur Bal, a wiry woman with a determined face, picks up the phone. The caller doesn’t speak. After some hesitation, a male voice says, ‘Give the phone to your husband.’
‘Which husband?’ Manjeet asks.
‘I haven’t found him yet,’ Manjeet says with a straight face. ‘If you find me one, let me know,’ she quips.
Though it is her phone, Manjeet is used to men calling, getting confused when they hear her voice, and then asking for a man to solve their problem. They are calling the number, her number, for a very specific reason: to deal with a snake and to take it away from their sight. Manjeet is a ‘famous person’ in Chhattisgarh, known for rescuing snakes. She saves the animals from us, the thinking animals, through actual rescue and a touch of education. She also empowers people, teaching them to handle snakes using household items like pipes and buckets, eventually changing their minds about the reptiles. At the very least, she aims at getting people to know the name of a particular snake, whether they are venomous, and through that, to prevent their killing. In any part of the world, a lone woman handling some of the world’s most venomous snakes, like the cobra, would be big news. In small-town Raipur, it is akin to celebrity status.
Raipur is the capital of Chhattisgarh, a state in central India. Chhattisgarh is known for its forest cover. But people who call for snake rescues don’t call from forests, they call from cities and towns. That is because snakes often live near people, also disposing of household pests like rats and mice.
But snakes are not popular, and people want a ‘muscular’ solution to this problem. Even in their weakest moments of fear, sexism switches on. When men call, they do so with an inherent conviction that only a man can solve this bestial problem. Sometimes, in their confusion, they say, ‘Give the phone to saanp wale bhaisaab (the snake brother)’.
‘I’ll give the phone to the saanp wali behenji (the snake sister) instead,’ Manjeet responds.
She is used to these road bumps. Her antidote to the venom of disbelief and sexism is her gumption and deadpan humour.
Manjeet found her love for snakes through her kid brother, Harshjeet. Around their home in Chhattisgarh, there were all kinds of wildernesses. Trees that were part of an adjoining forest towered at the back of the house. Small patches of wet earth formed when it rained, creating micro-ecosystems. There were beds of grasses nearby. The children grew up playing in the mud and frolicking in the seasonal puddles. One day, a snake was found in a quilt inside the house. Her father killed it. On seeing this, her brother got so upset that he stopped speaking. Manjeet was moved beyond measure. She rushed to defend the little one. She would realize later that this was, in effect, also defending the snake.
Fast forward to 2009. The city of Raipur was stretching its legs, expanding its girth, and swallowing wildernesses. Trees were razed, wetlands were paved, and little puddles disappeared as if they had been zipped shut. Old snakes were newly found in the assembly lines of construction and upheaval of the soil. Some people had never seen snakes, though they had always been there. Like it had been years ago in her childhood, Manjeet found herself rushing to the defence of the small ones.
In a place called Nimora, people had gathered around a rat snake, a long, non-venomous snake that people often mistake for a cobra. They had gathered there because they didn’t just want the snake gone, they wanted it dead.
‘I realized at that moment,’ Manjeet says, ‘that my work can’t be just about rescuing snakes. It will also have to be about teaching people what a snake is, so they can let it live.’
She rescued the rat snake, and started drawing up strategies for educating people too. Fear was an emotion that coated people’s judgement. It cast a film over reason, and pre-empted the death of snakes at human hands. She wanted fear to be turned to curiosity.
‘I tell people, “I am not saving you from the snake; I am saving the snake from you”,’ she says.