Learning from the tale of snakes

With ACs humming round the year and hot water pouring out of taps, within our cities, seasons appears only on the TV screens.

Once in a while a hailstorm or a water-logged underpass reminds us of Earth’s careless choice of rotating at an angle to cause such nuisances; but, on the whole, din of city-life drowns the soft tune of seasons on which life on earth has danced for billions of years. Away from the city, palash may bloom and bees may get busy, but we are too preoccupied with what Paris is wearing this summer to notice them.

Personally, I love to watch the changes that each season brings. But, being uncouth in my preferences, I am not prone to noticing poetic events like first robin song of spring (oops! Robins don’t live here!); instead, I prefer to look out for plebeian things like first mosquito bite of the season.

With arrival of heat, another first-of-the-season that I worry for is a snake-bite death. Tragically, the text scrolling at the bottom of my TV screen tells me that the wait is over. The first snake-bite death (that I noticed) has occurred. The snake season is open.

I find Indian relationship with snakes to be most intriguing. No creature enjoys greater cultural association with our society than snakes. We fear them. We worship them. We even make most atrociously incorrect movies about them. But, we refuse to know them.

We have lived alongside snakes for eons, dying from not only their bites but also from the fear due to our ignorance about them. Even today, we are the world leaders in snake-bite deaths. Yet, from scholarly treatises of Ayurveda to snake-charmers’ traditional lore, Indian knowledge about our native snakes is mostly full of romantic ideas devoid of any factual base.

Most surprisingly, even though knowing about snakes is literally a matter of life or death in India, we had waited patiently for the British to arrive in India to identify and classify our snakes. Bloody impatient people they are, by 1796, Patrick Russell, a British naturalist, published a book on Indian serpents that contained more scientifically accurate information about our venomous snakes than we had ever put together.

What is really difficult to understand is, why the great Indian civilization never saw any merit in identifying which snake is venomous and which is not.

When I scan through “The reptiles of British India” by Günther published in 1861, what strikes me the most is its alien-ness. It is like a book on fauna of Mars written by a man. There is no native knowledge that it uses as a base. And this is so, well, because there was no native knowledge. We had simply not felt the need of studying snakes even though it may have saved lives.

For me, this is not about snakes or British, it is about something more sinister. If I get audaciously generalizing, it is about the Indian way of knowing.

The case of snakes is a starling one, because it tells me that we are a culture that rarely bothers to have an empirical understanding of reality. British ruled us not because they were more powerful; they ruled us because they treated “knowing” differently than us.

What is more worrisome is that two hundred years of slavery did not teach us anything. Even today, we remain the same. We prefer theory over practical. Even after living amongst machines, we are rarely keen to look under the hood. We have devised an “education” system of rote. We produce more engineers than population of Iceland every year but we can’t make anything.

The most fundamental change we need is of developing a scientific mindset as people. We need to do something drastic, like removing books from the earlier years of education and replacing them with hands-on method of learning.

If we won’t, it is clear that more slavery awaits us, may be in a more subtle form, in this new age of knowledge.

DNA: 15/4/15

I am happy to admit that I have managed surviving till now with minimum effort as all my intellect has be used to avoid doing anything meaningful. As I needed to while all the free time I generated in course of being lazy, science has been my favorite muse that I have enjoyed company of. As an effort to kill time (in a way, to get even with it) one fine day I decided to write a science column, more for my personal amusement than to attract readers. After getting educated about the attention span of modern readers from my editor, it became more like a challenge to tackle esoteric subjects in 600 words that I have managed to remain interested in for more than a year now. I do not want to add my worldly profile here as these are ideas that need to be considered only on the merits they carry and not as an opinion of a certain human being.

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