Snakes in Indian Children's Literature
(Sharing a post which first featured on the Sustainability Next blog on September 27, 2021)
Ophidiophobia or fear of snakes, is one of the most commonly reported phobias in the world. Feared and despised, snakes have usually been maligned in popular culture. Unfortunately, children’s literature has largely fed into this fear.
The pet of evil Lord Voldemort ‘he who must not be named’… the symbol of Slytherin – a house that never plays fair… the distrust around being a ‘parselmouth’ – someone who can speak to snakes… the basilisk – a giant serpent bred by dark wizards… the ever-popular Harry Potter series abounds in negative references to snakes. The visual effects in the film versions of the books only serve to enhance this evil and scary portrayal.
In Rudyard’s Kipling’s The Jungle Book the evil snakes Nag and Nagaina are outwitted by a clever mongoose in the short story Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. Interestingly, in the book, Kaa – the giant snake – has been depicted as wise and sympathetic, saving the protagonist Mowgli from many misadventures. Yet, in its famous screen adaptation, Disney portrayed Kaa as an antagonist.
Religion and mythology have long revered and worshipped snakes. Hindu mythology links them to the Gods Shiva and Vishnu as well as demi-gods – the Nagas. In Ancient Egypt, the Pharaohs wore a snake on their crown as protection, a symbol of the Goddess Wadjet. In Greek mythology, Asclepius, the son of Apollo, learned the secrets of keeping death at bay after observing a serpent bringing healing herbs for another. A great physician, he incorporated a snake in his staff – which is the symbol of the medical fraternity today.
Yet, popular children’s stories drawn from mythology have generally demonized snakes. For instance, stories about Lord Krishna often feature his victorious encounter with the ferocious Kaliya, a multi-headed, giant serpent who spewed venom into the river he inhabited and terrorized those coming to it.
English, the most widely spoken language in the world has many common ‘snake’ expressions that act as metaphors for cheating, backstabbing, distrust and bad luck, such as ‘he’s a snake in the grass’ or ‘be careful, she’s a ‘viper’. So, it’s not surprising to find negatives references to snakes in English literature. However, even in other languages, snakes are often poorly portrayed. It doesn’t help that many popular stories are translated from English or influenced by it.
Such portrayals do a great disservice to children growing up with this literature. As naturalist, author and educator Yuvan Aves puts it, “Snakes play a crucial role in ecology, especially in keeping rodents in check. Too many myths and false stories have created an exaggerated terror around them, robbing from our common imagination their form, beauty and crucial ecosystem roles. Knowledge certainly dispels fear, creates wonder, love and curiosity and helps more than superstition to safely coexist with other life forms.”
Fortunately, many Indian books are trying to bust these myths surrounding snakes and serve as wonderful mediums to understand these misunderstood creatures.
Rohan Chakravarty’s Making Friends with Snakes (but from a distance) created in collaboration with the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, is a wonderful picture book featuring Naagin and Dhaman, two anthropomorphized snakes who bust myths, guide readers on identifying commonly found Indian snakes, and point out the do’s and don’ts for safety, in a humorous manner. It serves as a great beginning to empathizing with snakes and learning to coexist. Apart from English, it’s also available in various Indian languages.
Janaki Lenin’s A King Cobra’s Summer published by Pratham,introduces young readers to many interesting facts about the creatures as well as their habitat, as Kaala the king cobra tries to find his way back to the areca nut plantation that was his home.
In Little Snake Plays Hide & Seek published by Scholastic Mathangi Subramanian weaves a delightful tale about a snake that uses his senses to find his friends during a game of hide and seek. While the story successfully captures camouflage, it also succeeds in creating a joyful snake protagonist.
Some retellings of folktales and fables have also tried to upend the negative depictions of snakes. In Hiss don’t Bite, Vayu Naidu tells the story of an angry snake that learns to control his temper and look after himself. Unlike most children’s literature, it effectively humanizes a snake to offer a lesson in anger management and self-care! Similarly, in The Snake and the Frogs, Mariam Karim-Ahlawat draws out a bit of sympathy for a hungry snake that accidentally bites a man’s toe, thinking it is a frog and is then cursed to become a vehicle for naughty frogs to ride on!
Veteran children’s author, Ruskin Bond has several entertaining snake stories in his vast repertoire. Many of them, such as the hilarious Snake Trouble, centre around his grandfather’s pet python and its numerous adventures with the family and their various pets!
Celebrated naturalist and author Zai Whitaker, one of the founder-trustees of the Madras Crocodile Bank, has long been championing reptiles through her writing. Cobra in my Kitchen: Stories, Poems and Pieces is a delightful collection with several interesting narratives on various reptiles, including snakes. In Kali and the Rat Snake she tells the story of a boy belonging to the Irula community, a scheduled tribe known for their snake-catching skills. In Mahasweta Devi’s The Why-Why Girl too, the protagonist Moyna belongs to the Shabar community, a tribe that catches and consumes snakes.
In their recent book, Vatsala Loves Snakes, authors Arthy Muthanna Singh and Mamta Nainy capture a little girl’s endearing love for the beautiful reptiles. No one understands her love for them, till a trip to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park changes their mind.
Stories with positive depictions of snakes and protagonists who live with snakes normalize the relationship between humans and snakes instead of sustaining preconceived and biased notions.
However, while the role of literature is important, reducing snake phobia needs more. As Zai puts it, “Literature definitely shapes our perspectives of the world, but not entirely. After all there are scary stories about forests, and friends, and the ocean… things children tend to love. The ultimate filter is the home. Fear of snakes comes mostly from parental fears and superstitions. Of course, snakes are in a separate category altogether, because some are venomous and thus dangerous. But the fear created around them is far beyond what they deserve. After all most are harmless, and there is a cure for snakebite.”