‘Slip Sliding Away’: Rock, Reptiles and History of the Times
Rupleena Bose
SNAKES, DRUGS AND ROCK ‘N’ ROLL: MY EARLY YEARS by By Romulus Whitaker with Janaki Lenin HarperCollins, New Delhi, 2024, 400 pp., INR 699.00
July 2024, volume 48, No 7

At the very onset of the unsuspecting adventure Romulus Whitaker takes his readers to, he decisively states that ‘this is not a memoir but an autobiography’ (Introduction, p. xiv). For him a memoir is essentially about memories of achievements and accomplishments, about a narrative that built itself towards a public portrait of a famous person, in the case of Romulus Whitaker, a reptile conservationist, an educator and a researcher. A portrait of an impeccable famous person that in true terms Whitaker does not set out to do. What he does instead is more than an autobiography as he states his preference for, but rather a micro-history of three decades, its big events, its forgotten memories, its music and everything that mainstream narratives of history or memoir cannot capture.

An autobiography as recent studies suggest is also self-writing, where the writing self is continuously recreating an idea of the person they were in their growing up years. The self is constantly being written as events are remembered in a chronological fashion. An autobiography is a literary form in its construction of the protagonist, who is also about recounting difficult moments, memories that leave open to its readers a self that is unfolding in the years remembered.

Snakes, Drugs and Rock ‘N’ Roll has multiple layers that hold the story through the decades locating it firmly in the realm of a generation’s alternative history. It is a rare, bustling, busy narrative that begins in New York city and in its movements and travels gives the reader a fascinating insight into the world the way it changes from the years of the Cold War to the post-Vietnam era. The capturing of a story that spans continents is seen through the early reverse migration of Whitaker or ‘Breezy’ as he is called from America to Bombay with his family of four. It is about the West and East, America and India seen from the eyes of young Breezy, where his observations and adventures (almost Mark Twain-like) deftly carry the readers through major and minor events of history. Breezy’s early years give a detailed account of his family life; one of the most interesting portraits emerging of his mother, a single mother with two children and an easy, warm and independent attitude that holds the family together. Later she is also seen as a woman architect designing the evolving urban landscape of Bombay. It is her strong yet independent nature that allows Breezy’s early interest to grow; of his curiosity towards reptiles, or rather snakes that begins with the early gift his mother gives him, Snakes of the World by Raymond L Ditmars.

Breezy’s early life set to the tunes of 78 rpm Vinyl playing his mother’s favorite Nat King Cole in his Aunt Ellis’s Greeenwich house where his mother meets Rama, the son of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Harindranath who she eventually marries before she makes the big move. The new blended family is also symbolic of the new independent nation with western education and values of democracy now engaged in the task of nation building.

Kamaladevi was a freedom fighter, feminist, actor, writer and colleague of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. She had just settled hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Pakistan in the township of Faridabad near Delhi (p. 14).

Herein begins the most interesting narrative strands and portrait of freedom fighter Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Amma, as Breezy’s grandmother and a powerful feminist and public figure who is a constant influence in Breezy’s growing up years. The portrait of this progressive family carries with it a parallel history of the newly independent class of progressive educated Indians.

Harindranath, a poet, actor, politician and comedian had enormous ears, an impish laugh and a trove of songs (p. 14).

After a long ship and plane ride to the other end of the world, Breezy with his sisters, mother and Rama, now his stepfather, arrives in new Bombay that is developing new professions and industries much like the film industry. Rama steps up a motion picture colour processing lab for what was already emerging as the primary form of entertainment, the cinema. Breezy’s life in Bombay also tells the history of the city as it was evolving with its new buildings and expanding geographies. Bombay from the point of his arrival becomes a primary character in Breezy’s universe set to the changing music of Beatles, Rolling Stones and Elvis. Bombay was where the new progressive elite were sowing their roots, just as Rama and Breezy’s mother set out to do for the next three decades living in Juhu and Breach Candy. As the geography and the limits of the city expand so does Breezy’s love for nature, the sea and snakes all of which Bombay magically allows including the existence of snake charmers who allure Breezy and the co-habitation of a pet python in a Bombay house.

With Bombay as the Whitaker-Chattopadhyay family’s new home, Breezy’s education in India begins first at a boarding school in Lovedale, then to another missionary school in Kodaikanal, that becomes his second home and also the space with the surrounding wilderness allows his instinctive affiliation towards the environment. It also formulates and constructs two things in Breezy’s life that he would recount in his later years of university in America and the service during Vietnam War: India as home and snakes as his lifelong passion.

Breezy’s narrative moves parallely to the portrait of important historical figures like Harindranath and Kamaladevi who as the years progress are vital to the institutions that are being formed in the new Nehruvian nation. The school years move from a boy trying to adjust to a young man compassionate and alert to nature in a way most of his other peers mostly expat students were not.

A senior brought several issues of Madmagazine from the States and its subversive humour and parody of pop culture captivated me. A sophomore returned from vacation with a 33rpm vinyl record, and I listened to the satirical lyrics of a song called Old Dope Peddlar in disbelief (p. 79).

Radio Ceylon and music remain a vital part of Breezy’s journey through life, the music filtering in the private space of memory and selfhood. The music helps him belong to the two worlds that remain his; the West through its music and India as his own land.

Breezy’s narrative told in his words is a bildungsroman of sorts, where following his school year and his gap year of working in Mysore with elephants he has to take the journey to America for further studies. It is a journey that is necessary in the way he would choose his path and profession later in his life. It is a journey also into the heart of the sixties’ America steeped in Vietnam war protests and the doom of getting drafted.

Migration is also one of the interesting themes of Whitaker’s journey; the young Breezy who goes from America to Bombay, and then to boarding school and then later back to America and Mexico following a migratory route that was rare in the fifties. But it is the uniqueness of his journey that creates his identity that is distinct from anyone else we encounter in his cross-cultural milleu.

Music as it holds together the narrative strand of Breezy’s life comes alive in his years of being in America at a university and when he works as a salesman and eventually at Miami serpentarium that leads to what he is known as, a wildlife conservationist when he finally returns home to India.

Whitaker’s autobiography is like a coming-of-age narrative where the protagonist’s life leads him to myriad paths until the realization that ends this autobiography: that India was home, a place he had to engage in, the surroundings of the Western Ghats in his adolescence that will be home to his true professional years. And it was that home he intended to return to as a person who had finally found his calling. The story undoubtedly had just begun (the narrative ends with a to be continued), not for young nature loving Breezy but the snake wielding, worldly-wise and environmentally aware Romulus.

Rupleena Bose teaches English in Sri Ventakteswara College, University of Delhi, Delhi. She has a PhD on Music Studies, and her first novel, Summer of Then has been published by Penguin.