Botany India – “Oomai” the deaf-mute botanical genius & a lost herbal remedy
“Oomai” Botanical Genius
Thanks: V Narayan Swami
Update from Swami:
V Narayan SwamiThe Jesuits of Shenbaganur seminary (just a few miles away from Kodaikanal) were botanists par excellence …. there were several Swiss & French Jesuits there in the first half of the 2oth C who were all keen field botanists (a discipline that is fundamental to bio-diversity & conservation but is having to compete for funding with the cell biologists & hybridisers) …. as young lads in Europe, they had botanised with their fellow boys and teachers and some of them became outstanding collectors of the plants of of our western ghats ….
What is more …. they inculcated in the young Jesuit scholastics at the seminary a love for field botany ….
Fr Mathew was one such who entered Shenbaganur as a 15 year old scholastic and initiated, besides theological studies, in to field botany in Pulney hills …. and he was probably the finest flower that Shenbaganur botany produced …. internationally known and respected, in continuous demand by the different states to undertake field studies and reports on their hill flora …. soi much so that he could not spare time or resources for a full flora of my Sirumalai hills (an unique eco-system in the Western Ghats), so full was his calendar ….
But he made good on his voluntary offer to pubklish at once Fr Pallithanam’s 9another Shebaganurian) Pocket Flora of the Sirumalai Hills which had been pending since 1967 …. it was published within a year and the first copy offered to me …
“Take a good look at this man below …. he was one of the crew on a coffee plantation in the Western Ghat hills in Tamil Nadu (Sirumalai) that I ran for several years”
Take a good look at this man below …. he was one of the crew on a coffee plantation in the Western Ghat hills in Tamil Nadu (Sirumalai) that I ran for several years …. a remote place at 4500 feet plus …. surrounded by reserve forest on 7 out of 8 sides and 45 KM from the nearest town, down 18 hair-pin bends …. the location and its isolation are relevant in the context of the story ….
This man is a deaf-mute and we did not know his name …. he was known to everybody simply all as Oomai (Tamil for mute, same as Goonga in Hindi) …. he is a Thevar from Ramnad, a community of farmers or peasants, now mostly landless but excellent pastoralists and dryland farmers …. especially …. many of them are astute countrymen with knowledge of the terrain, wildlife and plants ….. and fearless night watchmen ….
All this for less than Rs 100 a day and basic accommodation in the estate …. the year was 2001, you see ….
Well, being a deaf-mute meant that Oomai did not have the 3 Rs either but he could perhaps count up to ten and keep time by his biological clock ….. in recompense for his terrible handicap, he was blessed with especially keen 20 / 20 night vision …. being slight of build, we decided he was best suited for a night watchman’s job …. to keep the Janver or wild animals at bay …. there were bison a plenty, also wild boar by the dozen, deer and so on …. but we liked the sloth bears for their habit of picking clean the cashew fruit and leaving behind the nut in its kernel …. a labour saving boon!!
Anyhow, Ooomai was an excellent night watchman, never sleeping on the job & compensating for his deafness with keen eyesight …. and the most cheerful and willing worker i had known …. no bad habits either except for an occasional beedi …. or those “special” occasions when I’d offer him a cigarette & he’d be over the moon at such a mark of “recognition or appreciation” ….
And so it went until, one morning at about 4.30 AM which was Oomai’s signing off time, there was a knock on the door ….
And there was a very excited Oomai at the door …. together with one of my supervisors, who was the best at communication with Oomai by sign language ….
It was explained to me that Oomai had been bitten by a venomous snake around midnight but had waited until 4.30 to inform us (as he did not wish to disturb our beauty sleep) ….
Venomous snake? What snake was it? I imagined it was the saw-scaled viper, fatally venomous but with the venom being very, very slow acting …. not for 12 hours or so and then it takes another 12 hours before fatality results …. plenty of time to set things right …. well, that is what I thought at first ….
But …. although he couldn’t hear what I asked, Oomai could guess what my question was ….
He put his right hand in to a plastic bag he was carrying and presto …. there was habeas corpus …. the snake itself, very dead and a “voucher” as it were …. proof positive of the incident and the bite!!
When I inspected the snake, I broke out in to a cold sweat …. it was a Banded Krait (Kattu Viriyan in Tamil), the deadliest snake around, not barring the King Cobra …. it is possibly the most venomous snake in the world …. I pulled out my snake ID book with colour pics, just to make sure …. because the Banded Krait looks a lot like the harmless Common Wolf Snake (which also were around in profuse numbers) …. the stripe markings and colour of the two having only minute differences ….
Harmless Common Wolf Snake
Poisonous Banded Krait Snake
But the snake under inspection was the deadly Banded Krait alright …. and a severe bite can lead to death in 30 minutes and a moderate bite in 6 or 8 hours maximum …. what exactly had happened and how had Oomai survived from midnight until nearly 5 AM …. (by this time he should have been in great distress but there were only some signs such as some panting and a swelling in the fore arm where the bite had landed) and a litle numbness in that arm ….
With the help of the Supervisor and my driver (both of whom understood Oomai v well) I learnt that he had lit a little fire with twigs to keep warm in between his “rounds” …. it had been a cold night at 10 deg C but with intermittent rain and winds it must have felt some 3 degrees colder ….
The Krait had crept up to the fire for warmth and bitten Oomai …. perhaps when he shifted his position or something …. he had immediately caught the reptile and killed it …. sufficient proof to me that he had merely been resting and not asleep …. because I have been told that a snake bite is the merest thorn prick and not usually noticed even when awake …. and so little venom 2 or 3 milligrams, is injected ….
What did he do then? Not wishing to disturb anyone’s sleep, he had picked two herbs growing wild in the borders of the field and kept chewing them alternately until 4 AM when he woke my one of my Supervisors …. and the herbs had retarded the action of the venom!!
We pushed a still smiling& cheerful Oomai in to the jeep and rushed him to the district hospital 45 KM away (first pressing a cup of piping hot, black coffee in his hands)…. only the district / govt hospitals stock anti-venom ….
By the time he reached the hospital – 90 minutes later – Oomai was showing all the symptoms of the snake bite …. heavy swelling and pain, slurred speech, head aches and dizziness …. I have found that the docs, rightly, never depend on the victim’s ID of the snake, and rely instead on diagnosis by symptoms (but, in Ooomai’s case, given his deaf-mute condition it perhaps helped that the “voucher” was at hand – but they made sure of the symptoms by use of sign language)…. they concluded it was the Krait alright and pumped the right anti-venom in to Oomai …. they did tell me afterwards that his symptoms indicated a lethal dose of venom ….
I am glad to say he recovered fully and was back at work on the 3rd day after the incident ….
He showed me the herbs he had been chewing on that memorable night …. one I could ID right away as Gymnema sylvestre …. it is a native remedy for diabetes (which I did plant later on about half acre or less & it helped pay for my driver’s or cook’s salary, so to speak ….) …. if you chewed on the leaves for a minute and then consumed a hundred grams of sugar or honey you’d taste nothing …. a powerful alkaloid and an antidote to diabetes ….
But how could an alkaloid retard the action of venom which is another alkaloid? I thought it worked in tandem with the other “weed” or herb which I could not ID with all my books on field botany nor with the convoluted & complex keys which they provide & which are often helpful in working out the specimen …. the botany profs I contacted waffled and the one and only Fr Mathew S J of the Rapinat Herbarium in Trichy – the most outstanding field botanist of India in my opinion – was in Oz at the time (sadly, he died at 69 within a few weeks of his return – at my request he had published the pocket flora of my hills, the publication of which had been pending from 1967 …. and the very first copy was given to me) …. so that herb remains a mystery specimen …. and Oomai obviously couldn’t tell me anything about it, not even its Tamil name ….
The Rapinat Herbarium (RHT is the international acronym), is a university CollegeHerbarium organized since 1967 and named after Fr. A. Rapinat S J (1892-1959) who pioneered teaching of Plant Science in St. Joseph’s College, Tiruchirappalli and whose collections formed the nucleus of the herbarium. The Founder Director of RHT is Late Fr Dr K M Matthew S J (1930-2004) and Fr Dr S John Britto, S J is now the Director
Oomai disappeared from my life a year later …. I was away in Madras when the folks from his Ramnad village in the arid zone a 100 miles away had come and pulled him away …. severe drought in the district and they needed another pair of hands to work the fields …. there was no way we could have recorded his address …. and …. in the first place …. it was a mystery how he had gotten to our hills at all ….
But it is sad to think that there is so much knowledge of ethno botany of this sort which is being lost rapidly …. and when comes another like Oomai …. a cheerful, guileless son of the soil with such consideration for his fellow men that he chewed on his herbs the while he waited for day-break to inform us …. was it foolhardiness on his part to have waited or sure knowledge of the efficacy of the herbs ….??