<%-- Page Title--%> Musings <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 110 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

June 20, 2003

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Our Snake Saga

A Tawdry Tale of Twisted Tails

Shabnam Nadiya

My family's relationship with snakes stems from an age far lost in the mists of time when I was a schoolgirl. I grew up in Jahangirnagar University campus surrounded by a population of plant life highly disproportionate to the human population. Naturally, we spent much of our childhood in the company of foxes, lizards, badgers, otters and other forms of wildlife. Snakes weren't such a rarity either and were time and again found in someone or other's houses. So eventually, with the ripeness of time, we discovered a snake in our house as well. With other families when a snake was spotted everyone would scream, run around and then kill it. Then they would spend days talking about it until the next snake hit. Fairly routine and simple. But does this happen in my family? Of course not. With the fine flair for drama that we all seemed to share, our first snake story was a gala event.
My mother usually left the light on in the bathroom. Groggy with sleep, she climbed out of bed late one night to find something soft and curiously cold underfoot. She moved her foot to look at what she'd stepped on, to find a snake lying as flat as it could on the gray floor. The snake, used to having people scream and flee as soon as they caught sight of it, was probably wondering at the novelty of having someone step on his head. Both mom and the snake took a few moments to recover their wits. As soon as they did, my mom yelled at my sleeping father and the snake slithered away as fast as it could…into my mother's wall closet. Thus began the nocturnal vigil of my parents.
After my father's initial disbelief (“You're dreaming Parag, go to sleep, there's a good girl”), they turned on the room lights and took turns watching the closet and the floor so that the snake didn't get away. We woke up pretty early that day for some reason and as usual trooped into their bedroom to wash up, to be greeted with the strange sight of my mom sitting at the head of the bed, concentrating furiously on the closet. Dad was nowhere in sight. As soon as we entered the room she said, “On the bed everybody.”
Of course, no self-respecting child listens to their mother the first time around, so we started asking questions, until she said the magic word, “Snake.”
This was when we discovered that it took approximately 1.3 seconds to reach my parents bed from the doorway. Then, enter the scene, Dad with a bucket of boiling water. He had called the Estate Officer who was coming down in full force as soon as he could assemble his full force it was, after all, around 6:30 in the morning. In the meantime he had suggested that we try and “smoke” the critter out by pouring boiling water on it. There was about two inches of space between the wall of the closet and the room wall. He was guessing that the snake was probably hiding in that space.
For the next half-hour mom emptied the closet as much as was possible without actually touching the floor. Then dad climbed on top of the closet and started the deluge. About three full buckets of steaming water was poured from the top of the closet most of which came out the of course, she was a woman, so they sighed and after a bit of grumbling decided to humour her whims. They sawed through the left hand panel first. Nothing but discoloured wall. They cut off the section in the middle while making sotto voce comments about the imagination of women, and their overly supportive, modern husbands. Then they started on the third and final panel of the closet. When they cut it away with a triumphant “See madam…”, everyone spotted the snake at the same time. The poor thing lay flat against the wall, clinging on for dear life. It wasn't as large as mom had said. Of course, once discovered there was nothing to do but to kill it.
Then of course there was the snake that stared at me in the toilet. I noticed some movement on the windowsill. There were two eyes watching me. Not sure whether I was seeing things, I got up without doing what I went there for, turned to the window and peered at it. The snake raised its head to my eye level. I backed out of the toilet very carefully to call my dad. The callous man was engrossed in some high level discussion about the welfare of the country with a colleague while his daughter was being stalked by a snake. It took two nicely enunciated “Excuse me, Bapi” and then one scream to get him to pay attention. Of course, by the time we went back to my toilet, the stupid reptile had disappeared. Leaving me with a sleepless night and my father convinced that I was either seeing things or was was just trying to try draw attention to myself.
There were other snakes that played an important role during my formative years. There was the fat bellied snake that I sympathetically thought was squirming with labour pains by the wayside, until a friendly security guard came along and told me that a) snakes gave birth in their holes not in open spaces and snakes were reptiles and laid eggs not babies. The snake did not have cute little baby snakes wriggling inside it, it had its still half-alive lunch wriggling inside. Then of course he killed it. There was the snake that left its skin on my bedside window as a calling card and the snake that visited my window (they really seemed to have liked my window!) during a thunderstorm. When I called my elder brother to tell him there was a snake on my window sill, he simply remarked, “Then you had better close the window hadn't you?” So much for protective elder brothers. Don't think it's the same window either; in the intervening years we had left the big house with the surrounding gardens and moved to an apartment. Apparently they followed us.
I'd like to end this sorry saga with my favourite of all the snake stories in my collection. This involves my best friend, who is now an anthropology graduate working at ICDDRB. At the time Kanti was a skinny little girl with not too keen eyesight. They used to live next door to my grandmother. One day Kanti came home from school to find a huge lump of cow-dung right on her porch. Now, whenever we saw a fresh pat of cow dung, we would invariably prod it lightly with our right foot and ritualistically chant Purni's Cake! Purni's Cake! (Purni was the name of a fat little girl in our school that we used to pick on it was pretty cruel of us, but hey, that's kids for you). Why we did this I have no idea, but at the time it must have served some arcane schoolgirl purpose.
Anyway, when Kanti found a large lump of “Purni's cake” on her porch she immediately and loyally went into action. However, she had the shock of her life when the cow-dung immediately hissed and reared a black, hooded head. Kanti did the only logical thing in the face of such fatal improbability. She squeezed her eyes shut and screa-med. Within moments someone (there was always someone around in those days to rescue us from whatever mess we got ourselves into) had arrived and had snatched her away and the cobra was killed by some other people, but more importantly from that day onwards, we rarely did the Purni's Cake routine anymore. Somehow, all the fun had gone out of it.


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