Tawdry Tale of Twisted Tails
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
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.