BR Belletryst and Urmilla Khanna

BR Belletryst

Tropical Memories
By Urmilla Khanna
Inspiration piece

The ten-month-old infant had become very agile. He could crawl across the room and go rolling off the steps before you could say “No!”

It was a sunny summer morning in Jabalpur, India. Everyone was absorbed in the hustle and bustle of preparing the house for an evening party. Twenty top officials and their wives were coming to dinner. All the servants were scurrying back and forth, as Mother walked around in her supervisory role. Furniture was being polished, tablecloths starched and ironed and silverware sparkled. Amidst all this, I being nine at the time was asked to watch my baby brother and keep him out of danger.

I set him down on the large, open patio in the backside of our bungalow. The patio, just hosed off, was spotlessly clean, moisture rapidly evaporating in the morning sun. I considered it a safe place for little brother to crawl around and explore. I watched him dash off from place to place , stopping to scratch at or pick up with his tiny pincer grasp, the little ants that always lived in the crumbling grout of the slate patio. We often fed these dainty creatures with sugar and followed them as they carried off the granules to their distant dwellings.

I was looking at my brother as he sat in the middle of the patio, a small rattle in hand. From the back, his soft curls took my attention as I sat on the nearby steps. Dressed in a cotton romper he looked so cute. Lost in thought my gaze went a little farther. I saw a stately, well-poised cobra at the far end of the courtyard, slithering his way towards my brother. For many long moments I sat there, stupefied. The beauty of this creature mesmerized me. I felt paralyzed.

Cobras were a common occurrence in the underdeveloped areas of my childhood. We did not kill the Cobra, it being considered an incarnation of Siva himself. In fact, mother felt blessed that the distinctive Cobra had chosen our property to build his shrine. She often took a bowl of milk and placed it in the woods to satisfy his wrath. She said a silent prayer for our safety. If the bowl was empty the next morning, she felt her prayers had been heard and our family had been blessed. Full moon nights were particularly sacred. Cobras were sure to be out and about on such nights.

We had been indoctrinated about Nag, the cobra. Nag can slither on land, climb trees and even swim in water we were warned. It can kill an elephant with its venom. Though it cannot hear, it has the ability to register the slightest movement. It has a third eye on the back of its hood. So do not ever try to trick the cobra in any way!

We were taught to be aware of his rights; and we were to mind our own business. He lived in the woods near the little creek at the end of our compound.  I had never seen him. I was always curious about his existence. Now, here he was. I finally saw him.

Suddenly, I came out of my reverie and panicked. What should I do? Little brother is in danger! The mighty cobra is slithering his way across the patio. My instinct was to scream, “Get out of the way, you silly,” but I realized little brother would not understand my command; he was just a baby. He looked at the glistening, black, and beautifully patterned rope as a new toy coming his way. He began to crawl further to grab the toy.

Stay calm, I told myself, and asked my brain for quick guidance. In that split second, my brain responded. I had been taught that if ever a snake confronted me, I should calmly walk away in the direction opposite to its path. A snake cannot turn around.

I tip toed across the patio, quietly collected my brother and walked away. I brought him up the steps and on to the adjacent veranda. I gasped with relief. My brother and I were safe.

“Mother” I now screamed “the cobra….”

Before I could finish my sentence, mother came running to the scene, “Dear Lord, dear lord,” she said. She kissed us over and over, reciting her prayer as blessings for our safety. Then catching her breath, she said, “Where…where is the cobra?”

“There,” I pointed.

I stood shivering, holding my brother tightly in my arms. I saw the cobra slowly slithering on and coiling itself right where little brother was playing. As I stood frozen and speechless, my glance shifted to the far end of the bungalow.

I saw relief. I saw our Mongoose, the “Naola” coming down the side of the roof.  He waddled gracefully across the yard, climbed the steps leading to the patio and stood before the reptile. The predator of the cobra had arrived.

I was familiar with the existence of the Naola as well. He lived on the rooftop, for that is where I often saw him. He came down to find his food. Occasionally, he followed Mother into the dining room and ate a piece of toast, sitting beside her chair. I loved to watch this dainty little animal with its piercing dark eyes, sleek pointed face and striped furry body weaving in and out of our house. We had been trained to respect his rights also. If we left him alone he will never bother us, we were told. We had learned to admire him from a distance.

As the Naola stood face to face with the cobra, my fears began to melt. My little brother and I were both safe. Naola had taken the defensive. He will now be in charge.

I hailed my sister and brothers to come see the cobra and the mongoose face to face. Soon, there was an audience of ten or twelve. All the servants stopped in their heels and joined us sitting on the steps in pin drop silence.

The mongoose attacked the snake. The reptile was not to accept defeat readily. He hissed ferociously, rearing up and flattening his ribs into a hood, threatening the mongoose. The mongoose in his turn ferociously dodged the cobra, he swayed from side to side angrily, his forked tongue protruding back and forth.

Being at a safe distance, I was now amused , my eyes focusing on the majestic cobra raising his head higher and higher, exposing the beautiful yellowish white rings around his neck and flaring his hood bigger and bigger. He looked even more beautiful as the rays of the morning sun shone on his skin, giving an illusion of a freshly bathed glistening wet body.

We were watching the fight between the Cobra and the Mongoose.

Suddenly the mongoose jumped way up in the air and landed on the cobra’s upright neck. Blood streaked down the patio. The mongoose was going to win.

I do not know what happened next and how long the wrestling lasted. I became woozy and averted my gaze. Then, everyone was clapping and the action was over. The mongoose had killed the snake. The eight-foot long creature lay lifeless, guts ripped open. His last meal must have been a hefty lizard, still undigested.

Everyone rejoiced at the victory of the mongoose over the cobra. There was a big commotion.

Mother, however, had mixed emotions. She would no longer have to worry about our safety when we played by the creek.  On the other hand, she wondered if the protection showered by Siva on our household had been withdrawn by the death of the cobra.

“It was an act of God. It was an act of God,” she muttered repeatedly under her breath. “We had not killed the cobra.”

After things calmed down decisions had to be made about the disposal of. the dead reptile. Hindus do not touch dead animals. After some tete a tete between my parents, it was decided to call the chammar. He is the village shoemaker and by virtue of his profession, he is exempted from the rule.

The chammar arrived and skinned the reptile. The skin was sent away to Calcutta to have a handbag made for mother. The carcass made precious manure for an orange tree that had not borne fruit for many years.

In years to come, we did indeed enjoy fruit from the orange tree and mother was convinced it was the sacred manure!

The cobra is known as the deadliest of all poisonous snakes. It is often referred to as King Cobra. To this date, I have wondered how the mongoose had been able to avoid the poisonous bite of the snake.

One Comment

  1. Posted October 31, 2010 at 1:38 am | #

    Beautiful photo representation of a complex relationship!