My aunt sounded a little rattled when she called. Not surprising, for the discovery of a cobra isn’t calculated to send one into raptures. “Cobra!” She muttered. “At the foot of a tree in the compound. Dead!” The explanation followed. The day before, she had seen a cobra trying to slither up the steps to the house, change its mind, slide down and disappear under the car. When she mustered enough courage to take a peek under the vehicle, it had vanished.
“So what’s the problem?” I asked. “All flesh is grass. Alive yesterday and dead today. What a considerate cobra; it saved you a lot of trouble. Must have chosen suicide over capture and possible murder. A snake with a Roman’s sense of honour.”
She couldn’t understand what I was blathering on about. “What Romans? I’m talking about a snake. Listen, it’s not the same snake.” Aha, the plot thickened. She continued, “I know big from small. The dead one is smaller than the acrobatic one I saw yesterday.”
Now I could understand her agitation. She spoke in hushed tones, as if the snake could be eavesdropping. But surprisingly she perked up and said, “finally he concedes there are these around.” ‘Who concedes there are what around?’ I was perplexed. “Your uncle. Cobras. Your uncle maintained there are no cobras in this part of the city, only rat snakes.”
An army veteran and a bit of a naturalist, my uncle prides himself on knowing his snakes; he can tell a water snake from a rat snake and both from a cobra. Having grown up in these parts, he is something of an expert on wild and other forms of life in this vicinity.
“I had told him so many times there are cobras here. I had seen them with my own eyes, but he would never take me seriously. Today I forced him to examine the carcass for a proper identification before its last rites. And he had to admit it was a ...COBRA!” She ended the call on this note of elation. Any point scored over my uncle is hard-earned and cause for celebration.
In the spotlight
My sister-in-law has two snake lovers in the family – her husband and her son, both photographers. She went to let the dog out of the kennel one day and let out a yell instead. She had found a snake keeping the wary dog company. Her alarmed cry, “Cobra!” brought the two men racing out with enthusiastic shouts, “Where? Where?” One peep into the kennel, and satisfied it was indeed a cobra, they ran back into the house and returned with their sophisticated cameras instead of stout sticks. Petrified, she shouted, “Do something! It’s showing its hood!”
“Wonderful! Ensure it remains that way while we get the cameras ready,” her husband responded. Mouths drooling, the two aimed their cameras at the snake, clicked pictures, chased it out of the kennel and clicked more pictures, before it escaped the media glare into the bushes nearby. My sister-in-law was aghast. How could they take this so lightly? What about the danger to herself? The next day she hired two people to clear the yard and burn the fallen leaves.
“Never mind the snakes, it’s good she has a yard,” was my husband’s environment-friendly comment. “They have to live somewhere.” True, mindless urbanisation has pushed snakes out of their natural habitat and they are migrating into the compounds of houses. And poisonous snakes are encroaching into space previously occupied by rat snakes, sadly, never referred to as snakes, at least in Malayalam. A rat snake’s non-poisonous status has robbed it of its biological nomenclature. It is a mere ‘ chera ’.
It was only a matter of time before a snake paid our house a visit. I returned home after some shopping to find my husband, who should have been supine in bed, nursing his fever, seated bolt upright in the front room, looking feverish with excitement. “Great drama in your absence!” he announced. “A snake was crawling there.” He pointed to a corner. “And then?” I whispered. “A cousin happened to drop in and he killed it. He said it was a cobra but I’m not so sure.”
My aunt called on hearing about this. “Was it a cobra? Could it have been the one I saw?” I detected the hope in her voice.
“Not likely,” I said. “I believe it was a tiny snake. And my husband says it could’ve been a chera .”
“Oh, no, not again!” she sounded exasperated. And the cobra-chera debate continues...
(A fortnightly column by the city-based writer, academic and author of the Butterfingers series)