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The year was 1988 and the place, Secunderabad, or rather Alwal, where the army quarters are. The previous year, the Lord and Master had to dump the one and only (the Aspiring Animator having not yet entered the scene) son, the future Programmer/Geek and his mother moi, unceremoniously, in the quarters allotted and hurry off to the exercise area. And what happens when it’s time for him to return from the exercise area? Off he and others are sent as part of the first wave of IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force) to Sri Lanka. Thus the son and I found ourselves sole occupants of a huge bungalow, a relic from the days of the British.

It WAS huge. The roof was almost 18-20 feet high, walls a foot thick with doors at least 8 feet in height. The rooms were built in a row, and were so vast that I had this distinct feeling of sleeping in a railway platform, not in a cozy bedroom. The cold stone floors only accentuated the feeling. Whatever I filled the room with, it continued to look half empty. There were four doors in the bigger two rooms, opening on to spacious verandahs on either side of the house.

Staying in the vast house by ourselves was scary initially. But we got used to it and eventually thoroughly enjoyed its cool interior, which was a sure blessing during the scorching summer months in Andhra. The rambling wood rose climbing to the roof and the big mango tree in the backyard made it all the more pleasant.

A lone officer of the Brigade and some men under him were the only ones at the Rear Headquarters. The families could use the modified vehicle to go to Secunderabad for their shopping. The Brigade Major’s wife and her daughter were my companions on such trips. We wandered along M.G.Road, went to Monda Market for vegetables and fish and finished off with crisp ghee dosas at Ganga Restaurant (Wonder if its still functioning!) This was the routine for the mother-son duo each week.

One evening, we were getting ready for one such outing. After getting the son ready and giving him clear instructions to stay put in the house while I got ready, I went for my bath. Soon after I heard the son crying and was alarmed. He tapped on the bathroom door and wailed:

Ammaaaaa …. Snake.. snake… !!

SNAKE??!!!!

I was using the bathroom at the far end of the house, next to the room we dumped all the junk into. Not enough light streamed into it making it dark. Oh my God, the snake could be anywhere amidst that junk. I told the son to stick close to the door, hurriedly dressed and got out. How was I going to find the snake and chase it out??!! But before that let me get this straight, I thought, how does he know it’s a snake? What if it was only (only?) one of those small creepy crawlies and he was creating a hullabaloo, taking after none other than his famous (notorious?) mother who would bring the roof down if a lizard crossed her path. I turned to the son and asked him,

“How did it look?? How do you know it was a snake?”

“It l-l-ook-ked like the s-s-snake we saw in the m-m-movie.” He was still shivering from fright. But of course, movies. The place from where all knowledge is gathered. Hmmm.

“Where did you see the snake?” I asked him.

He pointed towards the front door. So the snake wasn’t in this room where we were standing, but the other room. What chances that it would still be where it was sighted originally??! It could be anywhere by now. I stealthily and carefully peeped into the drawing room ….and found the front door ajar. I turned to the son with knit brows.

“You opened the door! I told you not to go out!” I was clearly annoyed at his disobedience. He stood there with eyes downcast.

But WHERE was the snake?

I walked out of the front door and on to the front verandah led by the son. There was the cobra in the in the front yard, hood out and staring Nandini in the face. Nandini who, you might well ask. She was our pet cat. Apparently she had come running when she heard the son scream. She, I have always maintained was more of a human than humans. On seeing us she mewed sweetly, closing her eyes gently the way cats do, as if to say, don’t worry, I have this under control. She looked the cobra in the eye and then away quite nonchalantly, as if waiting for the cobra to dare make the first move.

The hood of the cobra turned this way and that following the movement of Nandini’s head. Some sort of conversation seemed to be in progress. Nandini looked like she was warning the cobra to stay away from her adopted family, not harm them. Even as the son and I watched, Nandini having had her say, stood up and moved away with a oh-so-bored look, expecting I am sure, nothing less than total compliance from that magnificent reptile who could have had her writhing and fighting for life if it had so chosen. The cobra meanwhile as if acquiescing to the cat’s ultimatums, lowered itself with one final look at its retreating back and slithered away into the bushes.

What a drama it had been. The Lord and Master arrived on leave from Sri Lanka and the snake story was duly related to him. Our next door neighbor also reported spotting the cobra in their yard in the ensuing week. The man wanted it killed. But the local boys did not oblige him as they believed cobras belonged to Lord Shiva himself.

The next day, seeing off the Lord and Master at the gate, I suddenly noticed a change of expression on his face. I guessed rightly what it meant. Behind me, near the pillar if the gate and close to the thickly growing hedge was the cobra, feasting on, rather struggling with, a medium-sized frog. We watched with interest for some time. Obviously it was going to be a long affair, this swallowing of a frog. So off went the L & M on his errands and I back to my work.

Around dusk, the L & M informed me that one of his JCOs (Junior Commisioned Officer) would be looking in and to have him seated. He then pushed off to have his shower and get ready.

The doorbell rang just then and on opening the door I found the orderly, Gaekwad, standing outside.

“- – – – Saab aaya hai,” (- – – – Sir has come) he said.

I didn’t catch the name he said. Oh, the JCO is here already, I thought. I opened the door wider and stood back. No one stepped in. Puzzled I peered out. Gaekwad was standing rooted to the same spot. I looked at him enquiringly.

“- – – – Saab aaya hai,” he repeated.

Well, that’s what you said earlier, I thought. He knows the drill; that the JCO had to be seated, and a glass of water offered first. Why was the fellow standing there, twiddling his thumbs?

“_ _ _ _ Saab aaya hai” he said again. This WAS getting repetitive. And why was he whispering anyway?

Andar aane ke liye bolo” (Tell him to come inside), I replied a bit impatiently.

Saanp Saab aaya hai” (Snake Sir has come), he said respectfully, his voice a little louder and clearer this time for the benefit of the Memsahib who seemed hard of hearing.

I opened my mouth to protest against his impersonating a bally parrot and repeating the same thing over and over again, when it smote me. Saanp? Saanp Saab?!

Kya???????!!!!” (What??), I went all wide-eyed now. “Kahaan??? (Where??)

Ah now Memsaahib has understood! There was relief on his face. He pointed towards the gate, with even more respect. I suspect the man actually bowed in the direction while pointing Saanp Saab out to me. The poor fellow was so terrified of the cobra, he was referring to it as Saab (Sir). Perhaps he had thought, calling it by its first name would smack of familiarity and disrespect?

By now L & M had finished his shower. All of us, including the son, trooped out to see the Saanp Saab who was still, hours later, struggling to swallow the frog. Looked like Saanp Saab had bitten off more than it could chew errr.. I mean swallow? We watched its efforts for some time in the twilight. Then as it grew darker, we trooped back to the comfort of our home.

Since that evening, till the time we left Secunderabad the following year, Saanp Saab did not make another appearance. Methinks it heard moi tell Gaekwad to ask it to step right in (Who is this fearless lady inviting a COBRA to step in?) and being ignorant of the fact that I wouldn’t say ‘boo’ to a goose (though why anyone should say so is a mystery to me) and probably imagining me as a tyrant waiting with a stick to make short work of it for having scared my little one, decided wisely to stay away.

 ©Shail Mohan 2008

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