AT Nanu Vadhyar’s house next door they had recently bought a pile of tamarind firewood. It must have come from there, this snake. After a lengthy price negotiation in the morning, punctuated with protests of, “What, Saami, you’re leaving me with nothing to eat... look at the wood, see how fine it is...” the cartman finally unyoked the bull and tilted the cart to unload the firewood. I knew it would lie right there in front of their house for at least the next week, drying in the sun. But no one told me there was a snake inside that pile of wood.
In the evening Sivaraman came riding along in great style on his bicycle. He would pretend these visits of his were to see me, but, in fact, his purpose was to “eye” my sister, Vatsala. In his laundered shirt and dhoti, wearing Cuticura powder, and with a broad streak of sandal paste on his forehead, he was convinced that all the young girls would swoon at the sight of him. We didn’t want to puncture his delusional vanity, and so, Vatsala and I always waited till he had left before trading comments about him and laughing.
With its green body, metallic handles, elaborate, colourful decoration on the wheel hubs, and glittering carrier, Siva’s Raleigh cycle looked rather like an ornate Vaiyali horse at a temple festival. When he got off the cycle in the front of our house, Vatsala called out “Hello Siva.” As though under a spell, he came over and sat next to me on the thinnai, while Vatsala stood in the doorway. In a voice pitched loud enough to carry to Vatsala, Siva embarked on a litany of self-praise. He declared that he would go to Madras to watch the cricket test match; that his uncle was in the Middle East; and another uncle worked in Narayan Company. “So if you want to catch any of the latest movies, just tell me,” he announced.
When Amma called Vatsala into the house, it was as if a light had been switched off in Siva. That’s when I spotted the snake. Well, at first I didn’t recognise it as a snake; it looked like some kind of extra decoration on Siva’s bicycle wheel. A sort of mossy green to complement the darker green of the bicycle, it was curled around the slanting support bar. “Siva, what is that new decoration you’ve added to your bike?” I asked.
“Look, on the slanting bar in front,” I said. Even before I had finished speaking, it moved. The realisation dawned on me that this was no decoration. It was a snake. I could feel my hairs bristle. “ Pa ... pa ... pa ,” I stuttered, like Janaka trying to teach the musical scale.
“What?” Sivaraman was still mystified.
“Look there, on your cycle wheel. Pa ... pa ... paambu ,” I managed to say it at last. Paambu . Snake.
Siva couldn’t spot it straight away. “Where, da, where?” he kept asking, glancing the other way towards the Peshkar’s house.
“On the cycle... pa ... pa ...big pa ...” I was back to stuttering. Couldn’t say paambu . In fact, it took me a while to say, “Look!” Meanwhile, Sivaraman had also spotted the snake. He was in a quandary about his next course of action, when Vatsala emerged from the house. The need to display valour came to the fore in Sivaraman’s mind. “Vatsala, is there a cricket bat?” he asked.
“Why?” Vatsala wanted to know.
“ Pa ... pa ... pa ...” I chimed in.
Sivaraman said: “Don’t be scared, Ranga. You too, Vatsala, no need to panic. A snake has got on to my bicycle.”
Instead of being alarmed as we had expected, Vatsala asked, “Where is it?” She went up closer to inspect it. “Yes, it is a snake,” she declared definitively.
“Endi, Moodevi, don’t go near it, di. It may bite you or something...” I told her.
“Vatsala, you shouldn’t go near it,” cautioned Sivaraman. “Why don’t you go and fetch something to kill it with.”
Since my younger sister had walked up close to take a look at the snake, I ventured a further inch and inspected it myself. It was all tangled and twisted like the Sri Lanka issue. While lying there in the middle of the firewood heap in front of Vadhyar’s house, who knows what went through its snake mind? Maybe it had decided that the evening hour would be a good time to take a stroll in the open air. And then it couldn’t find its way back. And so it climbed onto the bicycle. Bad luck...
“What are you going to do?” asked Vatsala.
“What a question, Vatsala! Of course, we’re going to beat it to death,” replied Sivaraman.
“Oh, poor thing, da.”
“What do you mean ‘poor thing’? If it starts spitting poison then you’ll be sorry. Go inside, di. Do as I say. Go and fetch the cricket bat. Don’t tell your mother about this, or she’ll bring the whole town here.”
As Sivaraman and I were standing there contemplating the snake, the milk depot worker Govindan happened to pass that way. “What’s the matter, Saami?” he enquired.
“Nothing, Govinda, just a snake.”
“Where?” he wanted to know.
“Look here, on the cycle.” By this time the creature had tangled itself up even more; there was a longish interval between the movement of its head and the subsequent movement of its tail.
Govindan threw a stone at the snake. The missile missed its mark, smashed into Naanu Vadhyar’s house and shattered to bits.
“Who’s throwing bricks?” demanded Vadhyar, emerging from his house.
“There’s a snake, sir,” we told him.
He retreated hastily and shut the door. After that no one from the household (wife and four daughters) came out at all. Meanwhile, Vatsala emerged from the house and handed my much-bandaged cricket bat to Sivaraman. He inspected the item and then approached the cycle gingerly.
It soon became very evident that Sivaraman had absolutely no experience of killing snakes. He swung wildly at it as though he wanted to split it in two. The bat missed the snake but landed hard on the bicycle seat. It dislodged the seat and sent it flying to the floor.
The snake had now been alerted to its perilous situation. It speedily untangled itself, slithered to the ground, and wriggled away in an instant into the three-feet-long municipal pipe nearby.
This drain in which the creature had found refuge was just outside our front door where, as a concession to us, the municipality had connected a three-foot-long pipe. Govindan chided Sivaraman, “Thambi, is that the way to swing the bat? See, now the snake has escaped.”
Sivaraman’s attention was on Vatsala as he responded to Govindan. “Hold on, Govinda... it can’t get away. Just don’t confuse me, all of you.”
Just then, Thatha shuffled out from inside the house. So further proceedings in the matter of the snake had perforce to be suspended. Thatha was 77 years old. After his retirement, a kind of senility had set in. Then, Paati died, and nowadays Thatha was often confused about people, places and events. Often, he would not be sure whether he was in Srirangam or still in service in Delhi.
Sometimes he would get my name right.... “What, Ranga,” he’d say. But at other times he would call out to my mother, saying, “There’s someone inside... Oh, it’s the butter man who has come.” Of late, he imagined that every day was the day of the Panguni Uthiram festival, and that the procession with temple cars would come down the street. Every evening he would set up the string cot outside the house and sit there waiting for the procession to arrive.
Thatha was now preparing to set up his cot right on top of where the snake had taken refuge in the drain. If the whole story were to be explained to him... about the firewood bought by the neighbour, about how the woodpile had harboured a snake, and about the circumstances leading to the snake’s journey into the drain... we would have been at it till dawn! So we decided to just lift the whole cot, Thatha and all, and reposition it on the opposite side. But Thatha noticed that the cot had mysteriously risen upwards and was moving seemingly on its own. “I’m not yet dead, da,” said Thatha. “Just sit quietly here, Thatha,” Govindan told him. To which Thatha responded, “Has the Panguni festival temple car come by yet?”
We, the valorous trio, left Thatha in the care of Vatsala and set about the task of finishing off the snake. Just then who should arrive but “Pathanna” (Ten Annas) Padmanabha Iyengar. His policy was to “help” everyone, come what may. He would never take no for an answer. “Ennada, what’s it? A snake?” he asked. “Yes, maama. Before we could land a blow on it, it wriggled into the drain. We were just debating how to get it out.’
“Is it a nalla paambu [good snake]?’ asked Maama. We had no clue what he meant. A “good” snake?
“Why are you all gaping at me?” admonished Maama, “If it is a nalla paambu I wouldn’t kill it. Because I’d have to do a Shanthihomam afterwards.”
“Well, we don’t know whether the snake is a nalla one. We haven’t yet asked it that question.”
“Ennada, trying to make fun of me or what?”
“No, no, Maama. It was sort of brownish and slimy looking. That’s all we know.”
Vatsala chimed in, “Maama, it didn’t look like a nalla paambu at all. I had a good look at it. It looked like some harmless variety. I’d say there’s no need to kill it.”
“Shut up, you stupid girl! Look after Thatha properly, that’s all you need to do. Don’t interfere in men’s affairs,” I said to my sister. She made a face at me.
Thatha asked, “Is the Panguni temple car going to come now?”
Govindan was poking the drain in an exploratory fashion with the long, reed-like rib of a palm leaf. He was going about it in a very gingerly manner, standing well away from the drain and holding the flimsy reed at arm’s length as though about to light a firework.
“What is this, Govinda, is this the thinnest stick you could find?” I asked mockingly.
“If I use a thick one... well, I am alone at this end....”
“But that doesn’t mean you have to use a delicate reed as though you are going to pick your ear.”
“Well, your highness, you’re welcome to try,” retorted Siva.
“Look, you fellows, this kind of thing won’t work to make it come out. Patta, go to the DPG store and buy some incense powder. I will get the snake out in no time.” Since quite a few people had gathered at the scene by this time, suggestions and instructions were flying around from all directions and it was difficult to tell straight away who was dispensing this particular piece of advice.
“No need for incense and all that. There’s a snake charmer at the donkey stable. He will lure out the snake just by playing his pipe.”
“I hope each of you has kept your own snake safe.”
“De! Want me to give you a slap across the face?”
“When will the Panguni temple car arrive?”
Sivaraman spoke firmly: “Ranga, you have no experience with this. Go and stand near the thinnai. We will kill the snake. If all you spectators will kindly stand aside and give some space for the snake-killer team, it would be appreciated.”
Padmanabha Iyengar had gone back to his house to fetch a ladle with glowing embers. He arrived at the scene of action, blowing gently on the embers to keep the flame alive. In addition, he was also carrying an umbrella. Patta sped back on Sivaraman’s bicycle, having successfully accomplished his mission of going and buying incense from the designated shop. The moment the incense was tossed on the glowing embers, a billowing cloud of fumes arose; Padmanabha Iyengar, holding the smoking ladle like some ancient practitioner of the magic arts, was waving the fumes encouragingly in the direction of the drain with the help of a folded-up copy of theDinamani newspaper; on one side stood Govindan, Patta and Sivaraman holding a variety of implements to be used as weapons. The whole street was represented in the crowd that stood at a distance of about 10 feet, offering advice and suggestions.
That snake must have been in the throes of some dilemma we knew nothing about. Anyway, it did not emerge. By then, the smoke had become a smokescreen, like the dream sequence in the movie Awaara . It was difficult to make out who was whom... was that Thatha... or was it Patta...?
And why was Padmanabha Iyengar holding up an open umbrella? “With this much smoke, even a crocodile would have come out by now,” he declared. “De, Ranga, did you actually see it go in there?”
“Didn’t you see it, Govinda?”
“Actually, there was no snake to see by the time I arrived. Maybe these fellows are making up a snake story,” suggested Govindan.
“Che, che... Saami, I swear I saw it going into the drain,” I assured them. Five thirty in the evening... the Lalgudi passenger train must have just arrived. The office goers were returning home. Among them was KV. The moment he arrived, he took over leadership of the ongoing catch-the-snake project. He laid his tiffin box on the thinnai . He lifted and tied up his dhoti to reveal the edges of his khaki knickers. “Where’s the snake, da?”
“Here, inside this drain.”
“It’s a harmless snake, KV,” said Vatsala. “There’s no need to kill it.”
“Whatever kind of snake it is, it’s best to kill it. All of you spectators... stand away or climb on to the thinnai . Ranga, I need a thick stick... bring the one from the clothes line. The drain has to be poked with some force. Your kind of namby-pamby approach is no good. Oy, why are you messing about waving smoke like some sadhu or something? Whom are you trying to propitiate? Go and fetch a stick, da, Ranga. Can’t make out the people in the middle of all this smoke... what a silly thing to do....”
When I went into the house to fetch the stick to which the clothes line was tied, my mother asked, “What’s going on, da?” I ran out without answering her.
KV was a fearless fellow. He plunged the entire length of the stick into the drain and prodded vigorously. The blood froze in my veins. I envisioned the creature bursting out BOOOSSSS... from its hiding place and rearing up menacingly to elbow height, with hood spread.
Nothing happened. KV continued to prod the drain as though to break up a major clog in it. Finally he declared, “There’s not even a tiny earthworm in there. Someone has been pulling a fast one on us.”
“No, no, KV. It was on the cycle bar. Sivaraman tried to hit it. It escaped and wriggled into the drain.”
“Sivaraman? Tried to kill a snake? Enda , have you ever even squashed a caterpillar?”
“You’re talking big... let’s see you do it,” challenged Sivaraman.
“Show it to me and I’ll kill it,” declared KV, as he quickly pulled the stick out of the drain and twirled it menacingly in front of Sivaraman. The latter, in momentary shock, took a step backward. KV laughed uproariously. “And you say this is the fellow who was trying to beat a snake to death?”
KV turned to Padmanabha Iyengar and said, “Oy, go and light a petromax lamp and bring it back here. It looks like this task will go on into the night.” But just then, KV spotted the snake. It must have emerged from the drain under cover of the convenient smokescreen. Otherwise how did it end up wrapped around the leg of Thatha’s string cot? What possible business could it have there?
“Vatsala, don’t move. Stand still. Look, it’s on the leg of the cot.”
“Don’t even breathe, don’t move a muscle. We will make a bajji of the creature right there.”
“When will the Panguni temple car come?” Thatha wanted to know. I had expected Vatsala to shriek, leap up in fright and run away. Instead she picked up a stick that lay nearby and gently manoeuvred the snake from the leg of the cot on to it. Now the snake was dangling at the end of the stick she was holding, half its length hanging to one side and half to the other. Its underside was visible for the first time. It was pale in colour. It looked frightened, and it was darting its tongue, pleech-pleech, in and out of its mouth. It wasn’t showing any other signs of aggression.
Vatsala walked over to Sivaraman with the stick bearing the dangling snake. She laughed as she challenged him, “Here’s the snake. Come on, hit it.” Sivaraman, so terrified that he was unaware of his dhoti having slid off, ran away and climbed onto the thinnai in front of Nanu Vadhyar’s house. KV was the only one who stood his ground.
“This isn’t a game,” he told her sternly. “Throw the snake down now.” Vatsala swivelled and exhibited the snake in every direction. In each direction in turn, people cowered away as they sighted the snake. Meanwhile, Amma had come out of the house. “Hey, you monkey,” she called out to Vatsala, “drop it before it bites you.”
“No, Amma, this looks like a harmless snake. Ranga, fetch a basket. We will get the snake into the basket and go and release it in the forest. There’s no need to kill it.”
Just then the snake lost its balance on the stick. It fell to the floor and wriggled away towards the drain. KV snatched up the cricket bat and slammed it hard on the snake.
Vatsala was screaming, “No, no, please don’t KV, please.... Don’t kill it. What harm has it done? Don’t, don’t....’ KV ignored her wails and pleas; he smashed the bat on the snake again and again. The front of the snake now looked like eggplant paste. The tail, as though clinging on to a cherished memory, waved elegantly and gently a couple of times and then stopped moving. KV went on to hammer that too. He was laughing as he picked up the squashed snake on the stick. They took it to the corner adjoining the temple car shed and consigned it to the flames.
Vatsala was sobbing aloud as she kept repeating, “Poor thing. What harm did it do to you all? Why did you kill it?” She sobbed for a long time; I was mystified by this reaction from her.
After that, Sivaraman stopped coming by to see Vatsala. And I began to understand my sister better.
(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated May 06, 2022.)
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