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Posted at: Jan 14, 2018, 12:01 AM; last updated: Jan 14, 2018, 12:01 AM (IST)BUREAUCRATIC TALES

A tale of the venomous and vanished reptile

By Maninder Singh
Imposing and aging Victorian bungalows have their own majesty and perils too — safe hideouts for snakes being one of them

By Maninder Singh

THE British, as an imperial power, believed that the bungalows in which the Deputy Commissioners (DCs) and other senior officers lived in the districts, should be monumental edifices, indicative of great power and command; and wanted people to look up towards them as symbols of authority. So it was that many of these colonial structures were built on mountain-tops, knolls, embankments, ridges and headlands, over-looking rivers, lakes, the sea and in the choicest spaces of the town or the district that nature and man could collaboratively supply.

As time went by, some of these imposing and aging Victorian edifices, embellished by pillars and all the aspirational majesty of the state, were not so comfortable to live in and had become monuments to the crumbling and demise of Empire. One of these majestic houses, in which I spent some time as a DC, stood atop stilts, had a sloping roof, false ceilings and a sunken garden at the back, commanded a picturesque view and even featured cannons pointing skywards.

Encounter with king cobra

One memorable evening, as I sat in the “jali-room”, a thud was heard, resounding off the wooden floor planks. As I gazed, I saw a two-metre-long king cobra rear up its infuriated head.  

DC bungalows are replete with drivers, gardeners, peons, guards and all manner of staff, whose expansive duties enjoin upon them to keep officers well-supplied with manpower, no matter the circumstances. The help arrived in heaps, but by the time it did, the cobra had mysteriously disappeared. There were no gaps in the floor-boards, through which it could have dropped to the ground, the gaps having been filled and caulked the winter before.

The vanished reptile had fallen from one of the old, stately columns, with a ledge on top, which connected it to the false ceiling. Sometimes, birds nest on top of these ledges and the cobra had perhaps slithered from the false ceiling, with the intent to help itself to bird-eggs, lost its balance, plummeted down and caused an uproar in the serene establishment of the DC bungalow.

Everything else was forgotten, all hands were summoned, and a panicky search begun. The great snake hunt involved the virtual ransacking of the house. The extensive search, which would have found a needle in a very great haystack, failed to reveal the cobra’s whereabouts.  

Enter snake charmers

The best-known family of snake charmers, in that region, lived 250 km away and was petitioned for help. The shades of night had darkened and since there was no likely help till morning, we slept that night, with mosquito-nets doubly draped around the bedsteads, half expecting the cobra to launch a deadly punitive strike.   

Having dreamt, while we slept fitfully, of flying and attacking cobras, we were woken up at dawn with the comforting intelligence that the snake charmers had arrived, having travelled by train through the night. The snake catchers, consisting of a scrawny, tall man and a short young boy, marched in, impressively. With the entire workforce and the guards looking at them admiringly, they went around the house and the garden, scattered palmfuls of rice in all directions and declared that the cobra was in hiding on the false ceiling. How it had found its way back there was a matter of complete befuddlement. 

A ladder was quickly brought and the snake-charming duo ascended the false ceiling through a trap-door.  With mounting excitement, we waited for the denouement of the enterprise. The search for the fugitive snake had barely commenced, when the house shook with an earth-shaking thump, followed by a scream and as doors and windows rattled, we rushed to the epicenter of the pandemonium.

The great escape

In the bedroom wherefrom the sounds had emanated, I found the older snake-charmer sprawled on the floor, having fallen through the high ceiling, where there was an ugly gash-like emptiness, and onto a bed, which had broken under his weight. Having finally tumbled to the floor, he lay there unconscious.

A staff member, who happened to be gathering the remains of the morning-tea, fled immediately, when he saw the snake charmer come flying through the roof. He later declared that he fled because he expected the cobra to dive through the roof in hot pursuit.

No reptile emerged through the broken gap. The snake charmer’s understudy, who was making faint plaintive pleas, from the darkness of the false ceiling, was evacuated. The fallen snake catcher, when water was sprinkled over his eyes and lips, displayed remarkable resilience. There were no broken bones and a medical check-up revealed that all was hunky-dory. He walked away from the scene of the crash-landing, intact, and on his own sprightly feet. The elusive Scarlet Pimpernel-like king cobra was never found and this is how this unvarnished tale of a venomous and vanished reptile had an unexpectedly abrupt and tragicomic end.

— The writer is an Assam cadre IAS officer currently on deputation in Chandigarh


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