Spitting Cobras and Toads Come in Pairs!
The children were sitting around me, begging for a story before turning into their camp beds in the adventure camp. I had already told them about the real incident when a spitting cobra had entered our sitting room in a town called Arbaminch and my father had had to kill it because he was worried for our safety, my brother’s, my mother’s and mine. I was already exhausted by the day’s activities which had included an arduous trek in the mountains close to Dehradun a few kilometres from Mussorie, followed by repelling and slithering down one of the iron bridges on to a river. But then the children, who were students of grade ten had insisted that I tell them a story after dinner, and I had promised them one, so I wracked my brain for something that my memory would throw up. As it is, one of the adventure guides, a lithe girl named Reshma looked towards me with eager eyes.
“Why don’t you humour them, Sir?” She interjected.
“OK, just one story, that’s it!” I exclaimed, knowing that I was trapped!
“Sir, we will just one story from you before we go off to sleep!” Said Ananya, a girl who was into dancing and fashion shows in school.
The night was still and there was the glow from the fire we had lit. Dinner had followed some games we had played, and I had thought that they would forget the promise I had made to them the previous evening. Moreover, the other teacher in the group, Amina, nodded at me in encouragement .
“Fine,” I said, “this is something that happened after that spitting cobra incident, I am sure that you will all agree that Cobras live in pairs all their lives!”
“Of course, Sir, Indian mythology describes how the Nags live in pairs, Sir!” Said Rakesh, the boy who was the self proclaimed medic on the trip. Although a student of grade ten, he would suggest a dose of Aspirin for those who suffered from headache and Crocin for those with mild fever.
“Well, this incident happened a few weeks after the spitting cobra incident. My father had fully recovered from the venom that had been sprayed into his eyes, and he had to go to Addis Ababa for some important work, and to give some stuff to one of my uncles who going to India which was to be handed over to my grandmother who lived in Gurgaon. It was evening and my mother had to make chapatis for dinner, so she went to the kitchen which was in one of the out houses. She’d made almost all the chapatis when she heard a rustling from beneath the table on which the gas stove had been placed. Well she was a brave and alert woman and so, she very calmly stepped away from the table and looked beneath the table to where a couple of used car tyres had been laid to rest. There peeping from the front most tyre was a cobra! It stuck itself out of the tyre well and reared itself up to a height of about a foot and a half. My mother withdrew calmly out of the kitchen and then fled to the main building. Once away from the kitchen, she called out to one of the boys, a students who lived in another outhouse. Keffne as he was named called out to some more young boys nearby, and armed with sticks and a torch, they rushed to the kitchen. When they reached there however, they found no sign of the snake. The tyre well was empty, and it became clear that the snake had fled the scene!”
“So what do you think had happened?” Asked Shamita, another of the students who was sitting in the group listening to my story. “Don’t you think, your mother might have imagined the whole thing ?” She asked with a rather cynical tone.
“No, my mother had indeed seen a snake, a cobra for that effect, and to add to it all was the fact that lone snake was seen during the following days doing the round of the house. The snake did not harm anyone, and after a week, it went away.”
“So what?” Quipped Sarthak, a strapping boy, who was also the school’s renowned athlete.
“Well,” I continued, ” after my father returned from Addis Abeba, a couple of days after the incident, my mother described everything to him. After listening to the whole incident quietly, he told us that it was the mate that had come looking for its pair. According to him, it was probably the female companion of the snake he had killed a few weeks earlier.”
It was getting rather late, and I just wanted to go off to sleep, but then it was clear that the children thought I was trying to fob them off with a lame story! To make matters worse for me, Reshma, the adventure guide turned to me and said, “Surely, you cannot claim that it was the companion of the snake your father had killed a few weeks earlier, Sir!”
” We strongly believed, all of us, that the snake had come looking for its partner, and when it couldn’t find its partner it just went away!” I replied hoping that was the end of the whole matter. I beat a hasty retreat to my hut hoping to turn in for the night in peace, but that was not to be! After what seemed to be a half hour of peace in the camp, loud screams rent the air from the batch of huts that housed the boys. I rushed to the hut from which the boys, four in number were sleeping, and when I entered, I asked them what the matter was. One of the boys, gestured towards the floor and following his pointing hand I glanced at a funny sight. Barely containing myself, I darted into the bathroom to grab a broom, for there in full sight was a pair of toads, the one mounted on the other making up as it seemed with the utmost lack of a sense of propriety or fear about what the boys would think on seeing such an intimate scene between two amphibians. Quietly, with a poker room faced expression, I swept the love locked toads into the bathroom and freedom into the night, for there was an opening wide enough to let them out where the drain pipe opened outside! “Sure,” I thought to myself, “they certainly live in pairs, the toads and snakes!”
That night, I was not able to get any rest, for the moment I returned to my hut and had barely laid down to sleep, there was a lot of whispering and commotion at my door. When I opened my door to enquire about the nature of the commotion, I got to know from a couple of boys that one of the had vomited. On visiting the boy’s tent, it became clear that he had ingested copious amounts of chips and fried snacks and had not had any dinner! Fortunately, our self-proclaimed medic, Rakesh had given him fruit salts and that was the end of the whole matter. I returned to my hut thinking it was all over, and thankfully laid down to sleep when another scream rent the night. I bolted out of my hut and rushed to the boys’ hut from which the scream had emanated. On getting the door opened, I got to know that the boys had shouted and screamed on seeing a massive spider crawling across the wall. Once again, maintaining an appearance of utmost cool, I grabbed hold of the broom and shooed the offending arachnid out of sight, into the bathroom.
That night, I finally retired to my hut deprived of my sleep and part of my dignity, for not only had my story been questioned, but also because of the fact that the only screams had come from the huts that were occupied by the boys. The only sounds that came from the huts that housed the girls were sounds of derision and mockery! It was as if they knew what was happening and they were making fun of the boys who were scared of love locked toads and a spider that was just passing on the way! I will always remember the camp that we shared in a place called Tapu-Sera! It was in no way different from the jungle town called Arbaminch in a country called Ethiopia, where I had once lived as a child!