It had to happen on the most hectic of Wednesdays. After being saddled with work all morning, I sat down to a late lunch at 2 pm when my daughter's nanny alerted me to a commotion downstairs.
I heard one word, "Snake."
I sprang up in alarm -- at the harm I feared for the serpent. In my childhood, I have watched snakes being clubbed to death by people I loved and respected but who were doubtless possessed by a mixture of ignorance and fear. Perhaps they killed without thinking, because harmless Vine Snakes and Cat Snakes had been at the receiving end of their wrath. I had no say in the goings on then, but I knew it was awfully wrong and couldn't endorse their bravado. Often, the valour of some people was measured by how many snakes they had killed, and some of them were big heroes in that sense, having killed King Cobras and Russell's Vipers.
Staring down from the balcony, I saw the housekeeping ladies, the gardener, the electrician, a security guard and sundry others trying to cajole what looked like a slender brown rope into a plastic bag. Rushing downstairs with the camera, I pleaded with the to-be-saviours of our community not to kill the snake.
On bended knee, I saw eye to eye with the feisty little serpent. It was a young common cobra (sex, to my untrained eye, indeterminate). Hood spread out, it was a little less than a foot long. It hissed and struck at the ground with a great show of malevolence. Clearly, the snake was alarmed at the attention but it stood its ground. I was impressed already and my heart warmed to the little creature. I must say I've never seen a better display of yogic breathing. The hiss came right from the pit of the animal's stomach as it reared up three-quarters of its length in the air. The black tongue, slick and forked, took in the particles of my unwashed avatar.
It must be hard to be a snake, much harder than it is to be a rat. Rats get away with untold destruction but they hardly ever get slaughtered with the same missionary vehemence that accompanies a snake killing. Serpent-killers are felicitated as valiant heroes for pitting their defenceless human wits against these slithery peddlers of deadly poison. But rat-killers, you see, are merely getting rid of vermin. That was what I lectured my spectators as I tried to buy time for the snake. But it was becoming a case of too many cooks and the security guard's machismo nearly got him bitten. When the snake lunged at his hand the crowd shrank back, echoing an inversion of its hiss. One bite was going to cost me the chance of saving the snake's life.
Around me, people watched, perhaps wondering which way I'd choose to save them. Some muttered that releasing the snake would only bring it back. And what would I do then, one of the concerned residents asked? I thought of calling for a professional snake rescue (yes, Anees, I thought of you) but we were pressed for time, my lunch was going cold, and the tempers of the bystanders were fraying. I didn't want to compound matters by exhibiting the ineptitude of a reluctant saviour.
When the dramatis personae began to spew theories on the peril that the little fellow posed to the denizens of our apartment, I knew I was running out of time. Finally, the electrician and I tricked the little snake into entering the bag and it was despatched to be released in the swamp behind the apartment.
That's one little fellow saved. But the clearing of vacant lots for construction activity this monsoon will surely throw up plenty of snake casualties. How can one gift them the hiss of life?