Surviving stalking cobras

Surviving stalking cobras

The world’s great age begins anew,
The golden years return,
The earth like a snake renew
Her winter weeds outworn.
— Percy B Shelley, English poet (1792-1822)

As another Nagara Panchami passed by on August 4 and happy tidings about captive breeding of king cobras came from Pilikula, I am moved by nostalgia about my tryst with cobras from my green years and their spill-over since in dreamland. As for Pilikula, captive breeding of king cobras has yielded 32 juvenile hatchings at Dr Shivaram Karanth Biological Park. According to Jayaprakash Bhandary, director of the park, it is probably the first case of king cobras taking birth under captive breeding conditions in India.

The other night my wife, Lynette, who shares a double bed with me, cried out in agony. Waking up, I realised that I had hit her hard across her face. It is not for the first time I had hurt her in this fashion. But, it was not intentional. I have been getting these dreams, or nightmares, of being attacked by cobras and I, in turn, beating them with my bare hand in self defence. It was painful for me as a bachelor when my extended hand hit the hard edge of the bed and I had to be in painful agony. Post-marriage, my wife has been a soft target.

My tryst with cobras started on my ancestral farmstead at Bearikody when I was seven or eight and went to the forest, called Kukkudaballe (Mango grove), to gather mangoes fallen overnight. As I was picking up mangoes and looking out for more, I spied a full-grown cobra with its hood raised and expanded – just two feet away. I retreated and it moved forward. I clambered up a blueberry tree and shouted for help. My father, fearing it to be a tiger, common in Kukkudaballe, came running uphill with his gun, with our farm workers in tow with sturdy sticks. By the time they arrived, the cobra slithered into the thick underbrush or may be to its hole. The panting party scolded me for venturing into the forest alone.

Since then cobras have been stalking me often as I walked on the boundary footpaths of our paddy fields.

They would hiss and raise their expanded hoods beside the bamboo clumps or large anthills that dotted the landscape. There would be a stand-off between them and me – both withdrawing from the scene in a win-win move. But, those stalking and confrontations have haunted me even after I left my ancestral farmstead for my education and employment in Mangalore and Bombay. For, apart from the frequent darshans of cobras, I was also fed on cobra lore which said that this reptile was the cleverest among snakes and vindictive if harmed.

One such story relates to a Bombay man who, while on holiday, stoned and chased a cobra into its hole.

The man blocked the entrance with a heavy stone. After two years, he returned on his next holiday and, out of curiosity, lifted the blocking stone. An skeletal cobra dragged itself to the surface, bit its old tormentor and died once its vengeful deed was done.
A widely held lore says that cobras, which normally live in large anthills in thick clump of trees and wild vines, called nagabana, and guarded great treasures buried underground. From this has come the word sarpakavalu (vigilantly guarding), a virtue associated with protecting public and community assets. Now we have sarpa-swindlers who rifle the public till as reflected in highly publicised scams.

It was not always nightmares with cobras. Sometimes, I would see them in my dreams with a benign raised and expanded hood, as if I was a snake-charmer playing the flute.
In my hay days of madka (number-based) gambling, I would interpret their dreamy darshan as 7 or 9 and put my bets on a combination of these numbers – often with handsome wins.

There is one lore that was related to me by an illiterate farm worker which, I believe, is not in the public domain and I would like to record for posterity. A toddy tapper saw a fight between a mongoose and cobra from his perch on the crown of the palmyra tree. The mongoose ripped open the belly of the cobra and ate its vital organs. The cobra was seemingly dead. Then the mongoose went to a plant, plucked some of its leaves, crushed them and applied the juice to the wound of the cobra. Instantly the cobra came alive and slithered away. It was a great discovery for the toddy tapper. He came down from the tree, gathered some leaves of the plant and went home. He struck his wife with an axe and she died. He applied the juice of the leaves and she came alive. Then he told his wife to kill him. As a sati-Savitri, she obeyed him. But, in his euphoria of his great discovery, he forgot to tell her about the leaves. Thus, the toddy tapper died and with him lost the secret of the healing leaves.

But, nowadays the mongoose and cobra may have become friendly or at least not enemies. They both visit my garden in Bondel, Mangalore – but at different times. Our dog, late Pinkie, alerted us to their visits and we get to see the cobra with its raised, expanded hood to keep the barking Pinkie at bay.

Finally, I would welcome one cobra even in my bedroom – the brand of strong beer, mainly exported from India.

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