Long time ago, before flat screens invaded our lives and communication was primarily a handwritten affair and I was a certain six years old, my father got an official transfer to the district of Midnapore in West Bengal. Kolaghat, where I spent an important part of my formative years, was a nondescript town in Midnapore, tucked away some hundreds of kilometers from the bustling city of Kolkata.
Life here was nothing like one in Kolkata. Seated in a green belt of the countryside, the town’s daily affairs unfolded in a slow awakening. In the heart of this slow and languid countryside of Kolaghat, was nestled a quaint little township built essentially for the employees of a power-supply plant where my father worked. I lived in that township with my brother and parents.
Apart from the potato fritters of Midnapore, the district boasted of a mighty river, Roopnarayan - a tributary of Ganges, that cut across the state. The banks of the wide river stretched miles. The gentle flow of river water was interrupted by smooth, raised bald tops of river beds popping up here and there until monsoons drowned them. The other end of the river meandered a coast of thick green vegetation that curtained villages settled behind them.
What eyes could not penetrate, water could. Every year Roopnarayan took a ravenous course during monsoons and gushed through the thick fence of tropical greens and invaded the village dwellings claiming lives like they belonged to her.
However, our township was away from the river and well protected with almost all necessary services and facilities available within its premises. Unless we wished to go to the city, there was no reason to step out. The school was barely within two kilometers and the vegetable market was round the corner. The residents belonged from different parts of India and that made our living an exciting one with various festivals to celebrate and food to savor.
The township’s plan was punctuated with blocks of natural green patches that sheltered huge flower-bearing trees. Being heavily endowed with tangles of green shrubs and climbers, the place also homed native species of some of the most venomous snakes of Asia.
A deep lake separated our residential area from a village on its other side that often echoed horrific cries at odd hours of night. Snake-bites were a commonevent inthatareawhichoftenledtofatalities,mostlyinthevillages. Though it was almost impossible to peer through the impregnable tangles of hibiscus and wild shrubs that fenced the village, we got access to the daily village affairs from a trusty source. Our chatty house help, who was from that village, always rattled off first-hand information everyday with much fervor while she did her chores.
My mum rather responded to her narration with a dispassion, insisting her to focus rather on her job. Being a hard task master, it wasn’t easy to please my mother. However, I, on the other hand, devoured those horror stories with utmost attention, which were not without consequences though. “What if a snake slithers through the window and sneaks up to me from under the mosquito net?” was a gripping fear that gave me sweats.
In no time the nightmare manifested in our kitchen, discovered accidentally by my mum when she reached to fetch some rice from the unbreakable panorama of huge containers that lined up the shelves in our pantry. I stood there too. There it was, coiled up with its hood straight up in a defensive stance, probably blinded by sudden intrusion of light. It was a sight to behold. As much as I was aghast by the appearance of a snake in our house, I was also captivated by its beauty and stealth. The morning sunlight shone against its smooth black scales in a shimmering glow to give it an other-worldly appearance.
A sharp cry by my mother jolted me out of my trance. The snake still sat unabated swaying gently assessing the situation. Soon I was taken out of the site by my neighbors who had gathered by now around the kitchen. The guards were called for help who asked us to make way for the snake instead of crowding the space around him. A generic murmur filled the room for quite some time. Just as the preparations were on and the spectators were ready, a grand drama unfolded in front of us.
Sensing a rather insurmountable danger, the king slithered away in a lightning speed from the kitchen, through the human corridor to the front door and eventually skidded down the stairs to vanish out of our sight. It was a King Cobra.
The fear of snakes affected me for the longest time after this firsthand incident. However, an uncommon sense of inquiry about snakes also started growing inside me. I could not ignore them anymore. I rather kept a watchful eye on my surroundings and in the process spotted some of the stunning species lying in shallow drains, on trees and some swimming in the river. Mysterious, intelligent, grand and marked by integrity, I grew to admire these species for their uncommon traits I wish I possessed.
Some biting facts about snakes
- There are more than 3,000 species of snakes on the planet and they’re found everywhere except in Antarctica, Iceland, Ireland, Greenland, and New Zealand.
- About 600 species are venomous, and only about 200—seven percent—are able to kill or significantly wound a human.
- Unlike what most humans believe, they do not attack humans as humans are not their natural prey (unless humans mess with them).
- They are shy and do not attack unless someone steps on them or attacks them directly. They would prefer to slither away than attack, unless you are standing between them and their refuge area.
- They shed their skin every month or so.
- Snakes are a significant part of our ecology and help us to keep in balance the population of rodents and preys that spoil our crops.
- Unlike western beliefs, in Hindu mythology snakes have a wider divine connotation where it is often depicted as a symbol of wisdom, wealth, feminine energy and much more.