Down in jungleland: A Hiss in the Dark

We fear snakes, and yet worship them, defang them and even wear their skins.

Written by Ranjit Lal | Published: May 18, 2014 12:40:05 am
We worship them, offer them milk and yet, if one is spotted in the garden, the sticks and stones are out. We worship them, offer them milk and yet, if one is spotted in the garden, the sticks and stones are out.

Oh, yes they’re the epitome of all evil! Venomous or not. From the serpent in the Garden of Eden, to Ka with his hypnotic hiss in The Jungle Book, from the little boy in Rumer Godden’s The River (I think it was that book…) to the Anaconda horror shows (how many are there?), from black mambas in flush tanks to cobras under your pillow… Ssstuff of nightmares.

And no, don’t say they’re harmless or innocent, they kill around 46,000 every year in India alone. Besides, they slither and wriggle in that sinuous, slimy way. And have you seen them pole dance with each other, when in love? Nothing could be more suggestively sensual. For God’s sake, they don’t even blink.

Just flicker that famous forked tongue as they decide what to do with you: Spit venom in your eyes, embrace you lovingly and squeeze? Or simply give you a hypodermic prick and inject you with a dose of golden venom that will liquefy and rot you inside out or paralyse your muscles one by one. And then they dislocate their jaws and swallow you whole. How gross is that.

So many of us scream and swoon at the sight of one, so slimy they must be, glistening with slithery goo, and yet divas and Don Juans flaunt snakeskin purses and shoes and money belts. Because, truly, snakes are beautiful: Scales lacquered and polished to perfection, brown, bronze, black, beige, scarlet, yellow, emerald, pink, silver, gold, you name the hue. And the eyes, beady, unblinking — if you focused like a snake, you could achieve anything in life and rule the world. Alas, we’re still hopelessly confused and muddled and squinty.

They kill so many, we worship them. What we should be doing is ensuring that every person venturing into a paddy-field or tea garden is clad in stout footwear, no matter how clumsy and galumphy that might be. We defang them and play the been to them, so that they dance and sway, even though they’re stone deaf and are merely following the instrument’s movement. In America, you need a licence to keep a Chihuahua but you can keep an anaconda without telling anyone until the day Fluffy or Sonnyboy junior go missing.

We worship them, offer them milk (which is not their normal diet) and yet, if one is spotted in the garden, the sticks and stones are out. (There’s a long list of living beings that suffer such bipolar treatment: elephants, tigers, rats, monkeys, turtles, women, children — what is wrong with us?) As for snakes, sensibly, they keep out of our way as much as possible.

In over 30 years of walking the Ridge in north Delhi, I have seen (usually glimpses of) snakes, maybe six times. Once, I emerged on a path to find a squirrel running hell for leather, with a determined snake wriggling at hellish speed behind it.

They disappeared into undergrowth and I don’t know how that ended. The most memorable occasion (largely because it got the better of my neurotic Labrador who would have totally freaked out) was watching one, probably a rat snake, twine itself around a small palm tree. The rustling gave it away, and I watched it sun itself and lazily relax for a good 10 minutes, with the silly dog sitting quietly at my feet, none the wiser. The only reason I moved away was not to draw attention to it. Two encounters at home, the first caused hysterics, and the snake’s death; the second time, it was caught and released.

We worship them, and yet in a “battle” between a snake and a mongoose (that’s entertainment), you know who the money is on: That bulging, red-eyed, pointy nosed, overgrown rat with a tail only good for a paintbrush — no offence meant, of course, and not to be quoted out of context — mongooses make admirable pets and keep snakes away, I’m told.

Of course, it’s wise to be wary when it comes to snakes. (It’s wiser to be even more wary while crossing the road, maybe 2 lakh die in road accidents every year.) They say the fear of snakes is inborn: I can’t comment on that but yes, one is conditioned from childhood to be petrified of them. I really don’t understand why we worry so much or are so scared. For God’s sake, all most snakes want to do is to get after the rats.

Or should we worry?
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher

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