Thursday, June 10, 2010

Snakes - and Humans

Two nights ago, I dreamt of a snake. It was a huge, cream coloured snake with green bands. This was probably after a conversation we had had over lunch with some friends (snake conversations are often interminable and ghoulishly satisfying to one and all). My brother was describing a snake he had recently seen in a forest - a small and highly poisonous creature and our friend, who has an estate adjoining that forest was nodding wisely and saying it was probably a krait.

This morning, my doorbell rang and surprisingly it was my neighbour. "I just wanted to let you know there's a baby snake on the staircase railing," she said. "One of my boys touched it while running down the stairs."

I walked out and the snake didn't look like a baby to me. "It's probably one of the smaller adult snakes," I said. "Not the usual ratsnakes which are common on campus."

"What do we do?" she asked.

"Normally we call the Ecological Science department," I said.

"I've blocked my front door," she said. "I thought you might like to know, so you could do something. I'm heading out."

"All right," I said.

She paused. "I think Dave (the earlier flat resident- this is a flat for transient visitors) left a number for snakes. Do you want it?"


"Here it is."

"Thanks, I'll call," I went in to the house to call, leaving the door open, but there was silence at the other end. She and her two boys had left.

I asked the person on the phone to hold on while I closed the door in case the snake slid in. The neighbours had certainly slid out rather fast.

The Ecological Sciences people said, "If the snake is outside, leave it alone. It will go away."

I said, "It's going up and down the banister. I think it can't find its way into the garden."

"We'll try and send someone," they said and disconnected the line.

I went out to see the snake. It was still stuck. I considered taking a picture to identify it, but didn't want to startle it.

I returned to the house, thinking about the last time such a thing had happened. It was a few summers ago, when I was alone in the entire block of apartments. Everyone was on vacation. I was climbing up the stairs with a grandfaher clock that had just been repaired, making a clanging noise and I saw a large branch wedged in the railing leading to the terrace.

"I must clear that branch," I was thinking. "What a big one! I wonder how it fell," when it suddenly uncoiled and started flowing down. Luckily I was at my doorstep by this time and after putting the clock inside, I went out to see where the snake was. The snake had gone half way down but couldn't find a way out and was coming back up. We were heading towards each other; both of us stopped and moved away.

As this was the first time I was alone at home with a snake, I wondered what to do. I didn't want to encounter it on the landing. I called a friend who suggested the (yes!) Ecological Sciences department. I called and was asked to contact Natasha, our famous local ecologist.

"This is she," she said (for those unfamiliar with India, this Americanism is never heard on the phone in these parts but I was not really concerned with all this miscellanea).

"I have a large snake on the staircase," I said.

"Have you identified it?"


"Go to our website, look at the pictures and identify it. I'll come in half an hour."

"I don't know where it will be in half an hour," I said. "And I'm concerned that it might come in through the windows which have no grills. Is it possible?"

"Yes," she said.

"Can I do anything to prevent it from coming into the house?"

"Not really," she said and a silence indicated that the conversation had ended. Not quite.

"Call me after half an hour, after you've identified it."

"All right," I said and now the conversation had really ended.

I waited for a while and then peeped out. The snake was slithering around, trying to find its way down. Finally, it slithered up the landing wall, dropped onto the ground and made its way up a tree. I was relieved.

Back at home, all was well till the evening. "Would the snake return?" I wondered, thinking of all the morbid stories I had heard. I needed to leave early next morning for Yoga. I couldn't go down the stairs in the dark.

I called my brother in law. "I'm coming over to play hockey," he said. "I'll drop by and take a look if it is lurking around."

He came by and reported it wasn't around.

"Thanks," I said, relieved.

"Well, I'll head out now," he said. "I don't know why people are so scared of snakes. I just can't understand it. I'm never afraid of them. Most of the time they don't do anything."

I returned to the present thinking these thoughts. Probably true - I feel now. These snakes are just trying to get back to their habitat, but the kinds of encounters I have had with humans in this process have been far more revealing.

Anyhow, to cut a long story short all has ended well. I dragged my husband out of the campus interviews with an SOS phone call and he walked to the Ecological Science department (a few minutes away from the interview site)and came home with a student (not Natasha, this was a steady looking guy). The snake had vanished.

"What did it look like?" he asked.

I described it.

"Wow!" he said.

"Is it - a krait?" I asked in a low, trembling voice.

"There are no kraits here," he said. "It was probably a kukri. It's non venomous, but it's pretty rare. We hardly see them around."

He searched around hopefully, but couldn't see it.

"Sorry to trouble you but it seemed stuck and people go up and down this staircase."
(I have now learned to apologise for panic at seeing snakes trapped near my house. It seems to calm the academicians.)

"Call me again if it comes."

But I don't think it will, and I don't think I'll call him or any other humans if it's really a kukri. The campus website describes it as being a timid, inoffensive snake. It's certainly quieter than many people around.

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