Whenever she teaches the poem ‘The Snake’ by D H Lawrence, the scene of snakes, lying crushed and smashed in the courtyard of the government bunglow at Digwadih, comes alive to her mind, making her wonder at the lines-
“The voice of education said to me /He must be killed,...”
They were all of blackish green colour, spread all around in the courtyard. Some were on the drainage and some creeping on the cobbled floor of the courtyard. They were seven-eight in number. She stood transfixed on the stairs of the verandah. She had never seen snakes at such a close distance. Perhaps they had come from the cowshed which was at one side of the courtyard or from the drainage with its outlet near the backdoor of the courtyard. She wanted to run but the fear or say, fascination kept her rooted on the stairs. She wanted to scream but the voice was choked in her throat.
However, the sound of approaching footsteps gave her some courage and a small, stiffled cry escaped her lips. Her brothers were the first to arrive from the drawing room. She waved her small hands at them to stop and then pointed towards the snakes. Their eyes widened with surprise. Till then, her mother had come out from the store room. Finding snakes in the courtyard, she first, picked her by her arms and put her down at the far end of the verandah, giving out a shout at the same time, "Shivlal, Shivlal, bring a lathi. Quick… run fast.” Without waiting for him, she found a lathi and hit the snakes, one at a time. Half of them had already left through the drainage to the thicket behind the bunglow. With some efforts, she managed to kill four of them all by herself. Standing there in the courtyard, with a lathi in her hand to protect her children, her mother seemed to have taken the form of Chandi Avatar. The courtyard had become the graveyard of snakes. They looked so ominous in the fading light of twilight. The mugginess of the summer evening had deepened.
Her father, a deeply religious man, came rushing straight from the office, hearing about the incident from Shivlal who had run fast to give this piece of news to his Shahab. He asked for the torch. Her elder brother brought the torch and handed it to him. He threw light over the dead snakes. The skin gleamed in the torchlight. Instantly he shouted at my mother, “ Ahh…chchch, how come you kill these snakes of Lord Shiva? They are the garden snakes-Harhara snakes, the non-poisonous ones. Ghor paap ho gaya. You have committed a sin. You’ll have to go through purgation to cleanse your soul from this sin.”
He, then, took a bath and went to the puja room. There he prayed before Lord Shiva for forgiveness that the sin was committed unknowingly in sheer ignorance. Meanwhile, they all kept standing there in the verandah with Albatross round their neck, as instructed by him. After the prayer, he came out with Gangajal and asked them to stand in a line. Chanting “apavitro pavtrai bhav:”, he sprinkled Gangajal on all and told them to take bath.
That night, she could not sleep. Her dreams were invaded by Harhara snakes. She saw them sliding all around, everywhere flickering their tongue in and out.
She had read about snakes that they are poisonous. Snakebite can kill anyone. She wondered,” How brave is her mother! She has no fear of snakes. How bravely she killed the snakes!” Her gaze kept shifting from her mother to snakes. She was too young to understand that some snakes are not poisonous. She had seen snakes around the neck of Lord Shiva in the picture in puja room. She had also seen Krishna dancing on the large multiple swinging heads of Kaliya in Amar Chitra Katha. She had read about the death of Bahula’s husband by snakebite in Pauranik Katahayen and a lot more about snakes that they sip milk from a bowl on Nag Panchami, that some snakes are two-mouthed, some can fly too, some are Manidhari, some carry a large Ruby on their heads, some stay post as the guards of hidden treasure, some are Ichchadhari Naags and many more. She became quite muddled about those stories.
A few days later, there came a snake charmer with a cotton sling bag on his shoulder. She was playing with her brothers in the lawn. The snake charmer put down his bag on the pavement and took out two cane baskets from it. He then opened the lid of the baskets and started playing his flute. She took a step back in fear when she saw a pair of snakes swaying from side to side on the tune of the flute. They were like the one around Lord Shiva’s neck. She could make little sense of the juxtaposition of those stories related to snakes. The only thing she could feel was that snakes do look repulsive. Their bite can kill anyone. so, they must be killed.
Next day, when her brothers asked her to play Snake and Ladder in the afternoon, she firmly refused them. Snakes, poisonous or non-poisonous, give her the creeps.