The Cobra Uncoiling
On a warm summer day, I am sitting at the edge of a bench in Humboldt Park, resting my hurting back. Unlike many people hogging the entire bench by sitting smack dab in the middle, I don’t mind sharing the space. Often, someone occupies the other end of the bench. Sometimes we strike up a conversation, others we don’t. On one such afternoon, I see a young man approaching the bench. He is snuggly holding against his chest, a round rattan basket like one would hold a baby. As he sits down on the other end of the bench, he carefully places the basket on his lap. We acknowledge each other with a nod and then retreat into our own space. After a while I hear him say: would you like to buy one of these? I turn my face and see him lifting the lid off his basket a little bit and then promptly closing it. What I see during the quick opening and the closing of the basket is a shiny snake head rising and craning towards the opening just to be pushed down in the groove of its own coil.
‘They are good pets to have.’
‘Maybe so, but not my thing.’
Following which we don’t say anything more. After a while he gets up, wishes me to have nice day and he is gone.
Snakes were always around when I was growing up in the suburb of Mumbai. At the time, Borivali was just a sleepy little hamlet, scantly populated. Vast plots of the lands separated by single family houses were called Mansions or Villas. With outhouses and water wells in the backyards, fronts normally paved into pathways covered with gravel and the hedges on either side of the paths that lead you to the houses. We had no electricity nor running water. The front yards and the backyards beyond outhouses were like mini forests. There were two paved main roads covered with tar with drooping dirt shoulders. Like the modern days bike paths, those shoulders were the strips over which the snakes would traverse. During the dry months you may come upon a lone serpent meandering along side by side keeping up pace with your stride. But it was during the monsoon seasons that hoards of them would come out from their hibernation and surface from their underground grooves. And it wasn’t unusual at all to suddenly see a family of several feet long slimy creature slithering along by your side. We were told that unless provoked, they were harmless – even though an accidental stepping on one of them could cause a snake bite and even death. All you had to do was be careful, look before you took each step, make sure to avoid stepping on one of them, and when you saw one, just get out of its way and let it pass.
As much as the snakes were co-habitants, and still are in the Indian rural communities, I was and still am always mortally afraid of any kind of snakes glistening with their slithery selves. To watch them flicking their tongues was scary enough, if one of them dared look directly into your eyes, it would have caused me to faint.
The man’s closing and opening of the basket was so quick that I didn’t bolt, but it left me feeling a bit unsettled. While realizing that the man in the possession of them meant no harm and had them under control just like the snake charmers in India who often show up on the streets of Mumbai not with one but with multiple baskets and have them sway to the sweet sounds of his beena, to see one popping up and out like a Jack in the Box. To encounter one in the middle of metropole like Chicago is something you just don’t expect. Even though I had seen a green one drifting along with the flotsam under the Humboldt Boulevard bridge.
The year is 2011. I have just returned from India and my biological clock is turned upside down. The reason I am up and about so early in the morning. Just like I did in Bombay, I just jump out of bed and go out for my walk. It’s a gorgeous early fall morning. I am sitting on a bench across the street from Citgo gas station at the corner of Division and California. As I normally end up doing, I am staring at the sign up above showing that day’s gas prices. Regular $4.29. Mid-grade $4.39 and Premium $4.59.
While siting there, I am trying to decide whether I should get some coffee and croissant from Dunkin’ Donuts inside the service station, I sense a man walking towards me and then plump himself down next to me on the bench. Just from the thump, I could tell he is sitting a bit too close for comfort. And then I sense him lifting both of his hands near to his neck and removing something, some sort of a neck wrap, like a dark heavy scarf. I turn my face, and what I see, wrapped around his neck is a shiny fat body of a cobra, which he is in the process of loosening like one would a scarf. In that quick glance, I see that he is a brown man, sort of stocky, dressed in knee length black shorts, white shirt and a black vest, but the most noticeable thing about him is his flat topped round hat. And then I see the tail of the snake uncoiling on its own, just inches away from me. My immediate reaction is: “Oh.” And I leap out of there like a spring loaded object let loose – trying not to run, I resume my walk, albeit at a swifter pace.
Wondering whether the man intended to scare me with his Shiva in the Humboldt Park manifestation. As scared as I felt, I couldn’t help but dare look back for a quick second. I see him following my track and laughing out loud. Shiva was anything but a sadist! On my way back, I couldn’t help but check out the bench. But he has now moved to the little round meeting point with bulletin board and benches surrounding it. I see him prancing and holding court with the regulars, the snake still adorning his neck.
© 2019 Haresh Shah
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