Nagne

 

While we were in Pune, we moved house a few times, looking for better, cheaper digs. For a short while we lived in a long, low servants quarters that had been divided into two-room apartments. It lay in a field, in a depression shaded by overhanging trees that brushed the roof at night and made soothing sounds. The other 4 apartments in this block were filled with families of working class Indians; dobies, rickshaw drivers, shop assistants, railroad workers. The floors were dirt, hard to the point of shiny after perhaps a hundred years of feet, taking only a few whisks of a grass broom to clean. The walls were two feet thick, mud bricks, cool in summer. The windows were shuttered but without glass.

It was only a few blocks from the Ashram, tolerable in case I couldn't find a ride and had to walk home late at night carrying Gyana who was 7 at the time. Most of the time we used rickshaws.

One of the rooms was a little kitchen which we rarely had time to use and the other was our bedroom. We had no furniture except our bamboo shelves, sagging with the weight of our orange clothes. It's amazing how excited we would get to buy the rare new robe, exactly like all the others we had…the simple joys.

We almost never spent time during the day at home as all our needs were taken care of in the Ashram. Work, food, recreation, school for Gyana, it all was part of the Ashram day so we usually came home around 11:00 at night and just went to bed.

Knowing our sleep was important, and again, in an effort to make Gyana feel as though she had a few things of her own, I'd bought us each a high quality coir mattresses that we took wherever we went. They were made from coconut husk fiber and layers of latex foam, the best sleep in Asia and also, bug resistant. Each was on the floor, tucked into our own corners of the room. I'd found some pillows made from nebulous bird feathers, soft and dreamy, and supple cotton covers all tucked under the ubiquitous mosquito nets. And sheets - I always used sheets, an extravagance for lower class Indians because of the cost and the ongoing laundry expense.

Dobies washed all our laundry by hand every day, using detergents with names like Laxmi Fresha and Super Blanche. They pounded each piece on the rocks by the river and laid them out on the banks to dry. Then every item, large or small, was pressed using cast iron coal irons. From a fire carefully kept burning all day, small pieces of coal were added to the iron to keep the temperature just right. Delivery was made through the teeming streets on the backs of bicycles, piled high above the heads of the washers. My dobie, drawing on generations of experience, taught me how to iron a shirt efficiently and quickly and I am still good at it today.

We arrived home by rickshaw one warm night, Gyana actually already asleep. I carried her in and laid her on her bed, closing the mosquito net carefully around her and went out to pay the driver a few paisa for the short ride. I was beat and all I could think of was laying down and dying in bed, now it seems, a disturbingly clairvoyant notion.

I got Gyana into her little t-shirt without waking her up and stripped down for bed myself. I crawled under my mosquito net, luxuriating in the cool, clean sheets. I felt my muscles release. I had a couple of pillows piled up waiting for me and I turned to adjust and plump them. I lifted the top one distractedly and was met by a thick black snake coiled under it, inches from my face.

I levitated. Yes, it is possible. Without consciously moving, I experienced an instantaneous, massive muscle contraction, my whole body rising 18 inches into the air and with one instinctive wave of the hand I swept the mosquito net aside and landed on the floor beside the bed.

The snake came after me. It was about 4 feet long, large for a krait and the deadliest snake in India. I rolled to the other side of the room and jumped to my feet as it charged across the floor. It was having a hard time getting traction on the ancient, polished earthen surface and was weaving angrily, trying to make headway. This gave me a scant few seconds of advantage. We had only been in this apartment for a few days and a previous occupant had left what I thought was a walking stick up against the wall of our room that I had not bothered to throw out. I reached for it now and began to duel with the snake, placing myself between it and Gyana's bed, only a few feet away. Gyana slept blissfully on while I feinted and struck, attempting to get a good head shot or break the snake's back.

Krait venom is 16 times more potent then cobra venom. At least half the adults bitten die, even with medical assistance. Gyana's diminutive body weight would be no match for even a fraction of the poison this snake could deliver.

The head shot came a minute later, the longest minute of my life. The snake lay inert, although not necessarily dead. I draped it over the stick at arms length and took it outside. The stars pierced the night sky brightly and an old man watched as I tossed the black body with pale, white stripes into the weeds. It lay, seemingly lifeless.

"Nagne." he said.

"Is that bad?"

"Very bad. Very bad snake. He is not dead. He will come alive and go in the morning. They always go in the morning." A not very reassuring bit of lore.

Back in our room, Gyana slept on. I crawled into bed without the slightest chance of sleep. My every cell was reverberating. As to the levitating, the threat had presented itself so unexpectedly that I hadn't had time to deliberately react. While my conscious mind faltered, paralyzed, a deeper, instinctive mechanism had kicked in. In an instant, every muscle in my body had involuntarily contracted to throw me into the air and away from the danger.

As I lay there, I heard a rustling above me and looked up to see the deeply thatched roof, perhaps 3 feet thick from years of layering, obviously now home to rodents and their predators. The krait had probably dropped from a tree to the roof, drawn by the scent of my extravagant feather pillows and curled up, waiting for the chickens to return. The walking stick, not a common thing in India unless you are crippled, had been left for a purpose. A cripple would have taken his stick with him. This was a snake stick.

I lay alert all night and in the morning went out to look at the snake again. It was gone. That day we moved in with Sushila, above the whore house.