AMBIKA SEN writes from Madras: My mother told me this true story.
Our ancestral home in Mannapra was a grand old Kerala mansion. Ramankutty, my mother’s maternal uncle, lived in it. The old gentleman was very popular and much respected in the large household.
As was the practice in Kerala families, who lived in their tharawads, all the men and women had their own personal rooms. My grandmother’s room was right next to this uncle’s room.
Every night, she overheard the old man talking to someone just before he put out his lantern and went to sleep. She couldn’t hear the content of this conversation clearly. This made her curious. Often she had thought of asking him about it, but never did.
Perhaps, she found it somewhat improper to be curious about such details concerning the old gentleman.
One day, when she was serving him his dinner, she remembered about this nocturnal chat and couldn’t resist asking him about it.
“Oh, that,” answered Ramankutty, most casually, “is just an old friend who visits me every night.”
On being repeatedly asked for details by my grandmother, who thought that all this was a joke, he came out with the truth and told her the whole story.
He said that for quite some time, he has had a late-night visitor in the form of a cobra, who would come in through the opening in the ‘Ove‘* and curl up under his bed. He would promptly disappear at the crack of dawn.
Every night Ramankutty would wait for his nocturnal friend and never slept till he heard the snake coming in and settling under his bed. The bed was made of planks of teak. He would speak a few words to his friend: like asking him how was his day, did he get enough to eat, etc, before going to sleep.
It was this talk that my grandmother overheard almost every night.
Surprisingly, she was not perturbed by the story.
Strangely, even the other members of the household didn’t attach much importance to it. This nightly routine of Ramankutty went on undisturbed for some time.
One day, Ramankutty left Mannapra to visit some of his kin, who lived in their ancestral home, not far from ours. On the same day, after he left, one of our relatives arrived on a visit and stayed on for the night with us. He was shown Ramankutty’s room to sleep.
Moments before the guest actually went to sleep, much to his horror, he saw a huge cobra crawling in through the ‘Ove’*. All that he did, as an impulsive reaction, was to reach for his walking stick and kill the poor, unsuspecting visitor.
At the same time, quite excitedly, he cried for help, and woke up the entire household. He told them how narrowly he had escaped death and thanked God for it.
Everyone rushed into the room to look at what had happened. None moved. The house guest, who looked at them for sympathy, was greeted with utter silence. He saw horror and grief etched on their faces. It was a sleepless and an agonising night for everyone.
Ramankutty came home the next day and broke down on hearing what had happened. He was inconsolable.
My grandmother and others felt awfully guilty. They had forgotten to mention about the uncle’s nocturnal visitor to the guest. It seems uncle Ramankutty, who was totally devastated on hearing what had happened in his absence, found it impossible to come to terms with the demise of his dear friend.
He did not sleep in that room.
It seems all day he kept muttering to himself: “Poor fellow. He did not harm anyone. All that he wanted was a quiet, undisturbed night’s sleep before he went out to survive in the harsh world of wilderness. He didn’t deserve death in my room.”
*‘Ove’ was a raised platform in one corner of the room which, in a way, served as an attached closet. This area was covered with wooden panels on three sides with a portion kept open to go in. Inside this enclosure, there was a place to keep a large kodam (brass vessel used to draw water from the well) filled with water and a lota.
A portion of the platform towards the wall was slightly lowered with a hole in the wall opening out. This enclosure was used as a urinal in the night. Lotas filled with water from the kodam would be poured on the floor to clean the place after use, The water flowed out through the opening in the wall. It was through this opening that the snake entered the room every night.
Ambika Sen sent this story to the photojournalist T.S. Nagarajan after reading his story ‘A king os snakes‘ in his recently published private book ‘A Pearl of Water on a Lotus Leaf and Other Memories‘.