It happened at dawn in Berhampur around 56 years ago – a couple of months before I was born.
Around 5.30 AM my mom entered the kitchen to make the morning tea. As she approached the platform there was a sudden loud hisss. Just a couple of feet away in full fury was a cobra. My mom shrieked loudly and fell backwards. Luckily the snake did not move. It only hissed and stood its ground swaying angrily as my mom crawled back to safety. Dwarka Niwas, where we used to live in the sixties, had a huge compound. We had our cricket pitch and badminton court surrounded by coconut, jamun, badam, mango, chikoo, guva, and champa trees. There was space for huge kitchen gardens too which was also the playground for the birds and the bees - not to speak of the snakes and scorpions. To our right was the sprawling Janana Hospital, to our front was Geeta Bhawan and all this on the Giri Road – Berhampur’s Champs Elyees which ran between Palace de la Giri residence to Arc de Tata Chako!
The three houses where the Bhatts, the Krishnans, and the Vardarajans stayed were built in a cluster, adjacent to each other without any gap. In the relaxed easy paced Malgudi days type ambience of the fifties and sixties it was almost like a huge joint family. Krishnans had five children; the Vardarajans had six off-springs plus a sprinkling of cousins too. Buli, the self- invited and self-appointed brown stray dog, was our mascot and guard. Later we would have our own cat, dog and tortoise to add to the variety.
My mom’s shriek in June 1960 was enough for the neighbours to descend in droves. There were concerned shouts of enna aachi, “what happened, what happened?” When they saw the spectacle there was a collective gasp. My dad had meanwhile got a stick to kill the poisonous serpent. To his surprise he was not only stopped but also chided “Shiva-Shiva-Shivaaa, what stupidity!” they said slapping their foreheads with their palms. God has come to your house and you want to kill it? Don’t worry, they said, it will go away. And yes, when the son will be born to you, name him Shankar. Mom was expecting and yours truly was curled up nice and comfortable in her womb when all this pandemonium was happening. My dad had no option but to wait.
The only North Indian family, in this far away land, the onus was on us to fine-tune our sensibilities. My dad pulled a chair near the kitchen door and sat there on a vigil waiting for God to go. Attempts to expedite his departure by prodding him with the stick proved futile. The cobra would hiss, display his hood and sway angrily before coiling back and dozing off. In the midst of a continuous supply of filter coffee and idly-vada-sambhar from our friendly neighbourhood (our kitchen was out of bounds), it was also education time for my parents. You see, they were told, when a pregnant lady’s shadow falls on a cobra then it becomes blind. My mom was aghast. As it is she was in a state of shock. She had escaped near death. She was even worried about the likely effects her fall would have on her unborn child, and now she was being held responsible for the serpents’ blindness and consequent immobility!
When by lunch time "God" had not moved and the crowd began thinning, our short-tempered neighbour from the adjacent compound made his quiet entry. He took the stick from my dad and assured him that he will shoo it away. Then without much fuss he proceeded to kill it. Again my hapless father was subjected to tirade- this time on rationality. You are an educated young man in the noble profession of teaching, he reminded my dad. You have a three year old kid and a pregnant wife to look after, how could you accept this kind of blind faith? With that he marched out in a huff.
My mom still remembers the grand funeral that was arranged for the snake God. Tulsi and sandal wood, milk, vermillon, kum-kum, incense sticks were arranged and amidst chants of shankara- shankara, ringing of bells and blowing of the konch the funeral pyre was lit and the snake was reverentially burnt. Burning it was a must as my mothers’ photo was there in the snake’s eyes and if some other snake would see it there could be revenge! Some comfort.
Few months later I was born very early in the morning. My dad got to cuddle me in his arms by the time the orange sun was peeping over Berhampur’s eastern horizon. So he named me Arun- the rising sun. Years later, when this story was told to me, I asked mom why I wasn’t named Shankar. Oh, she said, you see Mrs.Krishnan was also expecting her baby. When they were blessed with a son they decided to call him Shankar. It would be so confusing to have two Shankars in the same compound.