While the advent of the monsoon rains brings relief to the teeming millions in the sub-continent, the season also forces venomous reptiles from their subterranean homes, much to the detriment of other creatures. Pakistan (like India) is home to a variety of snakes which are deadly. These include the Cobra, the Krait and the Viper, three of the most common killers, responsible for the painful demise of any human or animal that happens to come within their striking range.

My late father (who was an avid ‘shikari’ in his bachelor days) maintained that the serpent was the only animal species that attacked without provocation. This point of view has however been overtaken by the fact that no beast shows aggression until provoked, threatened or hungry. In my reckoning, the slithering reptile is nature’s greatest ‘mystery’, not from the scientific perspective, but on account of the many tales attached to it. Take for example, the belief that a snake’s head must be crushed when killing it, for if this is not done its eyes will retain the killer’s image. The story goes on to say that the dead reptile’s mate has the ability to read this image and then takes revenge. I have been privy to a story that was frequently told and retold by my late paternal grandmother, wherein a female of the species doggedly pursued him for months before she was also exterminated. Another story features snakes that develop the ability to take human form after living past a hundred years. This unbelievable tale has perhaps originated from pagan sources and is vehemently discounted by many.

Most of the old houses within the walled city of Lahore had basements or ‘bhoras’. These underground rooms were used for the storage of grain and as refuge against the scorching summer heat. My great grandmother often spoke of a huge reptile that resided in one corner of the ‘bhora’ in her ancestral home. This snake had long hair and was believed to be standing guard over buried treasure. According to the story passed down to us, my great grandmother would often visit the basement to get grain to grind into flour. She would address the snake before crossing the threshold, telling it she meant no harm and expected none from the beast. Then one day, she found that the reptile had emerged from its lair and was lying coil upon coil in the covered landing known as the ‘dewri’. Concerned for her children, she chastised the reptile and told it to leave. It is said that no one saw the mysterious basement resident ever again. This story was narrated to us by our mother, who would add that while it was a good tale, she took no responsibility for its authenticity.

It was during the performance of my professional duties that I found myself ensconced in a remote canal rest house somewhere in central Punjab. From the moment that I arrived at the spot, I was captured by the beauty of the place and its surroundings – the lush green lawn, tall trees, a full moon and the sound of water cascading down the weir across the gate. After a marvellous dinner consisting of chicken curry and rice, I decided to take a brisk walk along the canal, much against the wishes of the caretaker, who warned me of ‘supernatural entities’ that had been encountered along the canal track. I thanked the old caretaker for his concern and with a torch in one hand and stout stick in the other, I left the rest house.

I had hardly gone a few hundred yards when something slithered onto the path from the adjoining bushes and my torch beam froze upon a five foot King Cobra with its hood raised a full three feet from the ground, right in the middle of the track. I broke into a cold sweat with my mother’s words ringing in my ears. Feeling rather foolish, I addressed the reptile telling it to go its way as I meant it no harm. I still tell my friends that it was the absence of aggression on my part and the fact that I was frozen in my tracks, that prompted the snake to lower its hood and slither back into the undergrowth. Needless to say, I spent the next two evenings sitting in the relative security of the verandah with a good book.

The writer is a historian.