It was on Friday evening that our cook came running up the basement stairs to tell my wife that a large Cobra had just slithered into the outhouse toilet. No amount of search that followed, could locate the reptile and I went to bed after telling the domestic staff to block the slits under their doors with newspaper in case the intruder returned. It was around midnight that a commotion broke out in the outhouse area. It transpired that the snake had emerged from hiding and was discovered lying coiled next to the toilet wall. Needless to say that it was speedily dispatched with a spade and everyone heaved a sigh of relief.

The sub-continent is home to a variety of serpents, three of which are rated as extremely venomous. These are the Krait, the King Cobra and the Viper. I have had close encounters with all three members of the reptile family because of my professional outdoor commitments and the fact that I loved trekking and exploration.

I had never seen a live Banded Krait till such time that one was captured by some workmen demolishing an old rest house wall with the purpose of rebuilding it. How they managed to first catch and then stuff the creature into a plastic bottle is an enigma, but that is how it was brought to me. Not content with just exhibiting their prize, the group of ‘jokers’ removed the stopper and shook the listless looking animal out of it, even as I shouted that they should not do so. As the Krait, hit the ground, it came to life and struck at the fellow holding the bottle. The man was lucky that he managed to step back, while the others killed the attacker with bricks. What amazed me was the fact that why and how did the snake strike at the very man, who had been his tormentor.

My encounter with the King Cobra was a near miss. While on a field trip along a canal in Southern Punjab, I asked my driver to stop for a much needed lunch break. Taking out our packed meals we walked over to an abandoned log lying next to the canal track. As I undid the wrapping on my ‘alloo roti’, I heard a menacing hiss behind me. Years of experience in the field, prompted me to lunge away from the log, while shouting at the driver to do the same. There right behind, where I had sat a moment ago, swayed the fully extended hood of a steel grey King Cobra in all its glory. I often shudder, when I recall the incident for had I been a moment slower, I would not have been able to escape the ‘strike’. Before we could take out the steel rod used as a tire changing accessory, the snake had vanished into the jungle lining the canal.

While foraying into the field, I always took care never to sleep on the ground and to have flash light handy, if there was a need to get out of bed at night. These precautions were necessary as one did not know if there was something in the shoes or under the bed. My tenure in Southern Punjab brought me face to face on many occasions with Sand Vipers. These ‘sand colored’ creatures wore the perfect camouflage and were almost invisible. It was however another member of the snake family that caught my attention. I cannot vouch for the veracity of the stories linked to this animal and have never actually seen one, but ask any Cholistani and he will tell you tales of horror that are hair raising.

The legendary serpent is called ‘peelu’ by the locals. It is about six to eight inches in length and yellow in color. It’s mode of attack is extraordinary, because it slithers up bedsteads and positions itself on the victim’s chest facing the mouth. If the person is unlucky enough to be sleeping with mouth open, it squirts venom into it. The only antidote to such an attack is to immediately dig a hole, fill it with cow or camel dung and bury the person in the stinking mess neck down. Left to stew in this manner till sundown, the victim is taken out (if not already dead) from the hole. Locals say that this treatment rots the bite victim’s skin, which comes off in layers, but saves his life.

I sometimes wonder if the asp that sent Cleopatra to her doom was a cousin of this Cholistani Peelu. Nonetheless, the truth is that the very mention of creatures that slither, raise fear, mystery and horror.