To enter our house, there is a door, of course. But like most houses in Malaysia, we also have a grille. So, to let someone in, I would have to unlock the door, pull it open then slide the grille to the left. All this information is important because of the story I’m about to tell you.
One day in 1977, I was a very small child. My mother was recuperating from surgery upstairs and my father had come home after work. It was about 8.30 pm. As usual, I unlocked the door and pulled it open. I heard the hiss first, before I registered what I saw. In that space between the door and the grille was a cobra. Already agitated, it had its hood open and was swaying, ready to strike.
I screamed and banged the door shut. I don’t remember what happened next, but I am aware that my father killed the cobra. I remain terribly upset by the memory of this. That, in itself, caused the family to be agitated and worry for the next few days. First of all, Hindus are not particularly fond of killing snakes. Frankly, even though I’m petrified of them, I don’t like that they are killed unnecessarily. Secondly, there is a belief that when you kill a cobra, in particular, its mate will come looking for it. True enough, in a few days, we sighted another cobra in the garden and chased it away.
From that day, I have been very scared of snakes. My family didn’t understand how serious this fear was, and still is. They tried everything to desensitise me to this fear from making me look at photos of snakes and taking me to the Snake Temple in Penang. I am a little better now. At least, I can see a photo of a snake. But I will probably pass out if I see one live.
When I was studying in Cardiff, I remember going into a pet shop that also sold wildlife creatures. In hindsight, I think this shop was also a conduit for those involved in the illegal trafficking of illegal wildlife. Anyway, when my friend and I entered the shop, the cages were all empty. We went to the back to talk to the owner, whom my friend knew. When we had to leave, I realised that the workers had put some animals in the cages. There were exotic lizards and many snakes. I could not take a single step towards the front door. After 20 minutes of trying to talk myself into having courage, my friend was so fed up that he took my hand, told me to close my eyes and practically dragged me out of the shop. It was the only way we could leave the place.
One of my more memorable assignments for the papers was when I had to interview some conservation experts about the illegal trade of snakes in Malaysia. From them, I learnt two things: that people are extraordinarily cruel to snakes and that I will try my best never to buy anything close to a snakeskin handbag. You see, many times, the designers of luxury goods like handbags and so on have a label on their goods to say they have sourced these skins ethically. There is nothing ethical about the whole trade. Imagine that a shipment of snakes from Vietnam are bound for Europe. These snakes have to arrive in Europe alive because their skin needs to be ‘fresh’. Now, on transit in Malaysia, they go through Customs and the label on the container says ‘100 snakes’. Do you think an officer would be brave enough to open the container to count the live snakes and make sure that there are only 100 snakes there? Often, there are many more and these make their way to Europe and become part of the luxury goods industry.
On a lighter note, on the day of the assignment, I made the mistake of writing my story in the evening. I went to bed very disturbed and Ladoo didn’t help one bit. Every time she snored, I thought it was a hiss.
My fear of snakes is even more ironic seeing that my grandmother’s name was ‘Nagarathinam’. This translate to ‘Jewel of the Cobra’ and I was told by the elders that apparently the cobras keep this jewel inside their bodies and use it at night to search for prey. I’m sure there’s a scientific reason for all this, but I’ve never investigated this, nor do I intend to … ever. But, my grandmother was the one who taught my father never to harm a cobra unnecessarily; just let it slither away.
Indeed, many Hindus believe that when you see a snake or a cobra, it’s a good omen for they have divine properties. They bring good luck and should be respected.
Then, in March, there was a story in the papers that horrified me. I am sure that others will see the funny side of it, but I almost passed out reading it. Apparently, a gentleman, Hiroshi Motohashi, 46 was eating at the popular sushi place in Los Angeles. He had a companion with him. His companion was no human being but a tiny snake. Other patrons complained and he was asked to leave. He marched out. But he returned later, with a larger snake which he let loose in the restaurant. He was arrested and the snakes were captured. (http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/los-angeles-angry-customer-unleashes-13-foot-long-python-snake-sushi-restaurant-1551524)
Whether or not the presence of a snake brings good luck or not to the person the snake visits, I doubt I will ever eat in this restaurant.
Have you had any ‘encounters’ with these slithery creatures?