* Translated from Humayun Ahmed’s Bengali short story of the same title.
Elizabeth Anderson lives next to my room. As I heard from others she has bought a snake and has brought it along to keep it in her room as a pet. At the beginning I did not believe it to be true which, however, turned out to be a rude reality as soon as I entered her room. The shocking truth was it showed to be a large, a live snake. I found that in a squarish glass box was resting, spiralling her body a huge snake that looked similar to a python. I had vowed that I would never allow myself to feel surprised by any conduct of an American. But in that instant I forgot my promise and kept on looking at the snake under a spell of sheer fear-filled puzzlement.
The old lady smilingly asked me, ‘Can you guess how much has it cost?’
I was meanwhile cold all over my person and in a frozen voice I returned another question in reply to hers, ‘You mean that you have bought this snake?’
‘Yes, of course. Who would give it to me for free?’
All blood of my body thickened up in fear of a large snake living next to my room and I cursed my fortune for sending this down to me.
‘Ahmed, are you scared?’ the lady asked.
‘Is there any reason for not being scared?’
‘Certainly! What is there to be afraid of? It is a non poisonous snake. Touch her and you will see that she will not harm you. She is a cute thing, very cool and gentle in her disposition. Fear not. Go, go… touch her.’
In a dry, choked voice I said, ‘Don’t mind. Touching a snake is no fun for me”
The old woman with a glint in her eyes said, ‘Let me tell you how cheap it came for me. It cost me only twenty dollars. But this amount does not cover the cost of the glass box. This box has to be returned.’
‘If you return the box where will you keep the snake?’
‘It is a tame, domesticated snake. I will let her roam about freely.’
‘Preposterous! How can you think of that?’
All hairs on my body stood up in fear. I felt for sure that we all were destined to be doomed. In a hushed up voice I asked, ‘Will the land lady allow you to keep the snake?’
‘No way can she stop me. When I signed the agreement for taking this rooming house on rent there was no clause there in the contract saying that keeping a snake was not allowed.’
‘Is that so?’ I asked.
‘Yes. That’s the fact. You people sign contract without looking up what are there in the agreement. This is not right. Always read a contract thoroughly and then only sign it. Suppose, now if you leave this rented house in fear of this snake the land lady will make you pay six months’ rent as penalty.
‘Does the contract say this?’
‘Sure. This clause is there. In six point typing font. Very small. Liable to be missed through oversight.’
I had no option left except accepting the grave ill luck that had befallen me. Took up this rooming house being close to my university campus and very cheap. The land lady lives on the ground floor. On the floor above we live one each in five single rooms. The tenants can only stay in their rooms but can not cook, there being no kitchen. One has to take one’s meals outside in an eating house of his choice and can only sleep in the room. It is what a rooming house means to be.
I live opposite to the bathroom. Next to that lives Ananta Nag, a student from India. There is a small passage that resembles a corridor. At the end of that lives Toha, a Phillipino young girl, also a student and ravishingly beautiful. So beautiful that one is liable to feel a stab in his heart glancing at her. Han, a Korean student lives in a room close to Toha’s. Over the last six months he has picked up only two English words, ‘Yes’ and No’. Nothing of English vocabulary beyond that, as rumour goes. Bang opposite to the room occupied by Han lives Elizabeth. So far Elizabeth used to stay alone. From now on an enormous reptile will live with her, a Mexican python.
Americans are known for their queer habit of keeping as pet dangerous animals. There are a lot of Americans who keep a certain variety of utterly poisonous spiders named black widow. These are so poisonous that they can kill a person with one single bite. The keepers of these black widow spiders have their club sort of a place where they meet and bring out magazines at regular intervals. Many have hobby of keeping poisonous snakes as their pets. Keeping a crocodile is too common a habit. The other day I read in a news paper that a domesticated crocodile had eaten up the legs of his keeper. In all the towns and cities of America, large or small, there are pet houses where one can buy any creature of his choice, from spider to salamander.
After Elizabeth brought the snake all the members of the rooming house were gripped by a deep shadow of melancholy. None was altogether decided to leave the house and was neither comfortable at all to keep on staying. I could not get a wink of sleep on the first day. In this country mosquito net is an unheard of thing. Could I have slept in a mosquito net I would feel at least a bit secure, I thought. I kept awake the entire night sitting on the bed. Every moment I was visited by a scary feeling that the Mexican python was crawling up my body.
It was the day 2nd. The Philippine girl Toha started shouting from the bathroom. The language she was speaking was in her native Togalog, totally beyond our comprehension.
But from the trend of her shouting, I thought, she was crying for help in utter distress saying, ‘Oh! God save me. I am going to be eaten up live.’
When we had nearly decided to break open the door of the bathroom Toha herself dashed out like a storm, not a single thread of cloth on her body. What she said in an unusual hurry was, ‘When I entered into the bathtub for a wash I found in moments that the Mexican python was lying there in the water.’
Ananta Nag said grinning, ‘Go on to tell us the story once again. You don’t have to be in haste to put on your clothes. You are looking very nice with no clothes on. If you don’t believe me you can ask others.’
So long Toha was in a sort of trance. When she came out of this she rushed into her room and closed the doors. Ananta Nag said, ‘It is not too bad to keep a snake in the house. What do you say? Could you ever expect to see this if the python was not with us?’
We continued to pass our days and night in spells of nightmare. The python would appear in queer places. One day when Han was combing his hair after putting on an overcoat he felt that something was slithering down his body.
Ananta Nag woke up one night to see that he was sleeping so long hugging a side pillow. When the sense that he was not supposed to sleep with a side pillow on his bed as any such thing was not to be available in America, he broke into high pitched shouts begging for help. Our lives became unbearable. Only Elizabeth showed no sign of being perturbed. As much as the snake went on scaring us Elizabeth would keep on pampering her in mock reproach, ‘My naughty girl. My naughty girl’. The reason for calling the snake a ‘naughty girl’ was that the reptile was female in gender.
The old lady continued to over express her affection for the snake. One example to cite this over dose of concern was her deliberation to buy insurance for this Mexican python. Till then I had no idea that insurance could be bought for a snake also. But nothing was impossible in this incorrigible land!
I decided to leave this rooming house, even if I needed to pay six months’ rent as penalty. No one could live continuously all round the twenty four hours of a day in such smothering fear. Ananta Nag and Han were also in agreement with my line of thinking. But Toha only differed to say that though the snake was long her mouth was comparatively much small. With that small opening of her mouth, she inferred, it was not possible for her to swallow up Toha. So, according to Toha, nothing much was there to worry about and there was no reason for not to let the snake to stay on. Though it would seem unthinkable we also started feeling in the same line with Toha within a month thinking that a snake was not that much of a fearful kind and on the contrary it was in some way rather amusing, so to say.
Creatures of the reptile family have small brains. So their intelligence level is destined to be low. But we discovered that the level of intelligence of our snake was commendably high. She loved to watch TV. In our rooming house there was only one TV and it was in Toha’s room. As soon as the TV would be switched on the python would appear. She would take a corner of her choice and would lie there spiralling her body. She would not leave until the TV was switched off. Toha thought that some select programmes of the TV like ‘Bernie Miller’, ‘Three is company’ were her most favourite. During the running time of such programmes she appeared to be excited, emitting hissing sounds.
Elizabeth named her snake, ‘Ruth’. She would not, however, come rushing when addressed to as ‘Ruth’. But if we tapped on the floor she would instantly appear.
We discovered that Ruth had a strong sense of humour too. Unless an example is given this is hard to be understood. Suppose a guest had come to visit his friend or relative and was enjoying his time talking on diverse issues, Ruth would proceed towards him stealthily taking care not to be sighted by him. When close enough she would in moments curl up his legs. As the guest would continue to shout in fear we would burst into loud laughter pushing one another in zest.
We also found that compared to keeping other kinds of pet a snake was much less bothering. Feeding her was least troublesome. She would eat only one mouse in a week and we had nothing to be anxious about in that regard either. What we needed to do was to take her to a pet shop and a guy working for the shop would feed her the mouse. The shop owner would charge only one dollar for the mouse. What a wonderful service!
Ruth disappeared just before the spring quarter was over. We made vigorous search in all probable places and failed. By no means can it be expressed to what extent we, all of the rooming house, became sad. Who was mostly affected by the grief of separation was Toha. Mourning for Ruth quite often she forgot to bathe and almost stopped taking her meals. She even went to the local church and lighted a candle. But Ruth did not come back.
As we had got used to the existence of Ruth likewise we got accustomed over time to the vacuum left by Ruth’s disappearance. Out of the inhabitants of the rooming house Han went back to his country. His place was occupied by an American student named ‘Karl’. Toha also left to live in Atlanta marrying one American billionaire. Days passed on as before. The old lady Elizabeth came back one day buying a musical instrument similar to a banjo. Without bothering what time it was she would start playing the instrument causing much discomfiture to the inmates. My quarter final course assessment was just round the corner. We all had no time to breathe and forgot baby Ruth. Man has his extraordinary capacity to forget things just as he has an equal capacity to keep things alive in his memory.
One evening bending down on the table I was trying to solve a complex theorem of quantum mechanics. Every time the result would show to be different. I was cursing myself equating me with an ass. At that time a sort of abrupt cacophony as would be created by many disjointed utterances of quite a few persons at a time was heard. The frenzy of sounds resembled that of shouting voices which are usually heard during an earthquake. I closed my book and coming outside was awe struck to see that Ruth had returned. But she was not alone. She had brought along her newborns also, numbering about not less than twenty. Each one showed to be about one foot in length. I understood that Ruth had left for a cosy distant corner to lay eggs and after her off-springs were born she returned to show her pride possessions to her one time old friends of the house where she had once lived with them.
The young progenies of Ruth scattered in all directions of the rooming house in slithering movements. We were trembling in fear bringing up our legs on the beds. Elizabeth herself became hoarse, shouting ‘Help! Help!’ and crying for life. The land lady telephoned the local fire brigade for our rescue. The fire brigade squad came almost instantaneously.
But the fire brigade people had no knowledge or expertise to catch snakes. They in their turn contacted some other authority. These people started taking the little ones captive one by one and putting them in polythine bags. Ruth raised no protest. May be out of profound love she had come to show us her newborns. But the wretched thing had no idea that human beings are capable of accepting love from their fellow beings only.
They can not reciprocate love extended by others outside their specie.