venomous creature

by Nidadavolu Malathi

As soon as the word was out that I was transferred to Mutyalapalli High School, all my friends and well-wishers in town were shocked. Their concerns sounded more like a stream of condolences.

The village administrator said, “What a misery. Some idiot, probably a gardener of a nephew of a minister or something. Stupid, just stupid, I must say. Why does he have to put in a request for transfer to our town? Let’s say he did; why do they have to select you for transferring and, that too, to Muthyalapalli of all places?”

I laughed rather indifferently. But I must admit I was touched by their concern for me as well. I tried to calm them down. I said, “You are too kind. Let’s not forget that the people in Muthyalapalli are also human, maybe, they are a little rougher but who’s not? You all know me. You know I have my ways.”

“That is what we are worried about, ma’am. You are sooooo forthright, straight as arrow. Muthyalapalli people are not like muthyalu (pearls). They are more like Cuddapah slabs. You stick to your guns and, … ” The first assistant, Raghunatha Rao, did not finish the sentence, as if he was afraid even to think of what next.

I was amused. “You are a descendent of Sivaji, the Great; I can’t believe you’re scared? And then making a coward of me too?” I teased him.

Finally, the day came. I bid farewell to all those nice people and set out on my journey to Muthyalapalli. I sat in the horse-drawn cart and looked out. The village was disappearing gradually. For the first time, it struck me – the strong ties between the village and I.

I arrived in Muthyalapalli by late afternoon. I was surprised to see three teachers, two attendants and a peon at the bus stand. How did they know I was coming by that very bus? Did they dream of it? Anyway, it didn’t take long for me to identify who’s who of that reception party. They introduced themselves to me in the order of their seniority; and then showed me the home they’d fixed for me. I kept my distance per my habit. I answered their queries in monosyllables, or two at best, while drawing my own conclusions about them, based on their language. Within 15 minutes, I had a fair idea about each one of them. In about 30 minutes, this mutual assessment session was over; I managed to send them away, without displeasing anybody, of course.

Next day I went to the school. I could see that they all were waiting for me anxiously. Once again, I managed to send them quickly. I was bent on not giving them a chance to get close to me.

It was ten minutes after ten. The peon brought the attendance register and put it on my desk. I checked all the signatures and was about put my initials at the end. Then I noticed that one signature was missing.

“Rosayya did not come?” I said.

“I am Rosayya, ma’am,” he replied politely.

He arrived late, just in time to bring in the register, that is. He brought it as soon as he came in. He could have signed the register but didn’t; that is his way of proving his honesty. He wanted to let me know of the fact and then sign.

I was amused but didn’t show it.

“Why are you late?” I had to ask. He wanted to be asked.

“I’m late, ma’am,” he said.

“I’m asking you why you came late,” I repeated patiently.

“Delayed, ma’am.”

That threw me off. “Look, I’m not sure what’s your habit. But I’m used to getting straight answers and following the rules. I will not tolerate your games and silly excuses. Next time whether you are late or delayed, you will lose one half day for each day you are late. You had better clean up your act,” I said pushing the register toward him. Whatever he was thinking, he did not show it in his face. I couldn’t tell. With no emotion on his face, he signed, waited until I put my initials, and then went away with the register.

Within the next one half hour, it became clear that it was not over. I received several messages, comments, and suggestions from several members of the staff regarding Rosayya’s behavior. The quintessence of all their messages, comments and suggestions was that I must keep an eye on Rosayya. Some of their comments were: Rosayya acts like he is above all the rules and regulations of civic life; he would not care about reprimands, not even filing charges would help; and, above all, he is a professional snake-catcher. He is the personification of Yama (the God of Death) for all the snakes in the 10 to 12 villages in the region. Remember the story of king Parikshat; performed the Snake Sacrifice to get rid of all the snakes? Now, here, we have Rosayya committed to do the same. The only difference is Rosayya catches them with his magic spell.

In other words, they all made it clear that I am in for trouble if I tried to confront Rosayya; that would be like hitting my head against a boulder or scratching it with a burning torch!

 

I was very polite but firm. I told them that I would not hear of any such cock and bull stories and sent them away. But then, I also noticed that Rosayya was invariably late, by 10 minutes at the least. Also, there was no guarantee that he would show up at all. I would know of his presence only when I actually saw him! I tried to tell him in so many ways that he must be on time and must let me know in advance if he were not showing up. One day he said that he was biking from his home eight miles away and hence the delay. To me, that did not make a whole lot of sense.

A couple of times, I issued memos but there was no change in Rosayya’s schedule. The strange part was, once he came to work, he was so good in discharging his duties. Proverbially, “You show it with your shoe and he wears it on his head”.

I never had any problem with him but for his late attendance. The other teachers, on the other hand, had plenty to say. They said Rosayya was ignoring their orders, and at times, he was nowhere to be found.

Within one month Rosayya became an unsolved mystery for me. That became very clear on the day a parcel was found missing. Normally, it’s Rosayya’s duty to bring the school mail from the Postmaster’s house. I could never figure out if a mailman ever existed in Muthyalapalli, and what was he doing if not deliver the mail. But the fact remains it was Rosayya’s duty.

That day I went home since I had houseguests. The same day a parcel addressed to the school did not make it to my office. How did I know about it? Well. I came to know about it when the postmaster’s son came to pick up the return receipt, duly signed. The boy said his dad had given the parcel and the return receipt to Rosayya. I asked the clerk at the front desk. He said that Rosayya left school at the same time I did and never returned.

I assured the boy, the postmaster’s son, that I would look into the matter and get back to him later. Then I told the clerk to issue a memo to Rosayya. He clucked his tongue, which meant it was of no use; Rosayya had received several memos in the past, and one more was not going to make any difference.

“I told you. He’s an irresponsible idiot,” the Telugu teacher expressed his opinion in English, shaking his head vigorously.

“You must take severe action,” the English teacher spoke in classical Telugu, ostentatiously.

Everybody seemed to be enjoying the fact that the headmistress fell flat on her face; they even felt sorry for her.

I grit my teeth and said, frowning, “You’ll see, just wait; let him come.”

“You be careful, ma’am. You’re dealing with a venomous creature. He is the god of death for all the snakes and us too,” the art teacher warned me, reminding me of Rosayya’s specialty.

Rosayya came back to school the following day, at about 3 in the afternoon.

The moment I laid eyes on him, I hit the roof. I said curtly, “For us, it dawned at six in the morning; and for you, the day started at 3 in the afternoon?”

“I will submit a request for leave of absence for both today and yesterday, ma’am,” he replied politely.

“A letter asking for leave of absence alone is not enough. You know that the work here suffers when you disappear like that, without notice. Why didn’t you tell me yesterday that you would not be back in the afternoon?”

“They called me suddenly, ma’am, to catch a snake.”

I just about had it. I was as angry as any headmistress could be in that situation. If he thought catching snakes was his job, why bother taking a job here at school? Whatever his reason, doesn’t he have an obligation to do his job, once accepted the job? Is this a pastime to come and go as he pleased? How could he take this job so lightly?

Rosayya did not say a single word. He stood there with folded hands and listened to all my ranting.

Exhausted, I switched to the main subject on hand. “Where is the parcel you’re supposed to have brought in yesterday?”

“I put it on your desk, ma’am, right here.” The story was: He put the parcel and the return receipt on my desk. Then somebody from a nearby village came and told him about a snake to be caught. So he left. He added that he would have asked for my permission if I were in my office.

“Why didn’t you take permission from the assistant headmaster?” I asked him.

He kept quiet.

“I want a written explanation regarding the lost parcel. Otherwise I will report it to the higher authorities,” I snarled.

“Where is the need for an explanation, ma’am? I put it on your desk. My duty was only to bring the parcel, is it not?” he said calmly.

That’s it. I was beside myself. “All right. I’ll show you what is your duty,” I said.

I called the clerk and prepared a charge sheet at once. I quoted all the memos, warnings and black marks he had received since he had started at this job. The charge sheet is a masterpiece. I even showed it to the English teacher and the Telugu teacher, just in case. They admired my drafting abilities. They both agreed that the charge sheet would show him his place; he would to come to his senses, for sure.

“The credit goes to you for bringing down a vicious cobra like him,” they said.

“I am not thinking about who gets the credit for what. I am doing this for the sake of the school, for discipline in our school,” I replied gravely.

.I gave the charge sheet to the typist and went home. I was not feeling good. For no obvious reason, my eyes started hurting. I laid back in my easy chair on the front porch and closed my eyes.

“Sister, look! Snake,” Gopi, the boy next door woke me up, screaming jubilantly.

Rosayya was standing in front of us with a little smile. He carried a small bundle in his hands.

“I was passing by. The young sear stopped me. He wants me show the snake,” he said. Then he threw down the bundle on the floor. It fell with a big thump. A genuine pedigree cobra, with Lord Krishna’s foot prints on its hood,[1] rose into the air, about one and a half feet high, and started swaying in a rhythmic movement. It was not clear whether he was hissing out of anger or suffocation, having been bundled up in a towel for so long.

Rosayya nudged him with his towel. The hood rose further up into the air. I got goose bumps all over.

“Show me the fangs,” Gopi asked; he could hardly contain himself for all the excitement.

“I pulled out two of them. There are two more.” Rosayya seized the snake’s neck deftly, opened his mouth and gave a little lecture demonstration – what is a fang, how much poison it will hold, and how the poison gets into the fangs and so on.

All the while, I was grappling with only one question – What is his intent in bringing a snake to my house?

“You can take a picture, madam,” he said, leaving the snake on the floor once again.

“Me? In the company of a snake?” I said, laughing faintly.

“I didn’t mean it like that, ma’am,” he said, also laughing.

Rosayya wrapped up the snake in his towel and left. Suddenly, I recalled the warnings of the art teacher. Did Rosayya bring the snake on purpose? To show me his might? Is this his way of threatening me? Whatever it is, I told myself that I would not be intimidated; I did what I had to do – do my duty. His behavior was inappropriate and he must pay the price.

Next morning, while signing the charge sheet, it felt like I was tracing the movements of the snake I’d seen the day before. Just for a second. I reminded myself of all the teachers who were supportive of my action and also my own responsibility. I gave the charge sheet to the clerk for dispatching.

The school was closed for the summer. I put the science teacher in charge for the summer and went to my hometown, a two-hour trip by bus. Generally speaking, traveling by bus is not my thing. I hate the co-passengers who would not rest until they had learned where I was going, what I was doing and so on. It is equally annoying when they give their entire family history, unasked: My mother is here; that’s my brother; he came to see me off, … In order to avoid such unpleasantness, usually, I find a seat next to the window, sit there and lose myself in my own thoughts. I did the same on that day too. But I couldn’t help hearing the words a favorable breeze blowing my way.

“Gosh! You should be there to see what I’m saying; it was twice the arm’s length. I nearly choked, my heart shattered into tiny bits.” Almost involuntarily I looked in her direction. A woman, probably from the east coast, was sitting there with a little baby in her lap, feeding him. She continued the narrative, “My baby was sleeping in the cradle. I don’t know how it got there but it was there wound up around the cradle bar. I was too scared to pick up the child and too worried to leave him alone. My heart stopped beating. Then my neighbor ran to Muthyalapalli and brought him, the snake-catcher. Even he struggled for a while, you know; it was so hard even for him. He had to make sure that the child was safe, you know! …”

The pint-sized teacher’s words flashed across my mind, “ayyo, talli, don’t trust the scoundrel; he says such stories only to frighten us. Don’t trust that scoundrel”.

I wished for a second I had not sent up that charge sheet.

After my vacation, I returned to school. The transfer orders for Rosayya were set, ready to go. For all the crimes he had committed, he was transferred to the other end of the district.

“How can transfer be a punishment? He is not doing his job here. How can we expect him to behave in another school? He should have been fired,” the science teacher said, apparently unhappy about the outcome.

“Let it go. Let’s say, we did it on humanitarian grounds. He has saved a child’s life. That deserves commendation,” I said.

“Oh, Gosh! You don’t really believe all those cock and bull stories, do you?”

What can I say? I didn’t want to argue with him or any other teacher any more. They are that kind of people; it’s easier to pretend that I had believed them than try to change their minds. I issued orders relieving Rosayya from his job, effective immediately.

The same day, the maid at my home quit. Until then I didn’t know. She said she and Rosayya were engaged; he moved to our village only because of her, to be with her; he makes enough money from catching snakes, enough for both of them to live like Raja and Rani; people are afraid of him for no good reason; their fears are coming only from their own heads; there is not a single instance where he hurt anyone for that matter; that’s how their weak hearts work. …

I listened to her silently; I could not think of single thing to say. Like she said, the teachers were scared of Rosayya for no apparent reason; and I became, rather unwittingly, their weapon to avenge themselves on him.

“It’s okay, ma’am! They will realize some day, in their own way. As for my man, and me it turned out all right. Since we are going so far away, we moved up the wedding date. We will get married here and then leave,” she said, giggling happily.

They both came to see me before they left. Rosayya did not say a word either about the charge sheet or the transfer.

A few days passed by rather uneventfully. Then came the annual inspection. I was supervising the building clean up personally. In the process, I found a parcel tucked away in a corner in the science lab. A big part of it was chewed up by rats. I had to strain my eyes to figure out the postmarks. It was the same parcel Rosayya was accused of losing. Our maid’s words came to my mind, “Their fears are in their heads. That is how their weak hearts work.”

Rosayya is a much bigger man than any of us could ever hope to be, I thought.

[End]

Published on thulika.net, December 2002. Read the Telugu version here.

(The original Telugu story, vishappurugu, was published in Taruna monthly magazine in the late 1960’s. )

 

[1] According to Hindu mythology, Lord Krishna danced on the hood of the Cobra, Kaleeya, and ever since all the cobras carry the imprint on their hoods.