The three children walked sleepily along with their father. The path was narrow and bamboos blocked the way so very often. The village seemed far away from this patch of the rain forest. They took this short cut to visit the local barber for a haircut. “Today, my boss, you must sit bolt upright when the barber is cutting your hair. Don’t go off to sleep as you mostly do, especially you Appu”, cautioned the father. Father walked along with his flock in his spotless white dhoti and starched white kurta. His spectacles sat firmly on his nose and he pointed out the path by using his handy black umbrella, which he used as a defense against rain and wild creatures.
Trudge, trudge, trudge… they walked down with heavy steps on the narrow path. Nearby a nightingale perched on a tamarind tree was singing a delightful song. The naughty squirrels were nibbling nuts, sniffing joyously around an old peepul tree. ‘Let’s sing a song’, proposed Appu, the youngest of the lot. He was the one prone to shed bucket full of tears on most occasions.
Whenever someone asked him to eat something and his favorite dish was not there, he would quietly cry his heart out. Well, today of course he wished to act as a little leader though he was mere a six year old. ‘Your head is full of funny ideas, don’t you know that the forest is full of funny ideas, don’t you know that the forest is full of wild beasts and any time a snake can cross out paths’, cautioned the eldest boy.
Just then they all paused as they heard the laugh of a jackal. The sky was overcast. Father, a courageous and God fearing man asked them to chant a popular devotional song. They all started singing in unison.
Windows blow cold
Thunder threatens my soul
Friends of mine
Show your beautiful face
Shed your rain of mercy
Hold my hands quickly
Send your angels of peace
As great is your need.
Singing thus they walked further, in measured steps. ‘Gopu, today you better not act babyish at the barber’s. I know that the moment your hair is trimmed you want to fly back home because of the bristles on your neck. But be patient, little one. Hold on there till we’ve all had our haircuts’, said the father to the middle one. Since the family lived in a village there was only one barbershop in the vicinity. Shakeel, the most talkative man in the village ran the barbershop. He loved to entertain his clients with the latest news from cities. While chewing betel, he would narrate the historical battles fought, people wounded, and kings who won and lost. Being the sole master of the shop he did the cutting, shaving, dressing of hair with great skill. That’s why the three children looked forward to the haircut.
Appu started moving ahead at a brisk pace. Like a doe he skipped and stopped to look at the wild bushes of flowers- purple, yellow and scarlet which grew in large numbers around the path. Gradually, the boy went far ahead of the group in search of some adventure. The father was busy explaining the process of photosynthesis to the other two. They both listened seriously interjecting him often to ask, ‘Dad, but why are the leaves called the food factory?’ and ‘Why do plants need food at all, are they living too?’ The father - a teacher to the tips of his fingers explained them patiently how the plants were as much living, breathing, feeling beings like humans and needed of the explanation suddenly he paused. His face bore a frozen expression and it seemed that he barely breathed. His eye shone mysteriously.
A few seconds later, almost in a whispering but firm voice he called out to his son, ’Appu, Come back to this spot at once. You mustn’t turn your back but come as though you are in reverse gear. Take one step at a time.’ Now six pairs of eyes were fixated on Appu who stood with his back towards them nearly twenty steps away. The young boy intuitively sensed the emergency and with great presence of mind he did as he was told.
The moments seemed an eternity. The two brothers stood there with baited breaths. One question flashed in their minds – What had happened? Appu took small careful steps backwards. Gradually, he reached the group and at the touch of his father’s kurta he turned around and burst into loud sobs. ‘Child, this is not the time to cry, look ahead- there about thirty steps away from us on the path,’ whispered the father. The boys wide eyed looked and to their horror saw the Rajavempala, the King Cobra with its raised hood and golden body glistering in the sun. The snake was not less than ten feet in length, on its neck it had few coils, its eyes looked like a drunkard’s and constantly swayed its hood as though to calculate the next move.
And it looked at all of them steadily. The boy’s throat went dry and they wanted to run away. ‘Dad, hurry let’s run away quickly, otherwise it will attack us,’ they said. ‘Dear ones, remember in times of danger and calamity never lose your courage, I want to first make sure what the snake has on its mind. I know that king cobra doesn’t attack without provocation’, said the father.
The four stood transfixed on the spot. Suddenly, a rustling sound in the nearby bush made them to raise their eyebrows in curiosity. A creature emerged from the bushes that form a distance looked like a wild mouse. They saw it clearly as it emerged and realized that it was a fully grown up mongoose. The mongoose had a curious look on its face. It probably had smelt the presence of a snake. It made several circles around the snake looking like a little scientist taking notes on some strange phenomenon. It looked a little confused and cranky. ‘Dad, mongoose and snake are bitter enemies, aren’t they?’ Asked the boys. “Yes, they’re enemies…The mongoose has power to kill the snake if it so chooses. But this one here that you can see is incapable of killing the king cobra’, replied the father. ‘Dad does that mean this poor mongoose will be killed instead,’ the boy shrieked visibly shocked.
‘Children natural laws are well balanced, nothing can harm anything till it is meant to do so’, he said with a quiet smile. The mongoose and cobra were eyeing each other with apparent hatred. The cobra would raise its hood very often and lift it in a warning to scare the mongoose. The mongoose was acting like a madmen talking down a heap of mental notes. Then suddenly, the mongoose withdrew from the spot as swiftly as it had appeared. All was silent for a while. Only the trees shook their hands and the playful parrots with their red mouths and green wings surveyed the entire situation like patrolling policemen.
‘Dad what will happen now’, the boys couldn’t contain their impatience any longer. ‘If you’re frightened we could leave for home. We can retreat quietly without the knowledge of the two. But if you wish to stay then you shall see the most amazing drama which will take place here in a short while’, said the father. The boys looked at each other and sensed a strange excitement mounting. They obviously could not resist the opportunity to see such a show. So, they all decided to stay and watch.
Father’s big, round watch ticked away and with each passing second agitation increased. There were butterflies in their stomachs and they wanted to know what would happen next. Soon they heard a scratching sound as the bushes parted once again and they heard a loud hiss of the cobra. Lo and Behold! They saw a fantastic sight. The older mongoose that had previously been circling around the snake was back. However, it was not alone this time. On its back it carried a smaller sized mongoose whose golden-red hair shone in the most spectacular way. ‘What is that father - is that small mongoose the child of the big one?’ they asked curiously.
‘Well, the red mongoose is none other than the great King of the mongooses. It always travels on the back of its subjects and it is the only one who has the strength to attack the king cobra’, said the father. The boy’s eyes widened with suspense. The Red mongoose gracefully got down from the back of the bigger mongoose. It was barely the size of a fist. Seeing the Red King, the Cobra gave a loud hiss as though to challenge. The red mongoose responded to the challenge with a wise nod of its head. The snake looks petrified by now. Its hood was slowly lowered and it had a good mind to slither back into the bushes. Yet there was little choice as the other mongoose stood guard. The cobra tried to become taller by stretching itself higher almost like a man. Now, the two looked like opposing armies ready for battle.
The red mongoose twinkled its eyes like a rabbit, surveyed the place and gazed deeply at the cobra. The cobra’s head was swaying like the trunk of an elephant . The other, ordinary looking mongoose sat respectfully at a distance. The red mongoose suddenly leapt forward and caught hold of the cobra’s head from the back.
Then with its forepaw it caught its neck in a tight grip. In a flash the king cobra’s head lay severed from its trunk on the pathway. The children clapped their hands gleefully to see such a sight. What magical strength the little red king had only the natural laws can reveal! With its task over, the king mongoose climbed on the back of the previous mongoose and withdrew majestically without a sound, back into the dense bushes.
The group was speechless for a moment finally spoke up in a babble of voices, ‘Oh father that was not fair. Why did the red mongoose have to kill the king cobra?’ ‘Father, how could such a small mongoose cut off the big head of the cobra with its tiny mouth?’.
The father now broke into a hearty laugh. ‘You never forget to ask your questions, do you. There are mysterious laws of creation that we cannot understand fully… When a king attacks another king that’s fair enough, isn’t it? The father didn’t wish to explain the unexplainable.
He simply held the hand of Appu and marched forward. Gopu and Solly were dancing with joy to have beheld a historical event of nature and glad they had missed Shakeel’s historical tales.