Sunday, April 08, 2007

MEMOIR: Snakes, rats and me in India

Until I was inducted into the Army and shipped to India during World War II, the closest I had ever come to snakes was during visits to the reptiles at the Bronx Zoo, which was located close to my boyhood home.

On my first full day in India, at a Royal Air Force base outside Bombay, I was quickly introduced to snakes, particularly the ubiquitous cobra, the country's most dangerous species. The introduction came in a lecture by an RAF sergeant on what to do when awakening in the morning.

It was February, when it becomes so chilly at night in that area that cobras seek warm shelter. The sergeant told us that the snakes often enter a house or barracks and wiggle into empty shoes. He warned us that, before putting on our shoes, we should turn them upside down and shake them to make sure that a snake had not found shelter. I do not recall ever finding one in my shoes.

We slept on "sharpoys," wood-framed, rope-laced beds into which mosquito nets were tucked into the bedding. One night I heard the man on a nearby bed shriek hysterically, and I was shocked to see him fling himself through his bed's mosquito netting. A cobra, who apparently favored beds over shoes for shelter, was curled up on his pillow.

I ran to the man's bed, and with the help of a few other guys turned it over, hurling the snake to the floor. One man ran outside and came back with a huge boulder. He lifted the boulder over his head and smashed it on the cobra's head, killing the snake instantly.

We carefully approached the snake to confirm that it was dead. One man took the snake's tail and dragged it outside.I don't remember how we eventually disposed of the dead cobra. But I assume that vultures, which maintained a regular presence in the area, took care of that. Few of the men in my barracks were able to sleep soundly during the rest of the night.

During my two years in India, there were regular sightings of cobras and other snakes wherever I was stationed. Fortunately there was always a safe distance between them and me.

My next personal exposure to snakes involved a species I had not seen before. I was stationed at an air base in eastern Bengal. (The area is now probably part of Bangladesh.) We were rarely favored with fresh meat in the mess hall. When we did get fresh meat, it was invariably water buffalo, which did not make for quality steaks.

One evening we were served a dish for dinner that we could not identify. It tasted like fishy chicken. But it was more appetizing than water buffalo, so no one complained.

After we had eaten, the mess sergeant got up to speak. "I'm sure you all want to know what you ate tonight," he said. "It was python meat." There was shocked silence in the mess hall as we began to think about what live pythons look like. They are huge, muscular reptiles that grow as long as 33 ft. and can weigh up to 300 lbs. They are not venomous like cobras, but kill their prey by squeezing or constricting the victim until it suffocates.

The mess sergeant explained that he and his assistant were driving down a nearby jungle road in a weapons carrier, which is a small truck. Suddenly, he felt that he had driven over something. When he got out to check, he saw that he had crushed a python to death.

He and his assistant dumped the dead python in the back of their vehicle and returned to our base. Apparently seeking a culinary challenge, the mess sergeant decided to cook what remained of the snake and to determine whether it was edible. After sampling the product of his experiment, he concluded that the python was tasty enough to eat and served it for dinner. There was more than enough meat to feed all the men in our outfit.

Aside from the snakes, my memories of India always focus on the prevalence of rats. I remember seeing rats scurrying everywhere--indoors and in the open--no matter what region of India I was in. They were so commonplace that the locals seemed to accept rodents as a creature with whom a shared life was normal. I do not recall any official effort to control and kill the rats.

India's primitive sanitation facilities, the absence of toilets and running water in much of the country, and the hordes of people living in very close quarters provided an environment in which rats thrived.

For a few months, I was assigned to a base in which we lived in tents next to a huge swamp. Our tent was constantly invaded by water rats who chewed up our barracks bags and blankets and damaged whatever personal possessions they could find.

It was futile to chase them with shovels and brooms. If we had had immediate access to our regular assigned weapons, we might have been more efficient rat-killers. But because we were not close to Japanese-occupied territory, our weapons were stored and guarded in a tent serving as the company's armory.

One of my tent mates was an electrician. I recall that his name was Rausch and that he came from Wisconsin. He devised a scheme to kill the rats who were tormenting us. The tent had a two-socket electric outlet in the ceiling. Rausch found a large metal plate, wrapped it in electric wire, and hooked it up to one of the sockets. The other socket contained a light bulb.

Rausch placed the wired metal plate on the floor in the center of the tent. He confidently assured me and the tent's two other occupants that the rats would be electrocuted when they ran over plate.

Unfortunately, there wasn't enough electric power in the wired plate to kill the rats. There was enough electric juice, however, to activate the light bulb in the tent's ceiling. That became evident as the light came on whenever a rat scurried across the wired metal plate.

Sadly, Rausch abandoned his rat-killing scheme. We decided that it was preferable to get a good night's sleep without being disturbed by a bulb lighting up, even though we were aware that we were being invaded by the water rats.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Once again, I enjoyed your musings greatly; it's almost as though we're sitting in a coffee shop, chatting. Perhaps this is, in part, because I'm 79, and we are of a certain era. I can't imagine much worse than trying to sleep with snakes and rats sharing my "bedroom". I kept waiting for you to mention huge spiders, which terrify me.
I'm reading all I can find about blogs and blogging; I plan to begin writing one about me and my experiences with people in general, and in particular: patients in my practice of psychotherapy as well as seniors in chat rooms where I am a participant/observer. You write so beautifully....Thank you. mp

Sunday, April 08, 2007 9:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Claude said...

I have always feared snakes but have tasted snake meat in South East Asia, and found it rather tasty, although I was happy to learn that it was snake, only after trying it. I am not sure curiosity would have been enough to make me have a taste, had I know what it was.
As for rats, they are pretty disgusting too. They say that in 1870, while Paris was besieged, people were eating rat stew. Yuck!

Monday, April 09, 2007 1:43:00 AM  
Blogger Ron Southern said...

Being a former pest exterminator, it's hard for me to read of places like India where no efforts are made to get rid of rats. Yikes! I am glad these days not to be doing that work, but it needs to be done!

Monday, April 09, 2007 8:42:00 PM  
Blogger Treifalicious said...

Talk about haute cuisine! Do you have any idea how much it must cost to eat a similar meal of python meat here in the US?

I realize that you might see the python incident as part of the deprivations of being in the army, but as I read it I can totally imagine some trendy celebrity chef here in New York charging hundreds of dollars for such a delicacy. Or maybe they can add some python meat to that $1000 omlette they are serving at the Time Warner Center. :)

I am honestly curious as to what they did with the python meat. Was it in a sauce? Was it seasoned? Grilled? Baked? Fried? Moreover, I wonder what became of the mess sergeant? Did he go on to open a chic gourmet restaurant or something?

Wow. It all sounds so fascinating. I think the most exotic meat I have ever had is ostrich meat.

Thursday, April 12, 2007 1:34:00 AM  
Blogger Peggy said...

I would happily put up with snakes if they were going to get rid of rats. Snakes win over rats any day.

I was one of those rotten kids who used to grab garter snakes by the head and chase all the other children around with them.

Monday, April 16, 2007 3:09:00 PM  
Blogger joared said...

Too bad you couldn't get the snakes and the rats all together, as perhaps one would have dispensed with the other.

"Fishy chicken" taste you say -- I like both, but am trying to figure out what they would be like combined. Bar BQ buffalo was an interesting food I had, but nothing compared to what you're mentioning.

Your life certainly has had some interesting experiences. Thanks for sharing them here.

Saturday, April 21, 2007 4:38:00 AM  

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