Anish heard the cobra before he saw it. For a brief beery moment, he thought the hissing was just the sound of his urine falling into the shrubbery. But then he opened one scrunched-up eye, squinting against the gaudy afternoon sunshine, and saw movement. He opened the other eye as well and peered into the leafy dimness of the thicket into which he was relieving himself.
That was when he saw it. The flat, shiny head swaying gently like a banana leaf in the breeze. The beady dark eyes; The tapering stalk of its body; And slowly, drunkenly, he recognized the unmistakeable shape of a king cobra.
He stood mesmerized for several seconds, his urine flow hesitating once, twice, then cutting off abruptly. His bladder was by no means empty—there was still at least half of the six-pack left to go. But the thought of standing with his penis exposed to the swaying head and flickering forked tongue of one of the world's most poisonous snakes was not an appealing one.
A memory flashed through his alcohol-addled brain—the time he had been caught urinating against the wall of a pub in Crouch End, London. He had been fined £200 for that offence. But back here in India where even policemen often relieved themselves at strategic spots on public streets, it was impossible to prevent public urination completely. Which was when he was struck with the idea of planting snakes at tempting public spots. Yes, snakes! The prospect of being nipped in the privates would certainly dissuade even the most prolific public urinaters. Especially since Indian men usually crouched to relieve themselves, which would put the shameless bastards at eye level with the police serpents!
The image of a dhoti-clad bhaiya squatting on a sidewalk, removing his member, and starting to relieve himself blissfully before looking up-just in time to spy the cobra lunging at his face-was so vivid that it sent a shiver of laughter through Anish.
The cobra rose higher, swaying vigorously now, and slowly began to spread its hood. The hissing grew louder, now sounding like rain in a palm grove.
Anish choked on his laughter. The cobra had risen to about six feet, a couple of inches higher than his own height. The spread hook was a deep jade-green, almost jewel-perfect in its colouring and sheen. Two symmetrical eye-like markings to the left and right created the eerie impression of a face staring back at him.
As Anish watched, frozen, it began flashing its fangs at him, its tongue flickering sibilantly. Its swaying slowed until it was almost motionless. Dappled shadows of overhead leaves made it almost invisible now.
Protective colouring, it was called, he remembered.
Only its eyes, glinting in the tiny arrows of sunlight that pierced the thicket, told him where it was.
Suddenly, he had no more memories. No smart ideas. No funny incidents.
Just a dry mouth; Swirling nausea; And a shrivelled member in his hand that he did not have the courage to replace and zip up.
The cobra lunged.
He opened his mouth to scream.
The cobra fell directly at his face, mouth open wide, fangs glistening with venom, jaws spread so wide he could see into the pink-black hole of its throat; into the belly of his death.
He shut his eyes, feeling the world reel in a final vertiginous roll that was as much the result of too much beer and exhaustion as sheer terror.
A searing heat struck his face. His cheeks, mouth, neck, and upper arms and chest-almost bare in the slender cotton vest—were splattered with a surprisingly cold wetness. He felt the burning of the fangs as they sank deep into his cheek. One penetrating the edge of his lower lip with the smooth sharpness of a needle passing through wool.
And then he heard the echoes of the gunshot fading away.
He opened his eyes. And saw the ichor on himself, on his arms. His left eye was blurred by something gooey and icky. His lip was heavy with more of the stuff. The burning on his cheek and lip weren't caused by puncture wounds but by hot viscous fluid. An acrid, ammoniac stench filled his nostrils.
He felt movement to his left and then Irfan passed him, thrashing through the shrubbery to the spot where the cobra had stood. He examined the ground carefully, the revolver held loosely in his hand.
"There," Irfan said, pointing to Anish's feet.
Anish looked down, still too stunned to speak or react.
He saw the remains of several eggs; oddly shaped eggs, longish rather than oval, and almost angular at the ends. He had seen them before in documentaries on National Geographic and Discovery Channel: Snake eggs.
"You fucked up its nest," Irfan said.
Then he looked up at Anish's face. And grinned.
"Better not lick your lips, man. That isn't pussy juice on your ugly mug!"
The other guys roared when they heard the whole story. When Irfan described how he approached Anish from behind and saw him standing and staring into the shrubbery, they lost it totally.
"You should have seen him, man. The behenchodh was standing there with his dick in his hand, winking at the fucking cobra! I think he was trying to make a pass at it! Right, Anish?"
Sanjay slapped Anish on the back, hard enough to make him spill the water he was using to wash himself. "Kya yaar, Anish? I thought you only tried goats and sheep when you were desperate. I didn't know you had a thing for snakes too!"
Anish shoved him away angrily. "Fuck off."
Michael winked at Sanjay. "Come on, man. Have a heart. He just saw his girlfriend being shot dead!"
That broke them up. Sanjay slapped the side of the Mitsubishi Van several times, unable to stop laughing. Michael held his head and laughed till tears ran down his cheeks. Irfan grinned as he reloaded a cartridge into his revolver to replace the one he had shot.
Jaspal's voice cut through their laughter.
"Okay, okay, guys, enough is enough."
He caught Sanjay's hand, as he was about to slap the van again. "Relax, bhai. Maybe the next time you're pissing and a ten-foot cobra jumps at you, we'll see how big your balls are, okay? But right now, give Anish a break. The fact that he's not collapsed shows that he's tougher than he looks. Give him some credit."
Anish looked at him gratefully. Jaspal winked at him reassuringly. The Sikh was as big-hearted as he was big.
A truck rattled past them, heading slowly up the ghats. Anish squinted up at the hills ahead. The countryside was dry brush as far as the eye could see. But at the top of those hills, he could glimpse green; the green of the Khandala plateau where they had been heading before they pulled over for this pit stop.
The guys were grumbling about Jaspal not having a sense of humour.
Jaspal opened up the icebox and cracked open some more beers. Their fourth six-pack. He tossed the frost-encrusted cans to each one. The grumbling stopped instantly, and the sound of cans being popped and beer fizzing filled the air, followed by the tangy rusty-iron odour of chilled beer.
Jaspal offered one to Anish but he shook his head. His lip still felt a little numb where that snake goo had splattered. Although of course, he could use a little forgetful-medicine to take his mind off the incident. He was having a hard time shaking off the memory of the cobra lunging at his face.
Jaspal yanked open the driver's side door.
"Hey, guys, if we've all finished our little encounter here, let's proceed to our destination. We've still got a weekend to spend celebrating!"
Sanjay and Michael whooped in unison and high-fived one another. Irfan grinned at Anish as he got into the back seat of the van.
Anish was the last to get in. As he bent his head to get into the van, he glimpsed something out the corner of his eye. He paused and glanced out at the field in which the incident had happened. Jaspal honked, revving the van's engine.
"All aboard, guys!"
Anish got in and shut the door. He didn't pull it hard enough the first time and had to do it twice more before it caught. His limbs felt weak, watery.
Irfan leaned over him to pull the door firmly into place. He spilled a little beer on Anish's lap. It felt hot rather than chilled, although Anish knew it was ice-cold.
"You okay?" he asked.
Anish nodded. "Just a bit spooked, that's all."
Irfan nodded. "Don't blame you, man. That must have been one heck of a moment. For a moment there, as I came up behind you and saw it about to spring, I wished I had my camera. It would have made one hell of a wide-angle shot."
Anish grinned weakly. Irfan was a cameraman. They worked together a lot.
"Glad you had that instead of the camera," he said, pointing at the revolver lying on the seat between them.
Irfan patted it affectionately. "You bet, man."
Jaspal had waited a few moments to let a caravan of freight trucks pass, heading downwards. The Western Express Highway was the major conduit for goods coming into Bombay from various other states and the heavy vehicle traffic was relentless. When the last of the convoy had passed, Jaspal pulled away from the dirt shoulder. and taking them onto the blacktop, picked up speed as the van carried them effortlessly up the steep gradient.
Anish glanced out one last time and blinked, startled.
For a moment, just a fleeting instant, he thought he saw something long, greenish-black and serpentine, emerging from the grass behind them, at the dirt shoulder they had just vacated.
He turned to Irfan to ask if he had seen it too. And found the cameraman offering him a fresh can of beer.
"Take a brewski, chill," Irfan said.
Anish hesitated, unsure whether to tell Irfan what he had just seen. If he had seen it, his nerves were jittery as a schoolgirl's on a first date.
Then: "What the hell," he said, and took the can.
The queen cobra watched the human vehicle disappear up the hillside, spewing its toxins into the air. She had seen the one she sought staring out of the moving glass box at her. Her sharp eyes had recognized him. He was the one whose image had been imprinted on her mate's mind at the moment of his death, the one responsible for his brutal murder and the destruction of her unborn progeny. And if she had been in the nest at the time of the attack, she had no doubt that the human would have attempted to kill her too.
But he would have failed.
Because she was a queen cobra. Mistress of the forest floor, sanctified ruler of all that crept and crawled, anointed by Lord Shiva himself.
And even the most powerful species in creation crossed her path at his own peril.
She hissed and raised herself, turning this way then that to decide how to proceed next. Her hood flared, partially opening to reveal a breath-taking corona of colours. She was the finest of her breed. Just as her mate had been the greatest of his lineage. His loss would be unbearable. It would take her seven hundred rebirths to find a mate as perfect, as well suited.
Seven hundred lives of sadness, longing and loneliness, seven hundred lifetimes alone.
The human would pay for his murderous act.
Raising herself to her full height-a formidable seven feet-she sent up the mantra of invocation. Calling on the Lord and Master of the Snake Tribes: Shiva himself. Asking him to grant her the power to fulfill her only desire.
The rest of that day, they drank themselves into a stupor in the bar with the glorious view of the Valley. The monsoons had left the entire plateau lush and rich with greenery. Waterfalls plunged from the tops of cliffs, carving their way down the sheer rocky slopes to shatter hundreds of feet below in a fine mist of spray. Enormous flocks of birds darkened the purple-streaked skies as the sun set, looping around the valley as if searching for something. Monkeys leaped from tree to tree on the hills below, chattering excitedly. Anish assumed that the general disturbance was due to sunset. Still, it was one hell of a hullabaloo, even seen from the soundproofed vantage of the resort hotel.
Something prickled the hairs on the back of his hand. He looked down and saw a tiny insect scappering away. He would have slapped it instinctively but his reflexes were sluggish, unresponsive.
"Wow, man," Irfan said about a million times. "Great location, man. Really great."
Jaspal smiled indulgently, exchanging a glance with Anish as they noted Irfan's five-hundredth or six-hundred repetition of the litany. But Anish could see that Jaspal was pleased at the compliments. His firm had designed the hotel. Not Jaspal personally, but his brother and father. "Best resort in Khandala," he had said proudly. And from what Anish had seen so far, it was.
Irfan put his hand on Anish's shoulder, squeezing gratuitously. "We should shoot here, man got to shoot this place. What say?"
Anish nodded. "Yeah, it's terrific. But what do we shoot here?"
He was wondering if maybe Irfan was gay. He had never known him to touch so much. Then again, he had never seen him this smashed before either.
"Anything, man! There must be some sucker of a producer we can talk into letting us shoot a couple of episodes up here. Just look at the view. And the light is maha-perfect. Magic light. Oh, man, look at that shot right there."
He got up and went closer to the semi-circular picture window, banging his head against the glass as he leaned forward to catch the 'shot'.
"Wow, man," Anish heard him say again, and he and Jaspal grinned lazily at one another. If Irfan was a camera, he would have been totally out of focus right now.
Sanjay and Michael returned from wherever it was they'd disappeared to. Sanjay looked like he had been up for three nights drinking. Maybe he had. He was excited about something.
"You guys want to sit here drinking all night or you want to really party?"
Jaspal looked at him, then at Michael. "You guys are the ones who wanted to just stick to this air conditioned box. I was telling you, let's go for a swim and cool off."
Michael looked at Sanjay and they both laughed in the overblown, conspiratorial way fellow drinkers developed over a long binge.
"We're not talking about swimming, bro. We're talking about some real fun. Are you in or out?"
Irfan looked intrigued. "Are you guys talking about what I think you're talking about?"
"Oh, shit," Jaspal said. "Don't tell me."
"Pussy, bhai! Pussy time! Who wants to party—and I mean, part-tay! All those interested please raise your dicks!"
"Chill, guys," Jaspal warned, glancing around. "The whole staff knows me. I told you, no hanky panky here."
"So who's doing anything here?" Michael said. "Let's shift this unit into our room. That's where the main feature presentation's waiting for us, bro!"
"Wait till you see her, yaar," Sanjay said. He made an O with his thumb and forefinger. "Class act."
Michael stuck his forefinger into Sanjay's O. "Eminently fuckable, bro!"
Anish frowned as they navigated their way out of the bar and through the foyer of the hotel. "You've got a woman in your room?"
Jaspal groaned. "Guys, guys! I told you back in Bombay itself. No whores!"
Michael clapped his hand on Jaspal's shoulder. It looked like an infant patting his father's arm. "Who said anything about whores, bro? This is a real live nymphomaniac we've got here."
"You better believe it, yaar," Sanjay said, shaking his head in awe as they steered their way shakily down endless carpeted corridors.
A trio of cherubic little girls in swim trunks, all carrying identical purple rubber floats ran by squealing, chased by a single harried, over-weight mother with a towel wrapped demurely around her torso. "Ashita, Rashita, Nashita, you stop right now or I'm going to slap all three of you!" A burly, hairy, pot-bellied father waddled slowly after her, sucking on a Tropicana. He burped as Anish passed him. "Squeeze me," Anish distinctly heard him say.
Mike was hyping up the nymphomaniac.
"Yeah, bro. You should have seen the way she came on to us, she was ready to do it right there and then on the spot. Lekin we said we've got to give our buddies a share of the pie too. Right, Sanjay?"
"Bilkul theek kahan, bhai. Spot on."
They reached the Suite Royale. Jaspal's family contacts had gotten them the suite for the weekend virtually for free. That was why they were here. That, and to celebrate Anish's serial getting a 13-episode extension.
"Now, listen, bro," Michael said in a stage whisper. "This dame is hot enough to burn your skin off, okay? So we'll all get our shot at her, okay? But since Sanjay and I found her first, we're going to get first crack."
"Ha, yaar," Sanjay said, leaning against the wall like a sailor holding onto a lifeboat in a storm. "I don't like sloppy seconds, bhai. I'm taking first chance."
Jaspal and Anish exchanged glances, eyebrows raised.