Snake in the Grass
Sandeep Girish Bhatnagar

Vishkar sat nonchalantly in a huge, expensive-looking, ornate chair in the manner of a tribal chieftain holding court. His short, thick legs were languorously crossed and his plump face fixed on what he fondly imagined was an expression denoting benign altruism, tempered by a will to see justice done. His hairline had receded almost to his ears; whatever hair he had left was carefully dyed grey, giving it a sort of salt-and-pepper hue. Since it was Sunday, he wore branded jeans and a brightly colored T-shirt. During the week, however, he dressed in flamboyant designer outfits. Around him was the paraphernalia of the nouveau riche (or rather the unscrupulously nouveau riche): an enormous portrait of the “father of the nation”, flanked on either side by pictures of a religious preacher and the “supremo” (as he was called by the popular press) of the political party Vishkar belonged to. A bouquet of flowers, thrust into a colorful vase, adorned the centre of a well-polished table with elaborately carved legs, on which were arrayed writing materials, a tourist brochure of Japan and a large magnifying glass.


One usually found Vishkar in his office, even on weekends, as it was the centre of his world. It gave him a sense of being, in the truest sense. It was here all he valued and cared for was given shape. That is to say, this was where all negotiations for clandestine deals (euphemistically termed as “developmental work”) were conducted. Given the kind of money he regularly swindled from the municipal corporation, it was hardly surprising that the office furnishings were loud and plush, as if unabashedly proclaiming the owner’s success to the world. He had a penchant for the baroque and would have had no hesitation in telling you so; that is, of course, if he knew what the word meant. Needless to say, all that took place here in his office was under the scrutiny of a CC TV camera.


A man stood before Vishkar, not exactly cowering, but definitely ill at ease. He was of a slight build and everything about him suggested frailty: from a tendency to stoop during moments of stress to his faded but well-ironed clothes. His nondescript face was lined with wrinkles, caused more by a habit of needlessly worrying than by the passage of years. He wore old-fashioned, tortoise-shell spectacles, from which he peered out at the world with weak, watery eyes. He was pleading his case in an unsteady - almost quivering - voice, further marred by an occasional stammer:


“The town municipal authorities say that if I do not demolish the extra room, they will do it for me...”He trailed off as he waited for Vishkar to respond.


Vishkar nodded sagely, his mind racing four to five moves ahead. What the abject-looking specimen standing before him was saying was not news to him. These notices had been sent at his behest by the department of town planning, informing the recipients that they had not taken the required permissions before extending their residences. He knew that the gullible householders would contact him for advice and that he could then manipulate them to his advantage. If he played his cards right, he could even usurp their properties at rock bottom prices. He could see it all, right before his eyes: high-rise apartments for the super-rich, with swimming pools and Ipad operated amenities. Tears of joy welled up in his eyes as he imagined this utopia of universal prosperity and individual well-being. No-doubt, it would take quite a bit of political maneuvering and the bending of laws to raze the existing villas to the ground. But all that could be managed. Where there is a will, there is a way.


It had been a slow climb up the ladder of success; but Vishkar had done it; that, too, all on his own! He had begun his career some 40 years ago as an inventory clerk in a minor department of the state government. After taking voluntary retirement at the age of 45, he moved into a middle-class locality in the suburbs, where he opened a hardware store. He dealt mainly in building materials, plumbing supplies and electrical fittings. His modus operandi was simple. He would first chat up a customer with pleasantries and general observations. After he had won over his confidence, he played the role of a sympathetic listener and let the other pour out all his problems. At times, he pretended to be held spellbound as his interlocutor, pleased to be in the vicinity of a sympathetic ear, held forth on some topic in excruciating detail. For instance, he had been subjected to a lengthy discourse on the inherent defects in the policies of the IMF and World Bank and how it is possible to distinguish between the two. He listened intently, even when bored to death, nodding every once in a while in order to further the deception. In this manner, he became privy to all the little secrets of those who visited his shop. It didn’t take Vishkar long to realize that there were easy pickings in the neighborhood. The hardworking, middle-class inhabitants could be quite easily “managed” by a clear-thinking person such as himself. It was, therefore, a simple matter for him to get elected to the city council and thus begin his career as a successful politician.


The suburban locality, in which Vishkar now resided, was experiencing a realty boom as the main metropolis, to which it was attached, could no longer cope with the hordes of migrants from the rural areas and small towns. People poured in, searching for jobs and a better deal for themselves and their families. As a result, property prices, which had earlier been increasing at a steady pace, now began to skyrocket. It was just the scenario for someone who knew how to play his cards right. Vishkar soon shifted from his poky little flat to a sprawling villa with fruit trees in its garden. He no longer moved around on a bicycle, but bought himself a luxury sedan.


So here he was, awarding municipal contracts to himself and his family and thereby becoming very rich and prosperous. A regular rags-to-riches story! A shrewd tactician, he went out of his way to cultivate members of the gutter press. He kept abreast of all the latest developments in the city council and applied his Machiavellian genius to schemes and stratagems for further enriching himself. The present ploy, however, was the brainchild of his son, an architect employed by the municipal town planning department. Vishkar was justifiably proud of his son. “Like father, like son,” he was fond of saying to the members of his ever-expanding circle of admirers. "A regular chip of the old block!” Vishkar had a predilection for clichés and the more sonorous, the better.


“This is a serious matter,” observed Vishkar as he peered at the letter the frail man had handed over to him. “Have you or have you not made these extensions to your residence?”


 “Yes but ….,” mumbled the hapless, frail man as he gazed appealingly at Vishkar, trembling in his shoes as he did so.


“It is a serious matter, indeed,” said Vishkar and went on pretending to study the document. He tapped it with his forefinger and nodded his head as if pondering over the problem. He had it all planned out: all he had to do was to bewilder and perplex the frail man to the extent he broke down and the latter would agree to sell his property for a song.


Vishkar was a keen chess player and he often used methods better suited to a chessboard in his dealings with people. He knew how to execute a fork, develop a pin and press home an advantage at the appropriate moment. Naturally, his favorite gambit was the skewer or disguised attack. Like it or not, one has to admit that in order to successfully exploit the law, a lot of brain work and careful planning is required. Moreover, one needs to be constantly alert. Vishkar could barely suppress a smile as he noticed a giveaway mannerism of the frail man. In moments of extreme stress, the man’s left eye twitched uncontrollably in a most pathetic manner. This, Vishkar realized, was a sure sign of hypertension. He had only to persevere with his pressure tactics and it would only be a matter of time before the man’s blood pressure soared and he had a seizure. Like so many successful people, Vishkar believed all was fair in love and war. Besides, he needed funds for the coming elections.


“I may not be able to do much in this case, since it is a clear case of the violation of municipal regulations,” Vishkar remarked and watched the frail man go into spasm of nervous agitation. “You know very well that one has to obtain municipal permission before commencing on any construction or demolition work.”


“Yes but …, stammered the frail man in dismay.


“Where would we be, if everyone was to start erecting multi-storey towers over their bungalows?” asked Vishkar in the manner of a judge reprimanding a defendant prior to pronouncing judgment.


The frail man looked around him in dismay. He was getting more and more perturbed by the passing minute.


“I have always maintained,” said Vishkar for the benefit of the other supplicants awaiting their turn before his unofficial tribunal, “that it is always better to stay within the purview of the me... ”He shook his head ruefully in the manner of one truly distressed at having to chide an errant child.


The frail man’s face drooped almost to his knees.


As he was subjecting those around him to a harangue on the benefits of being a law-abiding citizen, Vishkar banged his fist on his thigh. He believed in histrionics: nothing like a bit of drama to drive home a point. However, as his hand landed on his thigh, he felt something clammy and muscular. Startled, he looked down and came face to face with a huge python. The snake gazed at him with a friendly smile and flicked its tongue courteously. So intent had everyone been on what Vishkar was saying that they hadn’t noticed the approach of the gregarious reptile.


Vishkar froze in his seat. To say he was terrified would be putting it mildly. A lady screamed and everyone ran helter-skelter in terror. There was complete pandemonium in the office as people rushed towards the exit. The frail man, who had been absorbed in searching for some elusive documents in his bag, looked up on hearing the noise around him. He saw the snake nestled comfortably in Vishkar’s lap and shook his head apologetically.


“It’s all right,” he said, his hands held up to placate the throng. “It’s just a pet, my son’s pet. It’s harmless.”


He went up to the snake and began to stroke its head, much to the pleasure of the young reptile, who gently swayed its head in appreciation. Such was the frail man’s demeanor that people soon calmed down.


“That’s really a large snake,” observed one of the supplicants as he peered over the shoulders of the frail man.


“It most certainly is, ",“ agreed his friend, a beetle-browed individual, who prided himself in his knowledge of arcane flora and fauna. “I think it’s a rock python.” He was a keen viewer of the various wildlife channels available on cable television and had thus gained a measure of amateur expertise on the subject.


“A rock python, you say,” said the first man as he gazed at the snake intently in the manner of one scientifically examining an interesting zoological specimen. “No. It looks more like an anaconda.”


 The snake, in the meantime, continued to slither in the lap of the hapless city councilor, whose eyes had begun to bulge.


The two amateur biologists then began to argue on the identity of the snake. They wanted to get it right. What’s the point of calling the creature a snake, when scientific nomenclature had given its species a precise name? It was either a python or an anaconda; it couldn’t possibly be both.


The two began to argue in right earnest. Like most middle-class people, they enjoyed nothing better than a good argument. It provided them with a means to purge themselves of pent up emotions. Bystanders, too, began to take sides and entered the debate with eager minds enthused by the spirit of scientific enquiry. They went into the antecedents of every snake whose acquaintance they had had the good fortune to make. They spoke about poisonous snakes and non-poisonous snakes, land snakes and water snakes, snakes with mottled skins and snakes of a single colour, snakes that were huge and snakes that were tiny, and even snakes that could fly. Soon, the discussion moved onto the dietary habits of these reptiles: what they liked and what they didn’t and so on and so forth. One group even began to discuss the exact status of snakes in the ladder of evolution with a gusto that would have drawn the approval of Charles Darwin had he been among those present.


Everyone seemed to have forgotten about the notices issued by the city council. Vishkar, too, was ignored. After all, it isn’t every day that one gets to see such a large reptile and that, too, at such close quarters.


Vishkar, understandably, was not interested in the discussion being carried on around him.


“Get this brute off me,” he screamed with a fine disregard for the feelings of the snake, who appeared to have taken an instant liking for the politician. Indeed, it was in the very act of following Shakespeare’s dictum regarding the advisability of grappling true friends to one’s soul with hoops of steel, when the object of his affections had interrupted the proceedings with his offensive remarks and that too at such a high decibel. But being a broad-minded creature, the snake decided to overlook this breach of etiquette and continued to make itself comfortable around the waist of his new playmate. After all, one has to make concessions in order to establish a healthy relationship.


“Come here!” said the frail man in a stern voice as he attempted to scoop the python into his arms. “Must have followed me here,” he explained to the onlookers. “She’s always doing this.”


 The python, however, refused to obey and instead coiled itself even more tightly around Vishkar’s torso.


“Is it yours?” gasped the distraught politician. “Please get him off me,” he implored, his face as red as a ripe tomato.


“It belongs to my son,” explained the frail man in a placatory tone. “He rescued it from the highway and has kept it ever since. Now, where is that son of mine? If I have told him once, I have told him a dozen times: ‘Make sure your pets don’t stray!’”


As he spoke, he once again tried to extricate the snake from around Vishkar’s waist but with little success. There was a stubborn streak in the python: it couldn’t see why it should be ordered around and asked to abdicate from a position of comfort. It respected the frail man and was, in fact, quite fond of him; but it would be damned if it was going to disengage itself from a kindred spirit, just as they were getting to know each other.


 “Excuse me, sir,” said the beetle-browed man, who had claimed that the snake was a rock python. ”Would you mind settling a wager? Is that a rock python or an anaconda?”


“I will have to ask my son. He is studying to be a vet, you see,” replied the frail man.


“A vet, you say. That’s nice.”


“Earlier on, he said he wanted to become a snake charmer of all things,” went on the frail man. “But my wife - his mother- would have none of it and said that he would have to become a vet, or a dentist at the very least.”


“I believe vets make a lot of money,” ventured the beetle-browed, amateur biologist.


“Who says? The only work they get is with the SPCA,” countered his argumentative friend. “The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,” he added as he saw the quizzical looks around him.


“My nephew used to work for the SPCA, a couple of years ago,” said an old lady, who had wandered into Vishkar’s office to investigate the cause of all the commotion. She held an overflowing shopping basket in one hand and her grandson in the then. She was glad to have some real-life diversion. The four-year-old child who had accompanied her clutched a bar of chocolate firmly in his grubby hand as he stared, mesmerized by the sight of the snake.


“What does he eat?” he asked.


“What does she eat?” corrected the frail man, eager to enlighten anyone professing an interest in one of his son’s pets. He was not really interested in what species the reptile belonged to; but had found it a friendly creature and so had accepted its existence in his household.


At this point, Vishkar screamed so loudly that everyone turned towards him.


“Will someone get this monster off me!” he exploded, his voice quivering with anger and fear.


The frail man immediately apologized and began to scold the snake.


“Get off the man! Leave him alone. Don’t you have any manners?” he reproached the reptile. The snake, however, refused to budge. At last, the frail man lost his temper and slapped the reptile smartly on the head.


“Don’t do that. He will bite me,” wailed Vishkar in alarm.


“No, no, pythons don’t bite. They crush your bones and then swallow you, bit by bit,” observed the beetle-browed amateur biologist.


The snake, a rather sensitive creature at heart, soon responded to the frail man’s admonishments and slithered off Vishkar’s lap.


“He’s gone!” exclaimed the overjoyed councilor and would have uncharitably added, “Good riddance to bad rubbish!” But there was no telling what effect such observations would have on the reptile. So he contended himself to glaring at the snake as it made its way towards the frail man.


The snake, after carefully surveying its surroundings, curled up at the feet of the frail man and began to watch the proceedings with considerable interest.


“Get that filthy abomination out of this place!” barked Vishkar, even as he began to edge towards the open door. He was anxious to make his getaway while the going was good.


Just then, a cheerful voice was heard from the direction of the exit:


“Hi, dad!”


 Everyone turned towards the door, where a scruffy teenager was standing.


“What’s the matter, dad?” he asked the frail man. “Oh, so there you are,” he said as he noticed the snake. “Naughty boy, very, very naughty. How many times have I told you not to cross the road on your own? What if you were to be run over by a passing car?”


“Boy? I thought it was Julie,” said the frail man as he absent-mindedly petted the snake.


“No. It’s Arthur. Julie’s at home, sunning herself in the garden.”


Arthur promptly slithered over to the boy and allowed himself to be picked up. He soon arranged himself contentedly around the neck of the student vet.


“He’s got a regular menagerie at home,” explained the frail man, with more than a tinge of pride in his voice. “Cobras, kraits, vipers, the whole works! He keeps them in a wooden shed at the bottom of our garden.”


Vishkar had by now recovered his composure and his mind was racing really fast. All he had to do was to get the frail man’s son to work for him and he would have his very own army of snakes. He could then release them into the homes of people whose property he wished to appropriate. That would make them jump! Who, in his right senses, would like to like to stay in the neighborhood of a snake pit? They would soon vacate their premises and agree to sell at throwaway rates. Vishkar’s beady eyes gleamed in anticipation as he conjured up a vision of hordes of highly trained and immaculately well-disciplined sinuous reptiles, lined up in battle formation, waiting to do his bidding.


Maybe he was getting a bit carried away; but there’s no denying the fact that he was always on the ball. He rarely missed a trick. Opportunity never had to knock twice for him to hear her summons.

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Sandeep Girish Bhatnagar studied literature at the University of Bombay (Mumbai) and plans to carry out research on aspects of Indian Writing. His work has been published in various literary journals such as Himal, Euphony, Shakespeare (a magazine), Kavya Bharati and Avatar Review (an online journal). He is also a professional seafarer and holds a Foreign Going Master's Certificate of Competency.
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September 2015

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