Posted by: cochinblogger | November 30, 2017

Snake in the Kitchen

IMG_snake_in_kitchen.jpgKerala is snake country, as is only to be expected in a land filled with jungles, rivers, canals, lagoons, and lush greenery as far as the eye can see. The king of the snakes in Kerala is the king cobra, a snake that is more venomous than the cobra and whose diet is made up almost entirely of snakes. It is the longest venomous snake in the world, and when confronted will raise itself off the ground to its full height of six feet and give vent to a blood-curdling hiss. In fact, the unique low-pitched sound is more accurately described as a (demonic?) growl than a hiss, and is calculated to chill the spine. A king cobra’s bite can kill even an elephant, but thankfully, human encounters with king cobras are rare. The king cobra is a denizen of the deepest jungle and is therefore not often spotted. However, that is changing as the jungles shrink and plantations creep ever deeper what was once thick jungle. King cobras have been reported in villages bordering the jungle and have on occasion even been found inside houses in such areas.

In cities, however, snakes are scarce. Or it that they confine themselves to cloistered pockets where human eyes cannot penetrate? Any patch of untended greenery in the city (and there are several of these mini-jungles, thanks to absentee landlords) is certain to shelter snakes. Rats and frogs abound in the city, and can their predator, the snake, be far behind? I have seen snakes in Cochin only twice, in the same location, a patch of neglected, overgrown land behind the international stadium. One of these snakes was a female rat snake whose eggs had been smashed in a clearing operation. I saw the remnants of the eggs, and soon after the mother snake, looking for its brood. It was my first sight of a snake in the “wild,” and the memory still thrills me. My second sighting was unhappy and occurred in the same general area. A Russel’s viper was attacked and killed by a pair of dogs. However, the dogs were bitten by the snake and died painfully hours later despite a vet’s attention.

So, when the maid called out to me one day saying that there was a snake in the kitchen, I was alarmed. She had seen the snake — a small one — enter the kitchen from the passage. She pointed to the general area where it had disappeared. There was nothing to be seen there except a cooking gas cylinder beside the wall. Maybe it was behind the cylinder. I retreated to my den to ponder the situation, having asked the maid to close both kitchen doors to prevent the snake from escaping. The maid displayed admirable aplomb. She continued cooking in the kitchen, after taking the precaution of standing on a small wooden platform.

I called the police, who asked me to call the Corporation, who asked me to call Fire & Rescue, who asked me to call the Forest Department, who asked me to call their mobile wing. The mobile wing, however, asked me to call Fire & Rescue, thus closing the circle. I abandoned all thoughts of securing help from official sources. My next move was to visit a local “influencer” to find out what he thought. In his premises, I found a neighbor-lady who advised me to pray to St. George: the snake would surely run away for dear life. The “influencer” advised me to sprinkle onion syrup on the snake, whereupon it would run away. Snakes hate the pungent odor of onions. I was hoping he would volunteer to perform the eviction ceremony himself, but he showed no sign of getting up. Thanking him and the lady for their advice, I returned home.

I was down to the last ring of my circles of defense. I called the auto driver who ferries my boys to school and back. I was pleasantly surprised when he said he would come down immediately and take care of the snake. He was as good as his word. He arrived and began clearing the area in the kitchen where the maid had last seen the snake. The gas cylinder was moved. Nothing. A bunch of other odds and ends were removed from the surrounding area, and yet there was no sign of the snake. We were beginning to wonder if the snake was a figment of the maid’s imagination. I then noticed a pipe on the wall, close to the floor, and said the snake could be hiding under it. It was a thin pipe and did not afford much hiding space, so I was skeptical; but on poking around under the pipe with a stick, a snake emerged. It was small and slithered here and there frantically to escape. In vain.

The auto driver — whom I regarded as a savior now — examined the snake and said it was an anali, a saw-scaled viper; not the Russel’s viper, but a cousin. Though it was small (see the photo on top of this post), a juvenile, a bite from it would have been a serious matter indeed. My auto driver was familiar with snakes as his house was next to the backwaters, where snakes abound. And later I learned that my electrician was also a skilled snake catcher. The auto driver and electrician are not city dwellers; they live in the suburbs, one next to the backwaters (he can — and does — leap from the wall surrounding his house into the backwaters of Vaikkom) and the other next to plantations. In these environs, living with snakes is an essential survival skill.

I had the house searched, but no further snakes were found. It is still a mystery how the snake entered the house; I could find no entry points. The kitchen door may have been left ajar by the maid. I have since fixed a door closing spring to eliminate that possibility. If the maid had not happened to spot the snake, I dread to think of what may have ensued in the days to come.

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  1. Your humorous account of dealing with uninvited guests put me in mind of my uncle. Whilst working in Colombo he discovered a cobra in his surgery so called the police for assistance.
    The duty officer informed him they could do nothing unless someone had been bitten.
    My uncle was not a man to be trifled with. He immediately requested they send two policeman. The first would be bitten, then the second could remove the snake.

    • Ha, ha, ha! That is a gem! Bernard Shaw-esque. It belongs to an anthology. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Two corrections, firstly the snake in your kitchen was not a saw scaled viper or ‘anali’, but a harmless non-poisonous snake called the checkered keelback, also found in pond/drain water, gardens, forests and so on. Secondly, King cobras do not have a ‘demonic’ growl (I’ve handled quite a few and never heard such a sound apart from their hiss), nor can they raise all their 6 ft (or more than one fourth their body length) off the ground- they’d need better designed vertebral columns to ever do so. Even so, your humorous narrative of the ‘circle of help’ is so typical of governmental departments and others.

    • Thanks for the identification; it’s a relief to know it wasn’t a venomous snake.

      I should’ve been more careful in my choice of words, but what I meant by “will raise itself off the ground to its full height of 6 ft” is that it will raise itself off the ground to the maximum height it can, which, for an 18 ft snake (the longest recorded length) is 6 ft (it can raise 1/3rd of its length off the ground). Yes, 6 ft is, I suppose, the absolute uppermost height the longest specimen of all time can achieve. Literary license. For a 13 ft snake, it’d be 4 ft, which is still impressive.

      Regarding the growl, I relied on Wikipedia: “The hiss of the king cobra is a much lower pitch than many other snakes and many people thus liken its call to a ‘growl’ rather than a hiss. While the hisses of most snakes are of a broad-frequency span ranging from roughly 3,000 to 13,000 Hz with a dominant frequency near 7,500 Hz, king cobra growls consist solely of frequencies below 2,500 Hz, with a dominant frequency near 600 Hz, a much lower-sounding frequency closer to that of a human voice. Comparative anatomical morphometric analysis has led to a discovery of tracheal diverticula that function as low-frequency resonating chambers in king cobra and its prey, the rat snake, both of which can make similar growls.”

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