A bright Pakistani morning.
Standing in the driveway of our residence in Islamabad, talking to one of the servants, Sol, when out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. More accurately said, I saw a brown blur. It appeared briefly in the air over the ten-foot stone wall in a far corner of the immense front yard and then disappeared into the shrubbery.
"What was that?" I asked. Sol turned but didn't see anything. The bell at the front gate began ringing.
"Sol, please answer the gate. I will go see what came over the wall."
Sol went to the gate, and an animated conversation ensued. I, meanwhile, began walking across the lawn to the bush-filled corner where I thought the blur had landed.
"Sir," Sol yelled. "Don't go there! The cobra catcher says we have a cobra in the yard!"
Few words stop me in my tracks. After years in South Asia, however, "cobra," does. I froze for a few seconds, then headed to the gate to join Sol and company. The cobra catcher and his assistant smiled.
In poor Urdu I said, "How do you know we have a cobra?"
"It is my profession."
"You threw him into the yard, didn't you?"
He replied something, and Sol said to me, "He says he does not speak Urdu well. He speaks Hindko Punjabi. It is tough for me to understand him. I think he says, however, that cobras can jump over the wall."
"I see. Now he doesn't understand. Cobras can jump over a three meter wall?"
Sol relayed my skepticism to the catcher, who smiled and replied with great equanimity in English, "Sir, they can jump to great heights, almost flying. You, sir, may keep the cobra if you wish. I do not object." He and his associate, who had a burlap bag, began to leave.
Here I stood, another of Kipling's fools "who thought he could hustle the East." Either let the cobra catcher run his scam, or have a cobra slithering in the yard where my two kids play.
I don't like getting conned, but at certain times must endure it. Taking a deep breath, debating silently whether to get the Remington 870 from the house and take care of the problem myself, I uttered the fateful words of Western surrender to pirates, words Thomas Jefferson would not have approved, "How much to get rid of the cobra?"
"Only twenty rupees," he said in now excellent Urdu. With a sum then equal to about two dollars, I just had a price put on my dignity.
"OK." Thomas Jefferson, please forgive me. "Get the cobra."
The barefoot snake men ran without hesitation to the corner of the yard. While the head catcher shouted instructions, his assistant poked around with a short stick he had taken out of the bag. The cry of victory rang out! The assistant reached into the bushes and pulled out about three or four feet of cobra. I am no expert, but the thing did not look lively or well. He thrust the poor reptile into the bag, and they began to leave. The chief cobra catcher stopping to hold out his hand for the ransom. My inner Westerner, however, could not leave well enough alone.
"I paid you to kill the cobra. Kill it."
"We will do so outside, away from your eyes. It is not a pleasant sight."
"I can take it. Sol, get a shovel so our friends can kill the cobra here."
"No, no," the cobra catcher insisted. With a slight smile, and in a mix of English and Urdu, he added,"It is a difficult procedure. The dangerous snake might escape and pose a threat to you and your family. I do not wish to be responsible."
I paid the two bucks.
The two men walked out of the yard and down the street . . . to the next foreigner's house.
That cobra had a lot more flying to do that day.