The leaves of the Champaca glowed fluorescent in a way that left no doubt how much they enjoyed the rains as well as the golden sunlight that streamed right after. I had just looked up and out of the first-floor window, intending to spend a casual moment to appreciate the healing colour and the tenderness of new shoots and buds. One tender shoot moved. My body jerked into action, this was no time for contemplation. I grabbed my camera and ran downstairs. I smiled at whoever I met on the way trying hard not to show my excitement, but rushed to the bottom of the tree as quickly as I could anyway. I’d seen it in thickets lining orchards and groves, in reeds around river beds, but never outside my window. Not eye-to-eye.
My Ajji’s voice spoke from a distant memory, “Snakes are drawn to the sweet scent of the Sampige flowers”. She wouldn’t let me go close to any flowering trees after dark. Do they have a nose? I’d asked. I was thinking of the first snake that anyone in India thinks of when you say snake – the cobra. It seemed all head and no face.
Now here I was, running after the long-nosed whipsnake. Or more commonly the vine snake. Of course, they don’t have noses, I replied my own childish question. But right now, I’d give anything for a peek into its Gorgon eyes!
Should I alert the hotel staff? I decided no. Far too many snakes are chased, hurt and killed because someone called it out. Whatever the intention of the first shout-out, it rarely bodes well for the snake.
I was staring up the tree hoping to meet the snake on its way down as I saw it go. But now, it was on its way up! I ran back to the window, huffing and puffing, wishing I could outrun it. Ralph Waldo Emerson described a nature walk in his journal noting he saw “snakes gliding up and down a hollow for no purpose that I could see— not to eat, not for love, but only gliding”. Not my friend on the tree. It couldn’t have glided so quickly out of sight without some purpose.
“Vine snake? They are everywhere!”, my guide said, later that afternoon, as he took us on the birding trail, promising to show one soon.” I can pick one out and hold it for you, if you like.” He had the same grin my cousins had when they played with a poor unsuspecting vine snake from the kitchen garden, lifting it by its tail and placing it on the motorcycle headlamp, their feat of derring-do for everyone to see. They’d grown up in a place like this, mountains of rainforest around them.
Sure enough, the guide counted three vine snakes before we returned to our rooms that evening. Each time he offered a closer demonstration, I declined. The purposeful gliding is all I wanted to see. And the eyes that sometimes looked at us, taking in everything at once, taking our eyes with it as it glided out of sight.