Anju

My eyes first fell on Anju early one morning in the spring of ’67. Jayell (Jatinder Lachhman Singh’65) and I had gone bird-watching to the jungly bit of hillside below the Jamalpur Waterworks. Over years this steep slope above the Lower Reservoir had become overgrown with fig trees, lianas, thorny bushes so that it resembled a patch of natural jungle.

We were sitting below the lane overlooking a mature banyan tree laden with orange colored figs. Because of the steep slope the upper branches were at eye level. We could see mynas, orioles, barbets, green pigeons, a koel and numerous crows all hopping from branch to branch and filling the tree with noisy calls.  The birds were swallowing figs, dropping figs and disputing ownership of the better spots.  An olive green and red coppersmith was even pushing figs into the open bill of its dowdy grey young one.

Then from lower down the hillside, we heard the unmistakable ‘Cha-cha-cha’ of mynas, warning all others of a ground predator. Quickly I followed the calls down, to investigate. Some mynas flew off from the base of a tree. Between its gnarled roots, lying amongst the leaf litter, spread eagled and face down was a myna. Its wings were still trembling and there were two spotted glistening coils across the back and shoulders of the dying bird. The myna was being constricted by a snake. Very quietly I sat down to watch.

Common_Myna_(18894493254)

Courtesy: Common Mynah by Koshy Koshy, Bangalore

Minutes after the bird had stopped fluttering a wedge shaped head emerged from below the leaf litter. With it forked tongue it investigated the wings and back of the dead bird. Then the head disappeared under the leaves only to re-emerge in front again. This time it flicked its forked tongue over one wing, then clamped its jaws over it.

The wing stuck out of both sides of the snake’s mouth preventing any swallowing. Shifting its bite, almost by trial and error the wedge head finally engulfed the dead bird’s beak and head. After a short pause the mouth opened wider, stretching the skin on the cheeks. The neck of the bird quickly disappeared inside. Another pause and the lower jaw seemed to separate from the upper. Even the two sides of the mandible appeared to come apart. The scales on the cheeks separated and the skin became as tight as drum. Slowly gulp by gulp the whole body was engulfed. The wings folded in along the sides of the bird’s body, and its flight feathers and the feet were the last to disappear.

Bird fully swallowed, the snake’s head twisted from side to side, as if to make the meal more comfortable. The bulge created by the dead bird could still be seen moving slowly towards the middle of the snake. Then the snake-it was a young python-started moving away. I had been sitting, still as a stone barely a metre away.  As the juvnile python moved out from between the roots, I pounced upon it. After an ineffectual attempt to bite the snake was safely collared. She coiled her body on my forearm and started its only other defense-constriction. That was no matter from a constrictor only about as long as my arm.

1599px-Indian_rock_python_pratik_dahod

Courtesy:Indian Rock Python by Pratik Jain

Jayell had joined me sometime in all this, to find out why things had suddenly become quiet. I was too engrossed in watching the snake make a meal to notice. Off we went down the Lovers’ Lane towards Gymkhana. Something dark was by now sticking out of the mouth of the reptile. It was attempting to regurgitate its meal-making for an easier escape.

Back in the hostel we located a crate from the kitchen, moved it to my room and released the python. It immediately went about completing its unfinished business, by bringing up the now sodden myna. Having thus lightened itself it started threatening with loud hisses and open-mouth attacks. She would have no truck with those who had handled her so unceremoniously.

We had examined the snake by then. The blotched, thick body with ventral scales partly covering the underside tallied with the general appearance of a python. It had a series of slits on the front upper lips-the heat sensors of the python. No claws were visible near the vent, so it was a female. We named her Anju and she was just less than a metre long.

From the first Anju refused all food. No mice or live frogs would tempt her. And she learnt fast. By the third day she had stopped feigning attacks when approached. Instead she would coil up her body with the head underneath for protection, much like a man covering his head with his hands when assaulted and outnumbered.Anju caused quite a ripple in the hostel. Inmates came to have a close look. Many had their first feel of Anju in their hands. Murari (Yogesh Behari Sharma ‘64) even brought along his camera to take a photograph. That was the only photo of Anju in the hostel.

Chopsi (Sree Krishan Chopra’64) who stayed in the next room was disapproving. It was bad enough for him staying next to someone whose interests lay divided between animals and the gym. To have a snake in addition next door free to roam around was more than he could take. So he read the riot act on keeping pets in the Special Grade Hostel. That of course made no difference.

A week passed with everybody getting to know Anju. But she didn’t appreciate all the attention. At night when things were quiet, she would leave the box to investigate the room for possible escape routes. In the morning I would locate her, usually hiding behind the trunks or almirah and put her back in her box. She stood steadfast in her refusal of food or drink.

Then one morning Anju was nowhere to be found. Chopsi came along to help, more worried perhaps that Anju might have moved in next door with him! We searched both rooms high and low. Finally I located her. She had crawled into the fold at the back of my steel almirah, just visible but not accessible. With a cold chisel we pried open the fold of steel where she had worked her way. Slowly the back of the almirah gave way and I was able to extricate Anju from her hiding place.

That decided things for me. Anju had gone without food for near two weeks now. She was getting increasingly adventurous in her efforts to escape. Releasing her back in the jungle was the best solution. So I took her back to the hill above the Upper Reservoir and released her for the last time. A few flicks of her forked tongue and Anju slithered off with serpentine grace, without a backwards glance.

 

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