A bridge too far for commuters caught in the spell of the snake

DELHI DAYS

In India, the snake is considered sacred, so when two cobras - one a six-footer - slithered on to the Nizamuddin bridge the other day, nobody had the nerve to kill them.

Even without a pair of cobras lolling in the fast lane, Nizamuddin bridge is an awful place to be in the morning. The bridge connects Delhi with the ugly, concrete-grey satellite towns on the other side of the Yamuna river, and the morning rush is unbelievable. You find yourself straining in a mad race with buses, bullock carts, auto-rickshaws, motor-scooters, cars and even the odd camel. But the two cobras brought the traffic to a mesmeric halt.

A few of the braver scooter-riders were able to zig-zag past the two snakes on the road, but most of the motorists didn't want to try. The pile-up on the bridge soon trailed back for more than a mile. Even the blasting of a thousand car horns didn't budge the cobras, which had come up from the damp mustard fields beside the river and were happily sunning themselves on the warm asphalt.

Some commuters wanted the snakes to be whacked to death. What a nuisance, they said. Here was India speeding towards modernity and vying for acceptability as a 21st-century economic power and yet its brainy young executives couldn't get to their hi-tech offices because of two snakes.

It is one thing to decide to kill a cobra, another to do it. Those who recommended death for the serpents were shouted down by others, far more numerous. They argued that since the cobra was a mythological protector of Lord Shiva, it might not be a good idea to risk Shiva's wrath (he was, after all, the Great Destroyer) just to be on time for work.

A policeman was fetched by the crowd, but he thought it best to consult his superior who, in turn, thought it best to consult his superiors. This woeful lack of initiative led one diarist, from the Sunday Observer to recall the old Indian anecdote of the railway policeman who sent the following telegram to his chief: "Tiger On Platform Eating Station Master Stop Please Advise Stop Urgent Stop."

Many of the crowd on the Nizamuddin bridge also had memories of another strange cobra tale. The story has passed from fact into folklore, but the details, as I heard it, are as follows: Three years ago, on the road between Meerut and Delhi, a lorry driver who was carrying a load of spinach - the nature of his cargo matters to the chronicle, as you'll see - had the bad luck to run over and kill a cobra. The driver did not stop. That evening, at the local police station, a crazed woman appeared to report the murder of her husband, killed by a hit-and-run lorry. "Name?" asked the weary officer.

When the woman replied that her husband had no name because he was a cobra, the police officer chased the old hag from the station. You can probably guess what happened next: the perfectly robust policeman is found mysteriously dead in his bed the next morning. But the story doesn't quite end there.

When news of the cobra-woman's revenge reached Delhi, as it did within hours, the workers who were unloading the spinach deliveries swore they noticed white, snake-like markings on every leaf. The bazaar talk was that the cobra "wife" had put a curse on all the spinach going to Delhi. Soon, spinach hysteria swept Delhi. An entire girls' school fell ill from eating spinach. For three or four days after that, I could not find spinach in the market.

So cobras, around Delhi, anyway, have acquired a rather vengeful reputation. Back on the Nizamuddin bridge, the traffic had become a congealed river of iron, with scooters and rickshaws wedging into the tiniest open space, and when their drivers could move no further, they would bleat their horns incessantly.

Finally, a young man came along. Fluid as a fine batsman, he casually lifted the cobras on a long stick and flicked them into the air. The snakes flew, writhing and landed in a nearby field. Sometimes I'm asked why I like living in New Delhi better than London: being late for work because of cobras on the bridge is a much better excuse than wet leaves on a British Rail line.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Sport
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
football
News
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
video
Voices
Focus E15 Mothers led a protest to highlight the lack of affordable housing in London
voicesLondon’s housing crisis amounts to an abuse of human rights, says Grace Dent
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project