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.

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