The Snake and the Mirror
By Vaikom Muhammad Basheer
[translated from the Malayalam by V. Abdulla]
The storey is a narrative within a storey. The author tells us a storey that a homoeopathic doctor told him. The snake and the mirror, as implied by the title, are the two most important elements in the storey. When this homoeopathic doctor came into contact with a snake, the snake fell on the doctor. The snake became more interested in its reflection in the mirror, and the doctor's life was saved.
It tells the storey of a snake encounter with a homoeopathic doctor. The doctor resided in a small rented room that served as an outhouse. It had two windows as well as a tiled roof. The tiles were held up by gables that rested on the beam, and there was no electricity in the room. The place was rat-infested.
On a hot summer night, the doctor ate at a restaurant and then went home. tHe lit the kerosene lamp, removed his coat and shirt, and moved the two windows to open. He sat down in the chair and pulled out a medical book to read. On the table, there was a large mirror and a lamp. He sat in front of the mirror, admiring himself, because it was too hot to sleep and he had nothing better to do. He planned to improve his appearance because he was an eligible bachelor. His thoughts gradually shifted from self-admiration to marriage planning. He planned to marry a wealthy doctor with a successful practise, and he chose a fat lady as his wife so she wouldn't be able to run and catch him.
He was so engrossed in his daydreaming that he didn't notice the sudden silence. The rats had stopped scurrying, and he could hear something falling behind him. However, he was slow to respond. A snake had wriggled over the back of the chair and landed on his shoulders by the time he turned around to look. It was wrapped around his left arm, just above the elbow. It was a dangerous cobra, and its hood was only three inches away from his face. The doctor sat there like a stone statue, afraid to move for fear of being bitten by the snake. He considered the various medicines he had and whether any of them would be effective enough to save him if the snake did bite him.
In this moment of death fear (he realised the presence of God). God had punished him for being too arrogant and proud. He realised he was nothing more than a mere human, a poor man with nothing to brag about. The snake crawled off and sat on the table in front of the mirror the moment he realised his true worth. The doctor stood up quietly and rushed out the door. When he returned the next morning, all of his belongings had been robbed except for his filthy vest, which was too filthy even for the thief.
“HAS a snake ever coiled itself round any part of your body? A full-blooded cobra?” All of us fell silent. The question came from the homeopath. The topic came up when we were discussing snakes. We listened attentively as the doctor continued with his tale.
It was a hot summer night; about ten o’clock. I had my meal at the restaurant and returned to my room. I heard a noise from above as I opened the door.
The storey is being told by a homoeopathic doctor. He asks the writer and the group whether anyone has ever been surrounded by a cobra snake. Fear of the cobra snake caused the audience to fall silent. The doctor then told his storey. It was a hot summer night, almost ten o'clock, and he was on his way home from the restaurant. The doctor heard a noise from above as he opened the door to his room, but he did not react because he was used to such noises.
The sound was a familiar one.
One could say that the rats and I shared the room.
He was used to hearing noises like this. Rats were making a noise. He was used to the noise because there were so many rats in his room.
I took out my box of matches and lighted the kerosene lamp on the table.The house was not electrified; it was a small rented room.
Because there was no light in the doctor's room, he used a match box to light the kerosene lamp. He'd gotten a small room on rent.
I had just set up medical practice and my earnings were meagre. I had about sixty rupees in my suitcase. Along with some shirts and dhotis I also possessed one solitary black coat which was then wearing.
He was earning very little because he had only recently begun his medical practise. That's why he was living in such deplorable, filthy conditions. He informed the writer that he only had sixty rupees in his bag. He also mentioned that he had some shirts and dhotis to wear. He was also wearing a black-colored coat at the time of the incident.
I took off my black coat, white shirt and not-so white vest and hung them up.
He took off his coat, shirt, and vest. He claims that the vest was not as white as it should have been, implying that it was dirty.
I opened the two windows in the room. It was an outer room with one wall facing the open yard. It had a tiled roof with long supporting gables that rested on the beam over the wall. There was no ceiling. There was a regular traffic of rats to and from the beam.
Then he pushed to open the windows. The room he had rented was on the outside of the house. And one of the room's walls overlooked the garden. The roof was tiled, and the beams supported the gable. There was no roof inside the room. The beam that supported the gable was infested with rats that entered and exited the room through it.
I made my bed and pulled it close to the wall. I lay down but I could not sleep.
I got up and went out to the veranda for a little air, but the wind god seemed to have taken time off.
- taken time off: to take a day off, take a holiday
He placed his bed near the wall and tried to sleep, but he couldn't. It appeared that the wind god had taken time off, which means that the wind god had taken a day off, he was on vacation, and thus the wind was not blowing at all. He went outside to get some fresh air because he didn't have a fan or a cooler in his room and was feeling hot.
I went back into the room and sat down on the chair. I opened the box beneath the table and took out a book, the Materia Medica. I opened it at the table on which stood the lamp and a large mirror; a small comb lay beside the mirror.
He returned to his room and sat in a chair. And he took out a book called 'Materia Medica' from the box under the table. He kept it on the same table as a lamp, a mirror, and a small comb. He sat down after opening it.
One feels tempted to look into a mirror when it is near one.
I took a look. In those days I was a great admirer of beauty and I believed in making myself look handsome.
He examined his reflection in the mirror as he sat in front of it.
He claims to be a great admirer of beauty. As a young man, he appreciated beautiful things and desired to improve his appearance in order to appear more handsome.
I was unmarried and I was a doctor.I felt I had to make my presence felt.
He was an eligible bachelor because he was unmarried and a doctor. As a result, he wanted to let people know that he was also available.
I picked up the comb and ran it through my hair and adjusted the parting so that it looked straight and neat.
He combed his hair, attempting to properly set it.
Again I heard that sound from above.
He heard the same sound from above while combing his hair but ignored it.
I took a close look at my face in the mirror. I made an important decision — I would shave daily and grow a thin moustache to look more handsome.
He examined himself in the mirror and decided that he would shave daily and grow a thin moustache because he thought it would make him look better and more handsome.
I was after all a bachelor, and a doctor!
- bachelor: a man who is not and has never been married
The doctor reiterates that he was not married and also worked as a doctor. So he wanted to say that he was supposed to be very attractive. He was supposed to be attractive in order to find a better match for himself.
I looked into the mirror and smiled. It was an attractive smile.I made another earth-shaking decision. I would always keep that attractive smile on my face .. to look more handsome.
- earth-shaking decision: something very important.
He praised himself and stated that he had a lovely smile. Another thing he decided was that he would always keep smiling because it made him look better. When the doctor said that 'to keep smiling' was an earth – shattering decision, he was being ironic.
I was afterall a bachelor, and a doctor too on top of it.Again came that noise from above.
- on top of it: to add on to something
Again, he emphasises that he was a bachelor who also happened to be a doctor. He believed he was valuable, which is why he desired to appear attractive.
I got up, paced up and down the room. Then Another lovely thought struck me. I would marry.I would get married to a woman doctor who had plenty of money and a good medical practice. She had to be fat; for a valid reason – If I made some silly mistake and needed to run away she should not be able to run after me and catch me!
He got up from his chair and began walking up and down the room before deciding on one more thing. He made the decision to marry a wealthy woman doctor with a successful medical practise. Furthermore, the doctor believed that he would marry a fat girl. He had a logical reason for this as well. He reasoned that if he made a mistake and his wife chased him down in rage to hit him, she would not be able to run fast enough to catch him if she was fat.
With such thoughts in my mind I resumed my seat in the chair in front of the table. There were no more sounds from above. Suddenly there came a dull thud as if a rubber tube had fallen to the ground … surely nothing to worry about.
The doctor sat back down in his chair, thinking about all of this. The sound had now stopped, but then something fell down, making the sound of a 'thud.' It felt like a rubber tube had fallen and the doctor was unconcerned.
Even so I thought I would turn around and take a look.
But then he decided to turn around and see what had fallen.
No Sooner had I turned than a fat snake wriggled over the back of the chair and landed on my shoulder.The snake’s landing on me and my turnings were simultaneous.
As soon as the doctor turned around, he noticed that a large snake had crawled over the chair and sat on his shoulders. The doctor's turn around and the snake's landing on his shoulder happened at the same time.
I didn’t jump. I didn’t tremble. I didn’t cry out.There was no time to do any such thing.
He didn't panic, jump, or tremble. He didn't shiver, and he didn't scream. He didn't have time to react because it happened so quickly.
The snake slithered along my shoulder and coiled around my left arm above the elbow.
- slithered: Twisting and crawling motion of the snake
The snake moved in such a way that it wrapped itself like a coil around the doctor's left arm.
The hood was spread out and its head was hardly three or four inches from my face!
- hood: head of the snake.
It was so close to his face, only 3-4 inches away, that if he had moved slightly, the snake could have bitten him.
It would not be correct to say merely that I sat there holding my breath. I was turned to stone. But my mind was very active.
According to the doctor, he was not only holding his breath but had also turned into a stone, much like a statue. Although he remained physically immobile, his mind was very active. He was deliberating on what he should do next.
The door opened intodarkness.In the light of the lamp I sat there like a stone image in the flesh.
He was surrounded by darkness. It was pitch black both outside and inside the room. There was only one light, the light of the lamp, and he sat like a statue in it.
I felt then the great presence of the creator of this world and this universe. God was there.
He began to sense God's presence as he was in trouble. He couldn't do anything, so he began to think about God.
Suppose I said something and he did not like it… I tried in my imagination to write in bright letters outside my little heart the words, ‘O God’.
He decided not to say anything in case he enraged the snake. In his heart, the doctor begged God to save his life.
There was some pain in my left arm. It was as if athick leaden rod — no, a rod made of molten fire — was slowly but powerfully crushing my arm. The Arm was beginning to be drained of all strength.
What could I do?
This snake was in a lot of pain as it coiled itself and wrapped itself around his arm. He felt as if a thick molten lead rod were crushing and breaking his arm. He was helpless. He was powerless to save himself.
At my slightest movement the snake would strike me! Death lurked four inches away.
He was aware that if he moved even slightly, the snake would attack him. Death was four inches away, sitting at a four-inch distance.
Suppose it struck, what was the medicine I had to take? There were no medicines in the room. I was but a poor, foolish and stupid doctor. I forgot my danger and smiled feebly at myself.
- feebly: weakly
He considered what he would do if the snake bit him, what medicine he would take, and then remembered that there was no medicine in his room. He considered himself to be a poor, foolish, and stupid doctor. He was feeling very weak, and since he had no way out of this situation, he smiled at his foolishness.
It seemed as if God appreciated that. The snake turned its head. It looked into the mirror and saw its reflection.
God, according to the doctor, appreciated the doctor's realisation of his mistake. Something good occurred, and the doctor's life was saved. The snake shifted its gaze to the other side and noticed the mirror. When it looked in the mirror, it saw its own reflection.
I do not claim that it was the first snake that had ever looked into a mirror. But it was certain that the snake was looking into the mirror.
It's unlikely that any snake had never looked in the mirror before. But, yes, this snake was staring at itself in the mirror, and the doctor was surprised because the snake was staring at itself in the mirror with great care.
Was it admiring its own beauty?
He reasoned that it might be admiring its beauty.
Was it trying to make an important decision about growing a moustache or using eyeshadow and mascara or wearing a vermilion spot on its forehead?
- vermilion spot: red bindi
The doctor imagines that the snake is imagining different styles, just as he was thinking a few minutes ago when he looked in the mirror at his own face. He speculated that the snake was contemplating growing a moustache, wearing eye shadow and mascara to appear more attractive, or wearing a red bindi on its forehead.
I did not know anything for certain. What sexwas this snake, was it male or female? I will never know; for the snake unwound itself from my armand slowly slithered into my lap. From there it crept onto the table and moved towards the mirror. Perhaps It wanted to enjoy its reflection at closer quarters.
- closer quarters: to get a closer look
The doctor was unsure whether the snake was male or female. And he says he'll never know because it crawled from his arm and moved down into his lap right then. It then jumped and began crawling across the table. It crept up to the mirror and began staring at itself. The doctor suspected that the snake wanted to examine itself and take a closer look at its appearance.
I was no mere image cut in granite. I was suddenly a man of flesh and blood.
- Granite: form of a marble, it’s a stone.
The doctor was no longer just a stone statue. He came back to life as soon as the snake crawled away from him.
Still holding my breath I Got up from the chair. I quietly went out through the door into the veranda. From there I leapt into the yard and ran for all I was worth.
- all I was worth: all the strength that I had
He stood up as the snake crawled out of the doctor's lap. He had stopped breathing until now because he was afraid of the snake. He now quietly exited the house, jumped from the garden, and fled.
“Phew !” Each of us heaved a sigh of relief. Somebody Asked, “Doctor, is your wife very fat?”
Everyone who was listening to the doctor's storey breathed a sigh of relief and took a deep breath when they realised he had been saved. And someone in that group asked him if his wife was overweight.
“No,” the doctor said. “God willed otherwise. Mylife companion is a thin reedy person with the gift of a sprinter.”
- reedy person: a thing or person resembling a tall, thin – leaved plant of the grass family
He responded that his wife was thin and tall, like a reed plant, because God didn't want his wife to be fat, so she was thin and fast.
Someone else asked, “Doctor, when you ran did the snake follow you?”
Another member of the group inquired whether the snake had followed him.
The doctor replied, “I ran and ran till I reached a friend’s house. Immediately I smeared oil all over myself and took a bath. I changed into fresh clothes.
- smeared: covered with
He responded that he ran and ran until he arrived at a friend's house. He had an oil massage, a bath, and changed his clothes there. He had no idea if the snake had chased him because he had not looked behind him.
The next morning at about eight-thirty I took my friend and one or two others to my room to move my things from there. But we found we had little to carry.
The following day, around 8:30 a.m., the doctor and two of his friends went to the room to retrieve his belongings. There wasn't a lot to take.
Some thief had removed most of my things.The room had been cleaned out! But not really, the thief had left behind one thing as a final insult!’
“What was that?” I asked.
The doctor said, “My vest, the dirty one.
The fellow had such a sense of cleanliness…! The rascal could have taken it and used it after washing it with soap and water.”
- rascal: a mischievous or cheeky person, especially a child or a man, a naughty person
The majority of his belongings had been stolen, but one remained. He believed that the item he left behind was intended to offend him.
The writer inquired of the doctor as to what the thief had left behind. He replied that he had left the dirty vest that was hanging on the wall. He went on to say that the thief was so concerned with cleanliness that he only left the dirty vest there. He claims that the nefarious thief could have taken it with him, washed it with soap, and used it.
“Did you see the snake the next day, doctor?”
Someone inquired as to whether the doctor had seen the snake the the next day.
The doctor laughed, “I’ve never seen it since. It Was a snake which was taken with its own beauty
- taken with: attracted by
He laughed and replied that he never saw that snake again after that night. Perhaps the snake was drawn to its own beauty, which is why it examined itself so closely in the mirror.
Vaikom Muhammad Basheer (1859-1927) was a Malayalam writer and Indian independence activist. The legend Vaikom Muhammad Basheer holds a remarkable position in the Malayalam Literary arena. With his profound and straightforward writing, a dash of satire, sarcasm, and black humour. He is regarded as one of India's most prominent literary figures. In Kerala, he was a legend.