Mountains of the Moon – 3
The black mamba station
It was about 3pm when an excited Shankar arrived at the station. The station ‘office’ was little bigger than a wardrobe. The ‘platform’ was just a barb wired area. Behind the office room was his ‘quarter’, a little bit bigger. After dropping him off, the train left for Kisumu.
There was a train in the morning from Kisumu, and one in the afternoon towards it. There are only two trains a day. It wasn’t much work, he would have a lot of time in his hand. And it didn’t take him long to take charge from his predecessor. The previous stationmaster was a Gujerati man, he spoke English pretty well. He made Shankar tea. There wasn’t much to explain to Shankar. But it appeared that the poor chap didn’t have anyone to talk to for a long while. He was very happy to see Shankar. After a cup of tea, the two walked around the station.
Shankar asked: Why the barbwire?
The Gujerati gentleman replied: Oh that’s nothing really. It’s a quiet place you know.
It appeared to Shankar that the man was hiding something. Shankar didn’t insist on an answer. The gentleman cooked roti for dinner. Halfway through the dinner he shouted: Damnit!
Absolutely forgot to take drinking water from the train. There’s no water left.
You mean you can’t get drinking water here?
Nope! There’s a well. But the water is extremely bitter. Only good for washing dishes. Drinking water you get from the train.
Interesting place, Shankar thought, no water, no people. Why have station in such a place.
The next morning the former stationmaster left. Only then Shankar realised how lonely he would be at this place. It was by far the least populated place he had ever seen! He was the only person in the station. There was no coolie, no pointsman, no guard, nothing!
The reason for this arrangement was because that station, and many like it, were not making any profit. Their existence was still ‘on trial’. As a result, the rail company wasn’t going to spend much on it.
What did Shankar do whole day? After the morning train left, he cooked, he read, after lunch he took a nap, after the afternoon train left and the sun came down, he walked around.
Around the station there was the familiar grassland, with some tall trees, and a mountain range visible in the far horizon. It was just as beautiful as the construction camp was when Shankar first arrived in Africa.
The Gujerati man told him never to venture out far into the grasslands.
Shankar asked: Why not?
The gentleman did not give a satisfactory answer. But Shankar received an answer one night the very first week.
Shankar finished his dinner rather early that evening. He was writing his journal in the office room. He decided to sleep there that night. The room had a glass door, which was ajar, not locked. Hearing a sound, he looked up to the door — beyond the glass was a huge lion. Shankar became very stiff. The door would open if the beast just nudged it a bit. And he was completely unarmed except for a wooden ruler.
The lion stared curiously at the kerosene lamp for a while. For how long? Not long at all — two minutes tops. But it seemed to Shankar that the lion was there for an eternity. This was probably not a man eater. After a couple of minutes or so, the visibly bored lion left. Shankar jumped up and locked the door very quickly.
Shankar realised then why the place was barb wired. He also realised what his predecessor was hiding. After all, many would fear lions. Shankar was half right. He only understood the danger partially. There was more to come. And it took him a few more days to grasp that.
The other danger came from a whole different side.
The next morning he told the train driver about the lion. The guard, a good man, listened and said: It’s like that all over here. There’s another station twelve miles down. The same deal there. Here of course there is…
He was about to say something else, but he suddenly stopped and returned to the train. From the train he yelled: Be very careful.
Shankar became really worried — they were obviously hiding something, but what? Was there something other than lion? Anyway, Shankar decided to light a fire in front of the station from that evening. He also started to shut the door before the sun set. This didn’t mean he’d go to bed at sunset. He would stay up till late to write his journal, or read. Some nights he would just stare outside — into the darkness, sometimes he would listen to the wind howling through a distant tree, sometime he would listen to the jackals, or lions.
Sometimes he would think that this was the life he sought. This was his destiny. This quiet savannah, this mysterious night, this sky containing unknown stars, this risk of the unknown danger — this was his life. A safe life of a jute mill clerk, that could have been the dream of many, but that wasn’t for him.
After seeing of the afternoon train that day, as he was entering his quarter, seeing something in the bamboo pillar Shankar jumped back a yard — a huge cobra, ready to bite, just a foot or two away from the pillar. A false step and it would have been over for him. But before he could figure out how to kill the snake, it climbed up the pillar and hid in the roof. Some pickle it was! Shankar had to now go into that room and cook. It wasn’t like a lion that could be deterred by shutting the door and lighting a fire. Shankar quickly boiled an egg, gulped it down, and went to the station office. But what was the guarantee that he was safe there? Perhaps the snake had entered that room through some crack in the wall?
The rail company gave him supplies twice a week. The following morning, the supply was delivered by a new coolie. This guy was Indian, perhaps from Bihar it seemed to Shankar. He was giving Shankar a strange glance. But before Shankar could say anything, he left.
Shankar was now sure that something was being hidden from him. As if there’s something sinister about this place, but he wasn’t to find out. What could it have been?
A couple of days later, after the morning train had gone, Shankar was about to step on another snake. Perhaps it was the same cobra. Perhaps it was another.
He had started sleeping at the station office since seeing the first cobra. A few nights later, well after midnight, Shankar suddenly woke up from sleep. It was as if some sixth sense warned him about some impending danger. He had goose bumps in the darkness. He was trying to find the torch when he heard something moving in the room. He found the torch, and like a machine switched it on.
And he became stiff with fear the very next moment.
Between the wall and his bed, raising its ugly head and staring right at the torch light, was the most poisonous of African snakes — black mamba! From the floor the head was about three feet high, the whole snake could easily have been over six feet long. It was nothing sort of a miracle to survive a black mamba bite, Shankar had read.
We have seen how strong Shankar’s control over his nerves was when he faced lions in the past. His nerves didn’t fail him that night either.
He realised that he was safe as long as the torch was focussed on the snake’s eyes. That was his only chance. But what if the torch moved a bit? What if his hand trembled?
His hand must not tremble, he told himself. His life depended on it. He could see the snake’s eyes. They were like two giant balls of fires. Was there cold hatred in those eyes?
Shankar forgot about his surroundings, his bed, his table, the continent of Africa, his job, Mombassa, Kisumu, Bengal, his parents — there were only those two eyes. That was all there were. Everything else was dark, nothing else existed. Everything else was dead.
All of the truth was those eyes, and the poison gland that was next to them.
Shankar’s hand started aching, his finger started going numb, he couldn’t feel anything from the elbow down. How much longer could he hold the torch up? Perhaps those balls of fire weren’t the snake’s eyes… may be they were fireflies… or stars…
Was the torch battery dying? Was the light turning into a spectrum of colours? Why were the fireballs burning? Was it day or night? Was he looking at the earth or sky?
Shankar got a hold on himself. He was becoming hypnotised by those eyes. But he had to stay alert. It wasn’t as if he could get some help — his survival depended on his nerves. But there was obviously a physical limit. His hand couldn’t go on staying still forever. At some point, even a snake bite must have appeared to be more appealing!
The station clock turned to three. His life was obviously till 3am that morning. As the clock hands turned three, his hand trembled, and the fireballs were gone. But wait, the snake didn’t bite! Why not?
Shankar realised that the snake was also hypnotised. This was his chance… within a second he jumped out of the bed ran out to the platform, closing the door from outside.
He stayed at the platform until dawn. Eventually the morning train arrived. Shankar told the driver about the snake. The driver said: Come on, let’s have a look.
There wasn’t any sign of the snake. But the guard showed Shankar holes in the ground around the station. He said: You might as well know. You’re very lucky. Your predecessor left because of the snakes. The two previous ones died of snake bite in this very station. In Africa, black mamba is more feared than lions. Apply for a transfer man. And please, don’t tell anyone that I told you about this.
Shankar said: It will take months to get that transfer. Please do me a favour. I’m completely unarmed here. Please give me a revolver and a rifle. And give me some carbolic acid.
I have some acid in the train, hang on.
A coolie stayed back for the day. They covered all the holes and sprayed acid around the platform. In the afternoon train the rail company sent him a rifle and a revolver.