The Banyan Tree

The Banyan Tree : The Banyan Tree

The fight of the cobra and the mongoose is a classic drama often seen in India and the outcome is largely the same. The mongoose is not immune to the venomous bite. But is faster and quicker in motion than the snake. The cobra assumes a posture of defence and attempts to reach the animal by a sweeping strike. But the quick-moving mongoose jumps out of reach and comes at the snake from another direction before the snake can get into striking position again. This constant movement tires and discourages the snake and the mongoose is finally able to leap in close and bury its teeth in the snake’s neck usually severing the joints of its vertebrae.

You must have seen a banyan tree. This is a story about what the author saw as a young boy when he was sitting in an old banyan tree in his grandfather’s house.

THOUGH the house and grounds belonged to my grandparents, the magnificent old banyan tree was mine — chiefly because Grandfather, at sixty-five, could no longer climb it.

Its spreading branches which hung to the ground and took root again forming a number of twisting passages, gave me endless pleasure. Among them were squirrels and snails and butterflies. The tree was older than the house, older than Grandfather, as old as Dehra Dun itself. I could hide myself in its branches behind thick green leaves and spy on the world below.

My first friend was a small grey squirrel. Arching his back and sniffing into the air, he seemed at first to resent my invasion of his privacy. But when he found that I did not arm myself with catapult or air gun, he became friendly and when I started bringing him pieces of cake and biscuit he grew quite bold and was soon taking morsels from hand. Before long, he was delving into my pockets and helping himself to whatever he could find. He was a very young squirrel, and his friends and relatives probably thought him foolish and headstrong for trusting a human.

In the spring, when the banyan tree was full of small red figs, birds of all kinds would flock into its branches – the red-bottomed bulbul, cheerful and greedy, parrots, myna and crows squabbling with one another. During the fig season, the banyan tree was the noisiest place in the garden.

Halfway up the tree I had built a crude platform where I would spend the afternoons when it was not too hot. I could read there propping myself up against the tree with a cushion from the living room. Treasure Island, Huckleberry Finn and The Story of Dr Do Little were some of the books that made up my banyan tree library.

When I did not feel like reading, I could look down through the leaves at the world below. And on one particular afternoon I had a grandstand view of that classic of the Indian wilds, a fight between a mongoose and a cobra.

The warm breezes of approaching summer had sent everyone including the gardener into the house. I was feeling drowsy myself, wondering if I should go to the pond and have a swim with Ramu and the buffaloes when I saw a huge black cobra gliding out of a clump of cactus. At the same time a mongoose emerged from the bushes and went straight for the cobra.

In a clearing beneath the banyan tree, in bright sunshine, they came face to face. The cobra knew only too well that the grey mongoose, three feet long, was a superb fighter, clever and aggressive. But the cobra too was a skilful and experienced fighter. He could move swiftly and strike with the speed of light and the sacs behind his long sharp fangs were full of deadly poison. It was to be a battle of champions.

Hissing defiance, his forked tongue darting in and out, the cobra raised three of his six feet off the ground and spread his broad spectacled hood. The mongoose bushed his tail. The long hair on his spine stood up.

Though the combatants were unaware of my presence in the tree, they were soon made aware of the arrival of two other spectators. One was a myna, the other a jungle crow. They had seen these preparations for battle and had settled on the cactus to watch the outcome. Had they been content only to watch, all would have been well with both of them.

The cobra stood on the defensive swaying slowly from side to side, trying to mesmerize the mongoose into making a false move. But the mongoose knew the power of his opponent’s glassy unwinking eyes and refused to meet them. Instead he fixed his gaze at a point just below the cobra’s hood and opened the attack.

Moving forward quickly until he was just within the cobra’s reach, the mongoose made a pretended move to one side. Immediately the cobra struck. His great hood came down so swiftly that I thought nothing could save the mongoose. But the little fellow jumped neatly to one side and darted in as swiftly as the cobra biting the snake on the back and darting away again out of reach.

At the same moment that the cobra struck, the crow and the myna hurled themselves at him only to collide heavily in mid-air. Shrieking insults at each other they returned to the cactus plant. A few drops of blood glistened on the cobra’s back.

The cobra struck and missed. Again the mongoose sprang aside jumped in and bit. Again the birds dived at the snake bumped into each other instead and returned shrieking to the safety of the cactus.

The third round followed the same course as the first but with one dramatic difference. The crow and the myna, still determined to take part in the proceedings, dived at the cobra. But this time they missed each other as well as their mark. The myna flew on and reached its perch. But the crow tried to pull up in mid-air and turn back. In the second that it took the bird to do this the cobra whipped his head back and struck with great force, his snout thudding against the crow’s body.

I saw the bird flung nearly twenty feet across the garden. It fluttered about for a while and then lay still. The myna remained on the cactus plant and when the snake and the mongoose returned to the fight very wisely decided not to interfere again! The cobra was weakening and the mongoose, walking fearlessly up to it, raised himself on his short legs and with a lightning snap had the big snake by the snout. The cobra writhed and lashed about in a frightening manner and even coiled itself about the mongoose, but to no avail. The little fellow hung grimly on until the snake had ceased to struggle. He then smelt along its quivering length gripped it round the hood and dragged it into the bushes.

The myna dropped cautiously to the ground, hopped about, peered into the bushes from a safe distance and then with a shrill cry of congratulation, flew away.

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