R. K. Narayan

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In the story "A Snake in the Grass" by R. K. Narayan, what superstitions or rituals are indicated regarding the cobra?

After a cobra enters the family's yard and they lose track of it in the grass, an old woman claims that this is a sign from the deity Murugan, who is associated with snakes in Hinduism. As the family seeks to appease this deity, offering the snake some milk is a necessary ritualistic practice. Additionally, in India snakes are not to be harmed if possible, which is another custom they abide by.

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The people depicted in the story are confronted by a paradox generated by one of their most deeply-ingrained superstitions. On the one hand, they worship King Cobra, which means that they treat these deadly, poisonous snakes with honor and veneration. On the other hand, however, they still need to remove these dangerous creatures from their midst in order to avoid being bitten and killed by them. The presence of a cobra in the family's garden is therefore both a blessing and a curse.

As the old beggar reminds the mother, the cobra is a sign of Subrahmanya, the Hindu god of war, and therefore must not be killed. Divine or not, however, this highly venomous snake still has to be removed from the garden, and it's fallen to the old family retainer Dasu to perform this dangerous task. In Dasu's labored attempts to deal with the snake, one can see what kind of problems often arise when superstition collides with necessity.

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“A Snake in the Grass” by R.K. Narayan depicts a family with a problem.  Living in southern India, the Indian people fear and honor the King Cobra.  Its bite is deadly.  The family in the story has a cobra somewhere in their yard.  Someone saw it come into the yard, but it has not been found. Narayan finds some humor in this precarious situation which is characteristic of his writing.

The family consists of the mother and her four sons.  They have an old servant Dasu who spends most of his time sleeping. After finding him asleep while everyone is looking for the snake, Dasu is reprimanded for not being more alert.

Several superstitions or rituals are indicated in the conversation with the old beggar woman who comes to the gate to ask for money. The mother tells her what is happening. The old woman takes it as a sign from the god Subramanya also called Murugan which is associated with snakes. Abhishekam is a ritual performed to honor a deity.  The person will pour milk on the god that is esteemed. Some milk in a pot which contains the cobra is considered a religious duty to invoke the snake’s aid.

Snakes are not to be killed in India if possible. Great care is to be taken not to hurt it or give it pain.  It would be a grievous sin to bruise the head of the cobra which would be an omen of calamity for the family.

The family sends for a snake charmer. He cannot help them until they find the snake.  Toward dark, the family gives up and sits on the porch.  Dasu comes carrying a pot that he has sealed.  He tells the family that he has caught the snake, and he is going to take it to the snake charmer.  The mother wishes that she could have put some milk in the pot for good luck.

After Dasu leaves, the youngest son spots the cobra coming through a hole in the compound barrier.  The snake slithers across the yard to go out the front gate. When the snake gets to the gate, he turns and looks at the family with his hood half up.

It crawled under the gate and disappeared along a drain. When they recovered from the shock they asked: ‘Does it means that there are two snakes here?’ The college-boy murmured: ‘I wish I had taken the risk and knocked the water-pot from Dasu’s hand; we might have known what it contained.'

The clever old servant fools his family by producing a pot without a snake. The writer portrays the frantic hunt for the snake; in contrast, when the snake does show up, his cool demeanor seems to say “There is not a problem.”


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