Amritha Sobrun-Maharaj

© Copyright 2022 by Amritha Sobrun-Maharaj

Photo by Photo by EKATERINA  BOLOVTSOVA at Pexels.

I was a little girl, in the 1950s, around five or six years of age I think, when I had my first encounter with a snake. It changed my life forever.

We lived in a pretty little town called Pietermaritzburg in South Africa. They called it the sleepy hollow because it sat in a valley surrounded by hills. I couldn’t understand why they called it sleepy because, for me, it was the most exciting place. There was a stream that ran through the town on the edge of my school ground, and the street down which I walked to school was flanked by beautiful jacaranda trees that formed a canopy over the road. In the summer, when it dropped its purple flowers that looked like little trumpets on the sidewalk, we would hop on them and giggle at the popping sounds they’d make as they burst under our shoes. There were lots of beautiful birds that flit from one tree to the other and even visited us in our small garden. The front garden was full of colourful flowers that my brother and I planted with our father and the back garden had a vegetable and herb patch and a large tree. We would climb it and swing off it and use the trunk as a dart board. The house behind ours had an enormous, but unkempt, garden full of trees and shrubs that attracted lots and lots of birds. I would often climb onto the horizontal bars of the wooden fence and look over at this garden and wonder what else might be there.

I had been playing alone in the backyard one day as I often did. My mum called me in as it was time to take a bath and get ready for dinner.

In a few minutes, Mum,’ I had called back.

Right now,’ she had shouted. ‘The boys are done and it’s your turn, so stop what you’re doing and get right in.’

Okay, I’m coming,’ I had reluctantly replied as I abandoned my collection of small, smooth, round pebbles in a corner of the herb patch in the back garden.

They would be safe there and the boys wouldn’t see them under the mint leaves. They always had the best collection because they were allowed to go further away from home when playing even though they were younger than me. My younger brother didn’t go too far, just to the end of the street, but the older one strayed much further with his friends even though he wasn’t allowed to. He would always come back with the nicest stones. I would sometimes get them because I knew how to win them off him. We played a game much like marbles and I would usually win.

I wasn’t allowed to go a house or two away from ours because I wouldn’t be able to hear my mother when she called. She would pop her head out the kitchen window and shout out my name on the top of her voice and the whole neighbourhood knew that I was needed to help in the kitchen. She always called me to help when she was preparing meals and I hated the jobs she gave me. The worst job was crushing the ginger and garlic in the pestle and mortar! I never seemed to get it fine enough for her and she’d make me redo it and redo it till it was perfect. She would say if I wasn’t in so much of a hurry to go play with the boys, I’d get it right the first time. Then I had to dry the dishes and put them away. I could never understand how she managed to use so many dishes when she cooked. Then I had to sweep the kitchen floor every time she did anything in there – it must have been over ten times a day over the weekend!

Why can’t you ask Asha to help too,’ I would squeal.

Asha is busy with her homework,’ my mother would say sternly.

I have homework too,’ I would retort.

Not as much as she has,’ my mum would remind me. ‘She is at high school and has big exams, so she needs to study hard. One day you will be there too and you will understand.’

The sun was setting and the light was strange, so I couldn’t see very clearly. I began to walk to the house and crossed the small patch of lawn. I thought I heard a sweeping, hissing kind of sound behind me and turned around to see what it was. It looked like there might have been something wriggling behind me, but I wasn’t sure. The light was poor and this thing was brown. Could it be a snake, I wondered. No, it can’t be. What would a snake be doing in our back yard? My sister always said that I imagined things, so I reckoned that I was imagining this and dismissed the thought. I entered the open back porch and walked toward the back door. I then turned around one more time to see if I was still imagining that something was wriggling behind me, and yes, I was. Oh well, I would have to do something about this imagination, I thought, and walked into the kitchen.

We lived in an old semi-detached house that was rather thin and long. There was the large covered porch at the back of the house which opened out onto the lawn and off the porch to one side was the toilet and bathroom. The porch led into a long passage which ran through the rest of the house and into the front veranda. Off the passage at the back of the house was a large kitchen-dinette which stretched across the whole width of the house. Because the kitchen opened out onto the large covered porch, the space looked and felt a lot larger. Off the passage were two large bedrooms. The one closer to the kitchen was the children’s and the other was our parents’. The last room was the formal lounge and dining room and this stretched across the whole width of the house, like the kitchen. We didn’t have an entrance hall, but the large covered veranda in front made up for that.

My older sister, two younger brothers and I shared the children’s room in which there was a large double bed and two single beds. The boys shared the double bed because they were smaller and we girls had our own beds. If one of us got ill, our mum would take us to her room and let us share their large bed so that she could keep an eye on us during the night. She was very concerned about us developing a high temperature at night and having this go to our heads. We kids didn’t understand why this shouldn’t happen, but we enjoyed sleeping with our parents from time to time. So, if one of us said we were feeling ill, the others suspected that it was just a ploy to get into Mum and Dad’s bed.

My sister was ill and was in our parents’ room. Before I went to our room to get my underwear and pyjamas to take to the bathroom, I thought I would peep into our parents’ room to see what my sister was up to. I paused at the door and looked in and found her sitting on the bed, sketching in her sketchbook. She was a talented artist and I loved watching her draw. She seemed to be able to just flick the pencil around and create such beautiful pictures.

What are you drawing?’ I asked.

Just a scene,’ my sister replied.

She loved sketching and painting landscapes, but could draw other things just as well. I thought I’d go into the room and watch her for a minute before I went to the bathroom. I stepped forward but found I couldn’t move my leg – it seemed to be tied to the other one. Oh, the boys must have sneaked up behind me and tied my ankles together as I watched Asha, I thought with amusement. They were always getting up to some mischief! I looked down to see what they’d done and instead of finding a belt around my ankles, I found this brown thing coiled around both my ankles and once around my left leg with its head looking up at me!

Am I imagining again?

No, I’m not imagining! It is a snake! That thing wriggling behind me was a snake!

I spontaneously burst into a terrified scream. ‘Snake, snake!’ I screamed, but the word that kept coming out of my mouth was, ‘snowy, snowy!’

Snowy was the white cat from next door and my sister couldn’t understand why I was hysterical about the cat having come into the house. She knew I didn’t like cats, but such hysteria!

Oh, shut up!’ she said, ‘it’s only a kitten.’

No’ I screamed, ‘no!’

My sister turned around saying: ‘Stop it!’ and the ‘stop it’ turned into a scream that wouldn’t stop.

I was holding onto the door frame and furiously kicking my legs around, trying to get them free from the snake, screaming: ‘Snowy, snowy, snowy….’

I saw, out of the corner of my eye, my sister jump up onto the bed and heard her scream: ‘Snake, Mummy, snake, Mummy, snake!’

Our mum came running down the passage from the kitchen and joined our screaming when she saw what was happening.

Kick it off!’ she screamed as she stood a few feet away from me, not knowing what to do. ‘Kick it off! Just kick as hard as you can!’

As I kicked with all my might, the snake struck back at me, but somehow it missed. I guess my kicking was so wild, it couldn’t get its target. I went on kicking as I screamed hysterically, and it went on striking, and missing. And my mother screamed as she had never heard herself scream before as she motivated me to kick as hard as I could, and my sister screamed with horror on the bed as she watched this nightmare unfold before her.

It was a Saturday afternoon and my father was playing cards across the street. Fortunately, it was Mr Naidoo’s turn to host the game, so he wasn’t further down the street where he would not have heard us. The group of men heard these blood-curdling screams, recognized the word snake, and came bounding out of the house, across the narrow street, over the garden wall and into the passage. At the very moment that my father landed beside me, I somehow managed to kick the snake off. It landed across the room against the far wall. I felt my father grab me while I heard my mother scream to my hysterical sister: ‘Jump, you have to jump straight into the passage.’

I can’t,’ screamed my sister, ‘I’ll miss the door!’

You see, she had to jump at an angle. The foot of the bed ended a couple of feet before the door and the door was on the right of the bed, not in front of it. The snake was now against the wall on her left and the door was in the wall on her right. Asha stood there on the bed, looking at the snake on her left and the door on her right and crying out: ‘I can’t, I can’t!’

No more than some seconds must have passed by this time, certainly not more than a minute. And then the snake began to move and my mother and father and the men from the street all began to shout: ‘You’ve got to do it now; jump now, jump now!’ And my sister jumped like she didn’t know she could. She landed right in the passage, straight into my mother’s arms. My mum dragged her down the passage toward the kitchen and my father ran off with me to the front veranda while Mr Pillay from next door jumped over the short wall that divided our verandas with some large sticks in his hands. They must have been brooms and garden spades and forks or something; I couldn’t quite see through my hysteria. The other men quickly grabbed them from him and they charged into the room.

I don’t know what happened to that snake. At the time, my parents thought they shouldn’t talk about it to me. I was traumatised enough. My imagination did begin to run wild, but I quickly stopped it. I didn’t want to imagine anymore!

I sobbed hysterically as I said to my mum and dad that it was all Asha’s fault. She always told me that I imagined things, so I thought I had imagined the snake behind me and didn’t do anything about it. Had she not said that, I would have screamed out when I saw it in the garden.

Don’t you say that to her again!’ my father yelled at my poor sister who was just as traumatized as I was.

It’s okay,’ my mum said quietly, ‘we’re all safe and that’s what matters. There’s no point in blaming anybody.’

My mum could make everything better with her soothing voice, but this time it didn’t quite work as well. I did feel a little better when she cradled me in her arms, but my head threatened to burst.

That night we all slept in the children’s room. The children didn’t want to be in Mum and Dad’s room; neither did they. After that my sister developed headaches too, but they weren’t as bad as mine. As for the garden – well, I never stepped out there alone again, let alone hide pebbles under plants!

I must have developed an anxiety disorder and a phobia. Who knows? Nobody knew about such things in those days so nobody thought that a child should be treated in some way after such a traumatic event. They gave you a cuddle, told you it was all okay now and patted you to sleep and expected you to be fine the next morning. When you expressed fear of going out into the garden, they told you not to be silly because such a thing couldn’t happen again. The snake was dead, so it couldn’t come back. They didn’t understand that there were snakes all around you since that incident; in the house, under your bed, in your cupboard, everywhere!

I found myself always looking behind me; it became an automatic response. And then when I walked down the street to school or the shops or the library, I constantly looked over my shoulder. Even when the African lady came around on a Saturday morning with her huge basket of flowers poised on her head, shouting: ‘Flaaawis, flaaawis, flaaawis’ in her high pitched, nasalized voice as she walked down the street, my little heart faltered for a moment. I used to love to run up to her basket when my mother stopped her to buy her bunch of fresh flowers for the dining table. I loved looking at all those beautiful flowers in their bright colours and helping my mother choose some. But now I was afraid to get too close. Could there be a snake lurking amidst the flowers?

I was on constant alert and became so sensitive to my surroundings like no other child I knew. While my brothers and friends played happily everywhere, climbing trees, exploring bushes without any fear, I scoured my surroundings looking for any signs of danger. I learned to identify sounds and movements around me and I became overly protective over my little brothers. My head hurt every day and I developed terrible stomach pain.

The first time I complained of this, my mum instantly gave me a large spoonful of castor oil. My stomach needed to be purged, she said and made me pinch my nostrils shut while she shoved the large spoon with the horrible oil down my throat. This was quickly followed by a teaspoonful of sugar to take the awful taste away. I threatened to vomit it up and my mother warned that if that happened, she would give me a second dose, so I swallowed hard and held my breath and kept it down. I never told her when my stomach hurt again. I just slouched around looking miserable and my mother thought I was becoming paranoid and chided me for doing this. ‘Stop worrying about everything,’ she would say. ‘And wipe that frown off your forehead! You will become an old woman before you know it!’

As smart as my mum was, I don’t think she knew anything about phobias. Perhaps nobody did at the time. My phobia for snakes grew and it never went away. It became my constant companion – the most unwanted companion ever. The mere thought of a snake or a picture of one made the hair on my arms rise and my mouth go dry, not to mention the instant headache and stomach pain. Nobody knew anything at that time about post-traumatic stress disorders either. They just asked you to get a grip on yourself and move on. Could I have developed that?

I don’t live in that town anymore. I am now an old lady and live in an apartment in Sydney, Australia. When I left the country I grew up in, I chose to live in New Zealand where there are no snakes. I could garden as much as I wanted to, walk wherever I wanted and let my children play wherever they wanted. Soon I forgot snakes existed. But alas, as fate would have it, my children moved to Australia, a land full of some of the deadliest snakes! When I retired, I had to follow them to be close to my grandchildren. Before I knew it, I was looking for snakes everywhere – in front of me, behind me, under my bed, in the cupboards, behind the toilet bowl, in the toilet bowl, just everywhere! My phobia had returned! I didn’t think it could after so many decades, but it did.

So, I now live in an apartment on the top floor of a tall building, hoping that no snake will take the trouble to climb up that far.

I still look though!

I am an Indian woman who was born and raised in South Africa then relocated to New Zealand in 1988.  I have recently retired and relocated once more to Australia to be close to children and grandchildren.

Professionally, I am a social and health psychologist who served as Director of the Centre for Asian and Ethnic Minority Health Research and Evaluation based within the School of Population Health, in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.  My research has focused on the impact of the social environment on mental health and its physical manifestations, and was conducted for the New Zealand Ministry of Health and Ministry of Social Development, providing empirical data to inform social and health policy.  As director, I have also served on several expert advisory groups to the New Zealand Government and the Auckland City Council, as well as for other research projects conducted within the school.  Prior to obtaining a Masters and PhD in psychology in New Zealand and commencing a career in university education and research, I obtained a Secondary Education Diploma at the Springfield College of Education for Indians in Durban and a BA and B.Ed. from the University of South Africa, and taught English in high schools in South Africa and New Zealand.   I have published peer reviewed academic reports and articles in international journals and have also presented papers internationally in the field of social and health psychology. 

This story is my first non-academic work. 

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