Giles Ryan

© Copyright 2023 by Giles Ryan

Photo by Nivedh P on Unsplash
Photo by Nivedh P on Unsplash

I’ve taken long walks in a few risky places and one such place was Bangladesh.  

In the fall of 1978 I was managing an NGO’s field office in Sylhet, up in the northeast shoulder of the country bordering the Indian state of Assam. I was supervising a group of field engineers whose main work was surveying the road embankment projects carried out in the district. These projects provided seasonal employment for the poorest people of the region and were essential to the country’s rural infrastructure, playing an important role in flood control, always a useful thing in Bangladesh.

My lead engineer was Lutful Kabir. He was young, tall and thin with a sharp angular face, a full mustache and a lively sense of humor. In addition to Urdu and Bengali he spoke excellent English with the lilting accent, surprising vocabulary and slightly odd sub-continental syntax that always delighted me. Lutful was originally from West Pakistan, but the end of the recent war found him in Bangladesh and he decided to stay. Perhaps he saw a new life in a new country, and if this were the case, then we had something in common. 

Our work often took us into the countryside to visit the our surveyors at project sites where they were responsible for measuring the amount of earth moved each day, which in turn determined allocations of wheat. Observing this process on a random but frequent basis was considered prudent.

We would take a Mahindra Jeep as far as it could go and then continue on foot. October in Bangladesh is still very hot and humid after the long monsoon rains but the vivid green and pleasant expanse of the countryside made up for the heat. As we hiked along we would gather a tail of children and village idlers who would follow us to see if anything interesting would happen. It usually didn’t, although I recall one day we came upon a dead bullock in the road. The animal had worked until he could do no more and simply fell down dead where he had stood the moment before. This was definitely a family disaster and a crowd of people had gathered around to commiserate with the owner. Another very different crowd was gathering high overhead – a growing flock of hopeful vultures and crows flying in from miles around and waiting for a share of another creature’s misfortune.
But on another particular day we were walking a farther distance and our followers had lost interest, perhaps also discouraged by a more intense heat, and just the two of us hiked along. The sun’s glare was so strong that I was walking with my eyes lowered, was not looking ahead and was surprised when Lutful grabbed my arm and suddenly stopped us both. 

Giles, there is company,” he said. About ten feet in front of us in the middle of the road was a very big cobra, and if  Lutful had not stopped me, I would have stepped on him. He was partially coiled, so we could not see his full length but he was obviously huge, even by the generous standards of Bengal. He had started to stir, having certainly been disturbed from his torpor by the vibration of our footsteps.

Well. Lutful,” I said, “any suggestions?” We looked to both sides of the road and didn’t see any way to walk around. Like all the country roads, it was a raised embankment with steep sides and on either hand were fields with a layer of water and mud, not particularly inviting. The fields would, of course, have multitudes of frogs, the staple diet of the cobras and other snakes.

I believe we might wait for awhile to see if he’ll move out of the way,” said Lutful, “and since the breeze is going toward him, we may also try smoking. I believe they dislike it.”   

I’ve never seen you smoke,” I said, taking out my cigarettes and offering him one.

It is in truth not my habit but perhaps we may call this an exigency?”

Indeed we may,” I answered and so we both squatted down in the road at a safe distance, lit our cigarettes, looked at the cobra, and blew smoke his way while he looked back at us with regal disdain. 

While we waited for the cobra to grow annoyed, we began talking about snakes in a general way. At the office a month before, the chowkidar had killed a banded krait in the shrubs by the driveway, (Lutful had called the krait “an impudent fellow!”), and there had been quite a hubbub among the staff (“Any one might have had fatal bite!”) and we had all congratulated the chowkidar on his alertness. We talked of cobras, their size, their beauty and their usual shyness and how one must always watch out – there were so many of them. Lutful spoke of a cobra and mongoose fight he had seen as a boy in Karachi, and he asked about American snakes – “Is it true they wag their tails to give warning?”

Yes, some of them do,” and I told him of the rattlesnakes and cottonmouth snakes I had seen as a boy in Virginia and how we had learned at an early age to be very careful walking in the  woods.

It is the same with us,” he said. “Even they are coming into the cities where they are feasting on rats. You never know when you’ll see some terrible fellow in the garden or even in the bath.”  

The cobra was stirring again, starting to uncoil. “Acchha! Now we are seeing something,” and he picked up a stone and threw it at him.

Is that wise?” I asked.

Well,” Lutful said with a smile, “we must give him some more encouragement, yes? We haven’t all day and we must walk back the same way in the afternoon, isn’t it?”

I could see his point and besides, baking in the sun was fine for cobras but wasn’t helping us at all, so I, too, found a few small stones and tossed them at the big snake, who suddenly appeared to take umbrage. He reared up, spreading his hood and flicking his tongue. We slowly stood up and backed away, giving him more room.

I said, “He didn’t seem to mind so much when you threw a stone, so why is he suddenly upset when I do the same thing?”

Lutful thought for a moment, then laughed, his thin shoulders shaking with his mirth. “I’m thinking he’s a proud, patriotic snake and cannot sit still for a foreigner’s stone!”  His laughter was infectious and I had to laugh with him.

In any event the cobra seemed appeased by our stepping back and perhaps read our added caution as a sign of the deference that was due him. He settled back to the ground with a slow, becoming dignity and then began to undulate unhurriedly toward the side of the road and slid daintily – all seven-plus feet of him – down the embankment and into the vegetation below.

Well, I’m sure you’re right,” I said. “But I hope we don’t see another one anytime soon.”

Yes, we may now continue undisturbed – Inshallah!” he added, with the conventional piety which I always found comforting. And we went on our way for the rest of an uneventful day. 

I always enjoyed working with Lutful and missed him after I was reassigned to another job. The following year I attended his wedding when he married into a wealthy Dhaka family. It was a large and joyous celebration, a rather lavish affair with a great crowd of people, for Lutful was a very popular man.  He had many friends and I was happy to count myself one of them.

Contact Giles
(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Giles story list and biography

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher