Speak Softly, and Carry a Big Stick

Uncle has been my faithful guardian since the day I landed here. You may recall on my very first day, he showed up at my door and wordlessly escorted me through my introductions at SRH.

Since then, he arrives at door my door to walk me to breakfast everyday. He always carries the same huge walking stick and silently accompanies me from my house to the facility kitchen where I sit and have breakfast Sunita and the other girls.  He doesn’t speak a word of English, and usually acknowledges me with a nod and raised eyebrow. Our walk is a short one: we walk down a light slope, following the path through tall grasses where the peacocks roam and take the little bridge over the creek which has dried up in the hot season. The creek bed is totally overgrown with bright grasses and wildflowers. Then we turn sharply and head over to the HIV ward and kitchen. Our morning walk takes us less than 10 minutes.

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The morning commute

He is always around the clinic, helping with whatever needs to be done. Sometimes he assists Mary the lab technician. He always takes out the trash. Other days Shobba puts him to work moving hospital beds or running saline bags around. I’ve seen him escorting admitted patients in, helping the discharged patients get on their way home, and  also taking the bodies of patients who pass away out of the hospital. Some days he even comes with Sunita to deliver the chai at tea time.

During lunch, all of us girls squabble and laugh in the kitchen. The ladies catch up on their gossip and we sit together talking about the day. Uncle is always there with us, a quiet smile among the noisy chaos, and his walking stick resting in the corner. An occasional quip from Uncle throws the girls into giggles and cackles, and then he’s quiet again.

After work I usually go home to decompress for a half hour or so, and then change into my play clothes to head over to see the children. The children and I know that our playtime is over when Uncle appears on the playground to walk me over to the kitchen for dinner.

At one point towards the end of my first month, I was debriefing with Dr. Hrishikesh (“chief sir” as we call him) and I mentioned to him that it seemed unnecessary for Uncle to walk me everywhere.

Like a proud child who wants to be treated like a big girl, I insisted, “I know my way around now. Everyone knows me, I won’t get lost! I don’t need him anymore.”

Chief Sir smiled gently and spoke in his measured English, “Yes, gina. I know you do. But if it’s alright with you, we would prefer that he continues to escort you.”

I shrugged my shoulders, feeling moderately patronized, but soothed. “Okay. If you say so.”

Well, today it all made sense.

Like every morning, Uncle arrived at 8am to walk me down to the kitchen. I gathered up my things for the day, rushed out the door. As we walked, I was working on my mental checklist to make sure I remembered everything for the day. Satisfied that I had, I began digging through my bag to find a bindi which I stuck to my forehead and rooted around for a hair tie to braid back my hair. Finding once, I started plaiting while walking and thinking: I wonder what’s for breakfast? Ideeli, no doubt. Absentmindedly, I nearly walked straight into Uncle, who had stopped dead in his tracks.

There in the middle of the path was an enormous (and I mean, ENORMOUS) snake. I have no idea what kind of snake it was. Not a cobra. Not a copperhead. It was green. And HUGE. It definitely could have been up to 6 feet long and was about as thick as my bicep (Did I mention it was a big snake?). It hadn’t noticed us and I certainly hadn’t noticed it. But when it did note our presence, instead of casually going on its snaky way, this thing faced us, started hissing, and was striking in our general direction. In the spilt second I had to think, I regarded my feet looking vulnerable in pink sparkle flip flops. All I came up with was, Oh great. Now I’m going to get poisoned by an enormous Indian snake.

Not so! Before I could even panic, react or run, Uncle transformed into a snake killing Ninja before my very eyes. He baited the green serpant with his stick, and that enormous reptile made its fatal error in striking for the walking stick that crushed its head. Just like that, in a flash, it was dead.

So there’s this HUGE DEAD SNAKE that is bleeding from its eyes, lying in the middle of the path (tail still twitching) and Uncle casually steps over it and keeps walking, when finally my brain caught up with what just happened. I started freaking out.

“ohmygodUNCLE!Thatwasamazing,youkilledthatGIANTsnake! IdidntevenknowwhattodoandIwassoscaredand youjustKILLEDIT. Youwerealllike, ‘POW! TAKETHATSNAKE!’ AndthenitwasDEAD! ohmygod WHAT IS WITH THAT GIANT SNAKE?!”

He stopped and stared at me for a quick second while I caught my breath between exclamations, and gave me a tiny smile of satisfaction with that raised eyebrow. And then turned and kept on walking.

We made it to the kitchen and I ran in breathlessly, “Sunita! Mary! Ohmygosh, Uncle just killed an ENORMOUS SNAKE! Did you know we had ENORMOUS SNAKES?! He was AWESOME!” They girls all needed a minute to try and figure out what the heck I was saying. They looked at uncle, who casually shrugged and reported in Telugu that he had ninja-killed a snake, no big deal.

Then turning back to my breathless, fully adrenalized self, Sunita said in broken English, “Of course we have snakes. This is India. Why do you think Uncle walks you everywhere for months and months? And carries his snake-killing stick?”

…Oh.

So there you go. Uncle: my very own Snake killing bodyguard. Thanks, Chief Sir.

Shobba and Uncle, the snake-killing Ninja

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