Dear Sir, of the bicycle, the strung-back beard and the spun turban,
I am writing, after all these years, to thank you for your service with the snake. Do you remember that day? You, the retired Sergeant of Police from the Punjab, then 78, upright, correct and immaculate in your guard’s uniform, you must be 90 in the shade now, at least, as I always felt you put your age down, to keep your job.
You would open the gate for us and salute; and close the gate and salute. I am not entirely sure who the gate was to keep out, but keep them out you did. Each morning, you would bring up the mail, exotically addressed to Jalan Pantai, Batu 1¾, your stick tucked horizontally under your left arm, your right arm extended, carrying the letters. ‘Good morning Ma’am, your post.’ Bowed head, heals clicked – almost a caricature of yourself – and always a gentle smile. You could have put the lot in the post box, but then we would have been deprived of our regular encounter.
When the children were home on school holidays, you would speak gruffly to them, admonishing them to ‘Listen to your mother. Make your parents proud of you. Always do your homework.’ And ‘Love them, you have the best parents in the country.’ In spite of these lectures, they adored you, Tara Singh. Young Primus used to ask you about the war and Partition, and you would tell him about your family life, back in India. You explained about your sword, handed down from your father, and your silver bracelet, which all devout Sikhs wear with pride. You took off your turban for him showing him how you folded up your uncut hair and harnessed your beard.
Primus and his sister were home the day the cobra got in. He ran down the hill to your hut to ask for help, and ran back to tell me that you were coming, we didn’t need to call the fire brigade to remove it – a normal duty for those worthies in country Malaysia.
We stood around watching the snake explore our verandah, waiting for you and hardly daring to move. You took your time coming.
When you finally arrived, you explained you first had to stop and pray. I am not sure if you were seeking guidance or praying for the soul of the cobra, and I never thought to ask you. You came to the front door and removed your boots. I remember you had thick scratchy-looking socks on. I begged you to leave your boots on – ‘It is a cobra Tara Singh!’ – but no, you were certain that socks were sufficient protection.
‘I will not kill it Madam’ you said. ‘It is very bad to kill a snake. But show me and I will remove it for you.’
I pointed ‘On the verandah, amongst the chairs and tables.’
We, cowards, watched through the windows as you leapt about, your stick whirling, your feet prancing from seat to cushion to table. Then it was over. You’d hooked the chap – limp like a garden hose – over your stick and flung it far across the garden. Then you stood still, head bowed, hands folded, giving thanks for the safe delivery of you both.
You turned to come to us, smiling and touching the end of your moustache. You saluted. ‘It is safe Ma’am, Boy, Girl, you can come out. I have sent the snake away.’ You wouldn’t accept a cup of tea or even a glass of water before you returned to your post, even though you were breathing heavily now, and trembling, almost imperceptibly.
I am sure we thanked you Sir, at the time. But now, across the years, your eyes come back to me, and the realisation that you too, were terrified of the cobra. You earned medals in the Police, so my thanks are not grand in comparison; please believe that they are from the depths of my heart.
I wish you a healthy retirement and a peaceful transition to what awaits you in the next world.