The Snake and the Mirror
By Vaikom Muhammad Basheer
(Translated from the Malayalam by V. Abdulla)
About the Author
Vaikom Muhammad Basheer V. Abdulla
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Vaikom Muhammad Basheer was a Malayalam fiction writer from the state of Kerala in India. He was a humanist, freedom fighter, novelist and short story writer. He is noted for his path-breaking, disarmingly down-to-earth style of writing that made him equally popular among literary critics as well as the common man.
Born: 21 January 1908, Thalayolaparambu
Died: 5 July 1994, Beypore
Awards: Kerala State Film Award for Best Story, Sahitya Akademi Award.
Text Reference: Wikipedia
V. Abdulla was born in 1921 in Tikkodi near Kozhikode. His father, B. Poker Sahib, was a distinguished lawyer and Member of the Constituent Assembly and of the Lok Sabha. After graduating MA and BL, Abdulla joined Orient Longman, from where he retired as divisional director in charge of publication. For a time he was an Executive Member of the Kerala Sangit Natak Akademi. Both before and after retirement he used to write regularly in English for the Hindu and Frontline and in Malayalam for Mathrubhumi. He published many books of translations from Malayalam into English, mainly in the area of prose fiction and including novels and stories. He passed away on 16 May 2003 at Kannur, Kerala, after a brief illness.
Text Reference: penguin.co.in
The writer tells us the story of a homeopathic doctor who once had an encounter with a poisonous snake. It coiled itself round his left arm. The doctor was horrified and prayed to God to save him. The snake turned its head and saw its own image in the mirror on the table. It unwound itself from the doctor’s arm and crept towards the mirror. Now the doctor got up slowly from the chair and ran out of the house. He went to the house of one of his friends and spent the night there. Next morning, when he came back, he was shocked to find that there was nothing left in his room. Some thief had taken away most of his things.
The story conveys the message that one should never be proud of one’s beauty, strength or achievements. The fear of death makes a person realize how futile the worldly achievements are. It is faith in God which make a person strong. The doctor in the story is cured of his arrogance after a close encounter with death.
The narrator of the story is a homeopathic doctor. He tells a story of his encounter with a poisonous snake to some of his friends. He says that in those days he lived in a rented room which was full of rats and they constantly made noises.
It was around 10 O’clock at a hot summer night. He had just returned home after taking his meals at a restaurant. He lighted the kerosene lamp. After some time, he opened the two windows in the room. Then he sat down on the chair and took out a book to read.
Apart from the lamp, there was a large mirror on the table. In those days, the doctor cared much about his looks as he was a bachelor. He picked up a comb and parted his hair. He looked at his reflection in the mirror and smiled at his own image.
The doctor got up, lit a beedi and paced up and down the room. He decided that he would marry. He thought that he would marry a woman doctor who had plenty of money and a good medical practice. He decided that he would marry a fat lady so that she would not be able to run after him if he wanted to run away.
Then he sat down on the chair in front of the table. There were no more sounds of rats. Suddenly something fell on the ground with a thud. As he turned to look at. He was horrified to see that there was a large snake on the back of the chair. Just then the snake came on his shoulder. Before the doctor could think and act, the snake coiled itself round his left arm. Its hood was spread and its head was hardly three or four inches from his face.
The doctor was horrified. He prayed to God to save him. It appeared as if God had heard his prayer. The snake turned its head and looked into the mirror. It saw its own image. Then the snake unwound itself from the doctor’s arm and fell into his lap. From there the snake crept onto the table. It moved towards the mirror. Perhaps it wanted to see its image closely. Now the doctor acted quickly. Still holding his breath, he got up slowly from the chair. Then he ran out of the house. He went to the house of one of his friends and spent the night there. Next morning, he came back to his room. He was shocked to find that there was nothing left in his room. Some thief had taken away most of his things. There was no sign of the snake either.
Short and Long Answer Type Questions
Q. When did the incident of the encounter with the snake take place?
Ans. It was around 10 O’clock at a hot summer night. He had just returned home after taking his meals at a restaurant.
Q. What kind of a room did the doctor live in?
Ans. The doctor lived in a small rented room which did not have any electricity. The roof was tiled and supported by gables which rested on a beam. The room did not have a ceiling and it was infested with rats.
Q. Why did the doctor live in a small, poor house?
Ans. The doctor lived in a small, poor house because he had just started his practice and he was not earning much. He could not afford to rent a better and more comfortable house with his meagre earnings.
Q. What were the doctor’s possessions when he set up his medical practice?
Ans. The doctor had about sixty rupees in his suitcase when he started his medical practice. In addition, he had some shirts, dhotis and one solitary black coat.
Q. “The sound was a familiar one.” What sound did the doctor hear? What did he think it was? How many times did he hear it? When and why did the sounds stop?
Ans. The doctor heard a scuttling sound, which he thought to be of the rats. He heard this sound three times, after short intervals and it stopped when the snake fell on the back of the chair.
Q. Why did the doctor look into the mirror again and again?
Ans. The doctor was much bothered about his looks and he wanted to look more handsome. He would comb his hair carefully and his vanity would get a boost.
Q. “I looked into the mirror and smiled,” says the doctor. A little later he says, “I forgot my danger and smiled feebly at myself.” What is the doctor’s opinion about himself when: (a) he first smiles, and (b) he smiles again? In what way do his thoughts change in between, and why?
Ans. (a) When the doctor first smiles, he has an inflated opinion of himself, admiring his looks and profession. (b) In the second instance, the doctor smiles at his foolishness and helplessness. His thoughts change after his encounter with the snake. “from being a proud doctor he moves on to accept his stupidity.
Q. Which two ‘important’ and ‘earth-shaking decisions did the doctor make as he looked at his image in the mirror?
Ans. The doctor made two decisions after looking at himself in the mirror. The first was that he would shave daily and grow a thin moustache in order to look more handsome. The second decision was that he would marry a rich and fat woman doctor.
Q. What kind of a woman did the doctor decide to marry? Why?
Ans. He decided to marry a woman doctor who had plenty of money and a good medical practice. He also decided that he would marry a fat lady so that she would not be able to run after him if he wanted to run away.
Q. How did the snake land on the doctor’s chair?
Ans. The snake fell from the ceiling of the house. At first it fell flat on the floor with a thud. In no time it wriggled and reached for the narrator’s chair. As the narrator turned back, the snake landed on him. Next, the snake slithered along his shoulder and coiled around his left arm above the elbow. To make matters worse, the snake spread its hood out and its head was hardly three or four inches from his face.
Q. What did the doctor do when the snake landed on his shoulder?
Ans. When the doctor found a snake on his shoulder, he did not shriek, jump, or tremble. He held his breath and became as still as a stone. He knew that the snake would strike him if he made any movement since the hood of the snake was only four inches away from his face.
Q. When did the doctor feel like a foolish, weak person? Why?
Ans. The doctor felt like a foolish and weak person when he found himself in the grip of a poisonous snake. He realised that there was no medicine in the room for the snake bite, which was a distinct possibility at that moment. He felt helpless and frightened.
Q. How did the doctor feel when the snake coiled itself around his arm?
Ans. When the snake coiled itself around the arm of the doctor, he felt some pain as if his arm was being crushed strongly with a rod made of molten fire. His arm lost all strength and felt very weak.
Q. Why was the narrator not willing to pray to God?
Ans. The narrator was not a believer in God yet at that crucial time he felt the great presence of the creator of this world and this universe. He didn’t know what a prayer he would send to God and how God would take his prayer. Finally he decided against praying to God because he could not predict God’s reaction to his prayer.
Q. What did the doctor think when he saw the snake looking into the mirror?
Ans. When the doctor saw the snake looking into the mirror, he thought that perhaps it too was admiring its beauty.
Q. How was the doctor relieved of the hold of the snake?
Ans. As the snake saw its reflection in the mirror on the table. It uncoiled itself from the arm of the doctor and crawled towards the mirror.
Q. What did the doctor do when the snake was absorbed in looking at the mirror?
Ans. As the snake was absorbed in looking at the mirror, the doctor at once rose from the chair and quietly came out of the room. Finally He went to the house of one of his friends and spent the night there.
Q. What did the doctor do as soon as he reached his friend’s house? Why?
Ans. Immediately after reaching his friend’s house, the doctor applied oil to his entire body, took a bath and put on fresh clothes. He did so because the snake had slithered over his back, shoulder and arm. He wanted to get rid of his Creepy feeling and any possible ill-effects of a snake’s touch.
Q. What did the doctor and his friends find when he came back to his room?
Ans. Next morning, he came back to his room. He was shocked to find that there was nothing left in his room. Some thief had taken away most of his things.
Q. Did the doctor marry a fat woman as he had wished?
Ans. No, the doctor did not marry a fat woman. On the contrary, his wife was a thin and lean person who could run very fast like a sprinter.
Q. Why does the doctor remark that the snake was “taken with its own beauty”?
Ans. The doctor remarks that the snake was “taken with its own beauty” because it kept looking into the mirror as he did.
Q. Describe the doctor’s rented residence.
Ans. The doctor lived in a rented room. It was an outer room with one wall facing the open yard. It had a tiled roof with long supporting gables that rested on the beam over the wall. There was no ceiling. The roof of the house was a settlement of rats so it could be said that the doctor shared the room with the rats. There was a regular traffic of rats to and from the beam. Outside there was a veranda. Among the few pieces of furniture, there was his bed, a chair, a table with his medical books, usual accessories, a kerosene lamp and a mirror on it.
Q. How did the doctor lose his pride after the snake landed on his shoulder?
Ans. The doctor had a very high opinion of himself regarding both his appearance and profession. He was conscious of his looks and wanted to look even more handsome. He repeatedly looked at himself in the mirror to admire his handsomeness. He wanted to be attractive to women because he was an eligible bachelor. He was also proud of being a doctor and was arrogant because of his professional qualification.
But a short encounter with a snake, a full-blooded cobra, cured him of his pride. When the snake reached his shoulder and coiled itself around his arm, the doctor lost all arrogance and was reminded of the existence of God. Face to face with death, he realized what a weak and foolish man he was. When he recalled that there were no medicines in his room to cure him of a snake-bite, he humbly and meekly regarded himself to be a stupid and helpless person. Thus, the encounter with the snake transformed the doctor from a vain and foolish person into a humble and God-fearing man.
Q. Do you think both the doctor and the snake had some common qualities? Why/Why not?
Ans. The behaviour of the doctor and the snake did have certain similarities. Both of them were enamoured by their reflection in the mirror and stood looking longingly at it. However, the similarity ended at this aspect of their respective behaviour since the doctor could not ascertain confidently the reason behind the snake getting charmed by its own image. The doctor was certainly compelled by his vanity to repeatedly look at his image. So, when he notices the snake looking into the mirror, he thinks that perhaps it too was admiring its beauty or was trying to make some ‘important’ decisions just like him. But these too were as frivolous as the doctor’s decision to shave daily and keep a thin moustache.
Just like the doctor’s obsession with his looks landed him in trouble, the snake too seemed to be “taken with its beauty.” It releases its victim to have a better look at itself in the mirror. Thus both the doctor and the snake display narcissistic tendency.
Q. “I looked into the mirror and smiled”, says the doctor. A little later he says, “I forgot my danger and smiled feebly at myself”. What is the doctor’s opinion about himself when he smiles first and then later? In what way do his thoughts change in between, and why?
Ans. The doctor rated his looks quite high and smiled at his image whenever he looked into the large mirror on his table. He tells the listeners that the first time he looked into the mirror and smiled, his opinion about himself was marked by self-adulation. He thought that he was very handsome and deserved to stay well-groomed. However, these thoughts changed by the time he tells the listeners that he forgot his danger and smiled feebly at himself. On the second occasion, his opinion about himself was marked by humility. By then he had realised that he had been vain, foolish and stupid. His encounter with the deadly snake had exposed his shortcomings to him. In spite of being a doctor he did not have any medicines in his room even for an emergency like a snake-bite. His good looks became immaterial when he came face to face with death and the only thoughts that came to his mind then were about God. The feeble smile indicated his acceptance of the folly and vanity that had so far governed his life.