Long years ago, we lived in Colombo, Sri Lanka. We lived in a sprawling bungalow on Polhengoda Road, a shaded lane, where large houses existed cheek-by-jowl with tiny hole-in-the-wall takeaway places offering the most delicious kottu roti and buriyani (Sri Lankan for ‘biriyani’). The house we leased had a large, green lawn, where mango, jackfruit and coconut trees cast their glorious shade. The house was old and rambling, with a sloping, tiled roof, and hosted us and a myriad other creatures, as we were to learn soon. Our Sinhala landlady who lived in England was kind, but a bit eccentric, and gave us a house filled with heavy furniture, bronze pieces, crockery and vases.
Like most Sri Lankan houses, this one also had two kitchens – a ‘wet’ kitchen for all the wet work like cleaning meats and vessels, while the ‘dry’ kitchen was for all the other less cumbersome cooking. Honestly, I never used the wet kitchen at all, it was completely the domain of the house help, who swore she couldn’t function in the more modern dry kitchen. I had no quarrel with that, as she turned out the most delicious prawn curry and dried fish sambol (chutney) you can imagine.
Now, the house had plenty of lizards, which strangely we never saw, just heard their call. Lizards have a peculiar call, and only by the end of our stay did we realise the sheer population of lizards in the house. They cleverly inhabited spaces away from our eyes and while today I would jump a mile-high even at a glimpse of one, then, it just didn’t matter to me. The roof of the house was inhabited by a pole cat, which made its presence felt often, and at nights. But the strangest of creatures which came calling was the monitor lizard.
It was a hot, muggy day. The watchman came running to say that there was a snake in the garden shed. My city-bred mind immediately panicked. Sachin (who functioned out of a home office), went to investigate, while I climbed the mooda in the patio, and flailed my arms helplessly. The watchman and Sachin peered into the shed, shone a torch, for what seemed to me an interminably long time. They came back excited, nervous, to report that indeed they had glimpsed the snake’s twitching, long tail. After conferring with the other staff, a call was made to the pest control people, who arrived with admirable alacrity.
The pest control ‘team’ was a pair of young, grinning, Tamil boys, who seemed very amused by my panic and antics, and less concerned about the situation at hand. I rather curtly told them to get on with the job at hand, in Tamil. They nearly fainted when they heard me speak in Tamil. They were promptly marched off to the shed and after peering into the innards of the shed, they too came back saying there was indeed a paambu, snake!
This was now stale news for us. The question was, what was to be done? They were most reluctant to kill the snake, as were we. But what was the alternative? Now, a gurgling drain ran behind the house, past this same garden shed. There was an opening to it, from the shed. Could we nudge the snake towards this opening in the hope it would enter the drain and swim away? Armed with a long pole, the pest control boys, the watchman and Sachin, gingerly entered the shed. Bravely they poked around and that’s when they got the shock of their lives! This was no snake! This was a fully-grown, monitor lizard, about 4-5 feet long. It had obviously entered the shed from the drain, and was all coiled around the discarded articles in the shed. It was more panicky than us, for sure.
Anyway, this was a nasty surprise for all concerned. How does one deal with a monitor lizard? That’s when Sachin sheepishly mentioned to me that a baby monitor lizard had been occupying the guest room in the house since a fortnight, and he had mistaken it for a normal lizard, and had let it be! I stared at him, aghast! The watchman pitched in saying, did you know monitor lizards are carnivores? They have even been known to lift babies? I was frightened out of my wits, even though there was no baby in the house. Sachin’s usual sangfroid faltered for a second, but he revived soon enough, after all, a strategy had to be charted out.
The only way out for the monitor lizard was the way it had come in. After much prodding around the creature, and thumping on the floor, it uncoiled itself. Sachin later described the creature’s head and size, which just made me thankful I hadn’t been anywhere near it! Much to everyone’s relief, the tactic worked, and the monitor lizard slipped back into the drain, and was gone. I think we sealed that gap instantly. I made the boys locate and rid the house of the baby monitor lizard. That house, coming to think of it now, was a regular menagerie!
We dined off this tale for many years. We told this story with much embellishment to all our local friends, and later, to friends in India. Of course, with each telling, the size of the monitor lizard grew and grew, till it eventually reached ten feet and more!
This was in 2001. We left Colombo and that house the following year, with a heavy heart, and relocated to Bangalore. For my 40th birthday in 2013, we went to Maldives, and on the return journey, stopped over for two days in Colombo. I insisted on visiting our old house. When we reached there, I wept. That beloved house no longer existed. In its place was a modern, multi-storied office building, with concrete where the green lawn had stretched. I was heartbroken. A piece of precious memory from my past keeled over and died.