excerpted from Jim Corbett’s story Life at Mokameh Ghat


“One night after my servant had gone into the kitchen I took a small hand-lamp off the dressing table, went into the bathroom, and there placed it on a low wall, six-inches high and nine inches wide, which ran half-way cross the room. Then I turned and bolted the door, which like most doors in India sagged on its hinges and would not remain shut unless bolted.  I had spent most of the day on the coal platform so did not spare the soap, and with a lather on my head and face that did credit to the manufacturers I opened my eyes to replace the soap on the bath mat, and to my horror, saw the head of a snake projecting up over the end of the bath and within a few inches of my toes.  My movements while soaping my head and splashing the water about had evidently annoyed the snake, a big cobra, for its hood was expanded and its long forked tongue was flicking in and out of its wide-looking mouth. The right thing for me to have done would have been to keep my hands moving, draw my feet away from the snake, and moving very slowly stand up and step backwards to the door behind me, keeping my eyes on the snake all the time. But what I very foolishly did was to grab the sides of the bath and stand up and step backwards, all in one movement, on to the low wall.  On this cemented wall my foot slipped, and while trying to regain my balance a stream of water ran off my elbow on to the wick of the lamp and extinguished it, plunging the room in pitch darkness. So here I was shut in a small dark room with one of the most deadly snakes in India. One step to the left or one step to the rear would have taken me to either of the two doors, but not knowing where the snake was I was frightened to move for fear of putting  my bare foot on it. Moreover, both doors were bolted at the bottom, and even if I avoided stepping on the snake I should have to feel about for the bolts where the snake, in his efforts to get out of the room, was most likely to be.

“The servants quarters were in a corner of the compound fifty yards away on the dining-room side of the house, so shouting to them would be of no avail, and my only hope of rescue was that my servant would get tired of waiting for me to call to dinner, or that a friend would come to see me, and I devoutly hoped this would happen before the cobra bit me. The fact that the cobra was as much trapped as I was in no way comforted me, for only a few days previously one of my men had a similar experience. He had gone into his house in the early afternoon in order to put away the wages I had just paid him. While he was opening the box he heard a hiss behind him, and turning round saw a cobra advancing towards him from the direction of the open door. Backing against the wall behind him, for there was only one door to the room, the unfortunate man had tried to fend off the cobra with his hands, and while doing so was bitten twelve times on the hands and on the legs. Neighbors heard his cries and came to his rescue, but he died a few minutes later.

“I learnt that night that small things can be more nerve racking and terrifying that big happenings. every drop of water that trickled down my legs was converted in my imagination into the long forked tongue of the cobra licking my bare skin, a prelude to the burying of  his fangs in my flesh.

“How long I remained in the room with the cobra I cannot say. My servant said later that it was only half an hour, and no sound has ever been more welcome to me than the sounds I heard as my servant laid the table for dinner. I called him to the bathroom door, told him of my predicament, and instructed him to fetch a lantern and a ladder. After a long wait I heard the babel of voices, followed by the scraping of the ladder against the outer wall of the house. When the lantern had been lifted to the window, ten feet above the ground, it did not illuminate the room , so I told the man who was holding it to break a pane of glass and pass the lantern through the opening…..feeling that the cobra was behind me, I turned my head and saw it lying at the bottom of the bedroom door two feet away. Leaning forward very slowly, I picked up the heavy (wooden) bath mat, raised it high and let if fall as the cobra was sliding over the floor towards me  Fortunately I judged my aim accurately and the bath mat crashed down on the cobra’s neck six-inches from its head. As it bit at the wood and lashed about with its tail I took hasty stride to the veranda door and in a moment was outside among a crowd of men, armed with sticks and carrying lanterns for word had got round to the railway quarters that I was having a life-and-death struggle with a big snake in a locked room. “

Jim Corbett’s India, Oxford University Press, 1978.