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JANUARY 2002 Contents
Asian Art -
at Every Alien Door'
Page 1 of 2
KNOCK AT EVERY ALIEN DOOR
About the author: Joseph Harris has written thirty-four short stories and over a thousand poems in literary journals and other magazines. His work has appeared in thirteen anthologies and in numerous biographies of poets and writers. He is a member of The Academy of American Poets and also a member of Poets and Writers, with a book of poetry published by Furman University Press. He retired as Headmaster of two schools – and lives in South Carolina.
"Knock at Every Alien Door" is a narrative of his stay in India, where he went in 1944 on duty with the US Army. This was his first visit to India.
The Cobra Man
My passage to India was aboard a ship that made a thirty-two day zigzag voyage to avoid enemy submarines. We sailed through the Pacific Ocean to Australia, where we made a brief stopover, and then through the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea to the coast of India. The log of that journey, although filled with anecdotal adventure comprises the stuff of another book, one I probably shall never write. For me, it was merely prologue to the tales that follow.
When the ship docked at Karachi, five of us were pulled from our medical unit and sent by train to Bombay. Our stay there was brief, hardly long enough to accustom our senses to the sights, sounds, and smells of this strange new land. With an unexpected day of freedom, we wandered through the streets and bazaars of Bombay, soaking up local colour and, contrary to the lectures, eating some forbidden Indian food. Among the five of us I quickly found in Mark Haddon, a man from Boston, the friend whose interest and curiosity about things new and unusual equalled my own. With mutual enthusiasm we agreed that the Tower of Silence on Malabar Hill was something we must see, and in the very limited time we had, we managed to make a quick trip there. The vultures perched atop those ancient stones, like some larger-than-life creatures from mythology waiting their feast of human flesh, is a memory that remains vivid to this day.
It was during my second week in India that I found myself, along with four companions, on my way by truck from Bombay to a place not far from Delhi. It was the first leg of a journey across India that would eventually take me to Calcutta and then on to Dacca. The place where we billeted for a week on that journey was a small British supply post, the name of which I have long since forgotten. I remember only its desert-like terrain against the backdrop of a small mountain that glowed rosy-red in the setting sun. That single feature made a vivid impression, for I had never seen anything to match it even in the spectacular grandeurs of our West. It was an afternoon spectacle I never missed.
Only a handful of British manned the small outpost, a captain and a few enlisted personnel, all of whom were quartered in the single building. Tents were set up for us near the building, which, as the captain explained apologetically, was all that was available for our temporary stay.
Until I met the Cobra Man, my only encounter with the dreaded serpent was through a mongoose called Rikki Tikki Tavi, the dauntless enemy of the cobra in the pages of Kipling’s The Jungle Book. The real-life enemy of the cobra I met was Lance Corporal Jeremy Twiggs, known to one and all as Cobra Man.
Lance Corporal Twiggs was put in charge of this small band of Americans, a job I gathered he did not particularly like. Though not friendly, he was civil enough and explained the ground rules clearly, including such items as the times for mess call, bedding supplies, the necessity of mosquito nets for sleeping, and above all the precaution of tying ones footgear at night to the tent pole to prevent "things" from crawling in. But the thing I remember most, when he had finished his litany of do’s and don’ts, was what he told us almost as an afterthought. He looked at us and said matter-of-factly: "There’s cobras here. Now just remember one thing – stay out of their way and they’ll leave you alone. People got the wrong idea about them. They don’t come looking for you to give you a pounce. Just stay on the paths and don’t go wandering off into the bush, and you got nothing to worry about. But if you do see one," he added, a certain authority creeping into his voice, "you come find me. I know what to do."
Looking around, I saw very little bush as he called it, on that desert terrain – only a patch of weeds and a lone tree here and there.
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