Reading news has become a depressing business, but there was something there on Wednesday to gladden Kumbhakarna’s slumbering heart – a front page picture of a smiling young woman holding an indignant-looking snake in her hands. From both faces, Kumbhakarna knew at once that this story, unlike most told in Sri Lanka these days, has come to a happy ending.
And it has indeed. At a time when the justice system itself has fallen into a snake pit, it’s heartening to know that at least a magistrate’s court can do the right thing by a snake and a dancing girl.
Not that Kumbhakarna knows much about either, at least not by direct association. He’s not saying this out of a sense of moral righteousness. Put another way, if the president of the republic, the Inspector General of Police and a dancing girl were to ring Kumbhakarna’s door bell, it’s the last mentioned who would worry him the least. The problem is that both species (snakes and dancers) have suffered from stereotyping, which leads to other mental images of nefarious activities, whereas people in professions which do not suffer from such negative stereotyping -- doctors, lawyers, engineers, academics, architects, station masters, culinary experts, policemen and presidents – may still emerge looking good from various debacles simply because of their public image.
In this case, one learns that the Kollupitiya police charged the dancing girl a few months under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance, and seized the snake (subsequently handed over to the Dehiwela zoo, presumably because none of the policemen themselves wanted to be charged under the same Ordnance for taking care of the snake). But the Colombo Fort Magistrate last week ordered the wonderfully lithe reptile to be handed over to its distraught owner. Don’t say there is no justice in the world.
Reptiles are said to be expressionless, but the snake in that front-page photo, in Kumbhakarna’s view, looks indignant, as well it might be, after being separated from such caring hands and packed off to one of the most outdated and dilapidated zoos in the world. The owner is shown smiling, but it’s a tired smile. She looks a little cornered, as well she might be, making a living out of a stereotyped profession (lacking the respectability of hairdressers and even masseuses) and having as her pet an animal which isn’t normally regarded as a pet (as against dogs, cats and other felines, birds, fish, tortoises, monkeys etc). It looks very much like you and me against the world.
Her world is, in reality, Kollupitiya (she works in a night club there). For any citizen of Colombo under the delusion of living in a grand metropolis, our capital is nothing more than a conglomeration of small towns, full of malicious gossip and small mindedness. Kollupitiya is one of them. In small towns, it’s a bad idea to fall foul of the police for whatever reason. Kumbhakarna doesn’t know how exactly this came about, but the dancing girl must have gotten into their wrong books. Otherwise, it’s hard to understand why the police suddenly noticed her cruelty to a snake, when many dogs, cats and cattle (not to mention temple elephants) face degrading treatment from their owners, including neglect, beatings and virtual starvation. In fact, walk down Cotta Road, Colombo 8, and you’ll see a ‘pet shop’ near the rail crossing where rabbits and all kinds of birds are displayed for sale in tiny cages, some displayed on the pavement and subject to pollution and harsh sun all day. But the local police haven’t noticed this pet shop owner’s cruelty to animals, possibly because no dancing girl is involved here.
The Kollupitiya police alleged that the owner had acted in a way to cause unnecessary pain or suffering to a cobra (this is done on a daily basis by snake charmers. But that’s all right, it’s traditional, and a way of living). They further said that the owner had prevented the cobra from continuing its natural feeding pattern and thus hindered its growth.
Kumbharkarna doesn’t know how the dancing girl treats her snake. It can’t talk, and hasn’t made any statement to the police. He thinks someone should thank the dancing girl for keeping a reptile for a pet (beauty, after all, is in the eyes of the beholder). As for the natural feeding pattern, snakes eat mice, and maybe she can be excused for not setting up mouse traps all over the place. On those grounds, however, the director of the Dehiwela Zoo and his staff can be charged for the same offence (under section 2 (1) (b) of the PCA Ordnance, for their keeps are hardly into their natural feeding patterns, and have to live and sleep under crowded, even appalling, conditions.
The problem here may not really be with the feeding pattern, but with the owner’s professional status as seen by the police. In Kumbhakarna’s view, however, some people have to be dancers, while others need to be doctors, lawyers, policemen and presidents. All’s well that ends well.