The Cobra Effect

Kim sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride one of the guns in front of the Rashtrapati Bhavan in Delhi. There was some justification for him, since he felt he was now one of the principal enforcers of English rule on the subcontinent – or at least on the town he lived in. He saw himself as part of the unrelenting force of progress that took this society out of its traditions, rites and, most importantly, dangers to life, and dragged it kicking and screaming into the Modern Age.




He kicked one of the other boys who were trying to climb the cannon. It had all started with the great floods. Last year’s monsoon season had been the heaviest since anyone could remember. Nourished by heavy rains, the canals and sewers spilled their insides all over the place for weeks, and a pungent smell had crept over the city. People stopped calling the Dalit to clean out their basements and ground floors, because they knew that it would only be a week until the next wave of sludge compelled them to start over.


But no one expected the cobras.


As part of the highest layers of the subcontinent’s fauna, if not in attractiveness, at least in sheer power and malice, they had seen it as their prerogative to populate the city, long before the English had made it their colonial capital. However, the cobras had long managed to keep themselves to gardens, back alleys and undergrowth, keeping a watchful distance from that other malicious and powerful member of the fauna’s highest castes: humans.


The floods had changed all that.



Originally an animal of the jungle, cobras were not averse to living in damp areas, and most of them could swim. But as happens so often, the masses, by their sheer number and uncivilised physical directness, coerce the mighty to retreat in distaste, thus winning the day. And so the stinking sullage of that year’s monsoon flood made its way out in the open, driving the cobras into contact with the King’s subjects.


The ensuing battle of the species took many a turn, and for long it was not sure if progress would occur in exact accordance with Darwin’s claim. The first round went to the cobras. The city’s hospitals noted a significant increase in cobra bites, and many died that year because of a careless moment and a sudden surprise.



But then civilisation struck back with all its might, and set in motion that admirable force of law and order: the Imperial Bureaucratic Administrative Machine. And they came up with a cunning plan that turned Kim, together with his friends and fellow citizens, into an army of soldiers, bent on one and only one aim: to wipe the cobras from the face of their city.


The means devised so intelligently for that purpose were simple enough: for each cobra head brought to the city’s municipal office devoid of the respective body, the government would pay one Rupee.



The consequences were devastating. Cobras were chased, trapped and slaughtered with an arsenal of the most devilish devices, and brought to the Authorities. And in the course of a few months, the hospitals duly noted that cobra injuries were back to normal.


And then struck the hour of the Nation’s other true faith: Businessism.


Kim was among the first to act on the government’s command, and to bring in as many cobra heads as he could muster. And he was also among the first to truly understand the ulterior intent that the Great Empire had directed at the economic development of the entrepreneurial potential of his city.


The place he chose for the center of his new enterprise was the laundry in his aunt’s basement. It was the ideal spot for breeding cobras.


Later, when the government, on investigating the sudden return of cobra injuries reported by the hospitals, found out about the breeding businesses all across the city, and in return put an end to their cobra head rewards scheme, Kim dutifully closed his business, released the cobras into the street, and turned back to sit on the gun in front of the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

If you want to serve the Empire, your business is to obey orders.


Thanks to Dave for pointing out the original term.
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