Decades ago I was bitten on my right big toe by one of the very few poisonous snakes whose venom is certain death, and at least at that time there was no antidote. It was called the "three-step snake" in south India -- three steps after being bitten and you're dead.
It happened when I was making my way to darshan at Sathya Sai Baba's ashram in Whitefield. I'd just walked past what seemed to be a medical clinic, by the large red cross on a sign, on the opposite side of the road.
The poison had already gone to my brain. I knew I had only seconds to calculate; after that I would pass into delirium.
It was rush hour on the Whitefield-Bangalore road; there were no intersections on that part of the road, no traffic lights or stop signs, just traffic whizzing by. In my condition it could take a half hour just to get across the road, then I would still have to walk to the clinic and hope it was open, and then hope there was something that could be done by medicine to save my life.
I saw a boy smiling and waving to me from a bus, I saw people walking home from work on the opposite side of the road. The built-up side, the safe side, it flashed into my mind. No one else was on my side of the road and I now realized why. I had chosen to walk on that side of the road, which fronted into open land, because it was quieter. But there was no real path of that side of the road, just sand. Built into the sand were large ant dwellings that when abandoned by the ants must have made homes for snakes.
I was wearing hard-soled moccasins but the tops were soft suede. The snake had struck with great force, its fangs cutting into the suede as if it was butter.
I tried to shout for help to people on the other side of the road but no sound came out. I had lost the use of my vocal chords. It was as if boiling water was circulating through my body. The pain was unbearable. It was time to die.
I leaned over, looking at the ground with longing, but then focused on pulling the moccasin off my swelling foot.
Then I continued on my journey to the ashram, not because I expected to see Sai Baba -- at the rate I was hobbling, darshan would have been long over if I had lived long enough to get there. It was because this was what I had come to India to do: try to get an interview with Sathya Sai Baba. Better to die doing what one intended to do when death is certain, I thought.
It was my last clear thought before delirium set in.
When I got to the ashram I collapsed into the lap of an Indian lady seated on the ground in the front row of the women's side of the darshan line. Sathya Sai Baba had not put in an appearance yet.
I was foaming at the mouth by then, jerking around in my death throes. The lady gently wiped the foam from my mouth with her hankie and stroked my hair. Maybe she'd thought I was having an epileptic seizure. My right foot jerked out from under my sari. The foot was as big as a football by then. She let out a cry. Everyone craned to see and everyone suddenly understood what was happening.
I saw a flash of orange at the other side of the ashram compound. It was Sathya Sai Baba running toward me. The sight upset me. Sai Baba didn't run.
Through my delirium I thought, 'Haven't you said that in a world of God there is always just enough time?'
(Here my enemies would say just see, even at death's door she won't abandon pedantry.)
I had never heard him say that. But he immediately broke his run although he walked very fast to where I was sprawled.
He didn't look at me when he arrived but the hem of his orange robe fell over my swollen foot while he started a conversation with a lady seated behind me. They spoke in Telegu, which I didn't understand but from his casual tone he was probably asking how things were in her family.
On and on they chatted; all the while the excruciating pain was disappearing along with the delirium. By the time he walked on down the darshan line the swelling in the foot was completely gone.
Sathya Sai Baba had taken on all the poison and pain and whatever damage the venom might have done to my brain and nervous system. I didn't feel weak or even tired. If not for small puncture marks on the toe it was as if the snake's bite hadn't happened.