Little Shambu was ready for school. He hoisted his heavy school bag over his shoulders, kicked a stray sandal out of his way and trudged downstairs. Mama Shambu was waiting for him with his tiffin box in her hands.

“Bye, Mama. See you later,” he said, walking towards the door. “Hold it, Mister!” said his mother. “I just spent the morning making a certain someone’s favourite sandwiches. Do you know who? It would be a shame to waste them since they are so delicious,” Mama Shambu teased him.

“It’s no use,” sighed Little Shambu, turning around with a weary face. “What do you mean by, “It’s no use”?” asked Mama Shambu. “I mean that I won’t get to eat it. JJ will. He always takes my tiffin and gobbles it down,” said Little Shambu, glumly. “Well, learn to protect your tiffin,” said Mama Shambu.

She tucked the box deep inside Little Shambu’s school bag and bustled away. “It’s your tiffin, Shambu. Make sure the snacks I send go inside your tummy.” “Mama doesn’t know what a horrid bully JJ is,” Little Shambu said to himself, dejectedly. That was true. JJ was the school bully who devoured the tiffin boxes of anyone smaller than himself. As luck would have it, he was a big boy. So, he had a wide range of tiffin boxes to choose from.

He was particularly fond of Little Shambu’s tiffin box as it always had the best snacks. Soft sandwiches, crisp samosas, egg puffs, and pastries with layers of chocolate icing. No one dared to complain about the marauder as JJ’s revenge was swift and mean. Little Shambu was so deep in thought that he almost stepped on a green snake trying to pull itself across the hot, concrete road.

“Oh! Sorry, snake!” exclaimed Little Shambu, jumping back. “You are just a harmless little garden snake! Why do you look so weak? It’s those snake catchers. They catch snakes for festivals and then abandon them. Nasty fellows! Come with me. I’ll take care of you.” Little Shambu carefully picked up the snake and put it in his school bag. “I’ll keep you here, safe in my bag, till school gets over. Then I’ll take you to the fields outside town and leave you there,” he whispered. “You’ll be happy there.”

By the time Little Shambu reached school, he was late and his class teacher, Miss Rasmalai, had finished taking attendance. Shambu tried to sidle in but Miss Rasmalai could not be fooled. “Halt!” she cried, fixing him with a stern expression. “I need an explanation, please. Why are you late by ten whole minutes?” she asked, pointing to the big, round clock on the wall.

“S-s-s-s,” said Little Shambu, losing his power of speech. “Are you trying to imitate a snake?” sneered Miss Rasmalai. “No, I mean a s-s-snake,” poor Little Shambu stammered.

“What about a snake?”

“I saw a snake, a poor little snake,” said Little Shambu.

“And I am looking at a boy who tells stories. Tall stories,” said Miss Rasmalai from between her teeth. “Go to your seat and sit down.”

“Silly Shambu, always getting into trouble,” sniggered JJ, as Little Shambu passed him.

“Oh, be quiet, JJ,” muttered Little Shambu under his breath.

Little Shambu settled down in his seat and took his books carefully out of his school bag. He then zipped the bag, leaving a small opening to let in some air for the garden snake, and placed the bag gently beside him on the bench. The rest in the cosy bag soon revived the snake. It raised its head and looked around in the dark school bag. Then, feeling safe, it snuggled down and happily went to sleep again.

The morning passed in a flurry of unending problems about five oranges and three bananas and how much they cost and what everything would add up to. Little Shambu strongly felt that the place for oranges and bananas was in his stomach and not in an arithmetic textbook. There were more numbers in history class. Little Shambu did not mind stories about battles, but today they had to learn the dates of ten battles by heart. It was insufferable!

The lunch bell went off noisily, much to his relief. A trillion children spilled out of their classrooms, clutching their lunch boxes and chattering nineteen to the dozen. JJ made a beeline for Little Shambu’s desk.

“Hand over your tiffin box,” he growled, leaning down and placing his bony elbow on Little Shambu’s neck. “Ow! Get off, JJ!” squealed Little Shambu. “Not till I get that fat bag. You have an extra big tiffin box today,” said JJ, greedily. “What has your mom packed for you?”

“My tiffin is not for you,” yelled Little Shambu, grabbing his school bag and jumping up.

“Oh yes, you little walnut, it is. And I’d like you to stop me from taking it,” said JJ, lunging forward and snatching the bag.

“I’m warning you, JJ, you will be very sorry!” cried Little Shambu, desperately trying to grab the bag back from JJ.

“Sorry? Me? Ha ha ha!” JJ laughed, plunging his hand into the bag, and feeling around it for Little Shambu’s tiffin box. Happy to see a way out of the bag, the garden snake wound itself around JJ’s hand and clung to it like an old friend. JJ’s laughter faded when he felt this odd sensation. He pulled out his hand and went white seeing the snake wrapped around his arm. The snake looked like it was beaming at him cheerfully. But, of course, JJ couldn’t see that.

“S-s-s-snake!” he croaked. “SNAKE!” The other children fled, screaming. JJ twisted and turned violently, trying to shake off the now rather dizzy snake from around his arm.

Excerpted with permission from Strangus Derangus and Other Adventures of Little Shambu, Reena Ittyerah Puri, illustrated by Savio Mascarenhas, Tinkle/Puffin.