Our non-fiction columnist, Devraj Singh Kalsi, amuses with his hilarious invasion of snakes and snake charmers in his home in a pre-COVID world
Some months ago, before the pandemic broke out, a group of snake charmers turned up at my door, with torn cloth bags and woven baskets containing coiled snakes sleeping blissfully unaware of their dark, claustrophobic world. The leader of the group tried to wake up a hynotised snake to offer me a sneak peek of the slithering beauty. I had no interest to exchange pleasantries with the unwanted guests or strike a conversation with their captive partners, but I realised it was wiser to stay courteous or else they would bare their fangs.
Having known from mainstream Hindi films that snakes possess strange transformative powers, I thought for a while whether this one would take the form of a gorgeous lady and stand up right in front of me and hiss a husky hello. Before I could prepare myself, the snake-charmer had already taken off the lid of the basket and the snake raised its hood without striking. I stepped back in fear but smiled bravely, wanting to know its pedigree.
An acolyte answered on behalf of the team leader, calling it a viper. I folded my hands out of respect for the deadly snake and kept a stiff upper lip to ensure I did not spew venom to offend either the group or the snake. He noticed my rising discomfort and tried to assure me there was no harm intended. He explained the group had no ulterior motive to knock at my door, but they got some clear signals while passing by this stretch that confirmed there were poisonous snakes inside my compound. So, their noble intent was to catch those snakes and save the precious lives of the residents of the house.
I was invited to watch the operation live. I did not know how to react to the offer. Since they were seasoned professionals, there was no reason to doubt their skills and powers. As I gave them the permission to launch the strike, the assistants spread in three different directions like trained commandos and kept walking slowly and cautiously. Then one of them suddenly stopped in his tracks. He raised an alarm as he became suspicious of something lying around the base of the guava tree. He went ahead, picked up a small mound of earth, sniffed it twice and then took it to the team leader who confirmed it was worth digging up. The cordoned off area become a hotspot of frenzied activity.
I was asked to come closer and observe how he proceeded with it. Such an internship opportunity was a matter of great privilege. Although nothing was clearly visible to me without my spectacles, the assistant confirmed the majestic presence of the snake inside without playing any musical instrument to tempt the snake to come out of its hiding. He dug up a bit more and then I saw a bigger cavity, with the snake peeping out to protest this sudden invasion of privacy. He quickly grabbed it and held it in his hand before my reflexes could gather what had happened within the flash of seconds. The furious snake was hissing loudly in protest, seeking freedom like all creatures do.
Another assistant materialised like a genie with an empty basket. He made the snake sniff a piece of root and the agitated snake turned calm and dozed off within minutes. He then put it gently inside the basket and asked me to take a snap. It was certainly not a fun thing, but he insisted I should have a picture with the snake. It was an epic moment I should not miss because of anxiety. I should create a pleasant memory out of it. Besides, I could boast of having caught a snake at home and share the daring experience with people who become curious to know the acts of bravery in youth from the elderly types.
Had I known this was going to happen, I would have dressed up properly for the occasion. I was wearing faded shorts and an animal print kurta almost covering my knees – a weird and wild combination that would make the entire episode look fake or comic when posted on social media handles. Perhaps I should have asked them to wait there while I went inside the house to get my smart phone and change into something stylish. As I was mopping the confusion within, another junior fellow rushed in with the breaking news that there was one more snake in the compound. Surprisingly, there seemed to be more snakes than human beings living in the house, without paying any rent.
The team leader swung into action. He went to the backyard and came back to confirm there was indeed another one. But they would not be taking it with them. Their refusal to carry this one came as a shock. He explained it was a resident snake living here for years and it would not cause any harm to the members of the house. He added there were in fact two resident snakes – one had died recently. He said he could hear the cries of the lonely snake.
If the survivor was feeling the pangs of loneliness, I said he should definitely take it away and find a suitable partner somewhere to revive its happiness. A sad life here would prolong its misery forever. The team leader could not reject the logical point, but he disclosed he was forbidden by his guru to do so. His special powers would desert him if he ever did so. Well, he had his own compulsions restraining him from doing it. He clarified he never picked up any snake from the graveyard though there were many poisonous ones lazing around. Perhaps snakes were the only companions to mitigate the solitude of ghosts and the dead.
I was not happy to know I had to live with a snake in the house. He said I would never have known the truth if he had not revealed it. So, I should trust his words and do not disturb the snake. He did not allow me to meet the resident snake though I insisted I should be able to recognise it in case it slithered indoor through an open window some day. Then I would not end up hitting it with a stick or feel guilty of having attacked a resident snake. He repeated the resident snake would never harm the inmates of the dwelling, with who he kindly shared the space. He lured me with the possibility of good fortune brough by a resident snake.
The third assistant emerged from behind the tall bushes and hissed like a snake into his pierced ear. He went with him and I followed them. Mid-way, he turned back and said there was another poisonous snake inside the house just a few hours ago but had gone missing at that point. I asked if that poisonous snake enjoyed non-resident status and whether there was any possibility of its return in the evening. Perhaps it had gone out for some important work and would be back like officegoers after sundown.
The team leader thought I was trying to make fun. He looked at me scornfully and then chewed something and said he could not confirm that possibility. It could return or may not. It was some relief to hear that. I noticed their baskets were all covered with lids and one of the least active assistants was tying them in cloth bundles. I guessed they were about to leave with one snake as their catch – to sell it to a laboratory and share the proceeds.
All of a sudden, the team leader began taking interest in my life and health. As the snakes were still around, I had to oblige him. He asked me about high blood pressure and wanted to sell me herbal cure. I said I was perfectly normal, but he was not happy to hear that. I wondered if he had the miraculous power to read my systolic pressure by looking at my face. When he found there was no scope of selling any remedy, he tried the tricks of his trade. He sat on the floor and started making a circle with vermilion powder fished out of his pocket. Being the householder, I was asked to sit down inside that circle and participate in the ritual as it would ward off the evil eye though his eyes looked more evil than anything else at that time. Since I was writing a novel, I thought it would probably become an instant best seller with the blessings of a snake charmer.
He chanted mantras and I repeated those in good faith without understanding any of them. At the end of the prayer session, his team member billed me. I was shocked to hear the demand for five thousand rupees as donation in the name of a deity. The refusal to pay the amount would invite misfortune. I thought of finding out if an monthly payment option was available, but I chose not to raise this query as they would then get the excuse to visit me every month to collect the installment and make my life hell.
To ward off the evil forces staring at the house, I went inside to get my cheque book, but the leader refused to accept anything other than cash. Unable to muster the courage to fleece them as they would reappear with a big curse and a bigger game-plan, I bought peace by parting with the soiled notes I had withdrawn from the nearby ATM last week. They looked happy while leaving, but I was sad. I slammed the grille door and scared them with the presence of a pet dog on the roof. Fearing a possible aerial attack, the rattled team leader rushed out quickly.
Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short fiction and essays have been published in The Bombay Review, Deccan Herald, Kitaab, Tehelka, The Assam Tribune, The Sunday Statesman, Earthen Lamp Journal, and Readomania. Pal Motors is his first novel.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.