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Published: July 18th 2007
(This one is for my mum, who taught me compassion.)
“Next month will be cobra festival in Varanasi”, the stick-thin, small indian man, in who's silk shop we sit, says in his broken English. My eyes light up: “Cobra festival? Wow! What a pity we will be gone by then.” His 14 year old nephew, the bright and well-mannered Raj, who has been our unofficial tour guide for the day, sees my excitement, and offers, “You can see a cobra charmer, if you want?” I look from him to Gordon to his uncle, and begin to nod furiously. “Really? Are you sure? Right now?” His uncle smiles a little, “Yes, no problem.”
He gets up off the hard mattress on which we sit and snakes out of the dingy little sweltering shop. Raj beckons us, “Come on, sit outside. It is cooler there.” We obey without hesitation; the power had, once again, shorted out, leaving us sitting with virtually no moving air. Outside sounded like heaven.
By the time we had made ourselves comfortable on the small bench infront of the silk shop in the narrow alley of the old city, Raj's uncle had returned towing, nevertheless, a cobra charmer. The man carried a hessian sack, which he placed on the ground less the half a metre from our feet, where Raj's uncle had motioned to him. He reached in with his dark-skinned hand and pulled out two flat woven baskets with covers - the snakes, for sure. There was not much ceremony; he simply dumped them down in front of him in a fashion that indicated he had done this many a time.
Once in the crouch position, he began to play a mystical-looking instrument that sounded something like a bagpipe. His cheeks puffed up and down as he pushed wonderfully strong tones out of the object. As he played, he waved the pipe around above the baskets, and then, bam!, he flicked open the first lid.
In it lay a curled up snake, its head barely moving at the comotion. The snake charmer jabbed it in order to incite some agression in the animal, which worked momentarily - the snake moved into classic cobra position, its head and neck flaired out and its body arched outward.
The second basket was flicked open, and herein lay the black cobra. By now, people had gathered around to watch, some murmuring that yes, this
was the black cobra. We gauked in fascination. The second cobra was bigger and stood taller than the first, slightly more aggresive and proud.
The charmer continued to blow into his instrument nonchalantly. I found myself staring at him; he reminded my of Aladdin in his puffy red pants and thick dark hair. But what captured me was the desperate look in his eye; he was not the Aladdin of a children's book. Instead, he seemed tainted by long, hard years of struggle. Later, I wondered whether he had somewhere to live or whether he was just a wanderer, living off the pitance of coins thrown at him in acknowledgement of charming the sacred cobras, which seemed to me most definitely drugged, and apparently de-fanged.
The charming came to a rushed halt when a water buffalo came strolling up the alley from the river, trudging straight towards the man and his snakes in order to weave past. The baskets were pushed out of the way just in time, and the animal moved past.
By now, several onlookers had thrown a coin or two towards the charmer. We quickly got together the change we had and passed it to Raj, who handed it to the charmer. There was outrage momentarily; the charmer shut his baskets, put his pipe aside and began assault on us in Hindi. Gordon and I exchanged glance - we had no more change. Luckily, Raj's uncle settled our underpaid bill by buying the charmer a cup of hot chai. We, too, received a little clay cup filled with the warm liquid. Raj pulled out a jar from his pocket and began sprinkling a spice into our cups: masala, the delicious concotion of cloves, cinnamon, and other such flavours.
As we sat sipping quietly, I glanced at the charmer again; his temper had cooled instantly with the soothing warmth of the chai. Remaining in crouch, he looked as though he had not enjoyed a good cup of tea in a while.
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