A week later, Suparna took Meenakshi and Kumud to visit the snake-charmers’ jatra on the occasion of Nag Panchami at the nearby village of Battis Shirala. Suparna had taken it upon herself to convince her parents to take her younger sisters along, and they were now her responsibility.
Click here to read about how Lord Krishna divided the Parijat between his wives.
The village of Battis Shirala is populated by families who are snake-charmers since generations. Every year, in the prelude to the Snake God festival of Nag Panchami, these families make a beeline to the Goddess Amba Bai temple to partake in an interesting tradition. They are each given a flower, which is to be placed on the head of the goddess’s idol. If the flower falls to the right, then that family earns the privilege to catch and nurture a snake and present it in the grand procession that year. This is a noble responsibility that brings the family a significant amount of social repute.
The procession had begun when the Patil girls reached.
The snakes, well-fed and worshipped by their families, were being led into a procession. Colours and music rent the atmosphere; songs from Hindi and Marathi movies blared on loudspeakers. People dressed in their finest danced to the tunes in the middle of the road, ahead of the snake exhibits that rolled out on vehicles. Along the sides of the road were stalls selling trinkets and edibles for the crazed revellers, making the whole show quite carnival-like.
Meenakshi craned her neck to see the first snake that she could spot, a common krait. It was led by the family and followed by a dozen other people. The men of the family opened the basket and the snake hissed out, waiting for the right opportunity to strike.
A boy from the family flashed an orange cloth in front of the krait. That sudden change in its environment unnerved the reptile and it darted its head in every direction and lashed precariously close to the boy who easily sidestepped it.
Click here to read about how Subhadra arrived at her life’s purpose through marriage.
The audience clapped and cheered. The music of a folk song blared from a loudspeaker attached to a tempo which moved ahead of this crowd.
‘Come on, Meenu, let’s have that candyfloss!’
Meenakshi turned her head away from the snake and looked at Suparna pointing at a cart by the roadside where a lady was sitting with several of the pink stringy sweets.
‘Yes, let’s!’ said Kumud.
‘You two go,’ said Meenakshi. ‘I don’t want it.’
‘Sure?’ said Suparna. ‘I want to see those bangles too.’
‘Yes. You go. I’ll be here.’
The sisters scrammed, leaving Meenakshi to enjoy the show. Snakes were much more fascinating than stupid bangles and candyfloss anyway.
Click here to read about what Ravana’s wife can teach us about love and acceptance.
Meenakshi saw a vast array of snakes — kraits and vipers and rat-snakes, each of them more menacing than the other. Every time a snake lunged, people cheered in deafening applause and the family would puff up in pride for having climbed another notch in their social standing.
Then, far in the distance, a crowd erupted in a loud cheer. This was followed by an explosion of colours and music that increased in volume till the zestful strains of that live band—drums and trumpets and tambourines—overtook every other sound.
Click here to read more about Kannaki who burned down a city to avenge her husband.
Meenakshi craned her neck to see. It was a large open truck, its front painted red and orange, a group of young men and women dancing ahead of it with total abandon. A banner proclaiming Nag Devta Mitra Mandal shone amid dancing lights.
The other snakes paled in comparison, for the showstopper had arrived. Someone splashed colours on the dancers. Young boys took their shirts off and danced, and women laughed merrily, but no one stopped or paused.
As the procession inched its way toward Meenakshi, the number of revellers swelled up and the music grew to such an extent that she could not hear her own mind.
Almost clapping now, just like the others in the crowd, Meenakshi went on her toes to get a better view.
There were men ahead of her and behind her, and all of them were trying to look at one thing, everyone practically trying to climb over each other in their quest.
Meenakshi did not mind the men touching her. In a place like this, pushing and pulling and jostling was expected.
Click here to read this ancient love story of how Lapita found love and lost it.
A man climbed up on the roof of the truck and announced on a mike, ‘Folks, here’s what you have been waiting for! Nag Devta Mitra Mandal brings to you our beloved Snake-God. Cheer loudly for the family who has brought him to us this year—the Gorse family, the pride of Battis Shirala.
Click here to read about what Indian gods teach us about mutual respect.
Back off now, and feast your eyes, as we show you the king of snakes—the King Cobra.’
There were sighs and gasps, and people cheered loud enough to puncture eardrums.
The show was about to begin.
A man with white stubble, evidently the head of the Gorse family, came to the front of the truck. On his forehead were various marks of devotion. Another man, a younger one, brought out a round earthen pot whose mouth was covered with a smaller pot. Everyone held their hearts as he placed the pots on the floor of the truck. There was dead silence now; even the music stopped.
Click here to read about the uncomfortable love of Brahma and Saraswati.
The Gorse patriarch bowed low and joined his hands in reverent worship to appease the Snake-God who was in the pot. Standing in that crowd, Meenakshi’s heart began to thump. This would be her first time seeing a cobra, a well-appeased, well-fed cobra at that.
The younger man moved in, and as cautiously as he could, raised the smaller pot.
Hearts might have stopped at this point.
Thence arose the King Cobra, first bringing his majestic head out of the pot, glistening black and brown all over except for the white bands across his neck. He came out without fear, with a sense of monarchical pride, and lashed his forked tongue out. The tiny beads that were his eyes darted all around, and his head lashed out everywhere.
‘God! God is here!’ chanted Gorse. There were tears in his eyes. ‘Bless us.’
Gorse undid a red cloth that was tied around his waist. It was a slow, calculated movement. His eyes were on the snake at all times. He took the cloth in his hand, bent defiantly close to the snake, and swept the cloth gently along his body.
That did it. The snake raised his head again and the next instant, his glorious hood went up.
Click here to read Karna’s love letter to Draupadi.
The crowd burst into a tumult. Some of them started to dance, but Gorse gruffly warned, ‘People, be quiet. Do not excite the Snake-God.’
But the Snake-God was excited. Gorse led him on with his cloth, flashing a bit here and a bit there, making him turn his hood in confusion at the people standing on all sides.
Standing ahead of the crowd, Meenakshi suddenly began to feel dizzy. She had been staring too long at the swaying snake’s head and did not realize when the crowd went from awe to frenzy.
The breathing of the men closed in on her. She tried to look at the snake’s hood and the proud gleaming face of Gorse as he led the snake, but something was turning within her. She felt it—it was the throbbing under her skin that had begun to scare her these days.
The breathing of one man, in particular, stood out to her. It hit right into her ears.
‘Look behind you, fool!’
There it was again—that voice from inside her. It stilled her heart.
She realized she was pinned.
The man right behind her was touching her. She was scared to look, but she felt his grubby hand on her waist now. Creeping. Crawling. How oblivious she had been! Blame it on the crowd or the show, but she hadn’t realized it until she had been warned by her inner voice.
But now she knew. It was happening, and then she felt that man’s erection pressing into her buttocks. She looked back and saw the man’s grinning teeth and a whiff of his bad breath ran up her nose.
He nodded and winked at her as if to say—You are enjoying it too, aren’t you?
No, she did not say that! It was the voice, the voice.
‘You stay put, Meenakshi. I will take care of this.’
The next moment, she felt a tingling in her fingers.
Distantly she could still see the swaying hood of the snake. Gorse had found his groove now; he was dancing in front of the reptile. There were others on the floor of the truck, people from his family, and they took turns in taming the animal.
Click here to read how you should handle sexual harassment like cat-calling and other forms.
And then the music began to play.
Meenakshi could not breathe. The man’s hand had moved upward, having gone from her waist to her breast.
Her fingers! They were throbbing now. Moving on their own. They felt heavy, scabby. She felt the skin of her hands becoming taut, stretching on her, threatening to crack. She looked down at her fingers and was horrified.
This was not her. This dark clammy skin, these popping fingernails… these were not her hands!
Related Reading: Why Parvati Took The Form Of Mother Goddess Kali To Help Her Son
She was still looking at her hands when a shout passed through the crowd. The loudspeaker blared, ‘GET ASIDE!’
Meenakshi turned to look at the truck, and she ducked just in the nick of time.
She barely escaped the King Cobra, who had ejected himself from his pot like an arrow shot from a bow.
Even as she fell, she saw the fangs of the cobra emerging from his mouth, and she saw them cutting an arc in the sky above her and clamping right into the chest of the man who had been molesting her.
The man collapsed instantly. He began to quiver even before he could reach the ground. His arms stiffened as if he was trying to fight something, and then they fell loose.
White foam streamed out of his mouth and spread into the mud.
Meenakshi looked aghast and then felt something soft by her feet. It was the cobra, now nestling comfortably between her feet, looking as harmless as if he were her pet snake.
‘The man is dead!’ someone yelled out into the stunned silence. ‘THE MAN IS DEAD!’
This is an excerpt from the book Yakshini written by Neil D’Silva