Report from India: When Snakes Come Out to Sun Themselves

By Robert Israel

Street scene in Kolkata (Calcutta), India

On the parapet, looking down to a gully, high up on the parapet of the Red Fort in Delhi where the stones are not red but actually the color of dried blood, three men lift their robes and relieve themselves on the parched grass. One man wraps a cobra snake around his neck and tosses the tail over his shoulders like a Continental soldier, but it’s not his ears that hang low.

Numbness is achieved in relative degrees of loss, at first it feels like a foot or a hand falling asleep, and when the pins and needles stop, one is finally insulated from the forces that overwhelm and terrify. The sight of a snake’s tongue frantically darting in and out while three men with their pudenda exposed engage in a pissing contest is in and of itself not shocking. After all, this is a country where men and women routinely display the intimate details of their lives in public without shame. But think of viewing this scene after spending two hours trapped in human traffic jam in Chandichouk, where there is nowhere to turn except to move forward by other people’s volition, not your own. Try sitting in the back seat of a bicycle rickshaw that has come to a dead standstill while the throng inches past the Jain hospital for wounded birds. You can see your destination, the shrine to the martyred Gandhi just down the street, the very spot where the Mahatma was approached by a supplicant and shot dead, but that destination is at once close as it is distant. The numbness has already taken effect by this time because it is impossible to take in all that you see, or to even understand your place in the conflicting images that surround you. You retreat to a place inside yourself where nothing external reaches you.

For me, exhaustion has brought about the numbness, and it takes a few extra minutes to remind myself all of this was foretold to me many, many years before I actually arrived in India. My father was stationed in Calcutta in the 1940s, as an Army officer during the China-Burma conflict. He chose to relate the stories of his life when my sister and I were seated at dinner, the perfect hour to hear horrific tales when we refused to clear our plates of meat and vegetables – you know the routine: eat up because the poor starving children of India are dying. He told of dead bodies in the streets outside his barracks in Howrah and of corpses being burned in pyres by the Ganges, stories described without build-up, without emotion.

Stories must seen in context, and the reason my father used a dispassionate tone was because he drew on all that he had lived through previous to going overseas. As a boy in southeastern Massachusetts during the Depression, he came down with tuberculosis because of the nothing he was forced to live with, hand-me-down-clothing, standing in line for winter coal, moving from one cold water flat to another. He told me once all he had for dinner – oh how happy he would have been to gobble up the meat and vegetables I pushed off my plate! – were deli meats his mother squirreled home in her pocketbook from her job at the restaurant, scraps wrapped in paper napkins, rescued just before they were to be tossed into the garbage. It was a violent upbringing, too. He once told me of a boy deemed unworthy by ruffians in his neighborhood, singled out, taunted and cruelly murdered by the gang. My father went from no food to three squares, from tuberculosis and hand-me-down clothing to inoculations and government issued fatigues, from winter chills to overheated rooms. But there was another reason he told his stories: to pass on to me the legacy of his dreaded curse against poverty.

All things evolve: the weight of the world shifts, the shock and the horror of images becomes the backdrop to the place itself as I gaze down from a parapet, feet on blood-red stone, the air heavy with cow dung smoke and ash.

* * *
My father speculated I might find that not much had changed in India in the more than 60 years since he was stationed there. And so, standing on the parapet, at sunset, a sunset besmirched with ashes and cinders that sting the eyes until there are no tears left to purify or to soften the gaze, the distance between years evaporates. But there is nothing comforting in knowing that nothing has changed. There is nothing quaint about this fort, these people, or their unrelenting poverty. I struggle not to impose my western values on how people should live. Before arriving in Delhi, I stayed for a week on Kachupatha Pipeline Road, in the Bombay suburb of Karnala. There I saw hundreds of men and women and their families living as if no time had passed at all in Indian history, drawing water from a central well (in this case, a spigot), and camping beside open trenches that carry their wastes away down an open, fetid stream, all within sight of jumbo jets landing at Bombay International Airport, only a few miles away. Logic does not apply here. The inner-voice that says, “Surely these people deserve better shelter, running water and electricity!” must be quieted. A quote attributed to Federico Fellini for his film “The Satyricon”: “When you look at life with innocent eyes, all is divine,” doesn’t help, either. There is nothing divine about human suffering. Is it possible to arrive at a place where I can process the images without the imposition of moral judgments I usually ascribe to them, to see life as it is, to push past the protective shell of numbness?

Below where I stand on the parapet is a man dressed in his brightest carnival attire – red scarves, flowing robes, and a swami’s headdress. He cannot come up to the parapet, he is not allowed to mingle with the tourists checking their maps and circling the must-see monuments in the guide books, or sending their guides for bottles of soda and asking in nasal whines, “Are you sure this water is pure?” No, this man stays below, safely removed, standing alone in the gully because it is in the gully that he makes his living. He sees the tourists. The tourists see him. Through the art of pantomime he waves, he feigns a pout, he smiles and from up on the parapet I can see his three front teeth are stained reddish green, from chewing pan, that vile tobacco and beetle nut concoction sold for a few rupees on the streets in open stalls.

“Watch the snake!” he calls to us in a booming voice from the gully, “the snake – he rises!” He takes out his flute, and as he plays the snake that had been previously wrapped around the pissing man’s neck peeks out of a wicker basket, rigid, and the basket’s lid lifts to accommodate him. Is he really playing a magic flute? What have they done to torment this creature, to make him respond so obediently? As the low notes on the flute are played, they sound like a song from long ago, not, “They wear no pants in the southern part of France,” but, rather, something eerie, something mournful. The snake rises, he twists his head, he flicks his tongue, and his eyes are inky black and teeny-tiny. The tourists toss silver coins. Someone applauds. I toss a coin. The snake, flaccid now, retreats to the darkness of the wicker basket. The man with the red scarves nudges the lid back into place while motioning for more money, and more money still. He bows, he reaches into the basket and lifts the snake high above his headdress, and we toss him the coins from high up on the parapet, down to the gully where they ching and clang as they hit the rocks.

Later, in my hotel room in Green Park, where a friendly and emaciated cow stares up at me as I hang my shirt out to dry on the balcony, I retreat to write in my notebook in a desperate rush to record all I have seen for fear that the numbness will zap whatever remains of my vitality.

Lying back on my bed in a half-sleep, I remember my father telling me of a temple he visited during his journey to the south of India, in a village outside of Madras, where he saw many cobra snakes guarding jewels in an open temple. It sounded so exotic, something from one of the Indiana Jones movies, or stolen from a passage written by Rudyard Kipling. The snakes were in baskets, my father said, like the snake I saw at the Red Fort, but there was no snake charmer, only men who were assigned to feed the snakes every day, and the snakes would not harm them, they would bring them rodents and corn and sliced fruits. There is no mention of this temple in my guidebooks. My friend Vish tells me such places may have existed in the 1940s when my father was a young Army officer, but probably have since been plundered. Snakes no longer are feared, Vish tells me later that evening after he serves me some of his homemade yoghurt and lady slippers, as he calls them, cooked ochre spiced with cardamom and curry. Tedji, his wife, has prepared chapatis for us. She dips the fried bread into the yoghurt and then licks the runoff from her fingers. That is true, she says, about the snakes. Think about it. What’s to stop the hoards of ruffians from storming the temple and murdering the snakes just to get the jewels? They’d kill the snakes without even so much as a blink. They make money from the hides. Haven’t you seen those cobra snake handbags for sale in the Rajeev Chowk?

She brings us out some meat and chicken that has been marinating in homemade curries since the morning that she has roasted in the oven. With a robust smack of her lips against the side of her hand after sucking the meat from a bone she smiles and says, “Food tastes so much better when eaten by the hands, don’t you agree?” We sit and eat on the balcony of their apartment watching the night finally settle in. In this urban landscape, there are no snakes or snake charmers, only people taking the night air on their balconies as stars poke through just above the rooftops, glimpsed between thick plumes of smoke.
* * *
I trace my father’s footsteps to Bagdogra, the first stop on the road up the mountain to Darjeeling. He took an R & R here in 1945. There is a train that was made famous in a Cinerama movie my father took me to in the 1960s, long before the IMAX theatres of today, where three large screens sewn together brought an image so close to you that you experienced vertigo. Lowell Thomas, his booming radio voice always so grandiloquent, was the narrator. But the chief reason my father and I drove to Boston from our suburban town 50 miles away was to see how the train ride up to Darjeeling was filmed, with monkeys hanging on branches and breathtaking views staring down steep crevasses. At one point in the film, the train actually moves backwards as it struggles to navigate its way forward.

But when I arrive in Bagdogra, the train is out of commission, leaving the taxi drivers as the only option. They stand outside the gate like circus barkers, each claiming to have the best car, the best price, the best driver. One of the more aggressive drivers, wearing an oversized coat, has convinced a group of tourists he is the best. I interrupt just as the fare is being agreed upon and ask them if they noticed the driver is missing one arm and that this might pose a problem as he attempts to shift gears up the narrow mountain roads. Two Brits in the group praise me profusely, but I tell them I have done nothing to deserve their thanks. Unlike them I simply have not given into fear, for surely that is what the cab driver smelled hoping they wouldn’t notice the stump of his missing arm hidden inside his coat. Another cab driver catches my eye. We calmly negotiate a deal, and I welcome the other tourists to join me.

“I am pleased you have hired me,” says the cabbie after offering prayers to the Dali Lama’s photo hanging over his dashboard. “I have lived here all my life. I am also a tour guide. Tourists always ask me about the animals. There is a place named Tiger Tops, I can take you there for 200 rupees, but there are no tigers, they have all been hunted by the British and Americans to near-extinction. We have monkeys, you can see them and they live near the plantations. There was an elephant, he came to our house once for food, but he is gone now. And I have myself seen a white snake.”

Darjeeling Photos
View of Mt. Everest in Darjeeling, India

We are driving through light mist, the wipers of the Ambassador slapping the windshield. The tourists have been lulled into the second level of numbness, having sunk past the first level when they recoiled at the hoard of gesticulating taxi drivers. But they awaken suddenly and let out a collective gasp as we maneuver hairpin turns around steep rock crevasses that plummet downward to a fog enshrouded abyss.

“So what’s this about the white snake?” I ask.

“The snake was absolutely pure white, he was white like snow, or like soap flakes,” the driver says. “He was a cobra snake who lived deep in the forest. He was longer than both my arms put together, with a big head and very big eyes, not pink eyes like an albino, but dark eyes in a white head with white oily skin around his eye sockets. I believe he became white when he snuck into a house and found where they stored the milk. When he drank of the milk, several bottles of it, he turned white, he became white like milk, or like snow. He came out on sunny days. I would see him on the rocks near my mother’s house, sunning himself.”

We arrive in Darjeeling. The Brits head off to their hotel, but not without insisting I join them at the Planter’s Club at 6 p.m. for a drink. I head over to my hotel, and, later, walk down the street to the Happy Valley Tea Plantation. I pass women who carry the tea-baskets on their heads smiling as they pass as if in a dream down lanes leading to rows of carefully cultivated tea leaves ripening on the hillsides. I am far from the wretched poverty of Calcutta and Bombay. After the tour has finished, I am served licorice flavored tea, prepared for me from the “Golden Supremo” blend. Back at my hotel, the chef has whipped up a pungent blend of Chinese and Indian spices, meats and fried noodles to create his very own chow mien.

My father told me he’d visited the Planter’s Club, one of the exclusive officers’ clubs from the 1940s. Little has changed; the décor features framed photos of plantation owners. The Brits I met earlier in the taxi arrive and order drinks. They introduce me to one of their countrymen, an older gentleman who is sporting deep scratches on his arms and face.

“I made the mistake of coming to this wretched country to find my ancestors’ graves,” he tells me over a whiskey and soda. “But these people have no sense of decorum. The gravesite was lousy with brambles. I had to use my machete. I finally found my grandfather’s grave, but look at me, I lost 2 pints of blood in the process!”

* * *

The concierge telephones at dawn.

“It is time, sahib,” he says, only he pronounces it like the car, “saab.” He apologizes for waking me, even though I have asked him to. “Can you prepare yourself, or should I send a man?”

I dress by myself in darkness. Soon, I am walking down streets that are alive with activity. Men crouch over buckets and vigorously wash their underarms and genitals, rinsing off with cold water from a public tap. Children play kickball, and the ball rolls off into the dark thickets. I sleepwalk past men and women crouching low on their haunches, sweeping the sidewalks with home-made brooms. The sound of my footsteps is not at all like my own.
I climb the steps to the observatory just as the sun breaks through the lush hills. And then I see why I agreed to be awakened. Mt. Kanchenjunga, 28,146 feet tall, snow-capped, catches the first reddish rays of morning. Behind it, a thousand or so feet taller, is Mt. Everest. Since I have arrived three days ago looking to connect with my father’s memories, the rain has fallen. Now, the rain has stopped and the snowy peaks are visible. They turn yellow for a moment and then very quickly to an icy white.

I wander the town wrapped in a sweater, hands cold, nose and cheeks red, throat dry, still in a half-sleep. The bells from the monastery ring. A woman, begging for rupees, extends the hand of her child from underneath a woolen shawl. The men, who were washing earlier, remain in a crouched position, brushing their teeth. The air is sweet with flowers and chimney smoke, bird song and the chiming of bells.

* * *
Back in Delhi, sitting at an outdoor restaurant enjoying a cold bowl of ferni, a rice milk and rose water confection, Vish wants to know if my journey has been satisfactory, if the stories my father told me rang true, if the purpose of confronting those stories has fulfilled me.

I describe for Vish a country no longer trying to rid itself of cursed outsiders, a country that celebrates freedom with such a chaotic spirit, a country exploding with ideas and enthusiasm unable to tame the very problems that seek to undo that enthusiasm within the next breath, the next second. There is much I am troubled by, much that uplifts me, much that I am left struggling with.

Vish brings me to the airport, and he hands me a gift: a book of essays about India’s independence he has edited. There is a quote he has underlined, written by the late Indian leader Jawaharal Nehru, dated August 14, 1947, when India was declared a free nation.

“A moment comes,” Nehru wrote, “when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, find utterance.”

The “utterance” for freedom has been expressed, and there is no turning back.

Robert Israel can be reached at This essay is in memory of Harold N. Israel.


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