Translated from Bengali by Chhanda Chattopadhyay Bewtra
There were only six workers in the office. It was midsummer afternoon. There were no outsiders. The place was the office of a minor bank branch in a small town. In front of the building was a roundabout of three roads disappearing into some unknown horizons. Long-distance buses plied those roads. Every Tuesday and Friday a farmers market opened in front of the bank. This day was Wednesday, so the entire area was vacant, as was the bank. In high summer heat, all work had slowed down. Suddenly a man entering through the front door interrupted the cashier Dileep dozing at the counter. The newcomer wore a plaid sarong and a threadbare white top. A blue piece of cloth tied on his head gave him an air of mystery. Although his clothes were not very clean, there was an elegance in them that was rather attractive. He carried a small basket hung by a chain of rope in one arm and a wooden ladle in the other. Also, there was a bag on his shoulder.
Hello. Are you carrying snakes in that basket? Dileep asked him. He was the first one among his friends to see this newcomer. Others were seated behind a tall counter.
Hearing the word snake, Asit stood up. Really? Snakes?
The man sat on the visitors bench and smiled weakly. It is really hot outside.
Move over here, under the fan.
Asit left his chair and came forward. He was keenly interested in snakes. He loved to see the supple smooth cobras and vipers waving their hoods. He thought they looked almost regal. Can you do snake charming? he asked. The man smiled again, in an ambiguous way. He was definitely more mysterious than ordinary snake charmers.
Now Bishwanath and Nishith too came out from the back. Bishwanath eyed the basket. Just one snake? Did you catch it just now?
The man smiled his inscrutable smile.
At the rear of the office were some cupboards and shelves. Probir was looking for a file there. He now came forward, dusting his hands. Bishwanath, just check if he has any medicinal stuff.
Everyone smiled at this. Bishwanath had many symptoms, many weaknesses and many preferences and biases. Everyone was sure he was a hypochondriac.
No, seriously. They do carry herbal medicines sometimes.
Biswanath never got angry at other peoples hazing. He was quite mild mannered. His friends in the office had made a rule that anyone making a mistake at his job or at home would have to pay a fine. Poor Bishwanath ended up paying the most. He was nave and the best target of others pranks. A few days ago, at the bus stop, a man carrying a python hung the animal around Bishwanath's neck, and in the name of blessing him, collected ten rupees from him. That was all the money Bishwanath had. But he gave it away without any protest. What could he do? He had a live python curled around his neck! So he was late at the office. He had to borrow money from some friends and then could get a bus.
Dileep hearing the story said, Really! How could the guy recognize you?
Biswanath innocently replied, I have been wondering about that myself. How he came straight at me and hung that snake around my neck!
As a result, he was fined and had to pay for everyone's tea. Bishwanath paid up that too without any argument.
Now he looked at Dileep and smiled a bit anxiously. He did not mention about medicines anymore, lest he got fined again.
Well, let's have a look at the snake. Dileep said very indifferently.
The man untied his blue head-cloth to wipe his face and smiled as before. Which way is the drinking fountain, Sir? He asked politely.
At the far end of the long room were the restrooms and drinking fountain. To reach there the man had to walk through the entire length of the office. To avoid that, Probir brought him a glass of water.
After drinking, he retied his kerchief on his head. Now the friends were getting impatient.
Well, where is your snake? Show us. Asit said.
I don't play with snakes, Sir, I just catch them.
Nonsense! You catch snakes and don't show them? What do you do with them then?
I sell them. I sell venom, that's all. Sometimes I rent out the snakes too.
Renting snakes? What on earth is that?
Those who charm snakes and make money, they sometimes rent snakes from others too. After their acts, they return the snakes to the original owners.
Do you know anything about treatments for snake bites? Any magic potions? Asit was always curious about magic and miracles.
The man smiled widely. Magic potions I don't have, Sirs. I do have some herbs but hardly anyone knows anything about them nowadays.
Dileep came out from behind the cashiers desk. He had no interest in snakes or potions, but he was quite keen on playing pranks. Bhasta, order some teas. This is going to be fun. Perhaps now we can find the ultimate medicine for Bishwanath!
How many? Probir asked while going out.
Everyone plus one extra for our Snake Man. What do you say, brother?
Nobody knew why his friends called Probir Bhasta.
At this time Romen entered. He had gone out for an errand. His sunburnt face suddenly brightened at the prospect of some fun. Good show! When the cat is away, the mice are at play. Now we have snakes playing in the bank!
Hey, don't talk nonsense, Brahma, or you will be fined. This is no snake charming. said Dileep.
No? But soon will be. There is a snake, a snake charmer and an audience. What more is needed?
Everyone called Romen Brahma. Romen's last name was Barman. One day while discussing castes, he proudly announced himself as the descendant of God Brahma. Since then, he had been named Brahma.
Show us your herbs. said Bishwanath.
No, first the snake. said Asit.
No, first tea, said Probir, entering the office, then everything else.
The boy from the teashop usually brought their teas. Seeing the snake basket and the new man, he really wanted to stay for a while, but his boss was taking a nap in this lazy afternoon and ordered him to look after the shop. Fearing the beating he would get, the boy left unwillingly.
Up till then Nishith had not said a word. He was busy drafting some statements. Now he covered up the carbons and papers under the ceiling fan and stood up. Then he went to the drinking fountain and drank two glasses of water. This was his habit. He had to drink a lot of water everyday. Now he came forward to join his friends.
What? He hasn't even gotten the snake out yet.
The man now left the bench and sat down on the floor. It is a brand new snake. Just got him today. Well, as you are so keen to see No, no, please don't be scared. Okay, just wait a moment. Let me see if I have one item in my bag.
Here, I have it. Take this in your hand and sit down. No snake will come near you.
He took out a strange-looking dried fruit and handed it to Bishwanath. It was like part Amla, part Rudraksha. On each end there were fine hair like projections.
What fruit is this?
This is called Immortal fruit. It is because of this that we can afford to show off our snakes. If you hold it, no snake will bite you. But, of course, snakes are not intelligent. It knows only to bite and bite it will. But
Is it a magic fruit?
No, no. We don't know any magic or miracles. Besides, our Guru bans us from doing that stuff. I cannot fool you, Sirs. I do what I have learned. This Immortal fruit and roots of Maniraj, these two
What? You have roots of Maniraj too? Asit suddenly asked. Perhaps he knew about this root before.
It is extremely rare, Sir, but I do have a very small amount.
The man laughed. But I don't want to sell it.
What all diseases can be cured by these two items? Dileep asked.
I have heard of curing many diseases, but that is not my job. I just catch and sell snakes. Although one can cure a snakebite.
Have you cured any?
The man laughed. serenely.
What rubbish! Dileep gave up and left to get some water.
The man smiled again. Please bring a glass of water with you, Sir. I want to show you something.
Dileep drank his water and brought a glassful. The man took some water in his ladle and told Bishwanath, Now drop the fruit in the water.
Bishwanath dropped the fruit.
The man moved the ladle a little, and then said, Look how the fruit is moving. Look at those hairs.
The six men saw with surprise. The hairs were truly moving by themselves! As if the fruit was alive. They intently watched it.
What all diseases can be cured?
Gout, asthma, epilepsy.
What about dysentery, diarrhea?
For those, you need one more item.
Maniraj roots, right?
You got it. But the main use is as an antidote of snake venom. If you bring me some milk, I will show you one more thing.
If I drop the fruit in milk, it will absorb the milk. If I add water to the milk, it will still soak up all the milk and only water will be left behind. Honest to God, Sir, there is nothing fake in it, and no magic either.
Dileep said, Please Bhasta, go to Naren Mohanto's shop and get some milk.
The man tapped the basket, then cracked open the lid slightly and blew into it. The snake hissed loudly inside.
Probir didn't have to go. Bishwanath asked, How do I take that Immortal fruit for stomach upsets?
Nothing elaborate. First you soak the fruit in the milk. After it has absorbed all the milk, you keep it in water overnight. Then in the morning, drink that water in empty stomach. That's all.
And the Maniraj?
Maniraj roots you can bundle in a piece of black cloth and tie it around your waist. Oh yes, keep the roots loose. Not closed in any amulet.
You mean touching the body?
Yes, body, body, but where will you get such stuff?
Why, you have.
I told you before. I don't sell such things. My job is different.
Okay, don't sell it, but you must take something as the cost for collecting the root? Where do you get it from?
Among thousands of fir trees along the sea coast in Medinipur, you may find one tree of Immortal fruit. That's where we get them from.
But you have some in your bag, right?
That's only a few bits and pieces that I may need for my own purpose.
But you can easily get some more. Bishwanath was impatient, Why don't you give us what you have?
How do you use it as antivenin? Asit asked.
It is done by that Immortal fruit. But, Sirs, I don't do treatment work. I eke out somehow by whatever I make by selling the snakes and the venoms
How naive! You can make thousands of rupees by treating one snake-bitten patient!
The man now laughed out loud, How many people get bitten by snakes? Have any of you seen a snakebite?
No one could remember any. Only Brahma said, Wasn't there one case? Near Jamalpur? I think it was a snakebite
The man laughed again. See, only one case! Even that is not certain. One can't live by just treating snakebites. The snake I have here, in this basket, is Death itself. If he gives a good bite, it's all over—one, at the most two hours tops. Unless you have these roots or the fruit with you
At last Nishith spoke, Let me see the fruit.
The man gave him one. There was some water still in the glass. Nishith dropped the fruit in it. All the men anxiously peered into the glass. After a while, the hairs started moving, just like a live insect. As if it would start swimming any time. A draft of hot air somehow entered the room, struck the air from the fan and made a strange noise.
Romen said, There are so many such mysteries in this world, who keeps track of them? Most of our medicines are from these roots and fruits.
The man said, God gave diseases and also the antidotes for each disease. Only the wise men know about them.
Bishwanath said, Okay, please give me one fruit and a piece of that root.
The man laughed, I am not one of those wise men, Sir. Now you have put me in a bind. I can't cheat you and take your money. But at the same time, I deal with Death. I too am in need of these.
You can collect later more from your sources. But we can't. Please? Bishwanath was almost begging.
The man was very polite. He did not speak nonsense, nor did he try to cheat them. There was no professional bragging in him at all. In fact, to the six of them, he appeared quite logical, almost urbane. At their repeated requests, he pulled out one piece of root and a pair of scissors from his bag. He cut six pieces of the root and put the rest away in his bag. Then the Immortal fruit. Perhaps he really did not have more of this. First he dug in his bag and got three, then two more and at the end after much searching, he found one more fruit.
Bishwanath was the first one to take the piece of root and the fruit from him.
How much do I owe you?
Whatever you deem adequate. As I said, this is not my business.
Then the man looked up at the six of them and said, Thirteen rupees and quarter five annas each.
Dileep said, Quarter five annas? Why not a whole fourteen rupees? For the first time, the friends smelled the whiff of a scam.
The man smiled mysteriously, Well, there is a reason, but everything cannot be explained to everyone.
Brahma said, That's true, every question does not need to be answered.
Bishwanath objected, Why not? We are not kids.
How many paisas in quarter five annas?
Thirty-three, thirty-four something like that, said cashier Dileep.
Everyone counted out the exact change for his merchandise.
Let's see this snake now, Nishith asked.
The man slapped on the basket and blew at it. The snake hissed again. The man rolled up the edge of his sarong, baring his knees and knelt comfortably on the ground. Pushing up his sleeves he showed them his arm. See how many bite marks here. It is only because of the roots and fruit that I am still alive today.
There were many scabbed and scarred wounds on his arm. He now carefully removed the lid of the basket. Before he could open it completely, the snake raised his head at lightning speed. With open fang and a loud hiss, it reared back, ready to strike. A totally black, fresh, powerful, fast and dangerous cobra!
All six friends jumped back in fear. The snake ignored his owner and slithered out of the basket. The man tried to push him back by using the lid of the basket, and immediately the snake struck at the lid. In the still of the afternoon, his hissing sounded like a roar.
The man just laughed. His name is Binnathupi Alad. I caught him in Binna's hut. Just caught, so not used to me yet. Arey a-a-a-, my beloved, you do not know my love, he started to sing at the snake.
Suddenly he changed the song to one by Lalan. He kept singing one line in many different ways, as if he was a bit worried. The snake just would not come under his control. It hissed full of rage.
Asit was stunned by the sight of the snake. It appeared so beautiful, strong, supple, and full of strength and courage.
From a safe distance, Bishwanath yelled, Put him away! My God. He is dangerous!
No, wait. let's admire him a bit, Asit said. He sounded as if in a trance.
On the smooth cement floor, the snake was not getting much traction. Still it was trying to get away, hide somewhere.
Romen was going to tell the man something and just for a second, the man had glanced at Romen, and right at that moment it happened.
Just as he tried to grab the tail of the snake slithering away, it reared up half of his body length and from about four feet distance struck the bare knee of the man. Immediately blood spurted out in two thin sprays.
This time the man expertly grabbed the snake and quickly locked him in the basket. Two droplets of blood were clearly visible just above his knee. In seconds, the droplets grew large and rolled down the side of his leg.
The six friends just stared at him in horror. None of them had ever seen anything like this before.
What would happen to him?
This happens often in our line of work, smiled the man, but that mystery was lost from his smile. He applied pressure above the wound and expressed some more blood. Then he took the blue kerchief off his head and tied it tightly above his knee. Then he stood up. Would there be a bus to the city now? He asked.
Dileep looked at the wall clock and said, Not before half an hour. Where do you plan to go?
The city, the man said, There would be others from our group there. Okay Sirs. Goodbye.
The man went out in the sun, then turned back once more and smiled. There was no brightness in his smile any more. The six friends mutely stared at him walking away.
After some time Probir reminded everyone, Hey, don't we have to eat lunch? Bishwanath will probably just drink the water from the immortal fruit, but we need more sustenance, no?
Everyone laughed out loud. Except Asit. He was still in a trance. Did you see how that snake struck the guy?
He was very close and saw the whole disaster quite clearly.
It's nothing. I bet he kept the real cure with him, didn't even give it to us, Romen said.
I don't know, Asit said. That strike was so hard. Like a boxing punch!
The few drops of blood on the floor had clotted into a dark mass.
Dileep went back to the cashiers desk. He still had to count the daily cash. Others started getting ready for lunch. Slowly everything turned returned to normal. It seemed as if they were in a different world all this while. Soon they were busy eating, grabbing each others food, teasing Bishwanath about his habits, Brahma about his opinions, Nishith's way of drinking water till they suddenly realized that one of them, Asit, was still in a funk. Dileep asked, What's wrong with you?
Asit said, That guy cheated us!
What do you mean?
Nobody quite understood Asit. Only Nishith uttered, Oh my God!
Asit said, Yes!
Come on, let's find the guy, Dileep said.
The three of them came outside to look around. Just then they saw the manager of the bank returning. He had gone to the Block office earlier.
Where are you three off to?
Just to the store.
Under the Krishnachura tree, near the bus stop, a snake-charmer type guy is dying. Perhaps got bitten by a snake, the manager said.
The three friends stood around the manager like fools.
Romen said, Come Bishwanath, let's go see him.
No. Nobody should go, Asit suddenly said.
The manager said, What happened? Why are you acting so oddly?
Asit said, Look there, and pointed to the drops of blood on the floor.
What is it? The manager looked at the dried black spots.
That's where the snake bit him. He came here to show us his snake.
The guy cheated us and took eighty rupees.
No one had calculated the total sum. Except Dileep. So everyone was surprised. Somehow this whole round number was covered up by the loose change of thirteen rupees and quarter five annas.
Come, Dileep, let's go to him.
No. Nobody needs to go. It has been over an hour now. He is dying, Asit said with an unnatural force. This man was of their age. A mysterious, proud, intelligent man who easily fooled all six of them. He had chosen a dangerous profession to eke out a living.
Under the Krishnachura tree a deceiver was dying.