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
Everyone smiled at this. Bishwanath had many
symptoms, many weaknesses and many preferences and biases. Everyone was sure he
was a hypochondriac.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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!
Probir asked while going out.
Everyone plus one extra
for our Snake Man. What do you say,
Nobody knew why his friends called Probir
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
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
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.
What rubbish! Dileep gave up and left to get
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
What all diseases can be cured?
Gout, asthma, epilepsy.
What about dysentery,
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?
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
Why, you have.
I told you before. I don't sell such things. My
job is different.
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
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
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
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
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
It's nothing. I bet he kept the real cure with
him, didn't even give it to us, Romen
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
friends stood around the manager like
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