Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Twenty-first Century Incarnation of the Snake God

Twenty-first Century Incarnation of the Snake God
-       For Chard DeNiord

When I call home in India, Ma answers the phone,
while Pa waits for his turn, except when stories
compel his voice to rise over hers.

His happy notes overwhelm her irritation,
and I feel like a child on his shoulders,
as he narrates events in his baritone.

“Son, your Daadi commands you to fly
down to meet the Snake God
who has incarnated in our-village.”

I hear my mother grumble –
“as if, your son has nothing better to do!”
 My father chuckles, “You be quiet,
our son needs to be reminded of his roots.”

He begins afresh in a Ramlila voice:
“Son, a few days back, a snake
shivering in the December dawn,
crawled out into sunshine.
I hope you remember your biology,
snakes are cold blooded animals.

Your uncle, my distant cousin, Ramdev, saw it.
(Speedier narration) O he rushed to the kitchen
and got a bamboo basket
and before snake could blink,
trapped it.

Then a rumor spread that Naagraj,
the Snake God, first appeared in his ‘divya-swapan‘ divine-dream,
now ‘saakshaat’, ‘in person’.

The news percolated to newspapers.
Can you believe it, about fifty thousand people
are visiting that site every day? Your mother doesn’t see it,
but this is the biggest event in the history of our village.”

My mother takes offense. The telephone conveys her sarcasm.
“Son, it is good that you studied in the city away from the village.
The way your father gets excited about trifles would have drained
your scientific curiosity to dregs.”

My father laughs out loud, and my mother too is amused.
“See how happy he is, while his villagers make fools of themselves.”
My father, taking a solemn tone, says, “See son, it is happenings
like these which show you the power of faith.

Your daadi has been singing and dancing for the last week.
All our relatives have visited the shrine, and are urging
us to do the same. You should call up your grandma, hear her say,
‘It is a miracle, a modern-age miracle. Kalyug ka chamatkar!
The Naagraj himself! Miracle!”

My mother snatches the phone again, while I hear
my father’s laughter. “My son, see how your father
mocks them. But when his mother calls,
he is a gentleman and agrees it is a miracle.

He is going to the village tomorrow.
He says, the villagers would otherwise
think of him as an atheist, and of course
his mother would admonish him for life.”

My father’s voice resounds again now,
“Son, I am happy that my Ma is in good humor.
Her faith in miracle is giving her so much joy.
I don’t believe in it, but I respect my Ma’s feelings.”

“It was like a true fair,” he writes on return.
“You can think of it as an endless party.
Devotees, villagers are dancing on songs: Bhajans,
and everyone is immersed in praises of the Lord.

About forty makeshift shops have come up.
Jalebi, laddu, chai is being made, consumed,
there are shops selling red and green bangles,
tie-dyed chunni, suits and dhotis and what not.

In just ten days, Ramdev has made over a million rupees.
There are cloth merchants selling Shiva T-shirts,
jewelers toiling to meet the huge demand for earrings,
pendants, noserings, shaped like the snake, the Naagraj.

There are women, who have lost their self-control,
and they are swaying their hair, round and round.
The villagers are all assembled, food is being
cooked and served. Everything is so organized.”

My sister calls me up, about a week later.
“Papa must have told you the Snake God story.
As you know, he narrates it to everyone so dramatically.
Everyone laughs, and he laughs the loudest.

O Bhai, Daadi wanted me to come to the village too.
I told her, I have examinations and I need to study.
You know then she tried to reason that with God’s blessing
I’d get better results, with lesser preparation.

The snake died. What did you expect?
They were continuously feeding him, breathing over him.
Some brilliant soul put heaters around him, to keep
him warm, and maybe due to heat or age or food, he just died.

O Bhai, the story doesn’t end here. A rumor spread that the Snake God
was killed by some devil. So they gave a proper funeral to the snake,
and announced a temple will be built at the site where he appeared.
Arrgh! When will our villagers let go of their superstitions?”

About six months later, I visit my village.
My Grandma truly believes it was a miracle.
I quiz her, “What if, it was a simple snake and Ramdev uncle
just cooked up a story to make money.”

“What are you saying, grandson?” She says. “Even your
father came here and paid his tribute to the Naagraj.
Howsoever many years may you spend in the university,
never underestimate the judgment of your Daadi.

The Naagraj “were” your height, “their” skin black as night, forked tongue.
“They” coiled up, just like Shiva’s Naagraj. I had a fever that
disappeared on seeing “them”. Your father’s paternal aunt’s
grandson recovered from jaundice within a week.”

“Don’t bring your American nonsense here grandson.”
She dismisses my knowledge as vanity, asks Naagraj for charity.
At the site, she hands me a ten rupee note and I go forward
and kneel to pray. Afterwards my Daadi blesses me and nods.

First published in MYTHIUM, No.3, 2010-2011

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