Translated from Gujarati by Hemang Desai
“You will have known almost
every knowledgeable thing about
the charms and the temptations
that touch could hold.
But, you will never have known
that touch – the taboo
to your transcendence,
when crystallized in caste
was a paraphernalia of
-Meena Kandasamy, Touch (2006)
Wild uproar and sighs of shock engulfed the entire village. The news spread like wild fire. “A poisonous snake has touched* Shivalo, the son of Viro, the scavenger.” The scavenger street was far away from the village frontier on the eastern hillock. But as the news floated across, in no time the hillock was teeming with people. A flood of curious villagers came gushing out of their caste streets and community quarters raising urgent queries and grave concerns. Magan, the drumbeater, who was heading home after performing in the welcome procession of Mother Goddess, heard the news on the village outskirts and immediately made for the scavenger street. On the way to the hillock, he tuned his oversize drum, tugging at a clip here, tightening a string there; upon reaching the base of the hillock, he began to hysterically heave his convex drumstick, fashioned from wild native wood, on the inky eye of the drum. The resounding slap-bang drummed up quite a frenzy amongst men, women and kids who were trudging their way up the hillock. Today Viro, the scavenger and his son were the talk of the town, thanks to the strike of the adventitious misfortune that was far crueller than what was their daily lot.
“The scavengers’ street is so far away from the village, almost in the middle of the forest. What would touch the poor kid if not a snake? Shucks, fate is so harsh on the bhangis**.”
“This is all a play of karma. Or else why would they be born as scavengers? Whatever it is, that’s how our society has been for ages. They can’t be allowed to put up residence in the village. They are better off outside the village, you see. If his son is bitten today, don’t our people get stung by venomous reptiles on our farms? May Goga, the cobra-god bless all.”
“All that is fine. But how did this happen?”
“I don’t know. We’ll come to know once we reach there. But people say, the kid was playing in the backyard and god knows why but he thrust his hand in the hedge and the cobra lying coiled-up in ambush there snapped at the poor thing.”
“Whatever it is, but if something happens to the kid, Viro will die of shock. He was born of holy Mother’s blessings… that too after years of entreaties and fasts… God forbid.”
Suddenly, the entire village had begun to sympathize with Viro. A few even went out to put on record their approval for the way in which he conducted himself in the village, with selfless devotion and sense of obligation uncharacteristic of a scavenger.
“He may be a scavenger by caste, but he is a righteous, conscientious fellow. He has never said no to anybody for any work, be it drumming rain or gaining heat. That much due has to be given to the devil.”
“Ask him for running an errand of fifteen kilometres and he would set aside his personal household work to carry it out. Don’t they say, it’s always the righteous whose house gets burgled. Poor man!”
“You said it, brother. Pure gold. Convoluted are the ways of the world in the era of Kali.”
Judging Viro by their personal experience or received wisdom, the village folks headed for the eastern hillock. The scavenger street was extremely small and sparsely populated. On second thought, it wouldn’t qualify for the designation of a street at all. A huddle of two huts made of tightly-packed mud walls with doors facing the east. Not wooden doors but makeshift shutters forged out of crisscrossed twigs, reed and bamboo stalks that hung precariously from the clay walls and a sloping roof set with broken, straggly roof-tiles of native make without anything that may pass for rafters. Opposite the stumpy pair, at some distance, stood a third squat hut in condition no better than its neighbours’ except that its door faced the west. Right in the centre of the narrow triangle drawn by the three huts towered a hoary neem tree planted by Viro’s forefathers, its form sprawling and serene. On the winding dirt tracks leading to the huts, squatted four clay shrines for various presiding deities like Mother Shikotar and other folk gods. The bang and boom of the drum wafted the news as far as the quarters of the rabaris, a community of cattle-keepers and cowherds.
Mohan was stretched out like a slothful boa on a string-cot in the sprawling shade of a neem tree in the courtyard of his house. The moment he heard about the touch of snake, he sat up bolt upright. The news seemed to give him a real thrill, so much so that the mass of curly black hair on his body stood on its end. Rolling his eyes like some tantric performing rituals in a crematorium, he began to tremble slightly, as if possessed. Known in the region primarily as the most pious and powerful devotee of Lord Goga, Mohan also doubled up as a witchdoctor when the situation demanded. However, he had always been a kind of ritual-performer-in-chief to the entire village, such that the welcome procession of Mother Goddess would not budge an inch until he green-flagged it. Lord Goga was at his beck and call, ready to possess him at his will. Like Magan, he too had returned home when Mother’s procession was half-way through. Bounding out of the cot, he re-tied the dhoti around his waist and air-locked it by sucking his stomach in and blowing it out in quick succession. With the heavy downward movement of his flat palm, he pressed the accordion pleats in his dhoti, adjusted his cowherd turban and let its flowing ends loose on his shoulders. In one powerful leap, he grabbed hold of a couple of tender neem branches and snapped them off the bigger bough. Peeling off a handful of leaves, he stuffed them in his mouth and stood chomping away at them. After a while, he spat out the green paste. His body began to shake violently now; swaying like a drunkard and hooting like a devil, he ran in the direction of the eastern hillock. On seeing him stomping up the hill, the gossip of villagers changed course.
“See, there comes Mohan. He can cure anyone with the power of his incantations. Now the venom will course its way back and drip out the boy’s body in no time. It’s a matter of seconds now. Mohan’s dirty look can make a flying sparrow come crashing down. What good is a stray reptile before him?”
“Lord Goga is at his beck and call, you know. Let him give a mighty roar and the snake would come floating, writhing through the air, dragged by the sheer power of his spell from where ever it might have slithered away and suck its venom back.”
Somebody raised an objection to the veracity of the narrative.
“Have you ever seen it happen with your own eyes? Or you’re taking us for a ride?”
“Not with my own eyes, of course. But entire village swears by his occult powers. Even people from neighbouring village call upon him to neutralize the touch of a snake. Don’t you know that?”
“There is some merit in what he says, brother. If he sucks the venom out of the body, the kid would jump up to life in a moment.”
Someone else spoke out of his devotion and faith in the largesse of Lord Goga.
“Lord Goga will fly his way to the courtyard of Viro’s house. What luck! After all these years, we will get to have a darshan of the cobra-god.”
A quaking Mohan cleared his way through the teeming multitude at the mouth of the scavenger’s street, moving the neem branches in circles over his head and hollering crazily, “Give me way.. move… move… give me way.”
As soon as he reached the edge of Viro’s courtyard, he stopped dead in his tracks. The well-rehearsed and neatly executed possession drained out of him as he realized that in a bid to enact an intense possession, it’d completely slipped his mind that he was stepping into a scavenger’s courtyard. Bitter resentment and sheer disdain surged within him. Clueless as to what to do next, he kept gaping at Magan who was beating his drum standing right in the middle of courtyard. Waving the neem branches, he signalled to Magan to make way for him. Magan curled up his lips and ambled away in a gait that signified calculated spite and a couldn’t-care-less affront. Mohan started shaking violently as he entered the courtyard and sat down cross-legged. Viro was already squatting on the ground and urging Mohan with folded hands to save his son’s life. His wife too came out of the hut and without uttering a word, straightaway fell at Mohan’s feet. The veil drawn up to her chin covered her face but its hem, that had gone all wet with her tears, gave away the enormity of her grief.
“Lord Goga! O great Shesha! You’re my last refuge! Please save my Shivalo. Take him under your wing. You can lift the earth on your cosmic hood, if you so decide. Turn around, O lord, and restore my son to his mother’s lap.”
Words of entreaties streaming out of Viro’s mouth seemed to keep pace with the copious tears that ran down his cheeks. The skin on his face was the colour of the dry black soil of a freshly-ploughed field and the streams of tears looked like shiny black cobras slithering through its furrows. His wife stood by him, her folded hands jerking intermittently with each racking sob. A heavy silence, mixed with deep grief, hung in the air. A clutch of women came out of the hut, offered obeisance to the rocking witchdoctor with folded hands and rushed back inside to squat around Shivalo’s body in a tight security ring. Shivalo’s pigmentation was changing slowly and he had started frothing at the mouth. Greenish bubbles fizzed over a slim stream of saliva from the right corner of his lips. Growing increasingly alarmed at the sight of every fresh outpouring, the women wiped the froth with the loose ends of their saris and exchanged apprehensive glances. Still warm, Shivalo’s tiny frame twisted and trembled spasmodically.
That Mohan had turned up on his own gave strength to Viro’s heart. He fervently hoped that his son would be saved. Emboldened by this blazing hope, he pleaded with Mohan in a voice choked with emotion, his folded hands held close to his chest as if to keep his heart from bursting.
“With the approval of Goga, may I bring my son out and lay him down here in the courtyard? I have kept him indoors to ward off evil eyes. My wife and I have made a vow to visit Toparunji along with Shivalo and offer prayers to Lord Goga there if his life is spared. Shall I get you a glass of water to wash your mouth…?”
Words got stuck in Viro’s throat and suddenly his tongue lost all movement, like a snake in hibernation. His eyes began to drip with renewed vigour. Mohan, who kept looking absent-mindedly in the distance all the while, suddenly figured out what Viro was hinting at and snapped,
“No…no..no. Don’t change his location. I don’t have orders from the cobra-god. I’ll suck up the venom in his body from here. Don’t… don’t bother… I don’t want water.”
Without bothering to complete his staccato, self-conscious response, he jumped up and began to thrash the neem branches on the ground in sync with his loud hee-hawing and frenzied leaping. The murderous cacophony kicked up by Mohan galvanized Magan into frenetic bouts of drumbeating. The theatre of horror kept the onlookers awe-struck. After a while, Mohan stopped. Holding both the branches up in the direction of Viro’s hut, he stamped his right foot five times on the ground so as to ward off the evil hovering over Viro’s son. He was performing all rituals from a safe distance. Let alone Shivalo’s body, he didn’t even walk upto the hut to run neem branches over it for the fear of pollution. Stuffing a handful of neem leaves in his mouth, he began to champ at them ravenously. Then he stuck the thumb of his right hand in his mouth, clenched his fist except for the pinky which he pointed towards Viro’s hut and began to suck at his thumb animatedly. Every few seconds, he hawked a green, slimy loogie, much to the surprise and admiration of people around. The thick jets of spittle that he sprayed out looked like flying green snakes.
“Did you see that? How he is sucking the venom without touching the sting! Thanks to Goga’s grace! The saliva has taken the hew of venom. Just wait, the kid will come out jumping and playing in no time.” A particularly devout old man from the crowd obliged with an explanation.
Encouraged by this, another spectator called out, “Victory to Lord Goga”. The air rang out with roars of “Victory!” as the entire crowd followed suit. Such resounding collective rooting was enough to egg Mohan on. He got into his element and took his performance a notch higher, shaking with unprecedented zest and spitting green spittle with blasting blows. On the other hand, such a long, unbroken spell of drum-beating had tired Magan out and so he ran a searching glance over the crowd to spot someone who could replace him. His uncle Bhemo was standing in distance. Magan beckoned him with impatient nods of his head and asked him loudly as he reached within earshot:
“I’ve been playing for quite a while, uncle. Am tired now and thirsty too. Water from a scavenger’s house is green venom, you know. I’ll go home, have something to drink and smoke and be back soon.”
He transferred the booming drum to his uncle and wiped his face and neck with his headgear. Then, he cagily wriggled his way, like a branded krait, through the crowd lest his touch, however inadvertent and involuntary, should defile the upper caste onlookers.
Viro went inside the hut to check if Mohan’s remote venom-sucking had had any effect on his son’s condition. Shivalo’s condition was critical and dwindling fast. He ran out of the hut, gasping like a wild animal cornered by its hunter, determined to tell Mohan upfront, “Why don’t you suck the venom right from the sting, the way you did when Somo’s son was bitten? Do it… or else?”
But he lost nerve and swallowed the uncontrollable rage that had slithered up from within him, hissing and raring to strike. His mind went blank as he kept staring at the quack with hardened eyes. The very next moment he checked the expressions on his face and wore a sheepish, pleading look. Fear like a boa had coiled around his heart, fear that if Lord Goga got a whiff of the irreverence surging within him, he would have to wash his hands of Shivalo. And if he put on a piteous, wretched look, intense enough to moisten Mohan’s heart, he might oblige. The atmosphere inside the hut was getting increasingly sombre. Eerie silence and tearing grief reigned all around, punctuated only by Shivalo’s moans erupting every now and then. It seemed as if his wife’s ceaseless muted weeping laced with sobs of other women strained to bubble over the flickering flame of Shivalo’s life. But the infernal din of slap-bang and chaotic hubbub outside devoured those wisps of sorrow wholesale like a hungry python. The crowd was watching the spectacle with baited breath, taken up by the anxiety about what would happen next. Viro hurried inside the hut again and peered at his son’s face. His eyes were closed, his wheatish complexion had assumed a further shade of dark and he was still foaming at the mouth. Viro turned away his watery eyes in utter despair. How he loved his son! The lap of his wife was filled years after his marriage, thanks to the grace of cobra-god. And he kept a constant, close watch on his son’s whereabouts. Most of the time, Shivalo would be found riding his father’s shoulders. Today god knows what took him that he left him alone. While he was caught in the whirlpool of remorse, a wild furore rose outside. Somebody cried,
“A mad cow is on rampage. It’s coming this way. Stay away.”
Hearing about the cow, everybody began to scurry about looking out for a safe location. Mohan’s convulsions came to an instant halt. Bhemo missed his beats and the suspense and excitement kicked up by the news of snakebite fizzled out in a fraction of a second like a damp squib.
“Somebody drive it away. Hey! Run… run or it’ll hitch you up by horns and fling away.”
“Watch out, goddamn it. Climb the tree instead.”
Viro came out of the hut and his eyes fell on a dazed Mohan. The pallor on his face and the commotion transported him to the time when Mohan’s cow had fallen into the tanner’s well. He saw himself racing to the spot, Shivalo astride on his shoulders. The entire village had flooded to the site in cacophonous hordes. He heard a bellow of rage shooting from the crowd.
“Look, what wise men all of you are! No one could think about carrying ropes, staffs or something like that. Tell me how do you plan to pull out the cow? With your hands I suppose. And for god’s sake, send for that Magan immediately. Tell him to bring along his drum as a cow has to be pulled out of well.”
“And if he asks whose well it is?” asked a self-styled emissary.
“Why do you ask silly questions? As if you don’t know. Tell him, it’s the tanner’s well and pretty deep at that. He should come straight to the wasteland. And ask him to make haste for it’s a sacred cause…an occasion to amass holy merit.”
Just then echoes of drum roll, floating in the direction of the wasteland, were heard. People slaving in farms followed the acoustic trail of Magan, delighted at the prospect of a public spectacle, hopefully one capable of giving a real buzz. In a trice, an otherwise deserted wasteland was transformed as if into the site of a local fair. People from the village and forest came in droves to see the rescue operation. The bedlam kicked up by the bawling crowd and rumbling drumbeat had scared the cow no end and it had been jumping and kicking with its hind legs every now and then. It would swish its tail with the force of a whiplash and hurl its pointed horns into the dusty walls of the well. The well had gone completely dry due to the summer heat and a year of famine. Dense clouds of dust kicked up by the agitated cow engulfed the entire well. However, to the crowd concerned with the cow’s wellbeing, this was welcome sign indicating that the cow hadn’t sustained any substantial injury. Its unrelenting plaintive bellow was more due to the fright it had taken at the rumble and ruckus outside than the hurt.
Clutches of people, especially those who were held in awe in village, would come up to the edge of the well, peep inside, shake their heads in a mix of disbelief and hopelessness and shuffle off to hold consultation with their equally downhearted peers. Everyone was at a loss to think of possible ways in which the cow can be rescued from the depths of the well all in one piece. The cow was getting increasingly restless, just like the crowd outside.
Finally, Anarji stepped forward in his characteristic swagger suggesting to everybody around that he had deigned to take charge of the operation. Reaching the mouth of the well, he shouted at a group of youngsters who were peering inside out of curiosity and juvenile mirth, “You prickheads! Stay away from the well. You think your ancestors have buried treasure of gold and silver therein? Can’t you see, the poor cow gets scared seeing scarecrows like you? And as if that’s not enough, you’re bent on dirtying the water with the dust and clods of earth that you manage to drop in with your monkey tricks.”
“If not ours, your ancestors certainly had buried a fortune there, it seems. Here we move away. Now you dig it out. Have you got permanent rights to the bedrooms of entire village that you are bossing around like this?” Someone from the crowd behind his back hurled a caustic retort in a way that left everyone in splits.
“Who’s that bastard? Come out and face me you fucker, if you’ve guts.” Anarji flew into lion rage.
“Now cool down, darbar. You shouldn’t take a teenager’s mischief seriously. Saving Mother Cow is our priority now. Picking a fight won’t get us anywhere.” Someone tried to reason with Anarji obsequiously.
“Bloody what do they think? Their smartasses are itching for a good battering, it seems.” Anarji snapped.
It took extra doses of cajoling and ego-massaging to bring Anarji round. The boom of drum roll had filled the air. Entire rabari enclave had rallied round Mohan in this catastrophic moment and accompanied him to the well, wild with worry about how to save the cow, the only source of Mohan’s livelihood. Just then, Anarji bellowed out a command.
“Now, stop gawking at each other’s faces like that. Go and bring three to four ropes and sturdy to boot. I hear that Gokal has recently bought new ones. The cow will have to be fastened with ropes and lifted out.”
Coils of brand-new, off-white ropes, looking like albinos, were brought in a jiffy but they came with an in-built challenge. Who would get into the cavernous well and risk his life? Everyone had been mouthing excuses and trying to melt into the crowd just when Mohan sighted Viro who, with his son astride his shoulders, stood out like a giraffe.
“Hey, brother Viro is here. Not a single man in the village can measure up to him when it comes to grit of heart. You do the honour, brother. Mother Cow will not so much as touch you. You will be blessed by her instead. Please brother…”
Mohan’s voice, otherwise a throaty roar, had reduced to a feeble bleat as he pleaded. Viro didn’t want to step into the well, not a whit. However, the thought of saving Mother Cow mellowed him down. But he qualified, “I don’t have any problems getting in there but who’ll look after Shivalo within that while? I’ve never left him alone, you see. He would cry his heart out if I’m not around.”
“Don’t worry. I am here. I‘ll look after……” Before finishing what sounded like an assurance, Mohan lifted Shivalo from Viro’s shoulders, flashing an unctuous smile, and sat him up astride his. Nobody in his right mind would have agreed to enter the well, a veritable gorge of an anaconda, as it was and this one had a scared cow in it. Viro felt like the proverbial snake who caught at a shrewmouse but could neither swallow it nor set it free as the former would amount to suicide and the latter would entail blindness. With a bad taste in mouth, he waved at Magan to stop the drum roll. Somebody flung one of the thick ropes into the well and Viro rappelled down the steep clay-wall of the well like a skilled canyoneer. As the general commotion and drumroll had died down, the cow too had quietened down. With utmost care and caution, Viro tied two ropes each around the girth of the cow’s rib and sirloin. Then, he fastened the loose ends of all the four ropes round his waist and called out. At once, he got airlifted by the rope through which he had landed into the well. Reaching out, he quickly untied the four ropes and asked a group of young men who were staring expectantly at him for orders.
“Now hold these ropes tight and pull them in sync at a call of three. See to it that there is complete coordination amongst all the four as you tug at the ropes. Or else, Mother Cow will be hurt. In that case, the sin will be heaped on your heads, not mine.”
As soon as he finished with his instructions, he cocked his eyebrows at Magan suggesting that drum roll should go off again. He saw that Shivalo was already getting restive. Without wasting a moment, he lifted Shivalo from Mohan’s shoulders and walked off, as pleased with himself as the cheerful rhythm of the drum rumbling behind him. The very next moment, the scene being enacted in his mind changed and he saw himself blowing a trumpet standing in the courtyard of Somo’s house with Shivalo standing by his side.
Mohan’s mouth was clamped fast onto the snakebite on the leg of Somo’s son. His cheeks caved in and out rhythmically as he sucked venom from his body. Then Mohan uttered the words his ears had so desperately craved to hear,
“Give me the peacock’s feather I’ve brought along.” Mohan folded the long twig of the peacock’s feather into a loop and said, “There you go. Slip this bracelet on the right hand of the boy. Lord Cobra will bless him. Say it aloud with me, Victory to Goga”
In a visual hallucination, Viro saw Mohan slipping the protective bangle onto Shivalo’s hand and as though propelled by sheer exhilaration, he called out, “Victory be to Lord Goga!”
Clueless about the goings-on, the crowd followed suit. The sky-rending invocation to Goga jolted Viro out of his reverie. The mad cow was nowhere in sight. Bhemo was still beating his drum. He cast an apprehensive look at the door of his hut which seemed to be swallowed by a giant anaconda of gathering darkness. Before he could figure out anything, a black, funereal cry rose from the hut and pierced his heart.
“O, my dear son! Why did you leave me behind?… O my life is laid waste. What will I do without you?”
Everything froze. Magan’s hand, held out for taking the drumsticks from his uncle Bhemo, froze in mid-air like a hooded cobra poised before striking. Mohan’s convulsions stilled. The undulating crowd iced over. The bubble of time arching over the eastern hill held its breath. Only the echoes of black distressing cry seemed to loom over the courtyard. Viro flopped down languidly holding his head in his hands. The gorge rising in him struggled to blast out of his choked throat. But to no avail. He lay motionless for a few interminable seconds, as lifeless as Shivalo, touched as if by an invisible, venomous, deadly cobra. The crowd began to slowly shuffle its way down the hill. Mohan threw the neem branches on the ground, curled up his lip and edged away as if from this den of evil. The muffled hubbub startled Viro out of his grief-stricken stupor and he saw Mohan tiptoeing out of the courtyard. His eyes glinted with murderous rage. He shot up and stretched out his arms a couple of times as if to grab Mohan by his neck and squeeze the life out of him. He wanted to howl at the top of his voice, but his throat seemed to have been gripped by a giant vice. Words eluded him. A sense of self-disgust washing over him, he gnashed his teeth, worked up a spit-ball in his mouth and went at him full blast,
And he burst into copious tears.
*In Gujarati, the idiomatic expression “Eru Abhadavu” signifies a snakebite. While ‘Eru’ refers to a snake, the verb ‘Abhadavu’ in no way denotes “to bite”. In fact, ‘Abhadavu’ denotes “pollution by touch (of an outcaste)”. Straddling these dual significations, i.e touch that amounts to a sting and a sting that amounts to touch, the story makes a powerful comment on the geography of ‘touch’ chalked out by a society bitten by the cobra of caste.
** ‘Atishudra’ or the lowest of the low amongst the so-called untouchables. Removal of human excreta and general cleaning of village are supposed to be their hereditary occupations. Upper castes amongst the untouchables like weavers, tanners, drumbeaters and so on practice untouchability with them.
Dalpat Chauhan, who has been so closely involved in the struggle of Dalit emancipation in Gujarat, was instrumental in establishing Dalit Panther in Gujarat and ran a few radical little magazines like Kalo Suraj (The Black Sun) and Akrosh (Outrage) in 80s and 90s of twentieth century. He has worked in almost all genres available to a writer and published a number of books which cover poetry, fiction, non-fiction, plays, lexicography, anthropology, historiography and criticism. Notable among them are his novels Malak (Homeland) (1991), Gidh (Vulture) (1991) and Bhalbhankhalun (Dawn) (2004). His collections of short stories like Munjharo (Buffaloed) (2002), Dar (Fear) (2009) have been critically acclaimed. He has been given more than 15 literary awards, including those from Gujarati Sahitya Parishad, Gujarati Sahitya Academy and the prestigious Narsinh Mehta Award.
Hemang Desai is a bi-lingual poet, short story writer and a translator negotiating Gujarati, his mother-tongue and English. He has published three books of literary translations with critical introductions (1) Anuvidhan (Post-statement) (2010) which anthologized select Marathi poetry in Gujarati translation (2) Thirsty Fish and other Stories (2013) which carries English translations of eminent Gujarati poet Sundaram’s short stories (3) Poetic Refractions (2012), a collection of contemporary Gujarati poetry in English translation. His poems and transcreations have appeared in World Literature Today, Guftagu, Etad, Vahi, Cerebration, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Indian Literature, Sandhi, New Quest, Tathapi, Four Quarters Magazine, Danse Macabre, Museindia etc. He has recently finished the translation of Arun Kolatkar’s poetry collection “Kala Ghoda Poems” into Gujarati. He is presently translating fiction of eminent Gujarati Dalit writer Dalpat Chauhan into English and finalizing a monograph on Indian perspectives on translation theory. He works at Central University of Gujarat, Gandhianagar, Gujarat and can be reached at email@example.com and 91-6355134493