Lt-Gen RS Sujlana
Kamarupa, the land of the cupid, Ahom of the medieval period and Assam of today, is known for its tantric religion and occultism, the famous Kamakhaya Temple, and carries a rightful tag of being a land of magic, charms, mystic, beauty and, of course, the famed tea estates.
Posted there to command a brigade, I enjoyed every bit of what Assam offered, including being witness to a mystic trickery. It was an encounter with a snake charmer, which had its share of drama, some reality, But, in the end, it turned out to be what we Indians love to do, topi pehnana (take someone for a ride)!
One morning, my staff officer, walked up and told me that an individual had come claiming magical powers to attract and catch snakes, besides having a cure for varied ailments, if nothing else, we could use his services to get rid of some slithering creatures, which were in plenty, around us .
Personally, wary of soothsayers, fortune-tellers, magicians and their ilk, I asked the officer to check out on this person’s credentials as we should not land up in trouble with the wildlife authorities over permitting unauthorised snake catching. This, he told me, had been checked, the individual had an official certificate permitting him to catch snakes. He also had photographic evidence of snakes caught from various government and military establishments and certificates appreciating his expertise and reliability. Lo and behold, he could even swallow a live snake!
Unbelievable! But there in front of me were revolting photographs of snakes of various sizes hanging out of his open mouth. No harm in seeing what he can do I thought, so we trooped to see him perform. Out came a bag, he picked out hands full of powder and throwing it around chanting strange sounding shalokas. He soon went into a hedge and came out with two snakes. Intrigued, but not convinced, I asked him to capture a pair of cobras living in the nearby pond and left.
Next day, I queried about the cobras but was told that having caught some snakes and distributed curative charms, he left to attend to an urgent call and would be back soon. However, days past by and there was no sign of the mystery guy!
One evening in a party, I again queried about the snake charmer. I observed some mischievous smiles and knew something was amiss. On further probing the facts rolled out. This so-called snake charmer turned out to be a fraud. Snake catching was soon forgotten, he used his charm to convince many of his capability to cure ailments and then, having made a kill selling curative pseudo precious stones, he left with a neat sum and a promise to return.
One of the women joined in to relate what transpired with her husband, who was looking for the panacea for a recurring backache. The charmer sold her husband a costly stone, asked him to get two dozen bananas for a puja. In the final act, he asked him to bend forward holding the bananas and then came the surprise, a flying kick on his backside, and by the way, she added, ‘the backache persists!’ A loud round of laughter followed, but then I asked what about all those photographs with snakes hanging out of his mouth? ‘Photoshop, Sir, photoshop!’ Guess the charmer was much ahead of times. He had mastered this art to gain an aura over his audience. The only saving grace was that my apprehension and disbelief in such matters stood me good.