What started this unlikely friendship - me and a snake charmer in a remote forest? At that moment, it seemed a small act of fate to save a life. Before long, it became a window for me to see the reducing space and increasing worry of the village poor and marginalized. But one day, it had a greater purpose- to pull me out of enveloping darkness. Then I could see the democracy, politics, crime and the system through the looking glass that the Snake charmer held.
It was September of 2007, a month of significance for many reasons. My paths were going to change forever. Just a couple of months back, I had left a stable job in a financial products company for creating a business that I believed in. But later this month, I would take a long sabbatical in various hospitals, after an accident and forewarning of more to come. And by and by, the financial world shall soon nosedive, bringing another challenge to my own finances and the plans.
To the Snake Charmer, also known as Nagbaba, these were small changes in a rather stagnant world.
On Sunday, the last day of September, a month when everything in Satpura ranges becomes picturesque, I was returning from Pipariya to Bhopal along with my office assistant, Sooraj. Pipariya is a small town, south east of Bhopal.
Pipariya is just over one hundred and forty kilometers from Bhopal but seems much longer due to ghat sections.
On the way to Bhopal from Pipariya, one crosses the edge of Satpura ranges that run parallel to the highway twenty kilometers to its south. One has to go for sixty kilometers west to reach Hoshangabad, the administrative headquarters of the area. This town is around eighty kilometers south of Bhopal. In Hoshangabad, one meets the Narmada River in all its beauty. From here, one has to drive cautiously as the roads are treacherous till Bhopal, crossing densely forested mountains and rivers to reach the other side.
The Pipariya to Hoshangabad section of the highway is loved by anyone who had been on it once. It is a straight, smooth road and has beautiful farms or orchards on either side. In each season, it has a different color. I vividly remember golden of wheat in summers, red of palash just before monsoons, grass green in monsoons and dark green of winters. All along the journey, Narmada flows in North at a distance of twenty kilometers from the road. In the South lie the Satpura peaks, the Satpura Tiger reserve and the Pachmarhi Bio-diversity Park, roughly twenty kilometers south into forest.
The whole belt is the hub of forest and grain produce - one of the best in India. As a result, it attracted traders and corporate wars. Pipariya is calm and beautiful to the outsider but the trade control is governed by criminals sponsored by their political patrons.
My project here was to set up a supply chain, comprising of warehouses and cold storages. It would help our retail trading operations. As we were starting from scratch, and with a new age business, we had no reasons to worry about politicians or traders who had entrenched interests. My team was a well educated and trained one, as I understood it then.
Strangely, they don't teach the business of politics, mafia and religion at any major school- a business that runs our country. They also don't teach that a will of a powerful man is an unseen entry barrier much harder than those that laws or brands can construct. Probably, the professors don't know or probably they depend on such men for their monthly checks.
Unaware or undaunted by the lurking shadows, as a free spirit and noble intention should be, my team started on its course to set up a farmer network and supplies. Our dream was to root out the hefty supply chain inefficiencies and provide a market linked price at the storage site itself.
I used to visit the project site twice a month; driving from Bhopal for the reviews , in my Maruti small car. On my return that day along with my assistant, we decided to take a night's break at the Satpura National Park gate. We turned left on the highway, at the signboard pointing towards Satpura National Park gate. The gate is a misnomer- after about Twenty kilometers ride, there is no gate. There is a large water body that has to be crossed on a boat and serves as the gate. Ten kilometers into the drive and thick forests start. We reached the water body at around 4 pm but it was too late to get an entry to the other side. The spot was surrounded by a small village of tribals - who seemed more like rural folks. The place is called Madai. An arrangement for the night stay was worked out in one of the small hut resort. And we got down to absorbing the scenery. While we settled to tea on a higher ground, a young elephant, belonging to the Forest guards, was enjoying itself in the water bank on the other side of the water body.
Soon the sun went down and a roof of stars came out. I had never seen so many stars in the city night. One 'kadaknath', a local variety of chicken, was being roasted for us, in front of us. And we were thinking numbers - this project shall generate some Five million rupees this year, and once we get farmer networks going, it will mean nothing less than two hundred million.
Greed, not so much of money in this case but of achievement and whatever accompanies it blinds one to what cannot be seen. I had a question that many investment partners had no answer to - why has no one done it before? It was plainly lucrative, and the local businessmen had enough money for sugar plants, why can’t they do something both profitable and poverty alleviating. I posed the same to Sooraj, but he was clueless.
In the midst of our conversation, the tribal host joined with Chicken - "Babuji (sir), you are the first tourist after the monsoons". I replied "See we are locals now - you will see us often as we are setting base in Pipariya".
I described our project to him. Our small car and its status troubled him "You are good people, and you will meet big folks in your work. You should do a smaller project or get a big car to show." His ways of the world amused me; he only saw our car but not the education and potential. Anyhow, he advised us to park the car behind his hut.
Sometimes, I wish now he was wrong. But he was simple and simple folks can be shortsighted but seldom wrong.
By 10 pm, we had finished the Chicken completely and had quickly dozed off to sleep under the sky. Our bed was a Charpoy without any cushion but it was comfortable. Around an hour later, a Scorpio SUV with four flashlights came in the village. It was normal as sometimes the tourists got late on the road and arrived later than they had planned. The tribals are very alert folks and the voices travel across village like a flash.
Our host woke me up, “Babuji, they are asking for you”. I never knew this vehicle and the folks, nor did my assistant. It was not a police or government vehicle. Instantaneously, I thought that they might have been following from the start and lost our trail as we had turned inside. The tribal host knew my mind. I told him, “I don’t want to meet these folks in this dark and here." He said that they will soon be guided here. The choice was simple - to escape back to road - 18 kilometers to Highways and then 100 kilometers to Bhopal. And once on highway, we will find lots of company. However, our tribal host was against it. He said that the company on road will be more unsafe than folks here - at least tribal villagers here won’t care for the reputation of these folks, though they fear police. And going 18 kilometers in our small car on a potholed road against their vehicle was a sure way of meeting them midway in the forest. They would soon catch up.
We had two options- one: to meet them here and my host and a few other tribals will be there, or as my host suggested , "You leave this place in your car but there will be right diversion of the road after 3 kilometers, you must take that, leave the car after a kilometer as there will be no road after that- there will be a small village named Bichua. From there, you have to go on foot for 5 kilometers to next village deep inside the forests. When you leave the car, wake up some tribal villager and tell him that you need to see the Nagbaba (Snake Charmer). Ask him to take you there urgently. They will protect your car and someone from village will accompany you for the 5 kilometers trek."
I had to choose quickly on instincts. I decided to go. I wanted to trust the tribal's instincts. He was more comfortable with this choice. Probably, it saved my life.
We left immediately on the serpentine road away from Madai. Around 3 kilometers on our way, from a higher altitude, just before we took right on interior road and left the main approach road to Madai, we could see four flashlights of the vehicle starting from the village we had just left. The road ahead was very rough, with big potholes but there was no wet soil. Soon we saw around 20 huts, the next village our host had mentioned. Though, it was late at night, around ten men- all tribals were playing bets and were drunk with Mahua. One came close and thinking that we are lost, told us to turn back to reach the road. I explained to him that we need to park the car safely and need to reach the Nagbaba fast. His name was Revaram. He guessed that we needed a snake bite remedy and quickly asked us to leave the car there itself. And brought out his bullock cart. He said we won’t be able to see in the dark on that forest road, and by cart it will take less than an hour.
In a flash, we were in a bullock cart, in a dense forest and dark night, a darkness I had seen the for first time, going to meet a sort of a fellow we only ridiculed and feared as children, and that too with some assurance that it will be safe. Faith travels faster than light and much faster when faced with adversity and uncertainty.
When we had started, I told my assistant that if nothing, this fellow will at least have a few snakes to scare folks off. And tribals trust him so outsiders won’t create nuisance here.
Suddenly on the cart, the faith of our host tribal in the Snake Charmer had given us the critical confidence that was enough to pass that night. And we were minutes away from the home of this Snake Charmer.
Putting our fate in someone's hand is so difficult for a person like me. It’s much easier to have a false sense of choice and control. In that cart, on a dark night in a dense forest, I had a comforting feeling that after all, the choice was mine.
It was roughly 1 am. The cart moved slowly as we felt the sudden climbs and drops on the path several times. It was a bit rocky at times. But the bullocks were self assured and moved at a steady pace.
The darkness around started to have its affect- some self doubt on our choice which seemed fair a few minutes ago, some doubt on the cart owner and where he was taking us.
That is what dark periods in life do to you- they take away the self belief and trust on everything around.
Later, I discovered another thing about darkness in life. When it’s dark, you can't look around. We had presumed that we were in a hostile forest. The following day would reveal a more comforting view.
When things are bad in life, we are not able to see that it’s not so bad; all the good things around are hidden from our view.
I tried again to see if my cell phone had any network signal. If I could get one bar, it would solve a lot of problems. This is what I thought then. Today, I doubt if that bar could have done anything. But I knew that in a few hours, my parents in Bhopal will get worried about our disappearance.
My mind was working fast to understand everything. I had no enemies. The meeting last month with the local MLA was cordial and he was happy with our project in this area. He had asked me to meet Dau Patel, a person respected and feared in that area. Dau meant elder in local dialect; his real name was Laxman.
I understood that such a person can be very territorial and this Patel, with his illegal turnover, was bigger than many listed companies. But to me, we had no visible conflict. He had wanted a cut in profits, and the cut looked too small for his stature. But I had declined politely with reasons. In lieu, he had wanted some low level jobs for people associated with him, which I had accepted on conditions of fitness.
For a few other things demanded, like buying seeds, fertilizers etc from the suppliers suggested by him, I had the cover of bank conditions to hide behind.
Later last month, I had heard that his opponents were happy with my decision to 'independently' source, but were unhappy with our openness to interview his folks for three or four open vacancies worth a couple of thousand rupee salary. That was about it when it came to any discord with anyone that I could recall. Since then things had been smooth.
Suddenly, 15 minutes into the cart, Sooraj, my assistant asked, “Bhaiya, why are we here?”
I felt like punching him with all strength but he was all I had. “What the hell are you asking...you have been with me since the morning?” I retorted.
I was not sure why he asked that; but my reaction came with some irritation deep inside, one that shows when our sub-conscious knows our fears.
Sooraj said, “No, I meant we don't even know for sure if that Scorpio was chasing us, or the tribals have set us up for loot. Why was that fellow not supporting our choice of escaping to the highway? Now we are even away from the car.”
My irritation was valid. Everything that seemed wise could turn out to be harmfully foolish.
Just then, we heard the sound of a vehicle horn. By then, we would have gone around 1 kilometer from where we had left the car. In a forest, sounds travel very far and unless one knows the forest, it’s difficult to make out where it’s coming from.
It looked like that the Scorpio folks had realized we didn’t go on the road. They must have gone for around ten kilometers on the road - not finding us ahead and not catching us on the forest road must have made them conclude that we had taken some diversion, and this one was most obvious one.
If that was the case, then they would have seen the car and now they knew for sure we had gone inside.
This sound made us decide that we were on right course, going away from that Scorpio. Whosoever was inside that vehicle was on our trail.
The bullocks continued their walk unaware of our worries. At two places, Revaram asked us to get down to cross streams on foot. Every time, he gave us a choice to get down, it built our confidence. That’s what a little freedom does.
The second stream was quite broad, almost a hundred feet. It was not more than a foot deep and flowed gently. Revaram explained, “Babuji, from here dense forests start.” We had gone for about two kilometers. That made us a bit stiff and tense.
We could ease, after twenty minutes or so, as we got accustomed. I asked Revaram about the Snake Charmer “Do many people come here?”
He replied, “No Babuji. But only once or twice a year when tribals have village functions, we see outsiders here to meet him”.
Another thing was comforting both of us - we were being called 'babuji' by everyone. They were treating us someone they were comfortable with.
When a government officer or some other similar exploiter speaks to them, tribals show more respect by calling him 'Sir' or 'Sahab'. But deep down there is resentment or distrust. It is a forced respect.
My global exposure and Sooraj's poverty ridden childhood had given both of us one common thing - a belief in equality of humans.
The cart chugged along the remaining distance. Suddenly I could hear a snake flute like instrument being played distantly. “That is Nagbaba's snake gourd (flute)”, said Revaram.
“Is he awake at this hour?” My alarm rang again. Revaram said, “If he has foreknowledge that you are coming, he might be awake.” I had heard about snake charmers having a sense of things to come.
The music of the peculiar flute was familiar to both of us. I had childhood memories of snake charmers who used to spread out on each street on Nagapanchami day, though none of them came to town from such remote areas. Those days in the city, almost twenty years ago, the music of a charmer’s flute could be heard at least a kilometer away. It alerted all children and women arousing some mystic and mortal fear.
Tonight, it was sounding like life giving music to me.
I once more tried to look behind to check but it was too dark. For some reason, the Scorpio folks seemed to have not followed us.
When the cart reached the Nagbaba's hut, a little girl opened the gate. It was a small compound. The boundary was made of thorny dried shrubs. To the left, there were a few cows. There were four more guards to check us out - three dogs, thin like street ones, and a cat.
Revaram spoke to the girl and then walked towards the open place just before the hut to find a place to lie down. The girl asked us to sit on a charpoy in the verandah. The verandah was an open balcony, roughly two feet above the ground. It opened into a room - the only room in the hut. Rest was all open from four sides with a thatch roof above.
She gave us water and then went inside the room to inform her Baba, the snake charmer. We could hear her voice, "They have come".
He came out - it was a huge disappointment. We had travelled this far, on faith to find a very ordinary, thin, half naked fellow. I had expected more men around, someone strong and visibly more influential. After all the superficial change the mind had undergone, I was still measuring using the yardsticks that the world used.
He was dark, looked bent with old age, and had just a thin white cloth wrapped around his lower half. He had stubble -half grey, oval face with many lines on cheeks around the eyes, betraying his old age.
We stood up in courtesy. He shook hands with us, in our manner, and asked us to sit on the charpoy. He sat on the ground in front of us. The Snake charmer asked Revaram for a 'bidi' and match box. Revaram produced one from pocket. He bid Revaram to go and sleep, and then he asked, “Are you entering the forests for the first time?” I said, “Yes”.
“Then it must be some experience for you”, he said. We both smiled. For all the anti-climax of our expectations, we were fine as this man was warm, had a family with animals, and seemed simple and content. His voice had a calm assurance about being in full control of things around him.
He said, “Welcome to my small hut. I was very worried for you when the second vehicle came to Revaram's village. I hoped you don't delay on the way. When the vehicle turned back and I knew you had started on the cart, I relaxed and went to sleep.”
It looked like a day of puzzles. What this man said just now didn't make sense to me. He seemed amused at our thoughts. I still asked, “Are you sure they won’t come here?”
He said, “They won’t come this way without informing. If they try, I will know when they are five kilometers away. Please don’t worry tonight. Tomorrow you can plan to go back.” Then he disappeared inside. I eased myself on the charpoy while Sooraj slept on the ground. For some reason, we had enough peace of mind for a sound sleep.
----End of Chapter 1----