by Anshu Choudhry
“Eclipses (solar or lunar) in India bear religious connotations and their appearances are linked to auspicious/ inauspicious phases of the Universe and each living being walking the earth.”
Have you met a serpent at the red light crossing? Undulating on the striped zebra line, slithering merrily, proudly, imperially, unabashedly wiring its way through the sunlit space, tasting the unsuspecting air with its flickering hyperactive slit of the tongue, its tapering head beating about like a mad ascetic in rustic robes, lost in its oblivious trance, in the ecstatic throes of self- realised existence; have you ever seen this spectacle?
The black tarred Delhi road purloins its arrogance from the angry marching sun dripping fire and heat on all that comes its way; soaking and then singeing the eye that dares to make a direct contact with any field of vision. Petrified, I hide behind the darkest of glasses, not only from the sun but also from those that dare it. And forewarned that the sun could be the wounded snake striking with a vengenence I stay prepared for the assault. But not all preparations can be fool proof.
The wheels come to a halt at the invisible sign of red, faded and obscure under the bright white fierce aura and yet peeping through the intuitive. I slam the brakes softly, cautiously, smoothly comfortable in the knowledge of a two minute stoppage that nothing and no one, not even the hostile sun anticipating a collision, can upstart into motion. The neighbours appear too, to settle down in a two minute neighbourhood. All have the windows rolled up like my own. All fearful of the common enemy, defending their vision under the darkness of fashionable shades. All relaxing in the two minute sabbatical from speed and yet eager for the next trip on the accelerator breathing free from the weight of their foot, even though for a mere two minute. Smug in our little air-conditioned steel fortresses we view the world whimsically through the tinted glass that makes us sun-proof, water-proof, theft-proof, rob-proof, safe if only we lay defensively behind its shield much like the sombre reticent Sita within boundaries of the Lakshman-rekha.
However, safety is a luxury allowed within the limits of sobriety. And alas, sobriety like all things that generate luxury can be taxing, on the nerves itching for the unexpected thrills that make them feel live than dead. Despite playing the aloof upper-class elite from another world, I am attracted to the saffron serenity that humbly sashays around my view. The heretics from the wild often stray into the city civility to sustain their exiles, searching for nirvana through the consumer materials called human necessities. He stands before my window in his rough orange robes, a corner of which is folded into a sack carrying alms that dangle from his lanky shoulders. He is not alone. There are his types scattered about. They may meditate alone in the wilderness, but here in the urban jungles, they need to mediate through groups, literally. What, do they have to lose, I wonder. Why, are they so frightened? Of what? They, who aim for the nirvana, the naïve, the deprived, confounded about the value and worth of things and thoughts, roam about, begging for survival. Yes, humbled as they seem when they knock at the stubborn glass of the car windows, aloof and uncaring. Most of us drivers turn away, look the other way to confirm our indifference, letting them know in no uncertain terms that they are unwelcome.
And then he calls out,”………sister, look at this, this snake wishes you well-being and riches……come on, be receptive to its blessings……this is the day of the eclipse, the solar eclipse…….before the sun is hit, be humble and be pious. Humility always pays……and, on this auspicious day, one must be careful. God is alert………..to his creation.”
And without wanting to, without deciding upon it, I am guided or misguided by an impulse; to take a view of a wonder called a ‘snake’. The mystical creature from my childhood comics, from the stories when our ancestors lived in harmony with these potent venomous super organisms; this garland of the Shiva, the superior danger tamed by the deity, this messenger of death and rebirth; yes it was at my window, if not on my door. I only had to roll down the glass wall with the press of a button, to live an experience of the wild, of the mystical transcending to tangible, of the adventures denied to me by these urban barriers. And of all places, at my car window?
I could not resist the temptation of being that child who lives a fantasy as she reads along the adventures of the comic books, imagining them to be as real as the stories of another world, much as her own. My childhood convictions are coming out to be true at last, beyond the screen of Discovery channel. So there are indeed snakes and sometimes, they do travel out with elevated, if not elite, hermits to take a sneak peek at the concrete wilderness of the city, albeit captive in the dirty saffron robes and dark rough fingers of human flesh and blood that they dare not bite.
He is holding it in his hand. The rust coloured serpent, as agile as a wingless bird, its head tapered to its mouth, beating about in the hot air, two black beads of eyes glistening with life and his tongue darting in perpetual motion, asserting its anxieties, telling of its presence, a reality I have come to doubt in city life. Nothing can stop me from feeling it, not even the fear instilled by my parents and well-wishers. After all when and where will I meet my stories again?
Before I decide for it, the window is rolling down and the glass is disappearing, much like the miasma of fake beliefs clouding the eye. And here we are, face to face. It does not hiss. Merely stares at me with its black beads reflecting my own face like twin mirrors poised to soak in my image. It is speaking to me silently by slashing around with its tongue, flickering with speed, a black slit wire, much like the vein of life throbbing inside my own neck. There is a rhythm that matches. My throbbing increases or decreases with this incessant flicker. We are bound by the same force; the force that had formed it and that which flows inside me. We are speaking to each other, in the silent code of the creation, of the one cosmos that makes us share the air, the wind, the sunshine, the sun, this eclipse.
‘Listen girl, today is solar eclipse. The day would be bad for the non-believers but those who have faith will gain. Their luck will change, their life will change. Only those who defy will be drowned in the darkness and the eclipse will shroud them permanently into the past; but those who comply will be on the other side and the clear, luminous light will brighten their future. Everything they dreamed of, will become real. And this holy serpent will bless you. And I am challenging you to test it. Bring out the highest value note in your possession and touch it to the head of my snake God. Your wealth will be blessed and so will be you.”
Of course I do not believe this rut; the same ruse to rouse the fear of God and the supernatural that had been used over the ages continues to be abused even in the digital age when everything aims to work by a mathematical precision, much like the failed but aspired weather predictions. And yet just as we still imbibe by the practice of indulgence in the future, this astrological, however miscalculated it may be, seems to appeal through its abstruse methodology relying on the witness of a snake. Perhaps, the serpent knows better maths than humans….perhaps it’s sensory perception is so empowered to read into the future, perhaps……
The impulse for delusion has overtaken my human mind and the orange robes wrap up my fragile resolve, to entangle it in the warped slither of the serpent residing therein.
‘Try it girl, try it sister…..daughter………’ He is using all the salutations of affection known to him from tradition, to hasten the crumbling of a scientific tower that rests on the edifice of my schooled mind.
Quite a diplomatic coup for this rustic; but I have no time to think of his victories and my own defeats in the one minute left to the negotiations. I am rich enough to pull out a hundred rupee note, I assure myself as I arrogantly assess my worth. And in the anxious hope of a miracle, with the serpent waving its head like a pendulum, hypnotising me with its beady eyes and the blare of the hermit’s command in the background, I reach for the purse. The tens and twenties notes injurious to my pride, peek out of the side pocket but I discard them as unfit for this challenge. The blue green hundred make me feel worthy of luck, of a much deserved power over miracles. Yes, I can buy one, I tell myself.
The hermit is cheering on as one goads chicken in a bird fight and I want to win. So I put out my best note forward. Diffidently, nervous with expectation more than apprehension, I touch the serpents head with it but nothing surprising happens. The serpent oscillates its head as mechanically as a toy charged by kinetic energy. The surprise of a no surprise gets writ on my expressive face. But then the hermit as a good teacher reads through the disappointment and holds my grip to teach me the art of drawing out luck. Unfelt and unnoticed, the note has slipped into his experienced fist. The hungry beast opens its mouth. Its fangs sharp and curved for savagery, display the power of the venom over the power of miracles. The hermit covers them with the same grip that holds my note and announces—
“Bless you, girl you are very lucky…..the serpent has accepted your alms…….it has relished your sacrifice and from now on, your life will change…….”
“But where is my note……?”
“It is swallowed …….by the serpent deity……feel blessed, thank the sun God……that this cursed day has turned auspicious……holy……..”
“Oh you cheat……you juggler, give back my money……..”
“No….no…..the divine snake has made for its food……how can I ?” He waves the rusty serpent and it hisses, a sound so eerie that the day seems ghoulish. And then it yawns ……….stretches its mouth open to dimensions that its tiny mouth seems incapable of. It is almost a cave with creamy grey walls beyond which is a dark interior, too mysterious and daring for any mortal to enter. It jerks forward, almost to grab a glob of my cheek, to strip out the flesh from my bony soul, to bare the beauty of my face and expose from behind the selfish lust of my skeleton for a miracle…..….I feel naked and ashamed as I back off under the shame of my nudity.
The two minute sabbatical is over. The lights turn green and signal an end. But I foolishly dive for a final smite to win.
“Give it back to me…….you cheat…..fraud…..you rob people in the name of God……and miracles…….”
“No……no…… I can’t…….it’s inside the stomach………irretrievable……. Be grateful you gave it away…..the curse from all your sins has left you…..Now…..move on…….the sun is shifting into the eclipse….fast…..get past the eclipse….into a safe zone” And he is supported by the strident horns that shriek out loud, desperate, incessant……….plodding me to give way, to allow the traffic before the lights turn red again. There is an uproar in my opposition as I am impeding the journeys of all those following me…..all those on the same path as my own……
And my foot on the accelerator slams hard with the anger of defeat, with the sense of shock that comes from the perfect artifice, that is—almost a miracle–of a feeling much like the sun caught behind the shadow of a modest moon; a shadow created by its own force that eclipses its pride.