As they travelled through the burning plains of Gujarat and Rajasthan, the waving green fields of Punjab and Haryana, the badlands of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, in search of a new town and clientele, seeking a vacant lot and an ancient tree under which to set up their tortoise-like tents of bamboo sticks and tarpaulin, little Kaaliya became aware of the cursed life that was their lot. This large, wide world had no place for them, and wherever they wentKaaliya riding on the back of the donkey, the cow, his uncles, older siblingsthey were unwelcome. Everywhere there was a landlord or a policeman to shoo them away, everywhere he saw his father and uncles beg and plead for a stretch of field where they could set up camp.
At such a time they were not the proud charmers of the dreaded black one, dressed in their resplendent saffron tehmat-kurtas, their regal turbans flashing their tails, their smooth voluptuous pungis issuing a music that identified them as unique in the universe; at such a time they were abject men, in soiled sweaty clothing, itinerant beggars, squatting on their haunches, their hands folded in supplication, asking for a temporary patch of the earth that no one was any more willing to give.
In the evenings, while the women and children and whippets idled about the wood fires and tortoise tents, the men smoked ganja and charas, drank any kind of alcohol they could lay their hands on, and talked up stirring stories of their past.
The story that never wore thin, the story a listener never forgot, was about the thirty-foot king cobra they had tracked thirty-five years ago in the dense jungles of Assam, ten of them for forty days, walking in tandem, working in tandem, pursuing a beast that had terrified entire villages and even felled wild elephants with the lash of its venom. It was said the very sight of the monster transfixed grown men and turned their bowels to water. This monarch of all snakes killed by rearing up to more than six feetits swaying hood the size of four handspans, its forked tongue shredding the air at blistering speedand striking between the eyes. It was said that most men were dead before their bodies hit the ground. Those who escaped the bite fell into a state of delirium for weeks, convulsed by the memory of the giant reptile. Every attempt to capture it had floundered. Hunting squads by the villagers, a contingent of the local police, rangers from the far-off rhino sanctuary, and even a platoon requisitioned from the army. Though gigantic, the beast moved like the wind, a blur of black, and it was gone.
On several occasions a volley of firing had convinced the trackers that they had their quarry, but it was as if its shining skin were armour and bullets glanced off it. And then some days later it was there again on a forest path, and a fresh body to be carried out. It was said the bodies were blue like deep water by the time they were brought back to the village. Finally word was sent to the great charmers of the north, and ten of them set forth, travelling by train and bus and jeep and cart for weeks. Kaaliya's father was the youngest, a mere sixteen, under instructions to always follow the lead. The oldest, over sixty, was a man they called Guru Bijli Nath. He had been given the moniker Bijli, lightning, before he was ten. It was said he was the greatest snake-catcher of his age. Small and sinewy, he was quick as lightning and as blinding. No serpent could escape his hands, and he had a hypnotic gaze that immobilized any snake that looked at him. One walk in the forest after the rains and he would come back with a sackful of serpents that he emptied out in the middle of the settlement, allowing everyone to take their pick. By the time he was thirty he had travelled far and wideBurma, Borneo, Afghanistan, Iran, Ceylon, Indonesia, Japanand been christened Guru. If there was anyone who could stop this black demon, this king of serpents, it was Guru Bijli Nath.
Excerpted from The Story of My Assassins by Tarun J Tejpal. Copyright © 2012 by Tarun J Tejpal. Excerpted by permission of Melville House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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