The Story of My Assassins
Kaaliya was a dodger and a scrapper, to the task born. Like the snakes his forefathers had mastered for generations, he could wriggle and he could strike. His first conscious memory, from the time he was three, was the feel of a rat snake slithering through his hands. For the toddler, shaking a serpent by its head was like waving a rattle. It was the way of his people, to let the harmless ones flow through their huts and tents, their clothes and bedding, their pots and pans, their sons and daughters. In winter, many of their folk slept with their snakes in their patchwork quilts, their fat fullness as reassuring as a mother's touch. The more lethal ones were kept apart, in a corner, in wicker baskets, lightly weighted down.
Before he learnt to walk, Kaaliya knew that in these baskets slept the reigning deity of their livesthe flared black one whose mesmeric swaying sustained his people and their wanderings. The world was full of serpents, but there was only one that was god, only one that had an equal measure of beauty, grace, rhythm and venom. No roadside trickster's sleight-of-hand, no prestidigitator's cheap illusions, no gambolling acrobat's twists of limb could match the magic of Lord Shiva's favourite as it rose to its striking stance and began to slowly sway, its sinuous head flared, its forked tongue darting. No sight in nature, no thunder, no cloudburst, no lightning, no storm, no gale, no hail, no flood, no fury, could stun the heart and fire the imagination like the dance of the divine killer. Loved by the gods, dreaded by men, for more than a thousand years, the dark dancing one had kept his nomadic people alive, travelling with them in their woven baskets, garnering for them food and sustenance, lending to them its own fearsome and celestial aura. Every hut in the cluster had its own embodiment of this deity, and each family treated it with reverence and care. For the deity gave, but could also take away.
Naag. Cobra. The very sound of its name stilled the heart and fired the mind.
Kaaliya knew his own name was a reminder of the power and magic of the black one. In high winter its basket slept under the patchwork quilt of his parents; and it was the one basket that always travelled with his father and uncles when they stepped outside the house. There were other coiled killers in the baskets, like the jack-in-the-box jalebia, darting to strike, its viper's sac heavy with death, but none of them were gifted with either majesty or myth. On the road they were a quick preamble before the pungi began to sing and the real show of the black lord commenced.
In the far corner, most often in the sun, there lay the muscular weight of the dozing python. This one was a bad deal: back-breaking to carry, incapable of turning a trick, with an appetite for chickens that was bankrupting, and impossible to hide or make a run with if a khaki or moral policeman suddenly appeared. Its size had an initial gasp-value but in no time at all the beast's sluggishness and lack of malice leached it of all excitement. Many huts, in fact, no longer kept the big one.
Times had changed and the followers of the timeless Baba Gorakhnath had fallen foul of democracy and modernity. New leaders, new laws, new fads had decreed that animals were more important than men, and that men who studied in colleges and wore pants and shirts and shoes knew more about being kind to animals than the men whose very lives and genes were entwined with the beasts. Had one of the men who pronounced these fiats ever slept with a serpent in their bed? Had one of them ever sliced strips of meat and lovingly fed them down a reptile's gullet? Had one of them ever changed the soiled clothes in their baskets, and bought them chicks and eggs with scarce money? Had one of them ever wandered the world with no one else as kinsmanno wife, no child, no parentbut the coiled one?
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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