20 Ago Snake
Racconto ricevuto da Federico Boccardi il 19/08/17 :
Today life gave me a fairly decent opportunity to describe how cold the wondrous touch of death was. I will never forget the baba-monk’s name, this place and the respectful Hindi word: nāga.
I don’t know why I left other than for the sake of leaving and arriving somewhere else. I could have easily stayed forever in the town of Kolayat but there’s always been something deep inside my mind that inexorably tells me to keep moving on. I had been so pleased to find such a mellow place, but ironically I grew restless after only three days. My mind was a real beast!
Jaisalmer, the golden city, two hundred and ninety kilometres away, was my destination. Partway through the journey, I was dropped off in a city called Palodhi. Ignoring the importunate calls of rickshaw drivers eager to take my wallet for a ride and the insistent beckonings of shopkeepers who wanted the generosity of my financial presence in their premises, I strolled across the busy main street until the desert’s silence welcomed me once more. Relieved, I stood in the shade of a palm with my thumb out and my rucksack at my feet. To my astonishment, a few minutes later, a baba on a prehistoric black Royal Enfield pulled over. Without hesitation I jumped on, like an old lady in a skirt, perched awkwardly behind him. But why did he insist on me sitting like that? I’d always leant my heavy rucksack on the saddle before, to take its weight off my back, but he must have had a noble reason to have me in such an inconvenient position, unless he was testing my physical endurance, equilibrium, and patience.
I clenched my teeth, wondering which Indian God would be the most appropriate to invoke for such a situation, but the more I shifted my aching body forwards and backwards, trying to accommodate myself, the more I was making the driver swerve. Despite all my years doing Yoga, I could not hold that spine breaking asana any longer.
“Rukō!” I yelled. I wanted him to stop. I could not carry on like that, but he took no heed and accelerated instead. I’d reached my limit and was about to throw myself off his damned bike regardless of the consequences when, all of a sudden, he took a right off the main road and came to a halt outside a large adobe house. Totally in the middle of nowhere or in the middle of innumerable sand dunes if that was any consolation, he opened the wooden gate and ushered me in. Maybe a cup of tea wouldn’t hurt, I thought as I followed him into the building.
But this was not a conventional house. It was something between an ashram and a temple, and the bald man wrapped in jewellery who greeted us was something between a sadhu and a monk. When my eyes finally adjusted to the light, the peculiar building looked much bigger on the inside than it had from the outside, probably because it was empty except for a small, brown lingam which rose from a high-relief yoni. Embers still glowed in the fireplace and beside it, a terracotta amphora contained the most precious commodity in the desert: water. The bare walls were papered with images of yogis, seers, prophets, mystics, gods and goddess from almost every religion, including the one I was born into, Catholicism. Jesus, Buddha, Sai Baba, Padre Pio, Yogananda, Lahiri Mahasaya, Amma, Babaji, Kabir and even Rumi, to name the few I recognised, were surrounded by Laxmi, Sita, Brahma, Parvati, Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesh, Rada, Kali, and Krishna, all dancing rapturously before my incredulous eyes. That was the confident impression I had after I’d intoxicated my discernment.
The enigmatic owner, locked in lotus on a synthetic imitation of a tiger mat rolled out on the hard-packed dirt floor, invited me to sit next to him and offered me some weed. How much had I been smoking since I’d arrived in India? Definitely too much, but somehow this country always provided me with a plausible excuse. My back was still hurting and my bites were itching terribly. Thanks to the magic substance the baba had rubbed onto my skin, they hadn’t swollen that much but now I was craving a chance to scratch them, especially the ones on my back which, under the weight of my rucksack, had rubbed against my “on the road” T-shirt. I was conscious that if I fell for this bodily temptation my relief would only be momentary. Soon after, obeying the equilibrating law of cosmic karma, of cause and effect, action and reaction, sowing and reaping, they would worsen. Impermanence. After the Vipassana I was seeing it everywhere. It was my close companion; an unrelenting judge that together with equanimity helped dictate my decisions. Plan B was weed then. I needed to ease the itching.
Jasper, blue sapphire, tiger’s eye, lapis lazuli, jade, turquoise and obsidian were the stones cast in the handmade silver rings the baba-monk wore on seven fingers. If not for a stained pink sarong wrapped around his waist, they and some long mala necklaces would have been all he was wearing. Mostly made of brightly-coloured plastic beads, Rudraksh and pearls, the mala necklaces hung from his burly neck down to his fat belly. I couldn’t see any food around here, but this man was well fed: another one of the many unfathomable mysteries of India.
I did not fall into the trap of asking trivial questions for the sake of filling time, but just as I’d promised myself I would not break the venerable silence, the baba who’d brought me here threw on the floor the leather bag that had been fastened to the side of his bike, the one he stubbornly didn’t want me to have my leg against.
“Sundara.” “Beautiful,” I whispered in a magnetic combination of alarm, attraction, and awe. A one and a half metre black cobra had just slipped out of the bag. Forked tongue flickering, it collected particles from the air, ground and water to determine the presence of prey or predators. Its dorsal scales were as bright as polished stainless steel, whereas the ventral were a pale grey. I could not see its famous hood mark. Maybe it was a juvenile specimen but, by its size, I doubted it. Their imposing presence, the bright pattern of their scales, the danger of their fatal poison, and the terror they instilled in people had always fascinated me; I had always loved and respected these silent predators.
“Pakistan,” the reckless baba-turned-snake-charmer affirmed proudly. Unconcerned he sat next to it and started playing the pungi he was holding. The reptile swayed hypnotically to the tune. It must have come from nearby Pakistan then. The cobra was, in fact, deaf to the sound; it only followed the visual cue of the moving pipe because it sensed vibrations from the charmer tapping the instrument. Despite the danger, I sat no more than two metres away. I wasn’t scared but was instead attracted to this unique spectacle.
The baba-monk, who’d probably witnessed the remarkable performance hundreds of times, started preparing another chillum. He lit it, exhaled an interminable amount of smoke, coughed, and with a bright smile passed it on to the charmer who deftly swapped his simple flute for the burning ganja pipe. As if it was a musical instrument, he kept swinging, smoking and tapping on it. I felt sorry for these men’s poor lungs, but judging from their indifferent expression, I was the only one who cared. The reptile continued rocking sideways. When my turn came I didn’t refuse, happy to ease the wasps’ bites further by installing more divine madness on top of what I was already witnessing. But was there ever going to be an end to this insanity? Evidently not, because, in my sheer astonishment, my friend decided to push his luck further. He didn’t go back to his pungi but was now holding the cobra’s tail with his left hand, untroubled by the animal’s reaction. If before, the snake had been swaying to the music or to the intoxicating vibration of marijuana, now, visibly stressed, it lashed forward like a whip, trying to bite his right hand, the one he kept moving from side to side. I had a very bad feeling about this.
“Danger. Be careful!” I said, but unconcerned he kept laughing and playing with his dangerous toy, occasionally lifting it from the ground, stroking it, and even holding it by the neck. The reptile responded by wriggling and trying to free itself; the situation was getting out of control. The monk, unlike me, was not impressed or alarmed, but eventually his grave voice echoed around the room in a distinct tone of disapproval and admonition. The charmer, like a mischievous child further defying the warning, kept on chuckling and playing with fire until it happened. Until he got burnt.
“Shit!” he mumbled with a shaky voice; his first and probably last English word. That was when the black cobra bit him. That was when he let go of its tail.
From then onwards, everything happened in a dramatically gritty slow-motion. The fumes of marijuana, still lingering in the air, thickened and an apocalyptic silence followed. Incredulous he looked at his bleeding index finger; his dark eyes widened, the cords on his neck stood taut; his lips quivered. He started sobbing. All I could feel was my heart pounding.
The night I lost my virginity on the immaculate, white bed sheets of my Italian literature teacher’s posh house, after he’d given the keys to a trustworthy classmate who owed me a big favour. The evening in Spain I walked up to an empty chair tucked into a long table full of English people laughing; I told them I was alone and hungry, and asked if they minded my presence, but only Luis, an Argentinian guy who happened to change my destiny, understood. The weekend I went to Glastonbury festival without a tent, willing to ask any other campers if they had any spare room in theirs; the first night I ended up sleeping next to a fire, wrapped in cardboard and bin bags, but I met Lisa, an angel disguised in the flesh of a gorgeous girl who redefined the shallow concept I had of love. The evening I legged it from a top-notch restaurant with my sister and two friends. The memorable night I tried Ayahuasca in Brazil and told Marcello that some people are meant to meet in this life, before I went to sit by myself under a dreamcatcher and used it as a gate to explore the unfathomable. The sad day that, crying, I told Paulina I needed to leave and go by myself into the wild; she did not wait for my return. The night I went clubbing in London and, left at the mercy of alcohol and hormones I found myself locked in a passionate snog with a stunning blonde only to realise, after twenty minutes, when everything got a bit more heated, she was a transsexual!
It’s true what they say: near-death experiences can encompass multiple possible sensations, including detachment from the body, feelings of levitation, warmth, dissolution, the presence of a light, and a life review flashing before your eyes. Psychological, physiological, and transcendental explanations can be given but the instant I saw the snake, freed and visibly stressed, slithering towards me and coiling around the lingam, not even half a metre away from my legs locked in lotus, some of my life’s brightest episodes flashed before my eyes. My body, reacting to impending death, went completely numb, motionless. The charmer staggered to reach the door and collapsed outside on the ground, rolling and vomiting. The bald monk gave the animal a wide berth and, went after him, picking him up and pouring water on his face before he dragged him away. White foam was coming out of his mouth; that’s the last I saw of him.
I felt sorry for that poor man who was probably left with only a few minutes to repent all of his evil deeds, but his theatrical misfortune had spritzed heavily the smoky air of my imminent future with the sweet fragrance of death. Alone, in the middle of the desert, stoned out of my head and with pictures of the gods still dancing around me, I faced the black assassin before me, paralysed. This was the apotheosis of the present moment in all its beauty and danger. Of course I didn’t know what to do except stare, but a faint chuckle escaped my lips at the thought that, if I did get bitten, a few minutes wouldn’t be enough to repent for my long list of wrongdoings. Just as I was wondering how much those immersions in the Ganga would do to alleviate some of my sins, all of a sudden the creature rose and started flicking its tongue. Shit-scared and sensing my imminent demise, I tried to stay calm but I still had to do something. I summoned all my mental strength and ordered my hands, completely frozen in my lap, to move. I wanted to shift them to the ground, next to my waist, and use them as leverage to pull myself away. Eventually they responded but, at my slightest movement, the snake lashed forward. My heart stopped. Tears started welling in my eyes. The image of the baba dying on the floor sent my stiff muscles into spasms. I was really losing it.
It lashed out again and missed my body by a few centimetres. Teardrops rolled down my cheeks; the world dissolved into splinters of prismatic colours. I didn’t know if it was only warning me, but I had the terrible feeling its next whiplash would be fatal. I closed my eyes. What else could I do? I let go and tried to calm my furious heart. If I have to die right now, so be it, I said to myself; hopefully someone would cremate my body and disperse the ashes into the Ganges. That was all my soul asked, waiting for the inevitable finale. But why did it want to kill me? What had I done to it? I had the strength to ask myself. And one question led to another. To new thoughts. To the last opportunity.
I knew it was from Pakistan but, in my mind, I spoke to it in Italian. I imagined that somehow we were able to communicate with each other and I told it that I did not mean it any harm, that I was the last person in the world who wanted to see it in captivity, that I respected its nature and that I was a friend who only wished it happiness and freedom. Then I tried to clear my mind, connect to its brain, and send vibrations of peace. I waited. There was nothing else I could do.
There must be a sanctified mechanism, a sort of holy instrument or a consecrated device that someone up there, in the vast universe, from time to time switches on to recharge my humble existence with luck. But there’s only a small price to pay for this favour: primal fear.
I felt it. God, I did, I felt how smooth and cold that sleek predator was. I felt the chilly touch of death as she caressed my body and slid over my left thigh. Seconds ticked with an unqualified terror. I still had my eyes shut; I did not dare open them. When I remembered to breathe again, I waited before reopening my eyes. It was gone. The room was empty. Thank God, it had vanished. I looked around and caught a glimpse of its tail slithering through the entrance. I sighed. I was alive. I still could not move, but I was pretty sure I was alive.
It took me a long time to pull myself together and stand up. Shaking, I staggered outside, but there was no one else around. All the adrenaline that had built up now disappeared, and exhausted I drank some water and sat in the shade of a tree. Suddenly I threw up. By breathing deeply I commanded myself to calm down. Then, drenched in a cold sweat, I waited. There was nothing else to do.
In the late afternoon the baba-monk returned.
“How is your friend? Where is he?” I asked with bated breath as I ran to him.
“Where snake is?” he answered instead.
“It left,” I replied, and with my best Hindi and some simple English words, I explained what happened. Fearing the worst I didn’t dare ask again. He was holding a bag full of veggies. In silence we cooked together, but I couldn’t eat anything. Night embraced us. I wanted to pitch my tent in case the cobra was still around and had second thoughts about me getting away from death, but the baba told me that, by karmic law, I was now immune to its attack. Doubtful, I still nevertheless listened and helped him unfold a spare camp bed.
“Sōnē kē li’ē.” “Sleep,” he said, and under the invariable vigil of the firmament I closed my eyes.