The sun baked down upon the parched sands near the battered tent Amal and his family called home. The old tent had seen better times and needed to be replaced terribly but money was scarce in many homes just like Amal’s. His tribe was one not blessed with riches, so everyone was taught to do something to be productive. No one lay around sleeping the day away for their food came day by day. They never knew what the next day might or might not bring.
Amal’s father was getting older and it was now Amal’s turn to become the one in charge of providing the food for his family. This was the custom of the native tribes in India.
Amal’s father Malank had been a snake charmer since he was four years old. He had taught all of his children his talents but it was still not a lucrative trade. Amal’s mother fashioned baskets made of blades of thick grass dried by the sun. She made matching lids to fit over the tops so Malank and Amal could keep their cobras in. She even made a long strap so they could attach the basket to a bamboo pole and stick it in the ground.
Amal wore a colorful shirt that reached to his knees called a Kurta and a pair of pajama like drawstring pants to shelter his skin from the hot sun. He wore a wide sash or dhoti around his waist and often tied to his legs. He made his flute from a dried gourd and learned to make music to charm the snakes he and his father caught in the fields.
The tourist usually stopped to watch his performance and would toss coins into his red pot. The more coins he got the more food they would have to eat. Amal rarely spoke to visitors nor did he reveal his secrets of snake charming.
He did not tell anyone that they would often catch a cobra and remove its poisonous fangs and teeth. On occasion, his father would sew the snakes mouth shut leaving only a small area for the tongue to flick in and out. The bad part was that the snake would starve to death in a short time and have to be replaced. Another trick he and his father knew was that the cobra was not an aggressive snake. It would only extend his body one third of its body’s length. They would place the cobra in a basket and put it just far enough away so the cobra could not reach them even if he did strike. Then they would make the flutes big enough to become the cobra’s target. If the snake leaped to strike, he would hit the hard surface of the flute hurting his mouth. He quickly learned it was useless to bite at the hard flute and was only painful to him.
Amal never told his visitors that the cobra could not hear his music and only moved with the vibrations he felt. He never told anyone about the deception that played out in each performance. He just sat there quietly and allowed their minds to think what they wanted to think. If he was careful, he could make enough money so that they could eat well for that one day.
The one thing he would not do was to put an innocent child at risk. He had seen other charmers who would place a one year old child in front of the cobra to draw more tourists. He had seen children bitten by this action and vowed he would never do such a ritual.
Those in Amal’s family were taught to respect reptiles but never to fear them. Snake charming most likely originated in India and the surrounding areas. All snake charmers collected the normal garments to wear allowing the turban to be worn on the head, the hair to grow very long, and attractive earrings, necklaces of beads and colorful shells.
Once a performer finds a good location, he sets up by placing his mat on the ground, sets his pots and baskets around him and sits cross-legged on the ground in front of the basket holding the serpent. He removes the lid and begins to play on the flute-like instrument called a pungi. The snake will eventually emerge from the basket often extending his hood.
As Amal played for tourist, his mother and father scavenge and scrounge for items they can use at home. They also sell homemade jewelry and amulets. Amal’s mother collects glass bottles to put her magic potions in. She is a firm believer in her concoctions she has put together. Most of the oils and herbs she has used on her own family and friends with some success.
Festivals are exciting and Amal and his family work hard to get money for a new tent. They were content with their meager life unlike most people in the world. Perhaps if he worked everyday he could one day have a bike so he would not have to walk everywhere he went. Then he would set his sights on a wife of his own.
So it came to be that another day passed in the life of a snake charmer named Amal in the hot land across the sea called India.
Question: Should just anyone try to charm a poisonous snake?
Written by Sybil Shearin
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