“We are not snake charmers”: Encounters with identity and reptiles

At a village of snake charmers, 2008.

In 2008 I was helping an NGO put together an oral history archive. Armed with my minidisc recorder, I had travelled to some remote villages in India where this NGO had had an impact. I was visiting remote village in Madhya Pradesh because the children here had demanded that their elders hire for them a teacher to help them with their school homework. The elders had argued that they did not have the monetary resources, but the Sarpanch (village head) had with the help of the NGO worker and the school-going children conducted a quick survey of how much the village spent every year on smoking and drinking. The figure was a staggering Rs. 200,000 annually. Embarrassed, the adults in the village agreed that it was only fair to contribute Rs. 10 every month towards the fees of a private tutor. And that is how the children of this village, all of them first generation school-goers had found a teacher. This was an obvious success story that fitted in well with the NGO’s mission to understand its impact on the communities it had set out to nurture. But like most oral historians, I was happiest when exploring conversations that were about people – how they lived, what work they did and the ways in which they had learnt what they knew. And these simple questions revealed an interesting history about this little community.

The people I met at this village were all from the sapera community – they were traditional snake charmers. The colonial period had, as we know, made the snake charmer a symbol of India that was exotic and primitive. They played the been – a flute made from dried bottle gourd, and their snakes swayed to the music. I recall seeing these performances on the streets of my hometown as a kid. It was fascinating to watch the cobra uncoil from inside its basket and raise its head as the music started. Snake charmers would bring along several types of snakes and talk about them. Many also carried little boxes with live scorpions which they displayed to jittery children and adults. I remember one particular snake charmer who had brought with him a mongoose and demonstrated how the two arch enemies – the mongoose and the snake, fight. The crowd gathered around the performance would pay them, some would offer rice and vegetables to the snake charmers. Afterwards the sapera would wander off. They were never too far away to call into the house every time a nest of snakes was discovered in the garden. Most snake charmers also functioned as snake catchers in our little town. In 1972, the Indian Wildlife Protection Act banned snake charmers permanently. Even then they took nearly a decade to disappear. From the 1980s onwards I have not seen a sapera on the streets.

The Sarpanch (the village chief) of the village I was visiting was away so I met with the former Sarpanch who told me that most of the men worked as construction workers in the nearest town. They broke stones, carried bricks and helped move bags of cement. Did they ever learn how to catch and tame snakes? “Of course not! We are not snake charmers!” – the old man’s answer was too quick, too emphatic. So, I persisted, “ And you never learnt to play the been and make the snake dance?” “No!” he replied, “Our elders never taught us anything.” “And nobody keeps snakes here?” “No, no!” He shook his head to say there were no snakes in their homes. Then, sensing my disappointment, he added, “Well, there is a eighty year old man who has one – nobody minds that.” He continued with great seriousness, “It is now illegal to go out with snakes. We wouldn’t disobey the law.” Then, he said, almost to himself, “Except on naga panchami day when villagers worship snakes. We do go out on that day. But we don’t earn much.” The implication of his words does not escape me but I am unsure if it is the right moment to ask about the snakes that accompany them on the day of worship.

It turns out that there is a blind-man (who the villagers refer to as their own “Sur Das” – the blind medieval saint-poet) – the only one in the village who knows how to play the been. He is now summoned to join our meeting and before I know it a wicker basket is lowered at my feet and gently uncovered. A cobra sways to the strains of the blind snake charmer’s flute. What is clear is that the snake and the man are without fear; they share a language and communicate with each other; they seem to share a relationship that most of us living in cities could never grasp.

“None of the children learnt how to play the been?” I ask expecting to hear the villagers echo my outraged lament for a musical skill that would soon be extinct. But the old man is wise and knows that traditions change and are often reconfigured. “Our children don’t play the been but they are natural performers. Why don’t you go into the school building and hear them sing?” He urges. My urban sensibility anticipates a stereotypical “folk” song from the children of this community. Instead they sing two songs from Hindi films – a love song and a patriotic song. The children are seven or eight years old, their voices refreshing and naturally melodious; they sing with ease and enjoyment having made those songs their own.

As I am about to leave, a young boy, about nineteen joins us. I ask his name, he answers, and that’s when his grandfather interrupts. “But I would not like him to be known as a sapera – it is best you write that he is a saharia. Saharias are on the ‘List’.” His grandfather continues, “That way there will be some chance of “compensation”, and of course, also apply to the government schemes.” It strikes me that this old sapera was alerting me to the mechanisms by which the Constitution of India ensured the well-being of those it categorised as backward communities. Members of specific castes and tribal groups identified in this way could lay claims to the educational, economic and social empowerment schemes of the government. Since these saperas no longer belonged to a community that was identified as backward on the list, it was best to lay claim to being saharia, a different community that was named on the list. I did not at that point, fully comprehend the idea of “compensation”. I learn much later, that in the year 2000, the government had evicted people from 24 villages that were near a large Wildlife Sanctuary toil08i prepare for a wildlife conservation project. Most of the villagers belonged to the saharia community. They were moved into rocky farmlands with a small amount of money to build houses. This was probably the compensation, the old man referred to. The saperas were prevented by law from displaying their relationship with snakes in public and practising the trade which used to earn them a livelihood; the saharias were exiled from their natural environment by government order. Both communities now worked as unskilled labourers on construction sites. The work they now did was one that rendered their knowledge of the natural world useless and irrelevant. For the saperas, working with snakes was part of their world-making and it conferred on them their distinctive identity. If the law had criminalised their occupation, it had also erased their identity. Maybe, what I was hearing in the interview was their attempt to articulate a complex self-image that amalgamated their past, present and future – their earlier relationship with snakes and their knowledge of poisons, their present-day attempts to negotiate with the state mechanisms and perhaps a desire to metamorphose into performer-entertainers in the future. The world that they were a part of in the past was no longer available to them. Their struggles in the present offered them a livelihood but no occupation nor identity. Their legacy could perhaps live on in some form if they presented their children as performers. But that would be a dubious legacy, disengaged from their past, disconnected from nature and tarnished by a profound loss.

Yet the relationship of the saperas to snakes had been nurtured and sustained through generations, I was not quite convinced that the law could really have severed such a bond permanently. As we leave the village, the NGO worker accompanying me whispers that every home had at least three snakes. “They cannot live without their snakes,” he smiled. One of the largest wildlife sanctuaries lies just beyond their village. I wondered at that time, why communities who know animals intimately, were never viewed by the state as people who could have contributed to the making of such sanctuaries? Could the sapera community with its knowledge of snakes and poisons not make a useful contribution to a wildlife sanctuary? Perhaps, I mused, they could serve as guides, enabling visitors to really observe animals in their habitat. While at first the idea seemed interesting, I soon realised with a sense of deep shame that I was thinking of thrusting together, by force, two mutually opposed worlds. The saperas and other communities that live among animals, or are familiar with them, represent a world that views animals and humans as belonging to the same circle of life; wildlife sanctuaries, on the other hand, are places where animals are “looked  at” apparently within their “natural habitat”. This act of looking at animals, represents what John Berger has called the “marginalization of animals”, a process that has been sadly followed by the “marginalization and disposal of the only class who, throughout history, has remained familiar with animals and maintained the wisdom which accompanies that familiarity: the middle and the small peasant.” (John Berger, “Why Look at Animals? 1977 in About Looking, 1980). To Berger’s peasants, I would add the tribal population of India who remain familiar with animals and have the wisdom that comes with that familiarity. Their perceptions and understanding remain unacknowledged, misunderstood and often ignored by state mechanisms. It is their wisdom that reflects in the old man’s statement, “We are not snake charmers”. They are not. In fact, they are much more than that, because they share their world with the snakes and offer people like me a tiny glimpse into their vanished world, one which I could never hope to make my own.

I have deliberately refrained from naming the villagers and their village I write about here, but I acknowledge gratefully these insights they offered me like so many gifts.

Indira Chowdhury

The eternal sadness of an oral historian

During the very first interview I did with my mother, I had an intense sense of time running out. I felt a sense of urgency about recording the stories that I had heard from her. This was not an unfamiliar sensation when I went to interview elders – there was always a sense that I had to “finish” the interview before time ran out. Looking back, this sense of time running out haunted me when I sat at different points with two friends closer to my age when they were dying of cancer, one of them couldn’t be persuaded to record her stories and the other immersed herself in her writing till the end of her days. When I lost both within a short span of time, I realised that there is never a right time to be recording oral histories, because time flitted away unpredictably, capriciously. Too soon.

My life as an oral historian officially began with interviewing Obaid Siddiqi in 2003. These interviews began at the institute he founded in Bangalore, the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS). Since Professor Siddiqi was a celebrated scientist, the burden of this task was immense. I felt paralysed with anxiety. The younger scientists who worked at NCBS or at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) where Siddiqi had started the first molecular biology unit in India, softened the edges of my anxiety with stories about Obaid. In the two years I spent at NCBS I interviewed him for fifteen hours. I spent much more time just walking around the institute grounds with him, having lunch and generally chatting in his Lab. Obaid talked at length about his family, his school days, the choices he made and about his training as a scientist, relating past and present through the lens of his insights on life itself. Long after I left NCBS, I would run into him at every meeting that I attended at NCBS or TIFR. Our conversations continued even though officially my project was over. When Obaid died unexpectedly in 2013 from injuries caused by an accident, like everyone else I was shocked. In a completely illogical way, I missed his presence at his memorial meeting. Since then, that sense of loss often echoes through my mind when I talk about my oral history interview with him, or when I write about the history of biology in India. It leads me to wonder why I had missed asking him questions that now insist on answers. In theory, I have always known that oral history interviews are always incomplete because one cannot ask all questions. Besides, interviews are subjective, and the interviewee might offer an answer with a different emphasis a week later or elaborate their response in ways that can turn your initial understanding on its head. And yet, the first thing that I think about when I speak about my interview with Obaid, are the things I had not asked. For example, my interview was so strongly focussed on his professional life that I had not delved into his other interests – photography and music (he played the sarod). How could I have missed asking him about his music, particularly because he had once entrusted me with his sarod instructing me to carry it to Kolkata for repairs to the legendary Hemen & Co. On reflection I realise it is not the lack of details that is distressing for me as an oral historian; the deep sadness arises from a sense of powerlessness that we all feel when death intervenes and life as we knew it ends. One of the obvious sources of our sorrow as oral historians is our very human inability to cope with the impermanence of life.

Perhaps, it was this apprehension of death that kept me from interviewing my mother for many years. When I began it was driven by a deep desire to hear again stories she had stopped repeating as she grew older. At age six she had lost her father. Talking about this loss at age eighty-six during the interview she tells me that her father who died in 1934 had been suffering from pleurisy and would frequently be away at a sanatorium in Madanapalle in South India. In fact, she and her two siblings saw him infrequently. Even when he was home, they were not allowed near him – they saw him from a distance standing at the doorway of the room he lay in.

After he died, she wrote him letters as she used to when he was at the sanatorium. She would take the scraps of paper on which she wrote and slip them into the red pillar box near their home. Until one day her playmates asked her with the guileless reasoning of children, why was she writing to her father who was dead and could never ever read them. The words pierced her core. Outraged, she called them liars. As she ran home, her friends shouted after her that she had probably not taken a close look at how her mother dressed in the white sari of the widow – could she not see? Or was she stupid? She raced home. Blind with tears she burst into the room where her twenty-three-year-old mother sat shielded by a pathos of mourners. “Is my father dead?” she began and stopped when she noticed her mother’s white sari for the first time. Suddenly, it was pointless to ask. In the interview my mother pauses and says with a mixture of regret and dismissiveness, “I was so stupid!” “But were you not there on the day he died?” – I ask quietly, stunned by her story. She recalls how she and her siblings were sent to a neighbour’s house and fed there. Rituals of death demanded that no fire be lit in the house till the last rites are over. She had witnessed the weeping and the gloominess that pervaded the house but had thought that her father had left for one more bout of treatment at the sanatorium. Nobody disabused her of that notion. And nearly a month after he died, she finally grieves for her father. I am appalled that nobody thought of talking to her or to her siblings about the loss that would mark them for the rest of their lives. She tells me many other stories about her childhood – about the extended family members who loved and protected her, about her mother going to work in a school – but nothing remains with me as powerfully as the story of her father’s death, told eighty years after she had lost him.

Listening – one of the skills we oral historians nurture inside us brings with it the physical sensation of watching what happened in the past in the mind’s eye. When Obaid Siddiqi speaks to me about an early experiment with wheat that had failed because of a devastating storm, I hear his crestfallen voice, “I didn’t even go to take a look.” In my mind I see the mud, the rain and the wheat stalks felled to the ground, and I also see a dejected young man. When my mother speaks, I see the child, tears streaming down her cheeks, running. The voice of memory, it strikes me has a synesthetic dimension – allowing us to see what we hear our interviewees speak about. Often the voice of memory enables us to reconstruct in our imagination what the scene might have looked like in the past. We also imagine the depth of emotions that even today draws out so much sorrow. The act of reimagining that source of sorrow reverberates inescapably inside the listener. This is a process of transmission that transforms our understanding of our own life events – past or present.

Scholars of memory studies and practitioners of oral history have long recognised that memory weaves together the past and the present. Similarly, the voice that remembers is stereophonic, drawing from two different, if dissonant sources – the past and the present. My mother’s is a voice grown old and deepened by many losses, but that voice expresses the hurt of the child she was. I feel protective towards my mother as I hear her talk about the death of my grandfather, but I know that she is not yet my mother; she is the child who will one day grow up to become my mother. Obaid Siddiqi’s is the confident voice of scientist that also houses the disappointment of an inexperienced experimenter who is not yet a distinguished scientist. The act of listening to memory draws us to both those voices – the voice of the past and that of the present. I have often wondered if the realisation that we are listening to two voices shaped differently by the passage of time points to the transience of the human voice and layers our understanding of the transitory nature of life itself. Is that why our practice demands that we recognise the preciousness and precariousness of what we are entrusted with? And is that why we must carry the weight of what we listen to?

Nearly six years after the interview with my mother, I still carry the stony weight of her childhood memory as I nurse her through advanced dementia. I notice that her condition makes her memories appear unexpectedly, in disjointed flashes. Her lucid moments never last long. Some months ago, she tells me that her father had come to visit her. She no longer repeats that story from her childhood, but I can touch its heaviness inside me. That stone remains lodged deep inside, nothing can move it. 

Indira Chowdhury

Acknowledgement: This post is dedicated to Veronica Rodrigues and Madhavi Sardesai – friends with whom I can no longer have this discussion. I am grateful for several informal discussions with Alessandro Portelli. This piece was inspired by the writings of Luisa Passerini, Urvashi Butalia, Alessandro Portelli and Valerie Yow.

Growing up with stories

A family photograph with my great grandmother, Bidhumukhi (sitting right), 1977.
Courtesy: Soumitra Choudhury

I grew up in eastern India, in a small steel town called Burnpur – echoing the name of Burn & Co – the company that played a major role in setting up the township. The furnaces burnt all day spewing orange, purple and white smoke into the skies. Growing up, I did not think of these colourful skies as polluting, but they were. My father worked in the factory and suffered from emphysema for the rest of his life.

Ours was a “joint” family and I grew up with my uncles, aunts and cousins with countless stories which invited us to imagine a past that was difficult to relate to. As a teenager I had quite accidentally conducted a very short interview with my great grandmother who lived with us. I was trying to do a test recording on the brand-new tape recorder my uncle, who was visiting from the UK, had brought back.  Our great grandmother, Bidhumukhi had recollected her childhood and how she loved to watch the travelling theatre – the Jatra performances. She even sang an amusing song about a foppish man of colonial Calcutta – the “koilkatta babu” who used “pomatom” (pomade) on his hair. More than two decades later, while doing my Ph.D. research, I would discover the words of her song in a nineteenth century Bengali song book in the India Office Library in London. I regretted not paying more attention to what she had said. I could not revisit her narrative either because we had not preserved the recording. At that point as I struggled to become a historian, in the debates between history and memory, history always emerged triumphant. I was never taught to value memory and so the significance of my great grandmother’s story escaped me.

My great grandmother was not the only storyteller in the family. My father, my aunts and uncles were all full of stories – about their village Merkuta (a village on the banks of the Titas), their grandfather’s house in Comilla and their growing up years in the mining town of Gua. They talked endlessly about the places that they could never forget, especially those they could no longer return to after India was partitioned in 1947. It took me decades of doing interviews with people from all over India to realize why these stories were important not only for my family but also for the history of contemporary India. I realised that the stories of my family had shaped the person I was and I too endlessly retold them in an attempt to grasp at a past that seemed to elude me. Perhaps that is what made my family recount stories of their lives as they too tried to make sense of the past. But this understanding came long years after my father and most of his nine siblings were gone.

This blog is about my experience of doing oral history in India – for institutions, within communities and with members of my own family. I look forward to sharing my reflections on how people talk, the stories they tell and the promise of an understanding that this process brings to all of us.

Indira Chowdhury