May 23 was any other day, I was barely on time for work and I’d just been given a dressing down for having little or no food in my fridge. I left my apartment in Southeast Delhi, a friend and I flagging a cycle rickshaw that would take us to the metro.
Three young men in saffron, brandishing tilaks stopped us at the red light just before our stop. It was then that I noticed the snakes.
Two of the men on either side of the rickshaw had two snakes coiled around their arms, the mouths facing us. The third stood directly in front of us blocking all movement.
“Jai Bhole. Would you pay something for the Naag devta?”, one of the men, sporting an orange bandana and a mischievous smile asked me.
My job doesn’t pay me particularly well, but if someone asks me for alms I dole out the change in my pocket. I took out a few coins and palmed them to the man. “We don’t want coins, but notes.” I dug out a 10 rupee note. At this point I realised I wasn’t going to make it to work on time. I wondered if they were Saperas. “Naag devta would be happy if you touch its body with a large note,” he said and brought the snake close to my face. My companion had enough, “What are you guys doing? This is not the way to ask for money,” she said and fled.
I had a healthy dose of herpetophobia like most people and I took out up a Rs. 500 note, naively hoping that once “touched” naag devta would hurry the fuck up and let me go.
Bandana guy rubbed the money on the snake.
“The naag devta wants another note to be rubbed on its body," he said. I realised this was bullshit, but just the fear of four snakes brought closer to me has me squirming. I found another 500. It was at this point I realised just how much I’d forked over.
I demanded my money back. “Naag devta wants this money” bandana guy said as he placed the notes inside the mouth of the snake. I persisted.
He took the money out of snake’s mouth and held it between his own. And then he spat on his hands, imitating a cobra. They hadn’t counted on how broke I was. I threatened to call the police, trying my utmost best to sound brave. The threat worked, surprisingly.
The boy looked at the slightly older man standing at the other side of the rickshaw and gave me back the two Rs. 500 notes. I put them in my wallet, took out a Rs. 100 note and gave it to him . “Are you happy now?” he asked me smilingly. They moved away and to other rickshaws behind me.
I took down their number explaining that I would write about them, also to assuage my editors. The number they gave me has been switched off since.