These days my mother is here and she tells us a story when she is in the mood.
One day we were talking about the common people, the little people—people that we label as the masses: labourers, farm hands, servants, and even snake charmers, and how they have become too powerful, dangerously powerful, in India these days.
In our native place, snake charmers are maybe a rank above beggars and mendicants. They go about, from village to village, with their boxes of snakes and a been (which is like a bagpipe), hold a little tamasha, a snake show, and then scare people into giving away some donations. People would throw little coins into the chaddar or sackcloth that the snake charmer would lay on the ground after the show. That’s all that they do for their livelihood.
Sometimes they are in demand when a snake enters a house. Then, they have to be called, like you would call a doctor for a house visit to see a patient who is too frail or in too serious a condition to be taken to a clinic.
So, this story is about one such snake charmer and about a doctor who works in a government-funded clinic. A government-funded clinic in Bihar most probably means a place where you might get a prescription from the doctor for free but no medicines. Either, there is no money for medicines for poor patients or the money has been eaten and digested by the hungry python called the bureaucracy on the way to the clinic.
One day, a snake charmer visited a government clinic with his sick wife. After a little wait, the government doctor gave the patient a consultation. The snake charmer expected free medicines but the doctor gave him only a prescription. “Buy the medicines from a pharmacy,” he told the poor snake charmer.
The snake charmer had no choice but to spend the money to save his wife’s life. It cost him 200 rupees and caused him a great deal of anger.
He thought—since this is a government clinic, I should get the medicines for free from here. Why do I have to pay?
He might have thought—this doctor must be corrupt. Maybe he is part of the system that thrives on drinking the blood of people.
“I should teach him a lesson,” he decided.
A few days later, the doctor came to his clinic one morning. He was out of his wits to see a snake lazily sitting on his desk. Seeing him, the snake raised its head and unfurled its hood. Shrieking, the doctor ran out of his room.
Soon, there was a hue and cry about the snake in the clinic. Some people tried to shoo the snake away from the room. It didn’t budge. Some tried to scare it away. It didn’t move an inch. Someone suggested a snake charmer should be called in. The doctor agreed.
The snake charmer was already there in the crowd—actually, all this was his handiwork. He had come earlier than the doctor that day and through the back window, had let the snake into the doctor’s room.
When no one could move the snake, he offered his services. Everyone was relieved, specially the doctor who had not been able to enter his chamber. The queue of patients was getting longer and longer and the doctor was getting worried.
But then came the surprise. The snake charmer demanded 1000 rupees for the job.
“This is not fair,” the doctor protested. “Yes, this is not fair. This is too exorbitant.” The people supported the doctor.
“Then how fair it was,” the snake charmer retorted, “to make me spend rupees 200 for my wife’s medicines?”
The doctor recognized the man. He understood the whole game. The ‘small man’ was exacting his revenge on a ‘respectable man’.
The doctor had no choice but to pay him the sum. The snake charmer promptly removed the snake from the room and went away. He had his revenge.
The day was ruined for the doctor.
My mother says small men in India have become too bold. They can’t be controlled any more. Respectable people have to be careful of such small men if they want to preserve their ‘respectability’.