The scene is a rainy night in Chutupalu village in Jharkhand. Chamni, a 34-year-old tribal woman, lies sleeping on the bare floor of her hut, exhausted after a day of planting saplings in the paddy fields. Alongside her are her husband Manuwa Oraon and their small children. Enter, a snake. It crawls towards the reclining form of Chamni. As she stretches out her arm in her sleep, the alarmed reptile sinks its fangs into her fingers. Manuwa, woken by his wife’s screams, spots the snake in the dim light of an earthen lamp and quickly traps it in a jute-lined basket. Local superstition in this village 25 kilometres from Ranchi has it that a snake which has bitten someone should not be killed till its victim recovers.
Nothing new about that story, you’d say, and you’d be right. It happens all the time in rural India. What is unusual is the denouement. Chamni was not left on the ground to die an agonising death. Nor was she put through the doubtful ministrations of a witch doctor. Instead, Manuwa placed her in a three-wheeler which was plying on the Patna-Ranchi highway on which their village was happily situated, and rushed her to hospital.
It took 45 minutes to reach the Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS) in Ranchi, but Chamni got there alive, snake in tow. Her face had turned blue by then, but a quick shot of the anti-venom serum that the hospital orders from Chennai sorted that out. To the relief of her husband and two children Chamni was able to go home in a few days (the snake didn’t make the return journey — hospital staff had long released it in the wild).
Standing at the hospital gate as I was, I was happy to see them go. They represented to me the greater number of villagers who were now learning to trust science.
“Though still illiterate and mired in deep poverty, the scheduled tribes in Jharkhand are not as superstitious as they were a decade ago,” remarked an RIMS doctor. “Had a cobra bitten someone a few years ago,” he added, “the family would have called in a witch doctor rather than approach a hospital. We are aware that snakebite used to cause numerous deaths in the rural areas mainly because the people had no faith in medical treatment. In the past, they relied on the charms of sorcerers and ended up dying. Fortunately, now they are aware enough to come to the hospital.”
During the rainy season, said the director of RIMS, A.K. Dube, “the hospital treats on an average two people daily for snakebite”.
The story was quite different in the days of my childhood in the late Seventies. I remember Kalavati, who died of snakebite. That happened in my ancestral Daraily Mathia village in Siwan district of Bihar. The village, 300 kilometres from Ranchi, resembles Chutupalu in terms of backwardness, illiteracy and poverty. Only three or four families own land. The rest are poor and landless tribals who live on manual work like ploughing fields of landed people, selling datoon and firewood, or brewing and selling the local liquor hadia. Like Chamni, Kalavati too, worked hard for a living. The only difference in their lives lay in the fact that the generations that divided them had different attitudes to modern medicine and magic.
I remember Kalavati as the very young and pretty wife of middle-aged Hariprit, a farm worker. She was fair, with chiselled features and wore with pride the silver anklets her father had given her. The thought of her being wedded to the 45-year-old Hariprit, who looked much older, grizzled as he was right down to the hair on his chest, and with legs like withered stumps, frankly appalled me. Kalavati was 22 years old when her father married her off to Hariprit. She was the younger sister of his first wife by whom Hariprit had four children. “Don’t worry,” his father-in-law had consoled him at his wife’s funeral, “my younger daughter will go as your wife to take care of the kids.”
One night, Kalavati was fast asleep with the four children on a mat spread on the damp floor of her shack, when a cobra sneaked in and bit her on her toe. Her husband, who was sleeping with his cattle in the adjacent shack, heard her cries, as did other villagers who rallied forth with torches and lanterns, frantically searching for the cobra. With them was the sorcerer Phulena, known for his power of curing victims of snakebite, though I don’t personally remember anyone he saved.
I saw Phulena sketching a circle on the ground with a piece of stone around the unconscious Kalavati. He then whispered some words into her ear and blew air through his lips at the place where she had been bitten. He also tied a red cloth around her neck. Kalavati grew feebler every minute and by morning, was dead. “She had the curse of Lord Shiva on her,” said Phulena, as if in explanation. “The lord of snakes rejected my call to cure her.”
And I saw poor Hariprit, with tears rolling down his cheeks arranging the bamboo, sandal and mango wood for the final rites of his second wife. Hindus cremate their dead. Those who die of snakebite in our village are immersed in the river. If Kalavati had been born 25 years later, hers would have been a very different fate. Daraily Mathia too now has a referral hospital at Done, only at a distance of 10 kilometres from what was once her home. People suffering from snakebite now go there.
It seems the job of the witch doctor of the village is going a-begging. Phulena, who had inherited his dubious craft from his father Diljar Mia, died five years ago. His son Idris has refused to step into his shoes — he’s perfectly happy working in a men’s hairdressing salon.
And should Idris or his fellow villagers ever be bitten by a snake, it’ll be a doctor they will turn to.