It was evening time in the month of May. In the enormous courtyard of the Nagercoil Club sat Captain Benny Anderson and Lieutenant Brian Potts in iron chairs on either side of the large, second-hand wrought iron table bought from the army and drank chilled beer in large glass mugs.
The strands of vetiver hanging from the roof near the porch for protection from heat had been rolled up and tied at the top. They were sprinkled with water, so a soft grassy smell wafted through the air.
From beyond the boundaries of the Club, from the expansive terra-rossa grounds of the Scott Christian School, the wind that carried the musty odor of the humid afternoon entered the club’s high ceilinged courtyards and swayed the curtains and cane barricades.
Nagercoil Club was originally a palace built by Moolam Thirunal Maharaja of Travancore, with a hundred pillars of white limestone polished well to make them shine like marble through a process called glass polishing. A blend of lime, jaggery, and egg white is mixed in water and left to settle, and the paste that floats on the surface is applied to the pillars. A glass piece is used for polishing, hence the name glass polishing.
The Maharaja shilly-shallied when the British General asked him to let the palace be used as a recreational club. The palace had been the site of Huzur concerts for thirty years, a symbol of the king’s authority and pride. At the top front of the gatehouse of the palace, an upturned triangle-shaped insignia supported by four pillars stood, carrying the emblem of the kingdom of Travancore, two elephants flanking a conch surrounded by a laurel wreath. The king could not repudiate when the all-powerful General McCauley requested.
“I got us this palace just for its pillars,” said McCauley. “They are British-style. They naturally belong to us.”
The flavourful aroma of roast beef arose from the backyard. The Club’s cook Thomas Kutty cooked roast beef placed inside breadfruit, a speciality of the Nagercoil Club. Doctor Samuel Benson had once famously pronounced, “Kutty’s roast beef is the only reason I’d say I love India.”
Benny Anderson said, “It’s time that the doctor comes.”
“Yes. He usually arrives earlier. He’s probably held up with some urgent work today,” said Brian Potts.
“This is summer. A season of diseases in this burning hell. Any news of smallpox spreading?” Benny Anderson asked. Four years ago, all his seven children and his wife had died of smallpox.
“Not yet. It’s all the will of Christ now,” said Brian Potts. He works in the city administration. One who had to report directly to the Trivandram Resident.
“May the Lord be with us.”
Brian Potts moved uncomfortably in his chair with an imperceptible sigh.
“What’s bothering you?” said Benny Anderson. Brian Potts shook his head.
“I noticed that you were not normal when I arrived. You’ve never arrived at the club this early.”
Potts moved and sighed again. “Do you know of a snake temple in the middle of this town?” he said.
“I do. Isn’t that why this town is called Nagercoil, the temple of Snake?”
“It was originally an ancient Jain temple. After the Jains had vanished, it’d remained an abandoned thicket for nearly two centuries. Later the Hindus started worshiping the place. The Travancore kings built a temple at the front,” said Brian Potts.
“Are there snakes in the temple?”
“No. But the people here believe that snakes dwell in it. But our police thoroughly inspected the place and gave a report. There was an anthill there a long time ago. It could’ve had snakes in it. Right now, the anthill is the central deity in the temple.”
“The people here worship anthills. In Mandaikadu temple too the central deity is an anthill.”
Potts said, “Since the mound grows on its own, it’s regarded as a god. The soil taken from the mound is considered sacred and is given as Prasad to people.”
“I want to go see the inside of this temple. But we are not allowed to enter their places of worship,” said Anderson.
“No, we are not. But you can enter under the pretext of a security inspection. I did go to that snake temple today.”
Benny Anderson said, “Did you really?” with a curiosity he could not betray. He moved forward in his chair so it screeched. “What did you see?”
“I didn’t go inside. I just entered the courtyard and interrogated the guards and those who sat under the trees and on the porches,” said Potts. “At the temple entrance, I saw two giant sculptures of snakes. They were as tall as three adults stacked together. Their pitch-black color, the display of all their five hoods, the frightening stare of their beady eyes, it all deeply upset me.”
“Are you afraid?”
“Ben, fear is unavoidable. We fear the diseases of this scorching land. And snakes and elephants are this country’s sacred symbols.”
Stephen, who had stood at a distance from them, approached and bowed when Benny Anderson turned his head. At Anderson’s signal, he picked up a beer bottle lying in cold water, opened it, and filled their mugs.
Brian Potts kept looking at the frothy head of beer. “Their superstition is that an elephant or a snake never forgets anything that has been done to them. Their elephant-headed god of wisdom wears a snake for a belt around its waist,” he said.
“If we ever try to examine their myths, we’d end up writing desk-sized books explaining them, like Sir John Woodroff did,” said Anderson. “What was the inquiry for? Tell me about it.”
“We had information that yesterday there was a secret meeting at the temple. We do not know who took part or spoke in it. But I’m sure it was a meeting against the rule of our Queen.”
“What did you find out? Was Congress involved or…”
“Nothing is clear yet. The people I met were all slothful, sitting and waiting just for their food. One was an ochre-robed ascetic. He had dreadlocks and a long beard.”
“Was he in disguise?”
“No. But he seemed to me mentally deranged. He pointed at the snake sculpture and asked me if I knew what it was.”
Benny Anderson’s chair whimpered.
“I said I didn’t know. He laughed. He said it was Dharman,” said Potts. “It’s one of the descendants of the tribe of Adisesha, the thousand-headed serpent. Its five heads denote the five elements, water, land, air, fire, and the sky. It is the deity of virtue that supports human life. Five hundred years ago when this land failed to sustain virtue, Dharman struck the ground three times and turned to stone. He said blood hasn’t dried up on this soil since.”
“He said for the last five hundred years, yogis have been doing penance, sitting next to this snake,” Brian Potts continued. “He also said if and when five million confessions are made, it’ll open its eyes and all its heads will rise alive. I told him to shut his mouth and hit him over his head with my baton. He simply smiled at me and said ‘Ropesnake’.”
“What is it, ropesnake?” asked Anderson.
“I don’t know. He kept saying the word. And he kept laughing at me. What can one do with a mad fellow? I left him alone and returned.”
“What is the meaning of that word?”
“No idea. I’ve summoned Nataraja Iyer to come and explain it.”
“To make sense of the blather of a lunatic?”
“I don’t think he is a lunatic.”
They sat quietly for a long time. Thomas Kutty brought rice cakes and his signature roast beef cooked in breadfruit. Benny Anderson cut the food with a knife, stabbed it with a fork, and put a large piece in his mouth. He said, “Fine,” chewing it.
“Kutty is an amazing cook,” said Potts as he ate.
A horse-drawn carriage arrived at the entrance. Multiple bells adorned the horse and made delightful sounds. The coachman gently whipped the horse to calm the animal down. Indian carts were not allowed to enter the courtyard. Nataraja Iyer, wearing a white turban, a gray coat, and a panchakacha dhoti, alighted from the back of the cart and was approaching the Englishmen in a bowing posture.
“This fool’s smile disgusts me,” said Benny Anderson.
“But these are people who are cornerstones of our government.”
Nataraja Iyer came near and said, “A very good evening, sirs. Fantastic evening! A fine breeze!”
“Sit down. Want to eat?” said Brian Potts, and winked at Anderson.
“I don’t eat anything in the evening, you know,” said Iyer. “Madasamy brought your message and explained everything clearly. I’ll try to explain the word as much as I can. I’ve made arrangements for a practical demonstration as well. Madasamy is bringing the demonstrator.”
“Tell me, what is a Ropesnake?”
“It’s based on a fundamental question. Have you heard about Shankara?”
“To some extent.”
“He was a genius and a philosopher like your people Schelling and Hegel, born in Kalady here in Kerala. He was the proponent of a pure rationalist philosophy called Advaita,” said Iyer. “He said that this universe is just an illusion. Only due to our own mental dispositions, we assume that the world is real. Ropesnake is an example he used to illustrate his theory.”
“Hmmm,” said Anderson.
“Let’s say we walk under dim light. There’s a rope lying on the path. For a moment we think that it is a snake. Don’t we experience a real snake at that exact moment? Doesn’t our body tremble with fear?” said Iyer excitedly. “Then we realize the truth. The moment we realize that it’s only a rope, we are no longer afraid. The rope appears simply as rope.”
Anderson cleared his throat.
“Similarly if we get rid of our ignorance and realize that this world is but a mere illusion, we’d be able to experience this world in its reality. This is the philosophy of Ropesnake. People here have been discussing this idea for thousands of years.”
Anderson looked alternatively between Potts and Iyer as Potts sat scratching his chin. He wondered if he should order for the dinner to be served.
Madasamy and an oldster, wearing a turban and carrying a large bamboo basket stood hesitantly at the door. Nataraja Iyer beckoned them inside. “He’s one of the Kuravars of Tenkasi who have come here for the local festival. His name is Karuppan.”
Karuppan’s turban looked like a large heap of dirty cloth. He had sunken cheeks, a sharp nose, and dark little lips. Due to old age, his charred body had shrunk like a prune. He bowed and placed his bamboo basket on the ground.
“Adei Karuppa! Show us your trick!” said Iyer. “Sirs, it’s a funny trick,” he added.
Karuppan bowed again and took off a pungi from his shoulder. “Is it snake charming? No, I don’t want to see it,” said Anderson.
“No, no. This is different,” said Iyer. “Dei! Make it quick! Look at him blinking! Blockhead!”
Karuppan opened the basket. Brian Potts lifted his legs up when he saw a snake curled up inside. Only when Karuppan picked it up did he realize that it was merely a rope.
“Look! It’s just rope,” said Iyer.
He rolled it on the floor and started playing his pungi. Benny Anderson leaned forward, wondering what the snake charmer was going to do.
He was playing the same melody in spirals. To Anderson, it sounded like the song Vandemataram sung by the local freedom fighters. It sounded like prattling, pleading.
The rope stayed unmoved. What was he going to do? “This is some silly trick,” muttered Anderson to Potts. Potts’s eyes were riveted on the snake charmer.
In the doorway emerged Thomas, Stephen, and the club’s custodians Aris and Peter. The snake charmer kept playing his pungi. His knees twisted and twirled like snakes. The tip of the pungi was moving in a circle.
“Make him stop!” said Anderson. “My head hurts. Give him something and send him away.”
But Potts touched his elbow and said, “It moves.”
“What?” Anderson looked at the rope. It stayed static.
Karuppan was playing non-stop, as though playing to someone who stood behind those people. Anderson turned around to look, but there was only the wall. His lips barely moving, Potts said, “Look.”
When Anderson turned around, he saw not a snake but the rope which simply lay on the ground. He stared at it, then relaxed his body and eased his vision. He was startled. He realized only a moment later what got him startled. The rope had moved a little.
As he focused his gaze he thought. It was just delusional. Metamorphosing a rope into a snake! What foolishness! But before he could finish the thought he had clearly seen the rope moving.
He kept staring at it, his chest trembling. He could see the slight wriggle of a snake one moment. And in the next, he saw the motionless rope.
Gradually, the rope completely transformed into a snake. As one end of the spiral rope flowed forward, another shiny end flowed in the opposite direction. The tip of the snake’s tail wriggled under its folds. When Anderson looked up stunned, instead of a snake’s hood, he could only see one end of the rope with its villi stock.
Benny Anderson looked at Brain Potts. His eyes were brilliant and motionless like glass beads. When he turned, a five-headed serpent stared at him, its nostrils flaring, beady eyes shining like water drops. When he looked down, the other end of the rope was being pulled and the rope was unspooling.
“Enough!” said Anderson. His voice quavered. “Enough! Ask him to stop!”
Nataraja Iyer said, “Adei, stop it! Durai is afraid.”
But the snake was rising non-stop. Only the tail had been bent a little and slumped on the ground. Then with a loud thud, the snake fell to the ground and slithered toward the wall.
“Make him stop! Get him out!” cried Anderson.
But Karuppan was playing faster and faster, shaking his legs like a maniac, his eyes transfixed. There was foaming at his mouth. Nataraja Iyer said, “Dei Stephen! Thoma! Come grab this fellow! The moron is not stopping!”
When Stephen took a step forward, the snake turned to him and hissed. He cried, “Jesus!” and ran backward and went beyond the door.
The snake bent its head, sniffed the wall, and, wiggling its tail like a whipped lash, slithered and vanished into the darkness of the inner hall.
Anderson got up and ran out into the yard. “Brian, come on out,” he shouted.
Nataraja Iyer came out, cursing, “Nasama poravane! Dei, These are whites. They’ll kill us! Go get that wretched thing!”
Karuppan came to his senses and looked flabbergasted. “Sami?”
“Dei, go catch that snake, blackhead! Sandala!”
He said, “OK sami,” and started playing his pungi again. This time the tune sounded like the reverse of the former.
Something writhed in his basket. Anderson could see the rope moving inside.
“Is this the one, sami?” Karuppan lifted the rope.
“Thank God! It returned,” said Nataraja Iyer.
Karuppan rolled up the rope, put it in the basket, covered the basket with its lid, and wore the pungi over his shoulder. He smiled, showing his charcoal teeth, and bowed.
“Give him one Fanam and send him away,” said Brain Potts.
“One Fanam is too much…” started Iyer but on meeting Potts’ eyes, he said, “Alright! Dei, Duraiwal has given you one Fanam. Pay your respect and take it. Don’t just blink! Kushmandam!”
Karuppan took the silver coin, touched his forehead after touching the ground, and went away.
Nataraja Iyer laughed, showing his stained teeth. “Thank goodness! It turned into a rope again. I was utterly scared.”
“Out!” said Anderson. “Get out of here! Right this moment.”
“I’d like to explain the Ropesnake…”
“Yes, sir!” said Iyer and walked out with his head bent over. When Anderson looked up, the others too vanished inside the club.
“Was it the same snake that returned?” asked Potts.
Benny Anderson shuddered. “I too have the same question. I think the snake is still inside the club. The snake charmer has deceived us. We’d never set foot into this club ever again.”
“Ropesnake. The Illusion. Even snakes will appear as ropes,” said Potts.
“What are you saying?”
“Ben, a little while ago when the man was playing his pungi, I noticed that all the pillars of this palace turned into snakes, and they were wriggling,” said Brain Potts.
Prasad – A devotional offering made to god. Panchakacha – traditional Brahmin way of wearing dhotis Kuravars -The Kuravar is an ethnic Tamil community native to the Kurinji mountain region of Tamil Nadu
B. Jeyamohan (b. 1962) is a Tamil writer and literary critic based in Nagercoil, India. One of India's finest authors writing today, he has traveled the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent, and his work examines and reinterprets India’s rich literary and classical traditions. His best-known, critically acclaimed novel, Vishnupuram (1997), is an epic fantasy that layers history, myth-making, and philosophy. His works of fiction include the novels: Pin Thodarum Nizhalin Kural (1999), Kaadu (2003), Kottravai (2005), and Vellai Yaanai (2013), and explore diverse themes ranging from ideological anguish following the collapse of Soviet Russia to the symbol of the mother goddess in Tamil cultural history to the great famine of Madras in 1876-78. A prolific writer, his output includes multiple novels, short stories, volumes of literary criticism, writer biographies, introductory texts to Indian and Western literature, books on philosophy, and numerous other translations and collections. He has completed his serialized retelling of the Indian epic Mahabharata called Venmurasu (The White Drum), consisting of twenty-six volumes. This is the longest novel in the world and certainly the longest in Tamil.