Circa 1975, Bombay…
James had invited me to a party at his place. He said it was a debut party for someone. Since I was not alone in Bombay anymore, I decided to take my new friend Marie to his party as a plus one. We reached his place at Parel on the particular evening. Marie was more excited than me as she was about to meet James for the first time. A man servant ushered us inside the huge duplex apartment. I had come here twice before, though I doubt if he had recognized me. He led us directly to the floor above where I had never been in my earlier visits. As we entered the hall through an unusually bolted door, it felt as if we had stepped into a different world altogether. It was an extremely strange and eerie hall for a debut party. The entire room was lined with cages as far as I could see. They had live snakes. And frogs. And baby alligators. The hall was dark except for soothing matted lights above each cage. I wasn’t absolutely dumbstruck, knowing James, but I surely had forgotten about Marie. As soon as I spotted James under the light of a cobra cage, I turned to Marie for an introduction. But she had vanished into thin air.
I was confused as to what astonished me more: The weird debut party by James? Or the disappearance of Marie? It was dark, but I could gauge at least thirty more people in the hall. Marie could have sneaked into the other side, though it was more likely for her to have fainted by this time. I had not revealed to her till now that James was a reptile supplier for the Hindi movies. She was crazy about movies and the tall heroes prancing around trees. I had just mentioned to her that James worked in those movies and she was ready to come to the party with me. Marie was actually a distant cousin of mine. I had stayed with her and Aunt Lily for a month in their tiny flat in Colaba when I arrived from Calcutta six months ago. As of now, six months later, Marie was my only friend in Bombay though I had known James since childhood.
James was the only black stallion our neighbourhood back in Calcutta had produced in decades. He was a loafer in the true sense of the term. He idled away his days smoking pata and charas sitting at the back of his father’s music shop in Chowringhee. Uncle Jack used to beat him up with huge gulps of cheap whiskey at night. That was his favourite way to wean stress after each day’s hard work of selling and repairing guitars and accordions, saxophones and violins. We were tired of the beatings in a few years but James was unmoved. He continued playing pimp at the five star hotels for a few hours in the evening until he was satisfied with his earnings to buypata and charas. He was cool in a way when he did hang out with the hippies and earned his own poison. A few blokes in our Bow Barracks envied him for the extreme life he led. He was a rare Anglo Indian in Calcutta who was oblivious of music. James never cared for music, or for his father or for the music shop either. He snapped when everyone had given up on him. He fled away from Calcutta one day. No one knew where he went.
Back then, about eight years ago, James had come to Bombay in search of destiny. He had gained a mentor, a snake charmer through his Hippie friends. The old man taught him how to clasp and de-venom snakes. James started working with him and later opened his business of reptile supply. He made it big, gradually after years of hard work. I had met him the last time two years back when he visited Calcutta for the first time in six years. It was a surprise visit for us but it turned out to be a shock for Uncle Jack. He could not ingest the fact that James had succeeded to become successful. Years of cheap whiskey also had its effect. He died in the arms of the son he disliked. James sold the music shop and went back. He had given his address in Bombay to all of us, in case anyone went to the city of films. So here I was… in search of my destiny this time. I had decided to come to Bombay looking for a job. There was none left in Calcutta after the emergency was imposed. I had a Bachelors degree in Science which could have provided me with a job in Bombay. I met James twice at his duplex in the last six months, not asking for a job though. They were purely courtesy visits on behalf of everyone at Bow Barracks.
James came up to me and asked, “Who was the pretty woman with you?”
“She’s Marie. My Aunt Lily’s daughter. I was going to introduce her to you. But she’s gone!”
“Gone? Let me check the back once. She can’t vanish.”
James went inside a secret door at the corner of the hall. The door was secret otherwise, because it merged seamlessly into the wall and had a red button for Open Sesame. It was just like they showed in the Hindi movies. I wondered if James made the same people build his apartment on such filmy designs. He came back in a minute, smiling satisfactorily.
“That belle of yours is back inside. She had fainted at the door it seems. My bai is tending to her.”
“Thank Heavens for that. I have to return her safely to Aunt Lily or she’ll chop my head off.”
“Don’t worry, mate. She’ll be fine.”
“What about this party though? And whose debut is it? I still didn’t get that.”
There was a twinkle in James’s eyes as I mentioned debut.
“It’s them.” He pointed his fingers until they made a circle of all the cages.
“What do you mean?”
“There are two things – this is the debut of my private reptile zoo, and the debut of my new business of snakebite.”
“Snakebite? How is it a business now?”
“Do you know snakebite can give you more hang than heroin? I have learnt it the hard way during my days with the snake charmer.”
“I can’t even imagine the hang. Thank God I don’t need it.”
“But a lot of other people need it, especially in my industry.” James had a mischievous smile on his lips.
“You mean Bollywood? You plan to give snakebite to the film stars?”
“Why only film stars? I’m open to everyone. I have to promote it well; trust me it is much more than ecstasy or heroin.”
“Seriously James, snakebite? How is it even possible? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“There are more things on heaven and earth, Horatio. And that’s all I retain of Shakespeare from school.”
James took me to an adjacent chamber to witness the debut of one of his snake-stars. I decided to witness this unique debut as I might not have another chance in my lifetime. I asked Marie to sit and rest for a few more minutes and went off with James. He took me to an interior chamber, otherwise disguised by a huge wall to wall painting. Another of his filmy antiques, I guessed. The chamber was well-lit when I had expected it to be shady and dimly-lit for such a purpose. James told me to take a seat at a corner, shut my mouth up and watch the proceedings very silently or his clients would be offended. I wondered how they would skip my 5’10” frame in a claustrophobic chamber. Not providing me much scope to speculate, James adjusted the lights and I was immersed in deep darkness. The chamber was lit only by a strong neon bulb over the client’s chair. I sat as quietly as I could with immense anticipation. I had an inkling that I would be witnessing the strangest incident in my life as I had negligible exposure to any drug until then. My thoughts were jolted by the entry of a lone client, a film starlet I recognized from the recent posters all over the city.
The man entered, clearly nervous as I could spot his bald head glistening with sweat. James tried to make him comfortable in the plush chair assigned for him and his likes. After the client tried to settle in, I realized that James himself would be performing the task since there was nobody else in the chamber. James persuaded the client to keep his calm and be mentally prepared. Before he shut the door, one of his assistants brought a covered trough in which I assumed the snake-star would be cradling. James unveiled the cover with the pomp of a magician to reveal his star of the day, a giant King Cobra. Before I can tell you how the client reacted, I visibly shifted in my own chair and prayed to God that James didn’t notice. The client shifted in his chair too and I could see fear of death in his eyes. He looked pleadingly at James, who then had to rant a short lecture to calm the man.
Then followed the most interesting and intriguing ritual that I have ever seen. James took out the Cobra in his expert hands, opened its mouth and leaned over the client. From the corner I was sitting in, I could see the client’s face. He kept his eyes closed and opened his mouth, protruding his tongue following James’ instructions. I could sense that he was holding his breath as he prepared to take the poison in. James positioned the Cobra’s hood carefully near the man’s tongue tip and patted the snake carefully on a particular spot of the hood. The Cobra flared his fangs and bit the man on the tip of his tongue. James had to pull the snake in retreat quickly before it could plant a second bite. The client had almost jumped off the chair as he took the bite for he seriously feared loss of his life due to excess poison. That was not much likely as James had extracted most of the poison as a step to ensure his clients’ safety. The man had almost fainted and his driver carried him downstairs back home.
I had left that party with a nauseating Marie cursing me all the way to Colaba. She blasted me for destroying her idea of a party with film stars, fun and frolic. I had to beg her not to tell Aunt Lily anything about the party or James. Marie said she hated James more than ever.
Circa 2006, Calcutta…
I could not hate James though. He had made his own fortune and as I heard a few years later, ruined his own too. His business of snakebite ran for quite some time. He had reared a few chosen snakes like Cobra and the green ones in his zoo, by keeping the right amount of venom in their fangs enough to create a hang more than heroin, as he claimed. He used to charge Rupees Fifty per bite per person back in 1975 with the guarantee of a hang. This way, he had gained a lot of regular addicted customers from various strata of life. They depended on him for life, and death. A tad bit more of poison could have caused permanent paralysis or death in a person. Many film stars came to him for some solace in their distressed lives. I knew the names of a few of them as I had secretly been in contact with him for many years. The last I heard of him was a few days ago in the newspapers as his private zoo was finally busted by the Mumbai Police after thirty years for illegal captivation of innocent reptiles.
My wife did not know about James. I had chosen to keep his psychedelic life in my memories rather than making him a mock in the eyes of my family.
This story has been published in the Sept-Oct 2013 issue of Muse India.