Press Trust of India
June 3, 2006
Thirty-year-old Bimbala Das’s marriage to a cobra made her for a little while last year the most famous woman in the east Indian state of Orissa, although — being illiterate and possessing no radio, television, telephone, or computer — she was likely unaware of the extent of her fame.
An ambitious young television reporter named Umakanta Mishra, based in the nearby state capital of Bhubaneswar, first broke Bimbala’s story. A print journalist named Satyasundar Barik saw the TV coverage, and although he neither witnessed the wedding nor visited Atala village, he did speak on the telephone with the village headman and put together two hundred or so words on the marriage.
It was Barik’s reporting that quickly spread around the world. Barik works for the Press Trust of India, the largest of the Indian wire services, and the story was published in all of the major Indian dailies, then picked up by the international wire services and translated into two dozen languages, including Malay, Polish, Chinese, Russian, Greek, Portuguese, Italian, French, Spanish — and Latin. Dozens and dozens of newspapers ran the story. It was featured in Yahoo’s Odd News section.
Then the story was blogged. Hundreds of bloggers linked to the story, and thousands of blog readers commented on those posts. Many, many people wrote that they or their sisters had also married a snake. A controversy followed. Gay bloggers wondered why, if this woman could marry a snake, they couldn’t marry their beloveds. Conservative bloggers argued that if gays were allowed to marry, next thing you know, people would be marrying snakes. Christian bloggers affirmed that the whole thing was clearly in violation of God’s natural law. Hindu bloggers also took issue with the marriage, saying that this was the kind of thing that made the world think Hindus were weird.
Bimbala neared the epitome of her fame when Daniel Henninger, a Wall Street Journal opinion-page editor, referred to her on Fox News. “A woman in India last week married a snake,” he said. “And it was done at a traditional Hindu ceremony attended by 2,000 people. Now, I would like to ask the proponents of gay marriage, which after all violates traditions going back through all of human history, to now absolutely positively guarantee that the next movement is not going to be allowing people to marry their pet horse, dog, or cat.”
But the very height of Bimbala’s glory came a few days later, when Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central countered Mr. Henninger’s attacks on Bimbala’s behalf, pointing out that the marriage was, after all, a heterosexual union, the snake in question being male.
My fiancée and I were in Madurai in the far south of India, on a three-month tour, when I read about Bimbala Das’s marriage in the New Indian Express. The trip was in celebration of the completion and sale of my first novel, which was about, more or less, anthropological fieldwork. To write the novel, I had invented both a tribe and an anthropologist, and voilà. But I had never done any real fieldwork, and I wanted to see what it was like. Cristina was willing to indulge me, and we left the next day for Bhubaneswar, a twenty-four-hour trip by train up the length of India’s eastern coast.
In Bhubaneswar we found a graduate student in anthropology at the local university who was willing to work with us as a translator, a young man named Deepak Kumar Ojha. Deepak and I bonded over a shared enthusiasm for witchcraft (not as a practice, but as an anthropological subject: “Exciting, very exciting,” he said, describing a series of tribal witchcraft-related murders in Sundigarh district) and for the great English anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard, who studied witchcraft in Sudan. At the mention of Evans-Pritchard’s name, Deepak’s handsome face broke into a broad smile, as if we had just discovered, improbably enough, a mutual friend, which perhaps we had.
Atala is just on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar, no more than a half-hour drive from the city center. We drove north on the road to Cuttack, through light-industrial suburbs, passing stores advertising things like STEELIUM: COLD ROLLED STEEL, and when we came to the canal we left the highway and followed a rutted and pitted red-dirt road fringed by rice paddies.
The Indian monsoon comes in phases. Several weeks earlier, the first phase had blown through Orissa with its attendant rains and hard winds. The very first shoots had come up in the rice paddies. But then the monsoon had paused. The newspapers were full of predictions for the date of the monsoon’s return — “Monsoon Break, no rain ’till June 17,” one proclaimed; page four of that morning’s Indian Express: “High Humidity Saps Capital” — but for now the sky was low and the color of cold rolled steel. It was so humid that my glasses fogged over, and I had to rub them down with my shirt.
On the other side of the canal was the northernmost fringe of Bhubaneswar, with rows of finished houses, but on this side there were only haphazardly placed concrete husks, overgrown with weeds, banana trees, and palms. Sheep, goats, and water buffalo grazed in the lots. A sign read HEMALATA PARADISE. GLORIOUS PLOTED SCHEME. In the paddies, egrets with giant white wings balanced on spindly legs. Men and boys bathed themselves in the greenish-black waters of the canal, outnumbered by the water buffalo. The land was absolutely flat in every direction.
We parked the car on the edge of a grassy field beside a small concrete shack, which on further investigation turned out to be a temple of the god Shiva, and were soon approached by some young people. One of the braver ones came up to us, and Deepak said something to him in Oriya.
Before long there were many people around us: perhaps fifteen children and a dozen adults, their numbers quickly swelling. It was a peaceful crowd. Soon everybody was laughing and talking, then the villagers were pushing at each other in a good-natured way to see us, and kids were shinnying up bamboo stalks. I had my notebook in my hand, but the conversation was entirely in Oriya. When I asked Deepak what the people were saying, he had a very persuasive way of putting up one hand to shush me.
Finally, Deepak introduced me to a man who he said was “the girl’s brother.”
“But the girl isn’t here right now,” Deepak added: the woman who had married a snake had gone off on her honeymoon.
Atala, it was easy to see, was a village where marriage mattered. On the main street, where the upper-caste people lived, cement-and-brick house after cement-and-brick house advertised the weddings to come or the weddings recently celebrated: on the front of one house was painted, in English, ARUNA TIES SASMITA, above a drawing of a pair of tabla drums, a horn, and a peacock. Another house said, WELCOME, WEDDING, and showed the same gay images, this time adding a conch shell. On a third house, the names JHILITA and SURYA NARAYA were joined by a drawing of a pair of hands very warmly shaking.
But outside the home of Bimbala Das, whose marriage has given Atala what little notoriety it possesses, there were no joyful pictures of proud peacocks, no celebratory drums. Her brother showed us the hut, in the shade of a tall palm and beside a small grove of slender bamboo. It was low and made of mud, with a thick thatched roof, like the huts of the village’s other untouchables. It was a peaceful place, and despite the heat and humidity, cool-feeling, like coconut water.
The anthill in front of Bimbala’s hut attracts most of the attention. As we talked to the villagers throughout the day, a constant stream of pilgrims approached the anthill, which stood about twelve feet tall and six feet around, like the stump of a huge tree. Out of respect for the deity who lives within, visitors slip off their sandals and flip-flops when coming close to the anthill. At the base of the mound a small shrine has been carved out, with a photo of Lord Jagannath, who is an avatar of Krishna and one of the most important of the region’s gods; a small brass pitcher and bell; yellow and red flowers; a few coconut husks; and a small steel plate for donations.
It is in this anthill that Bimbala Das’s husband, a snake-god named Debo, is said to reside.
Local tradition requires a new bride to visit her in-laws and stay in their village. But Bimbala Das had married a snake — so she had decided to make a pilgrimage to a local temple. We spoke to Bimbala’s mother and to other villagers instead.
We talked with the villagers for perhaps an hour or two that first day, and I have to say, Deepak didn’t quite get it about the translation business. Deepak and I both wanted to play E. E. Evans-Pritchard, and you can really have only one E. E. Evans-Pritchard in an anthropological expedition. A subtle friction quickly developed between us. I kept asking, “Deepak, what did they say?” and he kept doing that thing with his hand to shush me, then summarizing five minutes of conversation in a sentence or two. Also, other villagers would sometimes throw out a detail here and there, and because Deepak only summarized, I was never sure who was telling me what.
The villagers introduced us to Jyoti Devi, the snake’s new mother-in-law, a trim, silver-haired woman of about seventy-five. She was very shy, and only when one of her granddaughters started climbing across her shoulders did she seem to relax, scooping the child up and placing her in her lap.
“The girl,” Deepak summarized — and he never called her anything but “the girl,” although he was referring to a woman who was thirty years old and about eight years his senior — “was sick for a long time from tuberculosis. The family tried to care for her but couldn’t. They visited temples, tried medicines in hopes of curing that girl.”
One of the villagers’ cell phones began to ring.
“But after some time,” Deepak continued, ignoring the ringing phone, “the girl dreamt of the snake-god. In the dream, God said, I am with you. I am just testing you. Now, don’t worry. You will surely be cured. In a few days, she started to cure up, and the disease was eradicated. After that the girl was improved in her faith that there exists a God. After that she denied to marry anybody.”
Bimbala’s brother had answered the cell phone and was talking on it.
“The family tried to marry her off,” Deepak said. “They searched for candidates, but the girl refused. After that she dedicated her life entirely to God. Then she dreamt that the god had directed her to marry him. It was impossible to marry another human being.”
The villagers were staring at us.
“Do many people here marry snakes?” I finally asked. I was trying to figure out if we were investigating an institution or an idiosyncratic act.
“This is the first time anyone heard of marrying a snake,” Deepak said.
“Can you ask them and tell me what they said? In their own words?”
Deepak looked a little put out, but he translated my question nevertheless. The villagers laughed. A lively conversation followed, then Deepak said, “This is the first time anyone heard of marrying a snake.”
By the end, a portrait of the bride developed. Before her marriage, the girl had been quiet, perhaps even unhappy. Did she have close friends? No. Where did she live before the marriage? There, in her mother’s hut. And her father? Died ten years ago. They told me it was Basu Deb, her father, who had first begun to feed and care for the cobra that Bimbala, ten years later, would marry. Another brother, married with children, died just a couple of years ago. Bimbala’s surviving brother had mortgaged his fields to pay for the wedding expenses. He wouldn’t tell us how much he had spent, but it was clearly a substantial sum, although less than he would have had to pay had Bimbala married a human being, for no dowry was expected. To marry the snake, Bimbala had been required to change her caste. She had been adopted by an upper-caste family and was no longer considered an untouchable. We met her adoptive family, who told us that the adoption had been only for technical reasons: they had no more contact with Bimbala than did the other villagers.
Following the marriage, the villagers said, Bimbala changed. She no longer worked in the fields with her mother or brother, and her ties with the village were in many ways now distant. “She is just living here,” one shirtless man with spiky hair told us. It was still too soon to tell if Bimbala was happier than before — the marriage was only, after all, ten days old. But she had begun to dress differently, they said: “like a goddess,” with beads around her neck, and a yellow sari, and marigolds as an armlet.
“They consider her, that this is one image of the goddess,” Deepak said. “People come to see God and provide donations.”
“Is she a goddess?” I asked.
“They believe she is a goddess,” Deepak said carefully. “They believe she has certain goddess powers.”
“Like dreaming that she should marry a snake,” Deepak said. But he added, a little ominously: “If she doesn’t purchase certain kinds of supernatural powers, the god may punish her in this life.”
Before we left, Cristina asked Jyoti Devi if she was happy that her daughter had married a snake.
Jyoti thought for a long time, then said, “We can’t disturb God’s work.”
By “God,” Jyoti seemed to mean Bimbala’s husband, the snake, of whom we had so far seen no trace at all.
The snake is not an animal to the people of India. It is a god,” Deepak said in the car on the way back to Bhubaneswar. “Snakes are considered as religious leaders in the village. Snakes think of the betterment of the village, because a snake is no less than a god.”
Ophiolatry, the anthropologist Sadhu Charan Panda notes, is perhaps the oldest of religions. There is evidence of snake worship in the antiquity of just about every place where there are snakes: one of the first challenges for the authors of Genesis was to confront the cult of the snake.
Of all the animals confronting the prehistoric Indian, two in particular must have been terrifying: the elephant, on account of his overwhelming power and his unpredictable rages, and the snake. When a man went out to his fields or to hunt, or even if he was in the village itself, in the serenity of his cool hut, this strange, low, fast, brilliantly colored thing was death, the quickest and most unpredictable death there was. And he struck often: few villages, even in today’s India, are without a story of death by snakebite.
I imagine that the earliest form of snake worship was an attempt to propitiate a particular snake — the cobra that could be seen at sunset near the banyan tree, or the krait that frightened the bullocks — and that the propitiation was material. In offering the snake milk or flour, the villagers hoped that he would leave them alone. The man who knew how to manipulate the snake had a certain power and prestige in the village; perhaps these were among the duties of the earliest priests.
Then the worship of particular snakes was generalized to include the worship of snake spirits. This idea may have been the result of the snake’s confusing habit of changing its skin: there was the terrible fear that one was appeasing the wrong snake, or that the snake was mysteriously morphing from one body to the next. One needed to calm the spirit of the snake, and the men who knew how to communicate with snake spirits grew more powerful than the old snake handlers. One of these men would have been charged with controlling lightning, the great death-dealing snake in the sky. The snake was now a god, not a transcendent universal God but a local deity; the next village over, there was a new snake spirit to appease. This represents the stage of religious development anthropologists call animism.
The worship of the cobra in modern India is particularly associated with the god Shiva, one of the more impressive and terrifying of the Hindu pantheon: Shiva, who looks not a little like a blue-skinned Rastafarian with his dreadlocked hair and stoned eyes, traditionally wears a cobra draped around his neck. But Shiva is a relative newcomer to the villages of India; the oldest Hindu religious texts, the Vedas, do not mention him.
We don’t know when Shiva worship came to Atala, but I can envision the moment: a newcomer talking about a thing human in form but even more powerful than the snake. The priest of this new cult and the priest of the old snake cult eyed each other warily. Perhaps villages divided over their allegiances. Such is the stuff of religious warfare, and religious differences far more subtle have led other peoples to violence. But in India a compromise was struck: one cult was subordinated to the other, the local animistic traditions incorporated into the great fold of what would someday be called Hinduism. By making the serpent the companion of Shiva (or, according to some accounts, his weapon), the two cults were able to exist side by side, indeed to reinforce each other. The snake never lost his identity as a god, but Shiva now was seen as the more powerful of the two. To worship Shiva was to worship the snake; to worship the snake was to worship Shiva.
India is a conservative country: no god is ever thrown away. In Atala, where Bimbala Das married a snake, all these forms of snake worship exist simultaneously. Bimbala Das is said to have married a specific snake, a black cobra named Debo, whom she feeds and attempts to please. But she also married a local snake god. “She is considering Snake as a whole, not any particular snake,” Deepak said, talking about Bimbala’s marriage. This local snake god was a manifestation of the universal snake god. And the universal snake god was an aspect of Shiva; and Shiva was God — omnipotent, omniscient, and indefinable.
It is not easy to understand just what Bimbala Das was thinking when she married. But in the West we have an analogous practice: a nun renounces her traditional childbearing and marriage roles to form a lifelong union with God. In much the same way, Bimbala Das became an object of religious veneration, capable of blessing others and interceding with God. This was my first interpretation of Bimbala’s marriage, but of course, I had yet to meet the bride herself.
A week or so after we left Atala, we were back in Bhubaneswar, meeting with Umakanta Mishra, the television journalist who first broke Bimbala Das’s story. Mishra had found out about the marriage after receiving a call from one of his sources in a neighboring village. He went to the wedding with a cameraman.
This was the story that the villagers told him: For the past twelve years or so, the snake who would later be Bimbala’s husband had been worshipped as a village god. At some point, the snake and Bimbala — whom Mishra always called “the lady” — formed a bond; whenever she called, the snake came and drank milk. The lady talked to and played with the snake; she understood the snake and the snake understood her.
“Can we take this as a love match?” Mishra asked the lady — and the lady said yes.
Mishra looked at me. There was something about the story that he didn’t like. “These must be the last days of the snake,” he said. “After all, snakes live only ten to twelve years.” But this snake must be, he said, a good fifteen or sixteen years old, because it first appeared in the village as a large, mature serpent. For this reason, Mishra was not wholly convinced by the lady’s story.* He himself had never seen the snake.
* In fact, the average cobra lives twenty years.
Mishra produced his videotape of the wedding. The video was about ten minutes long. The wedding was attended by almost four thousand people; villagers climbed trees to get a better look at the bride and groom. The bride is dressed in a yellow silk chiffon sari flecked with red; on her forehead she has two yellow sandalwood stripes. She wears a red shawl, a nose ring, a yellow flower in her hair, and a string of marigolds around her neck. She is a slender young woman, almost pretty, with large brown eyes and a somber, serious manner. We would later learn that she was intensely shy, and it must have been torture for her to be the object of so many stares. Nevertheless, she smiles once or twice, revealing reddish betel-stained teeth, then quickly covers her face with her hand. She is chewing paan all through the video.
A Hindu wedding takes a long time: this was a five-hour ceremony. The lady sits on a bright red plastic chair, sometimes distracted by a wisecrack or comment from one of the villagers milling around. Most of the time, she just looks bored, as the priest drones on in Sanskrit. In the background, one can hear Hindi film music.
The video cuts. Now she is walking in procession to the marriage mandap. The rituals are reaching their climax: the film shows a brass snake, a cobra, curled and ready to strike. (Because of the size of the crowd, the real snake could not be coaxed into appearing; hence the brass idol.) The snake has been decorated with flowers and red paint. Women ululate. The lady now wears a cardboard crown.
Now the lady is seated in front of the brass snake, and there is a slight hitch: in a normal Hindu wedding, the bride and groom’s hands would be tied together. Here her hand is tied to the snake’s body.
Somebody throws rice.
Somebody blows a conch.
The video shows the town’s betel-nut vendor. He says that people say that the snake bites the lady, but nothing happens.
Now the lady, with tremendous dignity and composure, lowers her forehead to the dust in front of the brass snake.
Mishra commented, “The snake is like a god to her. Ladies believe their husband is the equivalent of a god.”
The video shows the wedding lunch. The villagers are in long rows, seated cross-legged on the ground. They are eating rice, pickled mangoes, and dal with their hands off plates of woven banana leaves.
The video then shows the village at dusk. The palms are just silhouettes.
Before leaving the village, Mishra asks the lady to bring him the snake. The lady’s voice is curt. She says, “Please don’t call him ‘the snake.’ He is my husband.”
Deepak had obligations in the mountains and couldn’t wait for Bimbala to come back from her honeymoon, so Cristina and I hired a new translator named Bulu. We found Bulu under a sacred tree in front of our hotel, where he was sitting cross-legged with a towel on his head, smoking dope and watching the World Cup on television. His real name was Naresh Sethi, but everyone just called him Bulu, which, Bulu said, means “that you are everywhere. Wherever there is action, you are there.”
He was thirty years old and unmarried, and when we asked him why he wasn’t married, he pantomimed smoking pot and said, “I’m happy.” He thought about it a minute and then said, “Me now nothing do, how can I serve my wife? I not serve myself.” Twenty times, Bulu said, he had interviewed for various government jobs, and each time he’d been refused because he had no money for a “commission,” which I think was his way of saying a bribe.
A lot of foreign tourists pass through Puri, and Bulu seemed to have had girlfriends from every European country. He had a son in Sweden whom he had never met, and he was madly in love with a French woman who lived in Monaco. In my eyes, Bulu was an unlikely ladies’ man — but aren’t so many womanizers the most unlikely candidates?
I asked Bulu his secret with women.
“I follow like dog,” he said.
We had hardly hit the highway to Atala when Bulu began emptying a cigarette of its contents into his palm, mixing the tobacco with pot, and sucking the mixture back into the empty tube of cigarette paper. About halfway to the village, Bulu looked down at his feet. He said, “Shit, I lost my shoe.”
He didn’t look particularly unhappy about losing his shoe, maybe just a little perplexed.
Seeing Bimbala for the first time was like seeing a deer in your back yard: she made you want to talk softly, but it was also a little thrilling. She looked like she would bound off into the jungle if anyone made a loud noise. She had a doe’s large, nervous eyes, which flickered from me to Bulu to Cristina and back to me. Then she looked at the ground, and started backing up slowly in the direction of her hut. A crowd of villagers had assembled around us to watch the encounter. Bimbala looked at them nervously. She spoke to her brother for a moment in a very low voice, and he told us that Bimbala would not talk to us without her guru present. So we went to meet Bimbala’s guru, who lived in another village about twenty minutes’ journey by rickshaw. Bimbala’s brother showed us the way.
Bimbala’s guru was sixty-eight years old, and her real name was Padma Bati Natha, but everyone just called her Guru-ma. She had a vermilion trail through her gray hair, and she stood as tall as my shoulders. Her cheeks and lips caved in around her toothless mouth. Her nose was flat and her eyes were slightly bulging; when she went to pray in front of her shrine, her eyes rolled slightly upward. She wore a dozen bright-red plastic bangles on her forearms, and armbands higher up, in the manner of a holy woman. Her toenails were painted dark purple. When she spoke to me, she made brilliant eye contact, hardly blinking — the kind of eye contact that I can only describe as “soul-searching.”
We were seated on the floor of her ashram, a small brick building with a corrugated-tin roof. It was extremely hot in the ashram, and Guru-ma’s two disciples occasionally swung fans around to stir up the air. Guru-ma told us her story.
She was born in a village not far from Atala. When she was eight years old, she dreamed that her father would die, which he did, very shortly thereafter. When young Padma told her mother this story, she was beaten so intensely that she peed and shit herself. Six months later, Padma dreamed that her uncle would die the next day at ten o’clock, which he did, from vomiting and diarrhea. This time, Padma hid in the jungle so her mother couldn’t beat her.
Padma was not like the other children of the village. She was a thief, for one thing. There was hardly a household in the village from which she didn’t steal vegetables or fruits, which she gave to the other children. Sometimes she went into the fields and cut rice from the wealthy farmers, which she gave to poor people, particularly the people of the lower castes. She also possessed a magical healing touch. She came into this gift, which she still possesses, when she was twelve years old. The people in the village asked her, What do you know? How do you do this? But Padma didn’t know how to control her gift. She said, I know nothing. I just touch people. When Padma was just a child, with her only money in the world, just twenty-five pies, she bought a picture of the goddess Kali, and she began to worship this picture. She still had it in her shrine.
And here our rickshaw driver collapsed. He had accompanied us through all of our various stops, and was seated directly behind Bulu, cross-legged. He had been extremely deferential to Guru-ma, as if slightly frightened of her. Now he slumped over in a dead faint. Guru-ma’s two acolytes went to his side. He was groggy and somewhat confused; they tried to convince him to lie down, but he stayed where he was. I asked Bulu what was happening. He said, “He gets spiritual power. Goddess power coming inside. Happy, too much happy.” Outside, there was a low crack of distant thunder. The rickshaw driver stepped out for a little air. Guru-ma turned and swung her sari around in such a way that we could see her naked back. She pointed out little white spots on her skin.
One time many years ago, Padma went into the forest to find roots for cooking. The forest goddess came to her and looked at her directly. But Padma did not understand, and she tried to beat the forest goddess with a stick. Every place her stick touched the forest goddess, Padma herself began to bleed in the same place. She still bore the scars. These were the white marks that she wanted to show us.
From the moment of her encounter with the goddess, she was no longer Padma but Guru-ma. From that point on, she was renowned for the power of her healing touch and her understanding of spiritual matters. The goddess had come into her. Her fame spread from village to village. In addition to her two full-time disciples, there were people in every village, from every caste and level of society, who followed Guru-ma’s every word. One such follower was Bimbala Das, who had first met Guru-ma just five months earlier.
“If Guru-ma says die, Bimbala Das die,” somebody in Atala would later tell us to describe Guru-ma’s absolute mastery over the young woman.
Guru-ma loved having her picture taken. She led us out of her ashram and posed with her disciples and the villagers. She had us take numerous photos of her: standing with one disciple, and then the other, then with the villagers. She had a silver wand tipped with horsehair that she waved in our direction, another of the apparatuses of the holy woman. She led me into her private shrine, and I photographed her with the small image of the goddess that she had bought so many years ago for twenty-five pies. She had me photograph her making her private prayers, lighting candles, ringing a bell, and chanting. Later, after we got to Atala, she would choreograph more photo sessions. With a flick of her finger, she instructed Bimbala’s brother to prostrate himself at her feet in front of Debo’s shrine, then waited for me to take the picture; then she flicked her finger again and had me take the same picture with one of the village women. But most of all, Guru-ma wanted to be photographed with Bimbala Das. She helped Bimbala to dress herself and told her how to pose beside the brass idol of her husband. She helped Bimbala apply makeup, and even told her not to laugh.
All of Atala wanted to know what Guru-ma had to say. The crowd had doubled. They sat in rows, clambered over one another’s backs, pushed and shoved: women in saris, shirtless men, staring children. At first, I had thought that my fiancée and I were the star attractions. But then I began to realize that the villagers were as interested as we were in Guru-ma and Bimbala, that we were giving them an excuse to come and hear the two women talk.
It wasn’t the most successful of interviews. I posed questions to Bulu, who asked Guru-ma, who would whisper a minute or two with Bimbala, and then reply on Bimbala’s behalf. At one point, Bimbala, wilting under the weight of so many eyes, got up and sat inside her hut, so that she was visible only to her guru.
It was in the course of this interview that I began to wonder, like Umakanta Mishra, whether there was any snake at all. It was a series of little things. I asked Bimbala just how long Debo was, and she looked at Guru-ma, and then she began to laugh. This was the first time I had seen her laugh, and her laughter was quite charming compared with her typical grave demeanor — but it was definitely an embarrassed laugh. She stretched her arms out wide and looked at Guru-ma again, who nodded. The snake would have been perhaps three feet long — which is very small for a black king cobra, the largest venomous snake in the world. (Maybe Bimbala was just trying to say Big, very big, but it didn’t seem like it.) Then I asked Bimbala the last time she had seen the snake, and again she looked bothered by the question. This was when she removed herself to the interior of her hut. She and Guru-ma whispered together. Finally, Guru-ma said that Bimbala had seen Debo eight days earlier. But eight days earlier, Bimbala had not been in the village: she had still been making her pilgrimage. There was more whispering between Bimbala and Guru-ma, and then Guru-ma told us curtly that the snake appeared every Monday.
If there was no snake, I wondered why Bimbala Das and Guru-ma had cooked up this huge hoax. The wedding had been very expensive, after all. Lost in the crowd that had surrounded Bimbala’s hut was Bimbala’s mother. She looked so sad, staring at her daughter, and I wondered if she was sitting there staring at us because she was as befuddled by the marriage as I was, and was hoping that something in this conversation would illuminate the story.
I wanted to talk with Bimbala and Guru-ma away from the large crowd of villagers. So I decided to invite them to attend the Rath Yatra with us. The Rath Yatra is an enormous annual religious festival in Puri, where we were staying, and it was to happen in just a few days. The festival generates tremendous excitement in this part of the world and is about as big a deal as the Super Bowl and the Second Coming combined. Guru-ma accepted the invitation.
Three days later, we were back in Atala. We had hired a white Ambassador car and a driver to take Bimbala and Guru-ma back with us to Puri. We had even reserved hotel rooms for them. We had discussed at great length their particular needs: what kind of food they would like to eat (pure vegetarian, we decided), whether they would feel comfortable in our hotel (maybe not, so we reserved them a room at the next hotel over), what kind of toilets they would prefer.
When we got back to Atala, Guru-ma had a small traveling bag in her hand and was ready to go. Bimbala was sweeping by her hut and looked incredibly unhappy, like Cinderella. Guru-ma told Bulu that Bimbala wasn’t coming.
It took just a minute or two for relations to break down. Guru-ma explained that Bimbala couldn’t come because she had to stay behind and tend the shrine of her husband. This seemed mean-spirited to all of us. Couldn’t Bimbala have arranged for a snake-sitter? Soon we were all bickering, Guru-ma, Bulu, my fiancée, and me. Bulu was our expert on local mores, and he started to argue with Guru-ma, asking if this meant that Bimbala would have to stay in front of the anthill every day for the rest of her life. If Bulu thought this was unjust, so did we: Cristina, who is a hot-tempered Italian, announced that we weren’t running a taxi service, that Guru-ma should have told us this before we invested almost a thousand rupees hiring a car and driver, and I said that we had come to interview Bimbala Das, the woman who had married a snake, and not her guru.
Maybe it was the heat and humidity, but we were all getting fairly excited. The usual crowd had developed, and being in front of a crowd makes everyone just a little more dramatic. In any case, Guru-ma and her cronies ended up stalking off one way, toward Debo’s anthill, and we ended up stalking off the other way, toward the shrine of Shiva, and although they pretended to ignore us and we pretended to ignore them, there was a lot of glowering going on. The only person who seemed really calm amid all the excitement was Bimbala. She kept sweeping up the dried mud in front of her house, methodically raking away the leaves and dust and smiling gently.
My fiancée comes from a small village in the south of Italy — and villages, Cristina maintains, are all pretty much the same, whether they grow olives or rice, whether they have a thirteenth-century chiesa or a shrine to Shiva. Cristina felt comfortable in Atala in a way I never did, and while Bulu and I were arguing with Guru-ma she drifted off into the crowd and made friends with one of the village women. (This woman asked not to be identified by name, because she was frightened of the upper-caste villagers, so I’ll just call her J.D.) The two of them ended up talking for an hour or two. J.D. was a university graduate and spoke good English. By the time Cristina and her new friend were done talking, they looked like they were ready to attend each other’s wedding showers. They exchanged addresses and hugs and promised to stay in touch; then in the car on the way back to Puri, Cristina told us what she had learned.
Cristina said that J.D. didn’t think there was a snake. J.D. had been living within sight of the anthill for a long time and had never once seen the snake. Neither had anyone else she knew, except for the devotees of Guru-ma. She also thought that Guru-ma was “bad” and “mean,” and said that many other people in the village felt the same way. It was a very sensitive subject, because the headman of the village, who was the most powerful man there, was a devotee of Guru-ma. But some suspected that Guru-ma was pretending to have holy powers in order to frighten people and make them worship her. J.D., for one, didn’t believe that Guru-ma actually possessed occult powers. Moreover, there was no reason Bimbala couldn’t have married a snake as an untouchable, but none of the upper-caste villagers would have attended the wedding. Therefore Guru-ma had organized Bimbala’s temporary promotion to a higher caste, so that the wedding would be more widely attended, particularly by that part of society that Guru-ma was most eager to impress.
Guru-ma had not been well known in this village before Bimbala’s marriage. Perhaps, J.D. proposed, Guru-ma had somehow frightened or tricked Bimbala into marrying the “snake” and was now exploiting the notoriety of the marriage — and Bimbala’s new status as a holy woman — to gain a toehold in this and the surrounding villages. The huge wedding feast was an opportunity to present herself to the local people, and because local people would come to visit Bimbala, Guru-ma now had an excuse to stay in Atala and meet the newcomers.
Bimbala herself was a very nice, very sweet, very naive girl. She always had been. That, said J.D., was why Guru-ma wouldn’t let us talk to Bimbala and wouldn’t let Bimbala come with us to the Rath Yatra: because she was frightened of what Bimbala might say.
We drove back to Puri that night in our rented car. Over a million people were expected the next day for the Rath Yatra, and most of them were coming by foot: on the road we passed bands of barefoot pilgrims, one after another, holding banners celebrating Lord Jagannath and dancing and chanting. The pilgrims would walk all through the night. They sang songs extolling the beauty of Lord Jagannath, his goodness and his grace, and beat out furious, intricate rhythms on drums. There was a full yellow moon, and the road was like a strip of silver, passing through the paddies and palms.
What an extraordinary little woman, I thought to myself, was this Padma Bati Natha! An illiterate sixty-eight-year-old woman — and burning with ambition! Her ambition was matched by an instinctive genius. Could she have settled on a more brilliant and provocative gesture than a marriage to a snake? I doubt it was her intention, but by this marriage Padma Bati Natha had achieved worldwide fame: the articles may have mentioned the name Bimbala Das, but Guru-ma had been the real star of the show.
We went back to Atala for the last time about a week later. We were nervous about returning, but I still wanted to talk, at least once, with Bimbala Das while Guru-ma wasn’t hovering over her shoulder.
We had a little stroke of luck. Once a week, it was Guru-ma’s habit to remain in silence for a day. We arrived, by chance, on Guru-ma’s day of silence. She was in front of Bimbala’s hut washing clothes, and she glared at us as we came forward. Bimbala was in her hut, but she came out when she saw us coming. Soon the other villagers were crowding around. They didn’t want to miss a word.
I had prepared for this moment carefully. I bowed deeply in Guru-ma’s direction, and I instructed Bulu to do so as well. I told Bulu to translate: “For two nights, I have been dreaming of you and the goddess.”
Bulu translated, and a murmur went through the crowd.
I said, “The goddess told me: ‘Go back to Atala village and learn Bimbala’s true story.’ For two nights, I have not been sleeping, only dreaming of you and the goddess. Please can we sit with you and talk again?”
Everyone in the crowd looked at Guru-ma. She was in a tight corner, undone by her vow of silence. She looked at the crowd: at the children huddled behind their mother’s legs, at the mothers, with their credulous faces, at the pilgrims who had come that morning to pray at the anthill, to drop a few coins at the shrine, and to take prasad with Bimbala. Guru-ma hesitated a moment, and then smiled — a cool smile, but with a certain respect in it, I like to think, as if she had underestimated her adversary. She waved us under the shade of the awning of Bimbala’s hut.
A woman in the crowd said something, and Bulu translated: “Now you believe!” the woman said, shaking her head. “You see!”
Bimbala’s brother took her aside and told her, in a voice loud enough that Bulu could eavesdrop, not to say anything to us. He told her just to go to sleep, although it was only eleven in the morning. Instead, Bimbala gave us pieces of a banana and some tea. The banana, Bulu explained, had been offered to the god before it had been offered to us, so it was holy banana. Nevertheless, Cristina thought it was mushy, and when Bimbala wasn’t looking, I ate her piece.
We had been there perhaps a quarter of an hour when a college student named Kishore from the untouchable side of the village told us that the village headman, Khirod Jenna, wanted to see us. The headman had been in the hospital suffering from a vascular disorder when we first arrived, but now he was home. Kishore showed us the way.
Khirod was still a sick man, and he looked tired. His gray face was pale and drawn, his breath harsh and labored. He massaged his legs as we spoke. Khirod, Bulu, and I made a little triangle as we spoke. Khirod had a deep voice and chose his words with care.
From the moment we set foot in Atala, I’d had the impression that the villagers were attempting to hide something from us. I’d chalked up any number of forced smiles and evasive glances to the villagers’ discomfort in our presence. Direct questions had produced stuttering, conflicting, or impossible responses, sometimes verging on a child’s outright fantasy. But this was not the case with Khirod Jenna. He spoke slowly and authoritatively, and made direct eye contact with me. I could see why he had been the village headman since 1979. For the first time since I came to Atala, I had the feeling that somebody was telling us the truth as he saw it.
Khirod told us that for a very long time, long before Bimbala had ever considered marrying a snake, she had suffered from a “special sick.” According to her mother, Bimbala had been very ill with tuberculosis. But this was not quite true, Khirod said: tuberculosis had been a euphemism for Bimbala’s real and far more horrible illness, and it was to escape from this illness that Bimbala had married a snake. The real illness had been, in Bulu’s translation, “nighttime-goddess-speak-power-going-Bimbala-Das-inside.”
“She know nothing when power coming, and she make strange things, like different style of personality — angry, ugly face,” Bulu translated. “She is sleeping on floor. She talk, do bad things. If someone asks what happening, beating. Goddess coming inside, big problem for family. When that power come, problem for the family. Goddess wants something.”
The first victim of the goddess who possessed Bimbala Das was Bimbala’s own father. When the goddess entered Bim——bala, the headman said, she had only to look on her own father, and he grew ill and died. After her father’s death, the goddess continued to haunt Bimbala, with regular, devastating effect. Ten years passed. The goddess entered Bimbala — and her neighbor was dead. Then three others. Also many babies. Children or pregnant women struck by her poisonous gaze needed to be transported immediately to the temple for purgative rites. Normally, Bimbala was a sweet, gentle young woman. But when the goddess was inside her, the headman said, Bimbala’s sight alone could kill.
Perhaps it was something in my look, but a few seconds later the headman added, “We are believe.”
The last victim of the goddess inside Bimbala was the latter’s brother, who died from the same disease as their father. “Thin, thin” — that was the headman’s description of the malady. That death was what finally convinced Bimbala’s mother, Jyoti Devi, that something had to be done. Fearing for her daughter’s life and the lives of others, she came to the headman. She had already consulted doctors who had said that there was nothing they could do for the girl. Now she was desperate. The headman, in turn, consulted Guru-ma.
The headman had known Guru-ma for over a decade, and so close was their rapport that he considered himself Guru-ma’s adopted son.
Guru-ma regularly came through Atala and, in the traditional manner of ascetics and diviners, would beg for alms at his door or ask for water. Thus the headman and his family had learned of Guru-ma’s extraordinary ability to predict the future and cast fortunes — her “heavy powers.”
Khirod looked at Bulu and at me. “Guru-ma telling something, it is true,” he said.
For months before Guru-ma’s arrival in Atala, Khirod said, Bimbala had been haunted by a recurring dream. The snake god came to her in her sleep and warned her: if she failed to marry the snake, there would be more problems for her, and more problems in the village. It was Guru-ma who realized that this was not a dream but a commandment, and that only if Bimbala married the snake would the village and Bimbala’s family be safe. And Guru-ma revealed another extraordinary fact to Khirod and the other villagers: the god had come to her as well, and she had dreamed the same dream. When Bimbala was first introduced to Guru-ma, Bimbala collapsed.
Guru-ma and the headman together arranged the marriage. There were a number of details to take care of. Guru-ma accompanied the young girl to visit the priests at Kakatpur, who considered the story and gave permission for the marriage. Khirod helped Bimbala’s brother mortgage his lands to pay for the wedding. Together, Guru-ma and the headman arranged Bimbala’s adoption into one of the upper-caste families of the village. (This was effected only with the assistance of the god: Guru-ma had selected the family of a man named Kustapranchan to adopt the girl, but Kustapranchan at first refused the honor. Then one day when Kustapranchan was in his garden picking flowers, a large black snake slithered around his ankles and looked him in the eye. Kustapranchan was terrified. He apologized to the headman and agreed to take the girl under his family’s wing.) Then Guru-ma helped organize the rite by which the stain of Bimbala’s caste status was washed from her: she was buried up to her face in rice seed and left there for seven minutes. The wedding proceeded shortly after her conversion.
[inline_ad ad=3]To be a holy woman in rural India requires the adoption of a specific set of mannerisms, a way of dress and comportment, and entrance into a specific social circle — and all these things Guru-ma taught Bimbala. Guru-ma taught her how to look at people with that intense and spooky stare, and she showed her how to dress like a holy lady. After the wedding, a string of important religious figures came to Atala, invited by Guru-ma, and attested to Bimbala’s newfound status. “Many tantric people also see Bimbala, forget everything,” Khirod said. “From that day, people understood she have big, heavy power.” One man saw Bimbala and was so affected that he fell down and began to vomit. He passed out and came back to consciousness only when the villagers poured water on his face. Another claimed to have seen light streaming forth from her face. A third came to Atala uninvited, drawn by — who knows what? He kissed Bimbala’s feet on meeting her, and she gave him a flower. Bimbala’s new career as a holy woman had been launched.
Khirod was looking quite tired now, and his wife came into the room. Bulu whispered to me that she wanted us to go, and so I stood up. I had one last question. I asked Khirod if he had ever seen the snake named Debo.
He had. A few days after the wedding, the villagers organized a small musical program in front of the anthill. For a few moments, Khirod said, Debo came out as well, and lifted himself high in the air, the better to watch the proceedings and listen to the music.
We went back to Bimbala’s hut and spent the better part of that day with her, just observing. Because nothing was happening, the crowd slowly dispersed. Dappled sunlight fell on the anthill. The shrine itself had been closed off with a piece of cardboard because, somebody told us, a dog had tried to eat Debo’s food. Bimbala after a little while seemed to accept us sitting there quietly, and she went about her morning chores, washing some dishes in a blue bucket. A few women from another village came and made puja in the direction of the anthill. The women also prostrated themselves at Guru-ma’s feet, and she gave them her blessing. They dropped a few coins in the steel tray, then sank to their knees and closed their eyes and prayed. Then they sat near Bimbala’s hut and smiled nervously at her. Bimbala gave them pieces of banana. It was moving, the devotion of these women to Bimbala. They sat at her feet while she worked, just as we were doing. We all sat there through an unexpectedly peaceful afternoon, saying very little and hoping that Debo would come out from the anthill.