A post-graduate in Electronics and Communication Engineering, Jyothi Vinod taught in colleges for ten years. She won the second place in Katha: Desi Short Fiction Contest 2015 conducted by India Currents. Several 'Middles', Humor and travel articles have been published in the Deccan Herald. Her short stories have appeared in Good Housekeeping India, Femina, Spark, Reading Hour, Open Road Review and India Currents. She recently completed the online Iowa International Writing Program on ‘How Writers Write Fiction’. Her blog called ‘Happy Light Writes’ can be found at jyothivinod.blogspot.in. Jyothi lives in Bangalore with her family.
Snakes among Men
High school zoology textbooks had it all wrong. There were snakes among men. And definitely among women too, if one went by the number of movies released in which vengeful heroines morphed into snakes—their strangely beautiful eyes betraying their double life on this planet. Hypnotized by the snake charmer’s reedy tunes, they danced, palms curved over their heads in an imitation of the nagin’s fanned hood. But to call a man a snake based on his pink tongue? Was that even possible? Madesh considered the ceiling through half-closed eyes.
“Mad, Mad… Are you deaf, Maddy?”
Madesh winced. Harish’s voice affected him the way a Deepavali firecracker fired off-season did. Nothing gave a boss the right to shorten his worker’s name. Would Harish call God, ‘mad’? Madesh was Lord Shiva’s name after all, Madesh mused darkly as he sloshed the pasta sauce onto the floured pizza base and then turned towards Harish.
“At this rate you’ll send fungus-topped pizzas to customers and I’ll be out of business. Lift your butt and get on with your work! Always dreaming! Let other people use their brains, you use your hands,” Harish shouted at Madesh before he sought his next victim in the neighboring room. “And Tina, my dear, remember that human hair doesn’t qualify as topping.”
Neither Tina nor Madesh responded, since that was the best way to get Harish off their backs.
Madesh arranged the tiny squares of red, yellow, and green capsicum, diced olive, pineapple and onion bits on the pizza base. It still amazed him how little ‘vegetable’ actually went into a ‘Veggie Surprise.’ Perhaps the name echoed the customer’s surprise when he discovered that he’d paid a great deal for nothing… In any case, once the grated mozzarella was sprinkled over the vegetables, the pizza base resembled Ladakh in a severe winter storm, as Tina had once observed. She was the only one among this motley crew who had seen real snow.
Seven years ago, Harish had returned disillusioned from America with an MS in Computer Science. Still hopeful about his prospects in India, he’d been fired by the dream of establishing a chain of pizzerias in Bangalore. A year later, a local TV starlet, Janhavi, snipped the red ribbon tied across the brand new door of ‘Harry’s Own,’ which remained up to now the first and last pizzeria of his chain. Over the years, his American accent and manners peeled away to reveal the original Harish who came from a neighborhood where boys with lots of money and spare time hung around street corners in air-conditioned cars and mouthed a strange dialect peppered with swear words.
One wall in the dining area of the pizzeria was set aside for Harish’s selfies with stars and starlets he hoped would patronize Harry’s Own. Once, a heavy downpour forced a local TV comedian and his family to barge in for shelter. Harish deleted his selfie with that man after he left without paying for the five pizzas they’d gorged on. The wall remained empty for a year. It was the playground for a lizard with an affinity for Harish’s lone framed selfie with Janhavi. He eventually hung framed abstract paintings on the wall that resembled nothing or anything, depending on how far any curious customer was willing to risk twisting his neck.
Madesh worked the first shift from eight in the morning till four in the evening all seven days. He didn’t relish pizzas and hated the smell of oregano, but the money was good. Eight thousand rupees a month was not bad at all. The boys who worked in the second shift from four to eleven were paid more because they also home-delivered pizzas on their bikes. On weekdays, the pizzeria’s staunch patrons were college students who sauntered in to have a bite when they bunked classes. Harish joked and flirted with them, and that kept them coming. Nothing they said made sense to Madesh.
Madesh worked steadily until lunch break. He preferred not to hear Harish yell again.
“Madesh, what rice for lunch today? Tamarind or lemon?” Tina asked him as she wolfed sandwiches. When he didn’t answer, she dug her elbow into his back and laughed. She was a pretty girl from Mizoram. She usually narrated gory stories of trouble and loss inflicted by the armed forces back home. He often wondered if she made it up. How could the army, sent to safeguard people, actually cause harm? When he raised his eyebrows, she told him to go read the newspapers.
The others who worked in the morning shift included Spoorthi, a college graduate who said she didn’t need the money but worked for ‘life experience,’ Deepak and Vinay, who were candid about the fact that they needed the money to pay for their sister’s marriage, and Sudhir, a school dropout. Madesh worked with Sudhir in the Green Room preparing vegetarian pizzas. The rest of them worked in the Red Room—the non-vegetarian section, referred to as the ‘red light area’ when Harish wasn’t around.
It was 3 pm when Madesh put the cling film on the decorated pizzas, placed them in the freezer and let his mind wander back to the subject of snakes and men. This train of thought invariably led to Sumana, his neighbor and classmate from school. Her faded clothes couldn’t camouflage her pretty looks. Like Madesh, Sumana too had discontinued her studies after tenth grade. She worked in the doughnut shop across the street from Harry’s Own. She had started work at Harry’s Own with him but had been fed up with Harish’s overtures. Fewer people ate doughnuts than pizzas, but she was happy with six thousand rupees a month. She was determined to save money for the fashion course she planned to pursue.
Sumana’s family as well as his own belonged to an income group that never stopped jumping. They jumped to avoid the below-poverty-line tag but never made it up to the lower middle class comfort. She was luckier than him, though. She had no mad uncles or depressive sisters. Her father earned from his mixer-grinder repair shop, while her mother worked as a tailor’s assistant. They still found excuses to laugh and smile.
In comparison, his family was a desolate lot, with the sole exception of his late grandmother. She had just returned from a pilgrimage to M.M Hills when he was born. “Sri Mahadeshwara, I’m blessed you chose to be my grandson,” she wept and prostrated before the cradle. A year later, an aunt who observed he still didn’t crawl, talk, or play like other one-year-olds prophesied that he would end up like his uncles who conducted a never-ending argument with invisible opponents under the banyan tree. So it hadn’t mattered to anyone that the kindergarten teacher shortened his name from Mahadeshwara to Madesh; they didn’t expect him to have a very long stint in school.
Madesh considered it his biggest misfortune that he resembled his uncles. Nobody rejoiced when he moved from the first grade to the tenth without detention; they simply blessed the kind teachers. His childhood thus passed in a relaxed atmosphere of zero expectations. After his tenth grade exams, his parents pleaded with him to stop exerting his brain and find a job. Ever since Girija, his elder sister, fell into severe depression over a failed love affair, his father lost interest in life and found it hard to keep a steady job. His mother made and sold pickles and spice powders when her knees allowed her to.
Madesh’s work was a happy world far removed from the contagious darkness of his family. But when he returned home after work, he drooped in accordance with their sad protocol.
Every day after work, Sumana and Madesh walked to the bus stop together. He asked enough short questions to keep the conversation going. He deliberately kept himself on short leash with short sentences. Long sentences, he was afraid, would lead him to the rambling insanity of his uncles. She once introduced him to another boy as an ‘old friend’. This had instantly lifted him to the clouds. He clambered down from the lofty perch when the boy commented that Sumana had a good bodyguard in Madesh. Besides, from time immemorial, didn’t eunuchs make safe company for pretty girls? Since Madesh didn’t have the vocabulary to disprove this aspersion on his manhood, he just ignored the fellow.
At 4 pm, as he prepared to leave for the day, Madesh went over—for the hundredth time—his week-old conversation with Sumana in the course of which she’d mentioned the snake.
“Thoo, thoo! My skin crawls at the memory!” Sumana had spat into the dirt.
Madesh looked up in surprise. “What?”
“Thoo! That snake in the bus.” She had seen his bewildered expression and asked, “Didn’t I tell you, Madesha?” She was the only one apart from his parents and grandmother who called him Madesha. That made her close, almost family.
“No.” Madesh looked at her face and tried to imagine the person who had evoked the disgust. But she had clearly said it was a snake. He waited for her to clarify.
“He comes in the morning bus. That dirty sewer rat.”
“Snake or rat?”
“What does it matter? Both belong to the gutters.”
“I happened to notice two weeks ago, a man who…” Sumana’s shoulders shook in a shiver of disgust.
“When I turned around to show the conductor my bus pass, I saw this man. He stuck out his tongue as if he was licking something.”
Madesh assembled Sumana’s words in his mind with care so that she wouldn’t think she had been talking to a block of wood. But his mind was in a whirl.
“He did it so fast that I couldn’t react. First, I thought he was a mad man. But now he does it every morning. I can feel his tongue on my flesh. Each time, I want to jump into a river and cleanse myself,” Sumana shuddered.
Madesh digested the information: There was a man. He darted his tongue out and acted like he was licking Sumana. How? Why?
“His tongue slithers out and disappears like a snake’s tongue. I once tried to point out his behaviour to the lady standing next to me in the bus, but when she looked, that snake was looking out of the window. She observed a neatly dressed man and maybe thought I was making it all up! He looks so decent otherwise.”
It bothered Madesh how worked up she was. He gathered that the snake hadn’t touched her or spoken to her. There was only the tongue business from a distance.
“Madesha, it has already been two weeks since this started. Now I see a kind of laughter in his eyes when he does it, as if, he wants to torment me.” Sumana sounded close to tears.
“One day, I got off at the stop when he did. I followed him and shouted, ‘Hey, don’t think I’m scared. I’ll call the police.’ The snake turned, stuck out his pink dancing tongue at me and walked away laughing… I wanted to pelt him with stones!” Sumana looked at Madesh, “I don’t think he’s mad, he’s perverted. What should I do? I’m going mad.”
Madesh considered the question, and grew thrilled when it dawned on him that she had actually turned to him for help.
“I discussed this with a few boys who come regularly to eat doughnuts, assuming they were my friends. They laughed and looked at me in a strange way as if they were imagining how it would be to lick me. Chee, thoo! Can’t men leave a girl in peace?”
It was then that Madesh had resolved to find a way to stop the snake: Break the fellow’s front teeth and whisper a warning in his ears.
Artwork: are many slackers hustling under trinity church,
“Maddy, remember to come early tomorrow. Friday rush.” Harish stood at the door.
“Okay.” Madesh wished Harish didn’t pounce on him unawares like this.
“I want at least fifty veggie surprises ready by noon tomorrow.”
“What do you dream about, Maddy? Go home and dream of your girlfriend. If we do good business this month, I promise a five hundred rupees raise.”
The others sniggered. Harish never kept his promises. “You guys too. Come in early. You can laugh when you lose your jobs here.”
Madesh stepped out into the evening sunshine. He slowed down when he passed the doughnut shop. Sumana was chatting with a few college boys. Perhaps the same boys who’d found her description of the snake interesting.
She fell in step with him, still smiling over some joke she had just shared. Madesh was trying to think of something funny to say when her face clouded over. They were approaching the bus stop.
“Madesha, the snake has become bolder! Yesterday, for the fraction of a second, he touched the tip of his tongue to his middle finger! I try not to look at him, but he always catches my eye. I have taken the annual bus pass on this route. If I take another bus, I’ll have to pay the fare… How am I going to bear this for another ten months?”
“I spoke to my uncle who serves tea in the police station… in a general way, telling him that a friend was facing this problem. Can she complain to the police, I asked. He said the police want proof, and that they’ll act only if the man actually does something or she can prove harassment. He suggested that my friend complain to the bus conductor. That’s of no use. It’s hard as it is to keep one’s elbows stuck out so that the sweaty conductor doesn’t lean into you! How can I show proof when there are no witnesses? And technically, the man hasn’t done anything or said anything to me!”
“There’s a foreign company’s logo on his backpack… I wonder if he misbehaves like this with women at his workplace. I’ve been tempted many times to ask that rowdy near the garage to teach the snake a lesson, except that it would be running from a snake into the jaws of a crocodile, wouldn’t it? What if the rowdy starts acting like a Romeo expecting return favors?”
Madesh shuddered. He knew that the gangs who operated on their streets comprised smiling boys who didn’t think twice about using knives, hockey sticks or cycle chains. She better steer clear of those goons.
“Don’t ask,” he said.
“Then who will help me and put an end to this?” Sumana gazed skywards, as if she was expecting an answer. “I know,” she said suddenly, as if struck by inspiration. “Why don’t you come in the morning bus with me tomorrow? I’ll point him out to you. But he looks so decent, even you may not believe me!”
They travelled to work by different buses in the morning. Madesh delivered breakfast to the old aunt who lived by herself before catching a connecting bus to work. But by the time he reached home, Madesh was determined to travel in the same bus as Sumana every morning next day onwards. He had to find an opportunity to stand behind the snake, move forward and trip him on the footboard. He had to make sure the snake fell on his face and then whisper a warning. That was something he still had to work on—the exact phrase for maximum effect. It would possibly be his longest speech to a stranger in all of his eighteen years. He decided not to talk to Sumana about his plan. He worked best when expectations were low.
It took him the full night to convince his father that he couldn’t deliver breakfast to the aunt anymore on account of Harish wanting him to report early to work.
The next morning, Madesh boarded the same bus as Sumana. She nodded at him when the snake got on two stops later. He was a tall and slim man in neatly ironed clothes. Madesh stood behind the snake, close enough to inhale the scent of the man’s deodorant and notice how the man was hairy everywhere except his head. When the bus driver applied the brakes, Madesh pushed into the snake. Snake turned around to glare at him. His eyelids, even when fully open, gave the impression of a man falling asleep.
Sumana, meanwhile, had become agitated. Observing how the snake positioned himself to ‘lick’ her, Madesh resolved to act fast. He selected the following Monday—Shiva’s day—to execute his plan. He practiced falling down the last three steps of the stairs leading down from the terrace all through Sunday night. The warning would be simple: “Don’t you dare show your tongue to her ever again.”
On Monday morning, Madesh woke up with stomachache and fever, but he bathed and prayed to Lord Shiva before heading out to the bus stop. When the bus came, he boarded without acknowledging Sumana. He felt cold and his head began to ache. Two stops later, he waited… but there was no sign of the snake. Just when the bus moved, the conductor whistled, the bus jerked to a stop and the snake got on.
Madesh fixed his gaze on the snake. At the very instant that Sumana turned to look behind her, he watched, hypnotised, as the snake’s pink tongue darted out, and caressed thin air. Sumana had already looked away, but the snake completed his routine: a few seconds and it was over. Madesh was filled with disgust.
Three stops before their bus stop, the snake started moving towards the front of the bus. Madesh followed close behind. As the bus came to a halt and the snake waited on the footboard for the doors to open, Madesh positioned himself on the step right behind him. When the doors opened, Madesh hurled himself against the snake. As the snake fell on to the road, all of Madesh’s seventy kilos saw to it that the snake’s face hit the road. Madesh rolled away due to the impact and his head knocked against the cement step leading to the bus stop. He felt slaps rain on his face.
“Are you mad? Why did you push this gentleman?” The conductor shoved Madesh aside and rushed to help the snake.
By the time Madesh got his bearings, people in the bus stop had already helped the snake stand up. They offered him water and led him to a stone bench in the open bus shelter.
Hurling a few more abuses at Madesh, the conductor jumped onto the bus as it revved its engine, preparing to move on. Madesh hoped Sumana had watched through the window. The snake’s two front teeth were loose and blood was flowing out from his nose and mouth. Spots of blood had flowered on the snake’s white handkerchief and muddy shirtfront. Some commuters dusted snake’s shirt, “Sir, come let’s visit the doctor.”
Madesh stood alone. His head throbbed and a cut bled into his hair. His jaw hurt, he tasted blood and his entire body ached. But Madesh was more than satisfied with his plan’s outcome. His only regret was that he had not been able to whisper the warning to the snake.
He stared at the snake. The snake looked up and their eyes met. Madesh stuck out a bloody tongue and willed it to dance.
He hoped what he recognized in the snake’s eyes was fear.