The Snake Charmer, is about a New Delhi street performer, said by some to be "the best charmer in all India." His trouble, already suggested in his wife's acerbic wit and the distance of his two sons, escalates when he hits a false note. Raju, his cobra of fifteen years, old and tired from nine hours of one of the best days in Sonalal's career, bites the hand that feeds him. Enraged, Sonalal "bent down, grabbed the listless snake by the head and tail, and stretched it to its full length. Then he closed his eyes, growled, and opened his mouth wide. All Sonalal's rage concentrated in his jaws.
"Two wriggling cobra halves fell and squirmed on the ground. Then they became still.
"Sonalal gazed up at the evening sky, his face dripping with bitter snake juice, and cried over the death of his eldest son."
Matters are both complicated and improved some by the fact that Sonalal has killed his livelihood in front of a busload of foreign journalists in India for "the Games." Nigam imagines with realistic detail the circumstances that inspired the short story ("Charming" originally published in Grand Street), which Nigam expanded upon to create The Snake Charmer: "one of those Saturday morning Indian news programs in Manhattan" which reported on "a villager who'd been bitten by a snake and bit it back," Nigam explained in an email to me in May. Sonalal obtains his fifteen minutes of fame, but he suffers, though curiously not financially. The tips he makes from the journalists, the tour guide, even a group of Indian journalists, who come to follow up on the international scoop, enable him to live without work for the course of the novel. His extravagance results in a number of scenes, one of which, unlike the actual item purchased, may be priceless:
The jeweler, a corpulent man with jowls like chicken thighs, set a box of gold chains before him. "How much do you want to spend?" Jowls like chicken thighs is brilliant and typical of Nigam's witty imagery throughout the novel.
The jeweler sifted through the box and laid a very thin chain before Sonalal. "For two thousand you can have this."
"Two thousand? That chain is almost invisible!"
"Visible costs more."
Sonalal eyed the jeweler suspiciously but said nothing.
"Listen, my friend," said the jeweler. "I have no control over the price of gold. Maybe American cows do."
"They call it economics," answered the jeweler.
"E-co-nomi-cs. It's like this. The price of milk is rising fast in America. And when prices in America go up, all the Japanese want gold. So the price of gold shoots up in India, which makes you unhappy. If American cows start producing more milk, maybe you'll get this chain for sixteen hundred."
Sonalal asked the jeweler to explain again. Business was slow, and the jeweler didn't seem to mind.
In the end, Sonalal came home with a silver necklace which contained 70 percent nickel. But it had a substantial feel and nice shine. He knew it would lose its luster soon, though probably no sooner than he lost his.
Despite a fully depicted emotional account of Sonalal's mourning plus genuine physical afflictions guaranteed to make any man shudder, Nigam is at his best when he is subtly satirizing contemporary society. When journalists, filling up the tiny room in the servants' quarters, where Sonalal, his wife and two sons live, run out of questions about the original event and ask Sonalal about "the current political chaos," the by now not so simple snake charmer responds: "Some politicians are rascals . . . But some really care. Unfortunately, it's impossible to tell one from the other. Maybe what India needs is a rascal who really cares."
Doctors and even scientists, like Nigam himself, who researches the biological development of kidneys at Harvard University, are presented as self-satisfied, self-parodies in The Snake Charmer. A famous sexologist explains science to Sonalal, amusingly offering a central leitmotif in the book--that men's "bones were made in the fiery centers of stars" and "if you move very fast, time goes backward." Sonalal would like very much to move fast enough to prevent what he did to his snake, but not at the expense of his skin. "No, Doctor," he tells another doctor, an expert on snake bites, "They say that time can go backward if you move so fast your skin burns off."
"I've never heard that," replied Dr. Basu, "but if it's true, then you'll end up with no skin."
To justify Sonalal's disturbing dreams, the sexologist explains how Kekule dreamed the chemical structure of benzene--a snake biting its own tail. When Sonalal reveals his impotence, the doctor says, "Now that really is like a snake biting its own tail, don't you think?" He goes on to ask Sonalal:
"Do you enjoy moving your bowels?"
Sonalal was flabbergasted. Such an absurd question! Crude! And what business was it of the doctor's? What did his bowels have to do with anything?
As though he read Sonalal's mind, Doctor Seth said, "You must be frank. It is the only way I can help. According to Professor Freud, the father of the science of the mind, this question must be answered by all--especially if their sexual function is affected. And please remember, I am a doctor."
The doctor sounded serious and professional, so Sonalal cast his eyes downward and answered as best he could. "Moving bowels is just what one does. It is hard to get exited about something over which you have no choice."
He glanced at the doctor to divine his view of the matter.
But the doctor ventured no opinion. Instead he said, "Do you prefer women with little breasts?"
That was too much for Sonalal. He slapped the desktop loudly and said, "No, I like breasts like grapefruits! Cantaloupes!"
"What is the purpose of all this? Why do you keep asking me such strange questions?"
"Because you are a homosexual."
Sonalal turns from men of science to magicians, with equally amusing results:
"Now the rope trick is incredible," continued the old man, "so incredible it scared the queen of England in the last century. She nearly went mad worrying about it. If Indians climbed to the top of ropes standing in the air, then Indian heads would be higher than English heads--or so the queen feared. The masters would always be looking up at the slaves. That was bad enough. But since no one can spit with the accuracy of an Indian, the queen was even more afraid all those Indians would spit on the heads of her officers and soldiers. The whole Raj would fall apart. So she sent a man named Colonel Eliot to find out if the rope trick was real. I must have climbed for him over a hundred times--once even took him up with me! Oh, he believed it. But Eliot also understood how women think. When he went back, he told the queen the rope trick couldn't be done. So England held on to India. If he'd just told the truth, we'd have been independent long before Gandhi."
Nigam's best writing is in dialogues like these, where the characters reveal themselves and their situations convincingly and dramatically. The novel weakens some when summary becomes necessary to show the passage of time before Sonalal captures a new cobra and takes up his art again. The novel's suspense, however, never flags, and the character of Sonalal is always intriguing, even when he's not particularly likable. The Snake Charmer is an enjoyable book, a vivid rendition of the life of an ordinary man, rendered extraordinary not only by Sonalal's well-imagined adventures and refreshing point of view, but by Nigam's unique new voice in Indian-American fiction.
--Brought you by RK