snakes in bangalore

from a letter home from bangalore in 2010

Mean people. This story doesn’t actually start with mean people. It starts with the wide variety of people – mostly people from the state of Bihar, I am told – that sell sundry goods on the streets. I am not talking about the people who set up shop somewhere on a blanket or tarp on the sidewalk to sell socks or clothes or bangles or DVDs. Rather, I mean the wandering vendors. First are the ones that wander near traffic lights and come up to cars when stopped, akin to windshield washers in US cities. Some of the things they sell are reasonably practical and you could see yourself possibly buying something – a rag to wash your windshield, or sunglasses, or magazines and books if stuck in unexpected
traffic. Sometimes umbrellas during monsoon season; sometimes electric tennis racquets for swatting at mosquitoes. And then, they sell toy helicopters. They aren’t small, either, these are helicopters are over a foot long, I would guess from trying to look at them without looking interested in the slightest. It is hard to imagine suddenly realizing the usefulness of a helicopter while sitting in traffic. Even if you were on your way to a kid’s birthday party or something, it seems that you wouldn’t opt from the helicopter since everyone would know precisely where you got it and roughly how much you paid. I presume that either the helicopters are actually a big seller or that they have a lot of leftovers, since they always seem to be zooming around between stopped traffic.

Similarly are the people who try to you sell you things while walking down the street – the ones who walk with you for a ways. Again, some of these items are reasonably useful and you could see yourself buying one on the street – an umbrella, sunglasses, a map. Even the idols or “Indian” trinkets probably appeal to enough tourists and such to make it worth it. And then there are the kids who get stuck (?) selling the wooden toys – namely, snakes and small backgammon sets. The snakes are the jointed ones that you hold by the tail and wave and can get to wriggle something like a snake in the air. Who decided that these items would be hot sellers on the street? Have you ever been walking down the street and felt the need for
a snake or a board game? I personally have not (though I do now have some inkling as to one situation in which such a thing could come in handy). Moreover, unlike some chains of sales where the refusal of the first item might lead the vendor to offer something more appealing to the sort of person who would refuse the first item, it seems hard to imagine that people that turn down the snake would be stoked by the backgammon set (they are always offered in that order, snake first). What’s more is that these boys are stationed every 30 feet or so down the sidewalk. I can imagine that there are some items – maybe jewelry or a new pair of sunglasses – where you initially refuse and then you think, “damn, that was silly, it’s a
reasonably good price and I could actually use a spare x.” In such a situation, this sales approach might work. But it seems hard that this scenario would play out with a snake. And yet, one boy will walk with you for 10 to 20 feet, emphatically saying “snake, madam” and as soon as you have made it clear that you have no interest in snakes, the next one is upon you with the exact same offer.

Anyway, all of this is by way of prelude to the next bit, to attempt to convince you that I have had a reasonable amount of interaction with fake – but with such real movements! – snakes of late. Also, I should point out that pedestrian traffic here is usually fairly fluid between the sidewalk and the road, moving from one to the other as the conditions of one get worse or someone is blocking one or the other. But, of course, sometimes the sidewalk is completely blocked and you have to opt for the road. Conversely, sometimes vehicles are parked by the curb, so that you cannot step off the sidewalk to go around the non/sentient obstacle.

Such was my luck the other day, when I was returning to work after a quick errand at lunch time. I can around a corner where a van was parked, blocking the ability to step off into the street, and was approached by two women carrying baskets. They were sort of round and squat baskets, like a slightly puffed up version of the sort of thing from which you would expect to have tortillas served. The actual sequence of events is a bit lost on me now but it seems that one woman asked for money; I tried to move around her and was blocked by the younger one, who grabbed my arm, and then the initial one opened her basket, which contained a snake that I am 99% sure was quite real and quite hissy. And, in one of
these India-type moments where you ask yourself later “did I really just do that to another human being?,” I took the blocking girl by the shoulders and forcibly moved her out of my way. Not very nice, perhaps, but then, neither was the snake.


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