The crowd applauded and dispersed. A few people dropped a handful of coins into Bansi’s plate, barely enough to buy one meal. Snake charming wasn’t the attraction it used to be when he was a young man. Bansi packed up his flute and slung his basket over his shoulder. He could feel Katraj slithering around inside, restless now that the show was done.
Bansi had been a nomad his entire life, moving from town to town and entertaining passers-by in the streets. He had no family to ground him, nor any companions on his journey. Except Katraj.
Fifteen years ago, when Bansi was taking his first steps into manhood, he had been taught the art of snake charming by his father. He displayed his skill in his family’s streetside shows, back when there was a bigger audience for such a thing. It was then that he had first come across Katraj, a mere hatchling then about to be devoured by a wild mongoose. Bansi saved the young cobra and took him in, caring for him as a pet and soon making him a partner in his act.
He had no illusions of friendship, though. Bansi knew that the creature owed him no loyalty; the several bite marks dotting the snake charmer’s hands bore testament to that. He merely played his part by dancing to the tune of the flute. Still, he was the closest thing to family that Bansi had after the passing of his parents.
Together, they traveled through towns, cities and villages, putting on a show for anyone willing to watch. They earned just enough to keep Bansi from starving, though he was still more bone than flesh, while Katraj helped himself to the local vermin. Business had been slow of late, and the crowds much thinner. Bansi had lost weight, but had gained a slight limp and an increasingly frequent cough. He was hoping his luck would turn around soon, but that wasn’t to be.
The monsoons hit the city hard that summer. The streets turned into streams, people splashing to and fro to find shelter from the endless downpour. Bansi found a roof when he could, but spent most of his time drenched and with an agitated snake on his back. Performing was impossible and his money had already run out. Trudging through water and grime over long hours was starting to catch up with him, the cold air whispering into his bones.
On yet another wet afternoon, he set off in search for food and lodging. He was trembling from head to toe, clad in a thin blue shirt and white pants with only a pair of worn brown sandals on his his feet. The weather had finally caught up to him. Burdened by hunger and fatigue, he slumped under the meager protection of a tea stall awning. His cough sucked the air out of his lungs with more force than ever before. He lay back against the empty stall, trying to catch his breath, but it hovered out of his reach. There was no one to see him or help him. Katraj was the only companion he had.
Bansi’s eyes grew heavy. He was tired, and it was time for him to rest. As his vision blurred, he saw a hazy silhouette advancing toward him. It was a man, sitting atop some great beast. As the figure drew closer, Bansi’s eyes cleared and widened with fear. The rider was the color of a starless sky with eyes that could see through worlds, and his steed was a buffalo that would tower over the largest elephants Bansi had seen. Bansi bowed his head before Yama, the Lord of Death, who carried with him a great lasso to ensnare souls and take them to the realm beyond life.
“Oh great Lord,” he said, voice quivering. “Why have you come to me? The path of my life still stretches far ahead of me. I have many wonders to see, many challenges to face. Why, Lord Yama, would you snatch that away from me?”
Yama’s gaze was stern, but not cruel.
“Your journey in life ends here, my child. As is written in the law of the universe, you must come with me now to Naraka, where your soul will begin a new journey.”
“Please, great Lord, do not take me just yet. I know there is much more for me to do. Spare me, and I shall become your devotee, and sing praises in your name until my strength fails me. Then, my Lord, I shall accompany you without hesitation.”
Yama unfurled his rope.
“It is my duty to take the dead where they belong, my son. I cannot change that anymore than Brahma can change the stars.”
“Please!’ Bansi cried out, his voice feeble. “I am not ready! I am not ready! If it is a life you want, take Katraj! He is old and has lived many years as a captive. Let this be the end of his struggle!”
“Do not presume to bargain with a god!” Yama’s voice was sharp as a thunderclap. “You think I will be satisfied with your pet snake? I have come for you, Bansidhar, and it is you I shall take!”
Yama flung his rope at Bansi who, with the last ounce of his strength, threw the basket at the enraged deity. The lasso wrapped around Katraj and pulled him onto the buffalo’s back.
“So,” Yama roared, glaring down at the prone snake charmer, “when bargaining fails you attempt to trick me? Very well, mortal. I will accept your bargain then. I was sent here to take a life and so I shall. As for you, Bansidhar, you shall live. And you will not forget me or our bargain until the end of your days!”
With that, Yama rode off into the storm, leaving Bansi cold but still living.
When the rain let up, Bansi felt lighter than he ever had. He was alive! He had given up the creature he once considered a friend, but it was a necessary sacrifice. And, as he reminded himself, the snake saw no friendship. Happy at a second chance, Bansi attempted to stand up, but could not. In fact, he couldn’t feel his legs at all. What happened? Had Yama crippled him? Was that his punishment?
As Bansi tried to make sense of his current situation, a man came along. He started at the sight of the young man and immediately rushed at him with a stick. Bansi fled without a moment’s hesitation.
“Leave! Go on!” the man shouted. “Starting the evening with a snake at my stall. It’s bad luck, I tell you!”
Frightened and confused, Bansi slithered away. He had a full life ahead of him now, and plenty of time to ponder the price of that life.