The snake charmer’s deadly secret

This is in Bombay in the 1970s: a snake charmer performing his show on a main street
And that is me, in the green batik shirt, around the same time, interfering in a snake charmer’s act
This is a typical snake charmer doing a private performance for us. The small round wicker basket contains a snake, on it is the trademark coconut violin, in front of him a flute he uses to “charm” the snake and equipment for the magic show he performs on the side. Yes, the latter includes cup-and-ball.
At some stage, after showing a trick or two, he gets to the basket, which he blows mysteriously into.
The wicker basket contains a full-grown cobra, a particularly beautiful specimen of the Naja naja species.
He has no problem handling the snake, which in its natural state is quite dangerous.
I want to find out if the snake has its fangs and venom sacs. Naja naja has very potent neuro and cardiotoxins.
On a different occasion I was able to witness the defanging and de-sacing of a cobra.
Once the cobra has been rendered harmless it will cease to eat and die after a month or two. Not a problem — these people are very adept at catching snakes and there is still a good supply available.
Once the show is over the snake charmer wants to sell his wares. I can never resist buying a single-string coconut violin.
I bought a couple of “snake stones”. On closer examination they turned out to be polished buffalo horn, which is porous and will hydrostatically stick to a wet surface like your tongue.
My snake charmer friend, Said Huisein, had a certificate to show that his snake bite cure was effective.
The investigator from Callison College playing a flute to “charm” the perfectly deaf cobra, with Said Huisuin and his brother, also a professional snake charmer, watch.
The older brother handling a cobra — defanged or not I do not know. You couldn’t believe anything they told you.
I visited the brothers at their home and made a sensational discovery: they actually had a King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah). This species is the world’s largest venomous snake and can reach a length of 18 feet (5½ meters).

The tragedy of superstition

Now comes the harrowing part of this narrative. On a different trip to India I was in the city of Bangalore — today the technological center of the country. I was told about a police officer who was a “snake catcher”: if anyone saw a snake in the garden he would be called to remove it.



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The Friedel Chronicles

The Friedel Chronicles

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.