I am in a rickety bus whose windows slip open even after repeated attempts to slam them shut. On closer inspection I discover it is not the windows that are sliding open, it is the skeleton of the bus that is rocking as the bus hurtles along the side of the Western Ghats in blinding rain. The bus left Ratnagiri long ago, and it seems to halt just as it starts, to pick up drenched villagers. The path runs beside a brown river that gushes and swirls angrily, like a temper about to burst. The runners above the windows that collect rainwater and spray it on to the road are utterly ineffective; they drag water into the bus instead. This ruins the serenity in watching the glistening Indian countryside scroll by. After an age we arrive at the final stop, where topless middle-aged men run about in ankle-high water and foolishly kick it at each other, but it is lost in the rain. Then one stops to chant, punching the air, and the others follow. He repeats this, and more join in, and this continues until just about everybody has abandoned their pursuits to chant. This is Marleshwar, where I am uncertain who is worshiped. I came to see the snakes.
The first time I heard the name was yesterday, as I eavesdropped, and nearly kicked myself for not knowing there was a snake-filled temple in Mahabaleshwar, where I had spent three days. Anyway, at present there are stairs leading up a mountain. Religion makes you work hard. The stairs just go on and on until they disappear and I have this sinking feeling there are many more. Perhaps what lies at the end of this will be worth it. What people say lies there is a temple filled with snakes that don't bite. They live in harmony with the chanting priests. I am of course curious, and want to see and touch snakes and talk to the priests about them and see where they live. But first the stairs. Not easy, these stairs. Like a test or punishment, rain falls harder now than at any time during the trip. Wet denims are not ideal, for they triple in weight. After the first bend, there are more steps. I contemplate giving up, but I left at 8am and it is now noon. One by one, the steps are tackled.
And then, the top. It is anticlimactic, for there is a viewing platform, and nothing more. Where is the temple? There are people looking happy and taking pictures, but not one snake. Then someone points me to a hole in a mountain wall. It is a cave, from which a dim light emerges. Inside, it takes a moment to readjust to the darkness. Then it all becomes clear. Horribly so. I see pandits and more pandits and pandits blessing people and ringing bells, but no slithering, slimy reptiles curled up on the floor. Frothing inside, I politely ask a pandit if the snakes are elsewhere. He looks surprised and peers about a bit before a memory returns. He says with a smile, "It is not their season. They will come in September."
All the pent-up dreams of fame and recognition for a path-breaking story on the snakes of Marleshwar crumble. Violins play in my head. The clouds are black. The steps down are slick with oil. The river below surges over its banks, sweeping me away with the topless men. It's going to be a long three hours back.