August 20, 2010

The Story of Dalsingh – A fatal snake bite

As told by Aghni Bai, his mother

In the face of death, he said: Ram Johar – Goodbye to All

The locale : A forest village of the Baiga tribe in the Achanakmar Tiger Sanctuary, 70 kms. north of Bilaspur in central Chhattisgarh, India.

Aghni Bai

Her story in her own words
The night he was bitten
It was the month of Sawan (1), three years ago, the day of the festival, Hareli (2). We had eaten well and retired to our separate homes. We all lay down on the floor and went to sleep. Three daughters of my elder son, who had been visiting, were spending the night with me. My son, Dalsingh, was asleep in his home, next to mine, with his wife, two sons and three daughters. (3)  Sleeping on his side, Dalsingh awoke suddenly feeling something cold on his neck. That is when he realized something was there. When he felt the cold, he said What is this? He picked it up and it bit him on the wrist.

Aghni Bai pointing to the site of the bite
Dalsingh saw the snake and the snakebite in the dim light of the lantern. He shouted from his house: Mother, Come! I have been bitten by a snake! He took a stick and moved it out of the house. He said: Let us not kill the snake. Let’s just get it out of the house. The snake climbed up the mud wall of the house and crawled in a hole in the brickwork and that is when we realized it was a poisonous snake, a Karaith (The Common Krait). (4)  I recognized that snake.

In the dark of night, I collected the elder villagers and shouted that they come and they came. There was much confusion and running here and there. It was still dark, the predawn hours. Several villagers ran to the forest and, with torches and by lantern light, dug up the roots of an herbal plant for snake bite. They returned immediately. The roots were ground up and mixed with a cup of water. The paste was placed on the wound on his wrist and he was given the same mixture to drink. We also called a jholachap (a village doctor) from the nearby village of Danganiya. (5)  He came and gave Dalsingh two injections, one in the left arm and one in the upper right arm.

Once all the remedies proved futile, Dalsingh spoke: My mother and my brother : I know you will not be able to save me now. He put his hands up, Ram Johar (Saying goodbye and paying respect to all present). (6)

Aghni Bai showing how her son said Ram Johar (Goodbye) on dying
He did not talk of pain but he must have been in pain because of the swelling of his hand and arm. He was alert the whole time, though lying down. Before he died, his whole body had become yellow as if someone had put tumeric powder on it. We continued to give him the herbal medicine throughout the pre-dawn hours. At first, his fingers puffed up and separated. By early morning, his arm had become hugely swollen up to the elbow. As the cock crowed, he died.

Following Dalsingh’s death
Later, in mid-morning, once Dalsingh had died, boys in the village cracked open the wall, took out the snake and killed it. It was that long (shoulder to hand). It was a ghoda karaita. (7)

Aghni Bai showing the length of the snake
My son believed that if the snake was killed immediately after he was bitten that he too would die, so he didn’t kill the snake. I believe that as well. Only after his death could we kill the snake. When my son was bitten, someone must have done jaadu tona (black magic) on him and that must be why the herbs and the injections didn’t work. My son was educated through the 8th standard (8), so that when forest officers or the sarpanch (the head of the village council) came to the village, they would always talk to him. That is why some were jealous of him. Others have taken these herbs and have gotten better.

The funeral
My sons and I had a funeral and we fed everyone. After eating, we all went and washed our hands in the lake. (9)  I had to borrow 3,000 rupees from his wife’s family. I could not pay the debt so I gave them Dalsingh’s harmonium. (10)  It would have been very difficult for me to meet these expenses alone, so my elder son and Dalsingh’s widow, Laliya, also contributed. But I still shoulder 2,000 rupees of debt from the funeral. (11)

Persistent fears
The children remember little as they were very young but they do ask what happened to that uncle (12)  who was bitten by a snake. When the first rains arrived this year, the children were on the veranda. There was lightening and they saw a snake entering. Greatly frightened, they cried out. My elder son came and killed the snake, another poisonous krait. It’s not common to see snakes. Only when the first monsoon rains arrive.

Ever since, I live with that night. I keep a stick under the khatiya (a cot). (13)  Any noise at night wakes me with a start. Is it a snake? Or a mouse on the roof rustling about? I get up with a torch terrified and look into every corner of the house. When I go back to bed, the children ask: "Why did you get up?" I make up a story like “An insect made a noise.” I do not tell them of my fear of a snake. They fear snakes so, and I do not want them also to be frightened. Then I get back under the mosquito netting and try to sleep.

Her struggle since
Dalsingh left behind a tiny daughter, Panchvati, who is six now and has just been admitted to school. She helps me out, bringing water to the house. So I have tied her to my side and brought her up. Dalsingh second daughter, Phul Bai, is 10 and in 6th standard. I am bringing her up as well.

Since Dalsingh’s death, I have to support myself and my two granddaughters. I work in the fields from 8 to 4, four or five days a week, earning 40 rupees daily. As I am elderly, I can’t plow my land, so I give my land to others to work. I get half of the harvest. If it rains well, the land produces about five sacks of grain. Two sacks go to the person helping in the field, two go to me and the fifth is for seed. (14)  And for the past three years, I’ve served with three other elderly women in my village as a dai. (15)  For this, I receive a 100 rupees a month to attend an overnight training in Bamhni and 50 rupees more goes to the dais credit group. (16)  I walk for about an hour and a half to get to Bamhni every month. With the 100 rupees, I buy rice, and I have applied to the government for a widow’s pension but have heard nothing for the past five years. (17)

No elderly widow in the village like me has ever received a pension. But if I do get one,
I’ll keep it to take care of the children well, to bring them up well and to pay off my debts. I’ll save some for the children’s future. Once my granddaughters grow up, I’d like to get them married. They are now both in school. I can get them educated until the 8th standard by sending them to other villages close by. Soon after that, they can be ready for marriage and will be more intelligent. Better in marriage for girls if they finish the 8th standard. (18)

Emotional aftermath of Dalsingh’s death
I have a lot of pain in my heart. I cry a lot. I think When will I be united with him again? Tears come to my eyes whenever someone reminds me of his loss. It feels like I have lost my soul.


(1) Sawan is the 5th month of the Hindu calendar and runs from July 16 until August 16, the height of the monsoon season.
(2) Hareli is celebrated each Sawan, the end of the season of planting new crops to give thanks, a puja, for the farm implements that made the planting possible and to pray for a good yield.
(3) Dalsingh’s three daughters were from his first marriage with Ramkali. When she died of cholera, he married her sister, Laliya. They, in turn, had two boys. Following Dalsingh’s death, Laliya remarried taking her two boys with her. Dalsingh’s oldest daughter also is now married. The two younger girls live with their grandmother, Aghni Bai, herself a widow.
(4) The Common Krait is one of “The Big Four” - the poisonous snakes considered responsible for the most fatalities in India. The others are the Russell Viper, the Saw-Scaled Viper, and the Indian Cobra.
(5) An untrained village medical practitioner. Typically, they give saline injections regardless of the nature of the illness.
(6) A common term for farewell or goodbye among the forest people. 
(7) There are different kinds of poisonous kraits in the villages of this region, a banded krait and the common krait, a ghoda karaita, as in this instance. 
(8) Eight years of formal schooling, the completion of primary school, is considered quite an achievement in village India, though short of high school.
(9) A ritual cleansing that follows the cremation of the body and the ritual meal.
(10) It is common to find three or four harmonia in the adivasi villages in central Chhattisgarh. Dalsingh used to play it while singing Chhattisgari folk songs. The instrument is valued at about 300 rupees. 
(11) The funeral ritual goes on for 10 days. The berieved family give the guests daru (an alcoholic beverage). The village collectively gives the widow distinctive clothing and glass bangels to identify her to all persons thereafter as having lost her husband.
(12) Besides its literal meaning, Uncle is also an honorific term for an older person to be afforded respect.
(13) A khatiya is a cot made of a type of wood from the forest called balli across which strips of canvas are stretched.
(14) The two sacks of paddy (rice) will provide for about three months of this staple of the Indian diet for a family of three. Additional rice is provided by the government for persons certified below the poverty line, but this subsidized rice last only about half the month for most families.
(15) A dai is a village midwife. 
(16) Jan Swasthya Sahyog (JSS) maintains its most distant subcenter at Bamhni, a remote forest village, two and a half hours by road from its main facilities in Ganiyari, a village in the Bilaspur District of Chhattisgarh. In Bamhni, JSS physicians and senior health workers hold monthly trainings for over 150 volunteer village dais and village health workers.
(17) As astounding and improbable as this sounds, it is confirmed by Prafull, the JSS head village specialist. He explains that the sarpanch or village chief is elected every five years. In this case, Aghni Bai fell between stools. A new sarpanch came in and as is so often the case, the application process has defeated the whole purpose of the pension provision for the totally helpless and destitute, such as elderly widows. Moreover, Aghni Bai, and others like her, had no idea initially of her entitlement. She learned of this possibility from a staff doctor at JSS.
(18) Marriage at such a young age (about 13) for a village girl is common and completion of the primary school grades a source of pride.

PART II – A Visit To Aghni Bai’s home will follow.

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