In the village of Honnur , there once lived a farmer. He had six sons who were all hard working boys, except for Subbu the youngest. Subbu did not like work of any kind. He loved to loiter in the shady groves behind his house. Here he learnt to imitate the call of birds and the cry of animals. What he loved best was to lie under a shady tree and play his flute. The first flute Subbu played was made out of the stem of a papaya leaf. He was thrilled that he could play many tunes. Now he was determined to buy a real flute. So he saved each paisa his mother gave him, and when he had enough, he went down to the market and bought a flute.
“What a good-for-nothing son I have!” said his father, “Why has God punished me with such a burden?”
His mother too scolded and threatened to starve him if he didn’t help his father and brother in the fields.
“Why should we feed you when you do no work?” she asked, “Look at your brothers, how they toil from dawn to dusk. You are no weakling. You eat more than anyone else, and your muscles are quite strong.”
“Oh Mother!” Subbu cried, “Don’t scold me. I hate the fields. But someday I’ll learn a trade
I love. Then I’ll earn a lot of money.”
“Idle talk!” said his mother, “You will see us all to our graves before you decide to work.”
But Subbu had already decided what he wanted to be. One day, while rambling through the woods, he came upon a tiny hut. Hearing the strains of the flute, he went closer to investigate. He saw an old man in a loin cloth, squatted on the ground, playing his flute. Before him was a large snake that looked like a cobra. It shook its head from side to side, as the old man swayed before it while playing his flute.
Subbu watched enchanted, until the man persuaded the snake into its basket. Then he went closer, and spoke to the man.
“I have seen the way the snake observes you. It is wonderful to watch. I too would like to become a snake charmer. I can play the flute very well. Will you teach me how to do it, kind father?”
He brought out his flute which he carried with him, tucked in his waist band.
“You play very well,” said the man.
“Yes, that is all I can do.”
The old man liked Subbu’s cheerful face and promised to teach him the art of snake charming. Subbu came faithfully each day, and played before the snake, until it performed to perfection.
“Give me the snake,” he said one day.
The old man thought for a while. Then he said, “I’ll give you the snake, but you must pay me twenty rupees. Catching a snake is not so easy. I have to wander about in the forest until I find one. I have to remove its fangs and then train it. I think twenty rupees is a reasonable price, my son.”
Subbu was very downcast. How would he get twenty rupees? It would take him a very long time to collect that much. For several days, he stayed away from the snake charmer. He sulked about the house until his mother began to wonder if he was ill. She forced him to drink herbal bitters. But whatever she gave him, his spirits did not revive.
Divali was being celebrated, and with it, Subbu had a stroke of good luck. His father and brothers gave him some money to buy crackers and sweets. Counting them out, he found he had only five rupees. Taking all of it, he ran down to the snake charmer’s house.
“Ah! Where have you been all these days?” asked the old man. “I thought you had moved to another village.”
“Look Father,” Subbu said, “I have five whole rupees. Take this and give me the snake. As I get money, I’ll pay you the rest.”
Subbu looked so earnest that the man didn’t have the heart to refuse him. Something told him that the boy would keep his word. He handed the flat round basket to Subbu, who ran all the way home.
“Mother, Mother,” he shouted, “I won’t be lazy anymore. I’ll bring home plenty of money.”
He proceeded to show his mother the little act that the snake could perform.
Each morning Subbu started his rounds, showing his snake tricks to people. Many gathered to watch his performance, and gave him money. Within a month, Subbu was able to settle his debt with the old man.
Now Subbu began to visit distant villages. Wherever he went, he was followed by a large crowd of children. In the neighboring village of Bennur , there lived a little girl called Minoo. She never missed a single performance. She would laugh and clap her hands each time the snake performed. He made it a point to visit Minoo’s village once a fortnight.
It was Tuesday, and Subbu was there again. The child had saved fifty paisa to see Subbu’s act. But her mother had gone to the bazaar, and Minoo had to mind her baby sister until her mother returned.
“I’ll miss the show if she doesn’t come soon,” Minoo fretted, “Why does she take so long?”
A large crowd of children had gathered around Subbu. Minoo was not there, but he couldn’t wait any monger. The flat basket was placed in the centre of the circle. Subbu held the flute to his lips, and began to play and sway before the basket. Then he skipped around the basket, the cow bells on his anklets in rhythm to the strains of the flute. Slowly the lid of the basket moved up, and the snake stuck its head out. The group of children held their breath as the snake slithered out of the basket. It moved its head gracefully from side to side as Subbu squatted before it.
Then Minoo came panting, and tried to make her way through the crowd. The children gave her a push, and she felt right in front of the snake. Angry at being disturbed, the snake raised its head. Minoo screamed and the snake struck. The child fainted away in fear.
Subbu was alarmed.
“No, no,” he shouted, “The snake cannot kill. It has no fangs.”
But Minoo had already fainted, and her face looked pale and lifeless.
Subbu who was only a boy of twelve, was sure that Minoo was dead. Quickly he picked up his basket, and ran as fast as his legs could carry him. He did not stop until he reached his village.
“The child is dead, the child is dead. Oh! Why did I ever become a snake charmer?”
He ran to the house of the old man, and thrust the basket at him.
“I don’t want it. Oh! curse the day when I ever set eyes on the snake,” he cried. Then he went home, leaving the old man staring after him.
Subbu’s eyes were red with weeping. His mother was worried.
“What has happened to you? Why are you crying so bitterly?”
“Mother, I have been punished for my lazy life. In future, I will work in the fields like my brothers.”
“Why, why? What has brought about this sudden change?”
Subbu poured out his story between sobs.
“Oh Mother! To think that I have killed such a lovely child!”
Subbu’s mother was frightened. Perhaps the police were looking out for her son.
“You must not tell this to anyone. And don’t go into the village for a few days,” she warned.
When Minoo fainted, the villagers had rushed to her side, and sponged her face with a wet cloth. She soon recovered.
“Where is the snake?” she asked, “Did you kill it?”
Only then did the villagers look out for Subbu. But he had vanished.
“The scamp has run away. And a good thing too. Otherwise, he would have got a thrashing,” they said.
They carried Minoo back to her house where she soon recovered her spirits. Each week, she saved fifty paisa for the snake charmer and listened for the strains of his flute. But he never came back again.
Subbu worked hard in the fields, and never spoke much to anyone. His father and brothers were surprised at the change in him. Sometimes at night, he lay awake thinking of little Minoo’s pale face, and his pillow would be wet with tears. It was many years later that he came to know that Minoo was alive. But by then, he had been cured of his craze for snake charming.