Naag. Cobra. The very sound of its name stilled the heart and fired the mind.
Image courtesy Fred R via Flickr
Kaaliya was a dodger and a scrapper, to the task born. Like the snakes his forefathers had mastered for generations, he could wriggle and he could strike. His first conscious memory, from the time he was three, was the feel of a rat snake slithering through his hands. For the toddler, shaking a serpent by its head was like waving a rattle. It was the way of his people, to let the harmless ones flow through their huts and tents, their clothes and bedding, their pots and pans, their sons and daughters. In winter, many of their folk slept with their snakes in their patchwork quilts, their fat fullness as reassuring as a mother’s touch. The more lethal ones were kept apart, in a corner, in wicker baskets, lightly weighted down.
Before he learned to walk, Kaaliya knew that in these baskets slept the reigning deity of their lives—the flared black one whose mesmeric swaying sustained his people and their wanderings. The world was full of serpents, but there was only one that was god, only one that had an equal measure of beauty, grace, rhythm, and venom. No roadside trickster’s sleight-of-hand, no prestidigitator’s cheap illusions, no gamboling acrobat’s twists of limb could match the magic of Lord Shiva’s favorite as it rose to its striking stance and began to slowly sway, its sinuous head flared, its forked tongue darting. No sight in nature, no thunder, no cloudburst, no lightning, no storm, no gale, no hail, no flood, no fury, could stun the heart and fire the imagination like the dance of the divine killer. Loved by the gods and dreaded by men, for more than a thousand years the dark dancing one had kept his nomadic people alive, traveling with them in their woven baskets, garnering for them food and sustenance, lending to them its own fearsome and celestial aura. Every hut in the cluster had its own embodiment of this deity, and each family treated it with reverence and care. For the deity gave, but could also take away.
Naag. Cobra. The very sound of its name stilled the heart and fired the mind.
Kaaliya knew his own name was a reminder of the power and magic of the black one. In high winter, its basket slept under the patchwork quilt of his parents; and it was the one basket that always traveled with his father and uncles when they stepped outside the house. There were other coiled killers in the baskets, like the jack-in-the-box jalebia, darting to strike, its viper’s sac heavy with death, but none of them were gifted with either majesty or myth. On the road they were a quick preamble before the pungi began to sing and the real show of the black lord commenced.
In the far corner and most often in the sun there lay the muscular weight of the dozing python. This one was a bad deal: back-breaking to carry, incapable of turning a trick, with an appetite for chickens that was bankrupting, and impossible to hide or make a run with if a khaki or moral policeman suddenly appeared. Its size had an initial gasp-value but in no time at all the beast’s sluggishness and lack of malice leached it of all excitement. Many huts, in fact, no longer kept the big one.
Times had changed and the followers of the timeless Baba Gorakhnath had fallen afoul of democracy and modernity. New leaders, new laws, new fads had decreed that animals were more important than men, and that men who studied in colleges and wore pants and shirts and shoes knew more about being kind to animals than the men whose very lives and genes were entwined with the beasts. Had one of the men who pronounced these fiats ever slept with a serpent in their bed? Had one of them ever sliced strips of meat and lovingly fed them down a reptile’s gullet? Had one of them ever changed the soiled clothes in their baskets, and bought them chicks and eggs with scarce money? Had one of them ever wandered the world with no one else as kinsman—no wife, no child, and no parent—but the coiled one?
As they traveled through the burning plains of Gujarat and Rajasthan, the waving green fields of Punjab and Haryana, the badlands of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, in search of a new town and clientele, seeking a vacant lot and an ancient tree under which to set up their tortoise-like tents of bamboo sticks and tarpaulin, little Kaaliya became aware of the cursed life that was their lot. This large, wide world had no place for them, and wherever they went—Kaaliya riding on the back of the donkey, the cow, his uncles, older siblings—they were unwelcome. Everywhere there was a landlord or a policeman to shoo them away, everywhere he saw his father, and uncles beg and plead for a stretch of field where they could set up camp.
The story that never wore thin, the story a listener never forgot, was about the thirty-foot king cobra they had tracked thirty-five years ago in the dense jungles of Assam…
At such a time they were not the proud charmers of the dreaded black one, dressed in their resplendent saffron tehmat-kurtas, their regal turbans flashing their tails, their smooth voluptuous pungis issuing a music that identified them as unique in the universe; at such a time they were abject men, in soiled sweaty clothing, itinerant beggars, squatting on their haunches, their hands folded in supplication, asking for a temporary patch of the earth that no one was any more willing to give.
In the evenings, while the women and children and whippets idled about the wood fires and tortoise tents, the men smoked ganja and charas, drank any kind of alcohol they could lay their hands on, and talked up stirring stories of their past.
The story that never wore thin, the story a listener never forgot, was about the thirty-foot king cobra they had tracked thirty-five years ago in the dense jungles of Assam, ten of them for forty days, walking in tandem, working in tandem, pursuing a beast that had terrified entire villages and even felled wild elephants with the lash of its venom. It was said the very sight of the monster transfixed grown men and turned their bowels to water. This monarch of all snakes killed by rearing up to more than six feet—its swaying hood the size of four hand spans, its forked tongue shredding the air at blistering speed—and striking between the eyes. It was said that most men were dead before their bodies hit the ground. Those who escaped the bite fell into a state of delirium for weeks, convulsed by the memory of the giant reptile. Every attempt to capture it had floundered. Hunting squads by the villagers, a contingent of the local police, rangers from the far-off rhino sanctuary, and even a platoon requisitioned from the army. Though gigantic, the beast moved like the wind, a blur of black, and it was gone.
On several occasions, a volley of firing had convinced the trackers that they had their quarry, but it was as if its shining skin were amour and bullets glanced off it. And then some days later it was there again on a forest path, and a fresh body to be carried out. It was said the bodies were blue like deep water by the time they were brought back to the village. Finally word was sent to the great charmers of the north, and ten of them set forth, traveling by train and bus and jeep and cart for weeks. Kaaliya’s father was the youngest, a mere sixteen, under instructions to always follow the lead. The oldest, over sixty, was a man they called Guru Bijli Nath. He had been given the moniker Bijli, lightning, before he was ten. It was said he was the greatest snake-catcher of his age. Small and sinewy, he was quick as lightning and as blinding. No serpent could escape his hands, and he had a hypnotic gaze that immobilized any snake that looked at him. One walk in the forest after the rains and he would come back with a sackful of serpents that he emptied out in the middle of the settlement, allowing everyone to take their pick. By the time he was thirty he had travelled far and wide—Burma, Borneo, Afghanistan, Iran, Ceylon, Indonesia, Japan—and been christened Guru. If there was anyone who could stop this black demon, this king of serpents, it was Guru Bijli Nath.
But as the nine men who witnessed it that day, in the deep forest slopes of Assam, in the small clearing under a canopy of leaves that barely let in any light, as the men recalled for the rest of their lives, for a long moment they all felt that the great Guru Bijli had finally met his match. In the dying light of evening, with their hurricane lanterns moving the shadows, with every looping creeper around them looking like one more stalking serpent, the black king rose to its striking height, more than six feet off the ground, towering over the magical snakeman. The peerless Guru Bijli was still as a stone, his unblinking eyes watching the great flaring head sway. Never in his long life had he seen a beast so ferocious, so evil—no big cat, no wild boar, no rhino, nor wild elephant. He had tutored his squad to refrain from making a single movement once the standoff commenced. It was a needless instruction—the life had drained out of each of the nine charmers. Kaaliya’s young father was so without breath or heart that he was happy to die. He had no doubt the black king would dispatch them all after he had finished with the guru.
The greatest snake-catcher of the age, lying flat on his back, his eyes closed, said, “This is it. There are no more snakes for me to catch in this lifetime.”
For a long time everyone remained frozen in that tableau, the only moving thing the swaying hood and darting tongue of the giant serpent. Not a sound of insect or bird broke the spell. And then in a flash—in a sequence so fast that none could fully follow it—the beast struck with its fearsome head, but Guru Bijli was no longer there. He was on the serpent’s back, both his hands locked around the beast’s thrashing neck. The great black one now began to hiss louder than a steam engine and in an instant had dragged the world’s greatest snake-catcher to the ground, and was rolling him around and into his coils. Guru Bijli knew this was perhaps his last fight; he knew if one finger slacked from around the demon’s throat, he was dead. Dead before it withdrew its fangs from his skin. This serpent was a poison factory—beyond the pale of every herb and potion. For the first and last time in his snake-catching life, Guru Bijli screamed for help. “Save me, you fucking wastrels! Grab its tail! This is not a snake, you idiots, this is the messenger of the lord of death!” The panic in his voice—never heard before—galvanized the transfixed charmers. In a trice, the nine of them were astride fifteen feet of thrashing, whipping muscle and struggling to stretch it out. With the guru screaming instructions—from a long way off, locked around the head of the heaving beast—two of the charmers shimmied up the closest tree, and slowly, with straining sinews, the rest of them began to feed the beast’s tail to them. Soon four of them were strung out along the high branches, pinning down the lashing body by sitting on it. The black king was now in a place he had never been before, strung upside down, his body trapped at many places. Kaaliya’s young father, who was up in the tree, struggling with strong thighs and hands to quell the thick muscle moving under him, and looking down at the apocalyptic scene beneath, said he knew even then that if he lived for two hundred years he would never see a spectacle so awesome. In that small clearing, in the flickering light of the lanterns, the great serpent and the little master fought a primal duel, locked head-to-head, fangs bared. Man and beast, skill and fury, death and life, without flintlocks or swords, magic or tricks. The charmers said it was if they were watching the child Lord Krishna battle the hydra-headed sea serpent Kaaliya. Like the villagers on the shore, they knew the child-god must prevail but the scale of the tumult filled them with apprehension. Now only the great head of the scourge was near the ground, its black body a thick line going straight up into the trees. With the guru shouting encouragement, one of the trembling charmers knotted a twine around the neck of the serpent, leaving only a finger’s slack. And then using only his two thumbs, millimeter by millimeter, the guru pushed the noose over the beast’s brow and eyes, trapping the hood, clamping the fangs. When the snakeman leapt off its back—more battered than he had been in his entire life—the black king reared up with such menace that the charmers on the tree almost fell off with fright, while those on the ground almost fled into the forest. The guru’s ringing shout restored sanity, and brandishing their forked sticks two of the charmers corralled the thrashing neck of the serpent while three others held wide open the large tarpaulin sack they had borrowed from the army; and with the guru screaming abuse and instruction, the head of the beast was pushed deep into the sack and held there with forked sticks, and in mere minutes, coil on coil, all of the great black king was nestled in its confines.
Kaaliya’s father said no one spoke for the next one hour. They just sat in that forest enclosure, in the dancing shadows created by the lanterns, exhausted in limb, and tormented in the mind. They—ten of them—had subdued one of the great miracles of the world. In their bones they knew this magnificent creature, beloved of Lord Shiva, would not survive the custody of men. The greatest snake-catcher of the age, lying flat on his back, his eyes closed, said, “This is it. There are no more snakes for me to catch in this lifetime.”
The presentiment of the men was well founded. On the fifth day of its capture and display, amid the rejoicing and curiosity of the villagers, in the dead of night, as the charmers slept high on hooch, vengeful men wielding heavy iron daos chopped the black king into a hundred pieces. The great head was put on a bamboo spike planted into the ground, and before the sun was fully up the hundred pieces were snatched away by the villagers as memorabilia.
Full of wrath, the guru said, “I should have died and this king of snakes lived. These people deserved his terror.” Kaaliya’s father said that true to his word the guru, though he lived fifteen years more, never snared another snake. But he talked often of the black king. He would say, “In those burning eyes I saw everything—power and poison, divinity and death, magic and menace. We made a grave blunder. That was the greatest serpent in the world, and we captured and killed it. Ten cunning men against one magnificent serpent. Having seen it, we should have turned around and left—left the king alone to rule its forest world.”
There were other stories Kaaliya remembered, older, ancient, and secondhand. A hundred and twenty years ago, near Agra, there was a charmer, Siva Jogi, whose knowledge of the anti-venom herbs was so complete that he could actually bring back to life the poisoned dead. The only condition was that the victim be brought to him within twenty-four hours of being bitten to death. He had a way of applying his mouth to the wound and sucking out all the venom from the blood in one long, uninterrupted breath. No disciple could master both—the knowledge of the herbs and the technique of siphoning out the settled poison without killing oneself. The art of reviving the poisoned dead was lost after Siva Jogi. Under the moonless sky, light with ganja and alcohol, the charmers also waxed on about the great patrons of yore—benign zamindars and bejeweled kings—who had given them and their serpents adequate land and produce, and the dignity befitting an artist. A time when the charmers lived in plenty and were hailed wherever they appeared.
In a soft, deeply tired voice, Kaaliya’s mother told her six children, of whom he was the youngest, that all this talk was balderdash. There were no benign zamindars, and there was no halcyon past. The king cobra was a fantasy, and Siva Jogi a myth. Their lives had always been rough, driven as they were from place to place, never more than a week’s supply of grain in their sacks. And so, it had been for her parents, and their parents. But she admitted it had never been so brutally tough. She said men had now gone to the moon, and these days there was a cinema set in every house. The fanged one no longer aroused awe or curiosity. The few rupees, the few fists of flour that still came their way bore the stamp of casual pity.
Some of the more desperate ones even displayed a monitor lizard pickled in oil. Sold in little bottles or tiny plastic vials, the yellowy lubricant when applied to the rubber of penis produced the iron of phallus. Like all cures, it took time, like all cures it was mostly in the head. The medicine men did not stay around long enough to verify the results.
She knew that sometimes her man and his cousins had to sing the pungi for more than fifteen minutes before anyone above the age of eight would break step and care to linger. She knew that her man and his mates, several times a day, retreated under a tree to fill their heads with ganja so they could deal with the humiliation of being artists who had no takers. And that was not all. Not only were they artists facing rejection but they were also criminals now. Their work was outlawed, and it was not just the policemen they had to worry about. The real scourge was a new breed of fannekhans who came from the big cities of Delhi and Bombay and claimed to know what was best for their serpents and demanded that the local khakis enforce the law: take away their coiled beauties and threaten them with arrest. Some of these fannekhans—often young men and women, talking a broken Hindi—were also solicitous, promising that they had come to usher the charmers into a new way of life, that there would soon be other jobs waiting for them. Kaaliya’s mother hissed like her snakes, “Jobs! Yes, of course, my illiterate lord is now going to be put into a pant and a suit, and will sit in an office and sign papers!”
There was some money to be made as medicine men. Some of them—the few sharp talkers—were dishing out herbs and potions in the small towns, mostly for aches and pains and boils and ulcers and impotence and virility and barrenness. The trick had a six-to-eight-week play. Three to four weeks in one spot to establish an air of permanence and reliability. Ideally under an old tree, at the crossroads of inner lanes, clad in full saffron and turban, an array of dusty jars spread on a piece of matting, a small iron pestle for customizing the treatment, and a few pictures of different gods to reassure every kind of follower. Some of the more desperate ones even displayed a monitor lizard pickled in oil. Sold in little bottles or tiny plastic vials, the yellowy lubricant when applied to the rubber of penis produced the iron of phallus. Like all cures, it took time, like all cures it was mostly in the head. The medicine men did not stay around long enough to verify the results. The world was full of grief and there were other sufferers waiting. Three to four weeks to create familiarity; three to four weeks to milk the miserable; and then they were gone.
Every now and then, there was some money to be made from panicked residents who had been visited by a harmless snake. Like the medicine men, they had to then embark on a charade, to multiply the fear, awe, and relief. Kaaliya’s father and his uncles had the acting abilities of a tree. They could blow the pungi to an aching sweetness; they could make the dark lord rise from the basket and sway to their rhythm; they could trap any snake from any hole in the forest with patience and quicksilver hands; they could snip fangs of poison and suture the venom sacs; and they could walk and walk and walk to the edge of the earth and beyond. But they lacked the talent to become conmen. They made a hash of pretending a rat snake was a lethal viper or a sand boa a python in the making.
There was one other way to earn a living, but it was absurdly sporadic. The rustic gujjars loved the haunting sound of the pungi, and invited the snakemen to play it at their weddings and festivities. It meant squatting in full regalia for hours and hours and blowing and blowing until their lungs were empty and their aching cheeks the size of apples. But later there was always good food to eat and enough alcohol available to stun yourself. Some of the gujjars did not mind the snakemen bringing their waifs along, though others could be insulting.
Kaaliya had done the rounds before he was six and suffered many wounds and diminishments. He had walked the inner lanes of dusty little towns whose names he was too young to know and seen his father and uncles toil and grovel—blowing, beseeching, and squatting on the roadside like beggars—to collect a few coins and wrinkled rupee-notes. Their only succor seemed to be hashish; their only vent thrashing Kaaliya and the other small boys.
Kaaliya always saw his father either abject or angry. There was never enough to eat, and when any of his children fell ill, the father just looked the other way, doing nothing, waiting for them to heal or die. By the time Kaaliya was six he had lost a brother and a sister, one younger, the other older, to fevers that none of the herbs and potions could break. He had watched his father expressionlessly flow his dead siblings down the river, and then come home and embark on an orgy of intoxication.
Little Kaaliya hated his life, hated the endless trudging, and hated being a beggar in every town and lane he ever visited.
His mother was no solace. She was exhausted beyond emotion. Apart from everything to do with the tortoise-shell homes, she went out for hours every day into alien fields to harness grass for their mule and cow—the two could not be let out to find their own food because they were their only valuable possessions. Sometimes she also managed to steal a few carrots or turnips or potatoes or gourds from the nearby field. And sometimes the odd fruit—a few green guavas or mangoes from a fruiting orchard. His father always abused and slapped his mother for her thieving, and then promptly proceeded to eat what she had stolen. Later, the mother beat Kaaliya and his elder sister—the others were much too old—before she dropped asleep exhausted on the floor between the hissing wicker baskets and her sniveling children.
When they moved, which was every few weeks, it fell to her, with some help from her small sons, to dismantle the house—the bamboo sticks, the shreds of tarp and plastic, the cooking stones, the rush mats and patchwork quilts, the many baskets filled with the coiled ones—and then some days later, outside a new town, in the vicinity of a defining tree and an enabling pond or tube well, set it up again. The father sat with the other men, looking from the corner of his eye, pulling on his chillum, the artist of the serpents who could not be expected to stoop to such mundanity.
Little Kaaliya hated his life, hated the endless trudging, and hated being a beggar in every town and lane he ever visited. He felt they were the only houseless people in the world. Everywhere else he saw solidity, people living in firm, immovable homes. With each day, Kaaliya grew into a very angry child, unafraid to shout, scream, and protest. His exasperated father would say, “This bastard’s skin will peel off like a snake’s with thrashings, but he’ll continue to bark like a mad dog!” Every now and then the boy would arraign his mother, demanding to know when they would stop walking, when would they live in an immovable house, when would they begin to give alms rather than seek them, and when would his father stop behaving like a beast. The weary woman said all of it would happen when the sun swallowed the moon permanently and the rivers ran with milk and flowers bloomed all over the desert and men began to fly like birds and snakes began to talk like men and the gods began to look at everyone with an equal eye.
But Kaaliya knew there was another way. When he was eight, and they were camped outside a big town full of famous buildings and minarets, one evening there had been a sudden visitor who had created commotion in the group. He was dark like one of them but so beautifully turned out as to almost seem fair. The red shirt, the grey trousers, the shining black shoes, the oiled hair combed across the forehead, the gleaming gold-colored watch on the wrist, and most dazzling of all, the ringing laughter and the smiling, confident manner.
Kaaliya and the other children had watched mesmerized from their tents as the young man sat amid the elders, regaling them with stories and talking to them as more than an equal. He was Shambhu Nath’s second son who had fled the fold as a twelve-year-old and gone to the great metropolis of Delhi to find his fortune. Now he worked in an office that printed a famous paper, and his job was to rush around the city on a motor scooter, carrying important messages. He said he was called a Rider, and the outcome of many key events depended on his speed and reliability. Now he narrated ribald stories of the kind of cars the sahibs in his office had, and the things they did in them. The awed and amused charmers said, “Arre saale Rider, at least we keep our snakes in baskets, these sahibs of yours carry them around inside their pants!” Rider, pulling on a cigarette, laughed, “Theirs are not like ours, tau. Theirs are small—like a jalebia!”
Kaaliya dreamt of becoming the Rider, tearing around on motor scooters, wearing pants and red shirts, delivering crucial messages, and watching the sahibs in big cars taking out their small jalebias to give to the fair memsahibs. Rider said in Delhi there were joys and pleasures they could not imagine. Sweet-smelling restaurants and cool cinema halls and big shops with glittering wares and beautiful women clogging the streets and parks like paintings and buildings of glass and the amazing Qutub Minar, without a doubt the biggest jalebia in the world. For the rest of his life Kaaliya thought of the great minaret as a giant saw-scaled viper, head pointing into the sky.
That summer day in a small town in Rajasthan, in the searing heat of afternoon, when his thwarted father—with not ten rupees to show for hours of blowing and scraping—began to mercilessly thrash him, Kaaliya was filled with a black rage that knew no limits. All morning at the top of his small voice he had canvassed the snakes, all morning he had held out his small hands seeking a hard coin, all morning he had felt thirst and hunger claw his insides, all morning he had seen men and women go about their lives asking for nothing, and with every passing moment he had known that his father’s life could not be his. And when his father began to beat him, even banging the voluptuous pungi on his back, he knew he was running away from there. He was going to Delhi; he was going to be the Rider.
He turned out an alley cat, snarling, spitting, scratching, biting, and forcing respect out of others. He never begged for anything. He always demanded, stole, negotiated, and cheated. If he ever came up against a tougher adversary, he located a harmless snake from the Paharganj alleys, and swiftly restored the balance of terror.
Spitting on his father, he tore away from his grip, and as the miserable charmer fell into the sleep of hashish, the little boy ran and ran, the blood pounding in his head. At the station, a train was waiting for him and it left the moment he was on board. It took him three days, many queries, and three different trains to reach Delhi, where Dhaka was waiting for him—the black face in the compartment—as Kaaliya wept with fear like Chini would many years later, struck with terror at seeing so many people, so much bustle, so much noise, so many trains.
The charmer’s angry little son never became a Rider, nor did he see rich sahibs in fancy cars showing their little jalebias to fair memsahibs, nor did he for many many years visit a fancy eatery or go to see the biggest jalebia in the world, the Qutub Minar, but he did take to the freedom of the platforms and tracks with a wild exuberance. He turned out an alley cat, snarling, spitting, scratching, biting, and forcing respect out of others. He never begged for anything. He always demanded, stole, negotiated, and cheated. If he ever came up against a tougher adversary, he located a harmless snake from the Paharganj alleys, and swiftly restored the balance of terror. He never thought of his family and the misery of those nomadic days, but every night when he soaked his rag in Shiva’s prasad and stuck it under his nose he only heard one sound—the haunting, beckoning whine of the pungi—and saw just the one image, the flaring head of the black king as it rose above the rainforests of Assam, filling the sky and striking awe into the world.
When Dhaka’s mentor Bham Bihari died some years later—many bottles of solution delivering him to eternally juicy green paddy fields—Dhaka became the keeper of his iron trident, the undisputed leader of the gang, and Kaaliya became his chosen henchman. Between Dhaka’s violence and Kaaliya’s cunning their gang never lacked for food or the solution. Only once did the snakeboy feel a pang when he saw a group of weather-beaten charmers alight from a train, their turbans soiled, their clothes frayed, their earrings dulled, their juttis torn, their eyes vacant, carrying little children, baskets of coiled serpents, bulging pungis, bundles of pots and pans, and remaining rags. And yet, his instinct was to hide: among them could be someone who once knew him. But the group was sightless with misery, moving inside its own cocoon of aches.
Kaaliya liked Chini from the moment he saw him. He was so different from the rest of them with his smooth fair skin, his small long-lashed eyes, and his lovely straight hair. A great maternal urge rose in him. This flower was not to be sullied by all the gutter rats around; this one was to be cherished and nurtured.
With Dhaka feeling the same way, Kaaliya took the little boy into his embrace, gently initiating him into their subterranean way of life, tutoring him in the deep joys of the solution, and earning his loyalty and love by telling him fascinating stories of the coiled ones—the spitters and the strikers, the two-faced and the hooded, the poisonous and the pliant.
The one story little Chini demanded to hear again and again was the tale from his part of the universe—of the great black king. Each time the peerless beast rose to its full striking height in the clearing of the rainforest and locked eyes with the greatest snake-catcher of his time, the excitement in the boy became so great that he had to clutch his penis to stop himself from peeing.
Tarun J. Tejpal is a journalist, publisher, novelist, and founder of India’s leading news magazine, Tehelka. He has been named one of India’s most influential people by The Guardian, Businessweek and Asiaweek. A celebrated literary novelist as well as a journalist, his fiction has been awarded France’s Prix Mille Pages and was a finalist for the Man Asian Literary Prize. His debut novel, The Alchemy of Desire, was hailed by V.S. Naipaul as “a new and brilliantly original novel from India.” His novel The Story of my Assassins will be published this fall by Melville House. Tejpal lives in New Delhi.