Kali of Kalighat, Chitpur, Bengal, 1870
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Lakshmi Kannan

Ratna selected a nice, wide branch of the champaka tree and leant back on it comfortably. Hmm… it was cool in here, for the tree was thickly covered over with leaves. They almost hid her inside. She raised her face and smiled at the birds chirping on the branches above. Then she rose, adjusted her skirt and climbed over branches that were higher, with leaves that were very dense. She selected a broad branch once again and lay back on it. Now it wouldn’t be easy for anyone to find out where she was. Wouldn’t be easy at all.

Reclining on the branch, Ratna tried to close her eyes, but they remained half open. From her lowered eyelids, she could see them. Rows and rows of them. A whole army of big, black ants. They filed past her arm in an orderly file, carrying something to eat in their ‘hands’. Only recently had Ratna got over her fear of being bitten by the big ants, and the pain it could cause. She could now handle the ants easily enough. She would just play possum. If the ants happened to move past at a close range, she simply remained motionless, as if dead. That helped. The ants did not get startled on their way. They just filed past, minding their own business.

Aha… if one takes refuge in this champaka tree, one can be transported into another world altogether. Even so, Ratna could not fight down the annoyance in her mind. She struggled to get rid of the irritation that fumed within her. Che! Look at these people at home who consider themselves to be the ‘elders’. What sort of people are they, actually? They don’t speak about anything clearly or in a straightforward manner. They seem to be confused and finally end up confusing us too. They tell me all the time: Don’t interrupt us while we talk, don’t talk out of turn, don’t bother us by asking so many questions, don’t argue endlessly, don’t do this, don’t do that and so on. If I ask a question, they want to avoid the point, so they just wriggle out evasively and escape. They can’t even explain why they wouldn’t give me a straight answer. Hell!

All that I said — rather, pleaded for — was Nagapushpam, the flowers of the screwpine. ‘Please don’t do my jadai alankaram with jasmines this time, I said. Decorate my braided hair with Nagapushpam instead,’ I had begged. But no way! Ratna closed her eyes and thought about the festivals and the jadai alankaram done during those days. Special days such as Sankranti, Deepavali, Dussehra and Navaratri. The little girls of the household would be dressed in sparkling silk pavadais with matching blouses. The elderly women of the household, that is the mothers, grandmothers or the aunts, would then adorn the girls with ancestral pieces of family jewellery and stand back to fondly admire the loveliness of their efforts. In addition, they would also do a jadai alankaram. They brushed the hair of the girls till it shone, braided it, then decorated it in myriad ways with a variety of flowers — different kinds of jasmine, roses, kanakambaram and of course, the odorous green southern wood, the marukkozhundu. Occasionally, they would also include Nagapushpam, work lovely patterns on it with other flowers. Using a needle and thread, they stitched the flowers over the sword-shaped petals of Nagapushpam. Then, the strong odour of Nagapushpam would easily dominate the rest of the flowers, penetrating the nostrils. It never failed to attract attention. Ratna remembered the last time her hair was decorated with Nagapushpam. How proudly she had strutted around that day, the cynosure of all eyes. Wherever she went, people turned to look at her and her braided hair. She had felt very important indeed on that day, but…

All that is over. The family does not allow Nagapushpam to even enter the house anymore. Not since two years ago. And if Ratna asks ‘Why?’ nobody answers her. Eventually, when she eavesdropped on the elders as they were whispering amongst themselves, she got to know the reason for it. It seems a friend of the family had bought a lot of Nagapushpam, strips and strips of them, because it was the favourite flower of that family. Then, sure enough, a snake had got into their house. It bit the little girl who had a jadai alankaram with Nagapushpam in her hair. The little girl died instantly. After that sad incident, the family wouldn’t so much as touch a Nagapushpam if they chanced upon it at a florist’s. They wouldn’t even talk about it. They only exchanged frightened looks with one another.

Ratna loved the fragrance of Nagapushpam very much. Now, for this year’s Navaratri, she had begged and pleaded with the elders in her family for a jadai alankaram with Nagapushpam. But everybody, just about everybody including her gentle mother Ahalya, refused to comply with her request. Let them suffer now. I’ll make it real hard for them to find me. Let them run around all over the place in search for me. I must torment them. Then they will come begging. I’m not going to get down from this tree. I’m not going to eat. And I’m not going to talk to anyone. Yes!

Ratna reclined on the branch and closed her eyes. She felt something crawling on her ankle. It was a big, black ant. Hey you! Just go your way, will you? Get on with your work and don’t you bite me, OK?… she sent the thought out to the ant. The black ant went past her ankle and moved over to the trunk of the tree. The garden below was soaking in the evening hour, the hour of dusk, a time when some of the buds slowly folded up their petals. It was laden with the pleasant fragrance of the many odorous flowers — parijata, jasmine, roses, tube-roses, mistress of the night and marukkozhundu. A collective redolence rose from the flower-beds and bushes.

‘Ratna, hey Ratna! Don’t keep Nagapushpam in your hair, because if you do, it’ll approach you. Then bite you.’

‘But what will bite me, Amma?’

‘I told you the other day, don’t you remember? Come now, you remember only too well, so don’t pretend. Just understand one thing, my child. You shouldn’t even utter its name in the evenings’.

The more they warned her about it, the more curious she grew. If the dreaded thing is a snake, then which of the snakes will approach her? The rattlesnake which is called changili karuppan in Tamil? Or the viper with black linear markings? Will it be the green whip-snake by any chance, or the king cobra himself? Ratna had learnt the names in her zoology class. Once, when she was taken to the Snake Park in Chennai by her Mama, her mother’s brother, along with the rest of the children in the family, she had seen a wide variety of snakes. It was very interesting. That sluggish boa constrictor, for instance. It looked so hopelessly harmless, the way it was lying around sleepily. The children got totally engrossed in the sight of the snakes that crawled and curved around sinuously, wiggling and meandering under their eyes. Some of the snakes slithered along gracefully, catching the rays of the sun on jewelled bodies that shone dazzlingly, their eyes glinting like bright gems. Ratna remembered how the cobra had put out its tongue delicately between its poison fangs every other minute, hissing away. How quietly, how very nonchalantly, the snakes crawled along tortuously, not caring the least for the awestruck, admiring crowd milling around them…

And yet, it was a somewhat pathetic sight, thought Ratna, to see the snakes clustered around like that in a pit that was shaped like a well, or to see them coiled around the stumps of dead branches that were painted in bright, artificial colours. Why don’t they release the snakes to roam free in the open?

Ratna would often study anthills to find out what was happening in there. ‘Shh! Ratna, don’t get too close. Anthills are the homes of snakes!" her mother would warn. But Ratna would stand near the anthills for hours on end till her legs ached. Once, she went to the extent of breaking up the sandy towers of an anthill in the hope that snakes would tumble out of their collapsed homes. It fell back in a sandy heap out of which a few red ants came scurrying. That was about all. It had been a very hot day. People say snakes come out if they find the heat unbearable, but not a single snake had come out.

"Ratna, Ratna!"

Ah… that’s mother, looking for me. Even if I hide myself in one of the highest branches of the champaka tree, mother can find me out. Ratna’s mother Ahalya stood below the tree, peering up into the branches.

"There you are. Caught you! I know you’ll be here. Come, my child, come down. It’s getting late."

"No, I won’t."

"Whyever not?"

"I just won’t."

"What?!"

"I like it here. I want to stay here."

"The sun will set anytime now. Then all kinds of insects and worms will creep out. It’s very dangerous. Come down, there’s a darling."

"There’s no danger whatever over here. There are just a few black ants and squirrels, that’s about all."

"That’s what you think. But once it gets dark, all kinds of insects and sna…" Ahalya bit her lip and stopped midway in her sentence. Her face was suffused with fear as she looked up at Ratna.

 


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One of the best-known contemporary writers of Tamil, Lakshmi Kannan lives in Delhi