"What did you say, Amma?" asked Ratna, from the top branch.
"Nothing, nothing at all. You come down quickly. Aren’t you my very own little Ratna, my little gem, my golden girl?"
"Amma, did you say snake just now?"
"Shh! I said nothing of the sort! I was about to say insects. All right now, come down quickly. How long am I to stand here? I’ve work to do."
"I’ll come down on one condition."
"I want a jadai alankaram with Nagapushpam."
"O god! With Nagapushpam? We’ve been telling you for your own good. That flower has a strong, intoxicating smell. It’ll give a headache to a little girl like you. Do you know, sometimes the smell is so strong that it can even make you bleed through the nose. Besides, you know very well, don’t you, that the smell of Nagapushpam attracts sn…" Ahalya stopped dead again, mid-sentence.
"Were you about to say snakes?"
"Ratna! How many times have I asked you not to utter that word after dark? This has become a big joke, or what? Now come down soon like a good girl, come."
"What about Nagapushpam then?"
"We’ll talk about it later. You come along now."
Ahalya looked very tired. Ratna was sorry that she was harassing her dear mother. With an agile leap, she alighted from the tree and wrapped her arms around her mother’s waist the minute she touched the ground.
"My darling girl, my very own little gem, my frisky baby gazelle. You’re the Nagaratna of the house." Ahalya whispered the last line as she stroked her daughter’s cheeks and hair.
Occasionally, only very occasionally, would Ahalya call her girl by her formal name, ‘Nagaratna’. And that, only if no one happened to be around. ‘Nagaratna, Nagaratna’ she would call out softly, whispering into Ratna’s ears as though it was a secret. In the beginning, Ratna had kicked in protest against the name. It sounded so very old-fashioned. There were plenty of Nagaratnas in Mysore. Teachers, family cooks, grandmotherly types. Some of them added on an ‘Amma’ to their names in deference to their age and carried their names heavily, as ‘Nagaratnamma’. "I don’t want a name like that," she said resentfully. "All the boys and girls in my school tease me. Laugh at me." She had her way. Her parents and other elders of the family agreed to shorten her name to just ‘Ratna’ in the school records.
Ratna. Literally, a gem. "A gem of a girl," they said fondly, pampering her on festival days. They would dress her in fine silk pavadai and blouse, her hair smoothly brushed, braided and adorned with fresh flowers. Sometimes a length of kanakambaram would be coiled around her hair. They would fix that beautiful Jadabillai on her hair at the back of her head. It was a jewel that was the pride of the family. Exquisitely crafted in the shape of a large cobra, it had a broad hood spread out, with two large rubies on either side for eyes that glowed lustrously, like coals. The superior rubies dripped blood in their rich colour. A rare piece of jewellery that was stunningly regal. Whenever they took it out of the velvet box in which it nestled and fixed it on Ratna’s hair, her whole body tingled and flushed with pride. She felt greatly honoured.
Ratna had been surprised to learn that the word ‘Naga’ (cobra) was entwined with her formal name. She wondered about it. The elders in the family, who objected to her uttering the very word ‘snake’, and who hushed her instantly, the same elders who exchanged frightened whispers about snakes, they had merged the name of the fearful cobra with hers. But why? Why did they name me ‘Nagaratna’? She found the answer one day.
That was the day of Nagapanchami. For the puja that was a part of the ritual, Ratna had accompanied her mother and her Athai, her father’s sister, to the temple. Inside the temple, her mother Ahalya joined the other women who had gathered there. All of them worshipped the large, sculpted stone snakes of the temple. Ratna looked around. Good lord. Such very large stone Nagas (cobras). Some of them had a wide hood spread out, while some others had several heads. All of them were frozen in stone. The women garlanded them with soft, fragrant flowers. Many of them adored the stone snakes with Nagapushpam. One of the women placed two large strips of Nagapushpam on either side of the Naga, prayed and did her pranam. Some other women fed the Nagas by placing sweets in their mouths. They also poured milk in the mouths. Then they went around in circumambulation. Ratna’s eyes were riveted on her mother as she came round along with the other women, her head bent over her two hands that were pressed together in prayer. Ahalya whispered her prayers as she went around, a simple, soft, much-washed cotton saree clinging to her slim figure.
She often fasted on Shashti, Ekadasi and other special days. It showed on her worn-out, wasted body, which was now silhouetted by the simple handloom saree. She had given up eating snake-gourd, something she loved very much.
But this is strange! When they are so frightened of the very sight of a snake, why do they worship the same snake so fervently when it stands sculpted in stone? How many times would these women go round and round in circumambulation? My poor mother. Her legs will ache. One of the women in a purple saree was talking to Ahalya: "Why do you whisper your prayers like that, Ahalya?" she mocked. "Say them loudly so that this time the god Nagaraja can hear them right and grant you a male child!"
"Oh, be quiet," the woman in green chipped in with a laugh. "Poor Ahalya, she hesitates to raise her voice in prayer because Nagaraja, king of the cobras, disappointed her last time. Instead of giving her a Naganna, he gave her a Nagaratna, a girl child, tch, tch!"
"Yes," said the purple saree, "There she stands, the little girl." She pointed at Ratna, as the green saree laughed.
Is that how I got my name? Was it the snake that gave me to Amma? Do snakes make babies? If by mistake the baby is born female, do they still have to fuse the name of ‘Naga’ along with the girl’s name? And is that done out of fear? Do we worship that which we fear? Or do we fear whatever we worship? Perhaps women are afraid of living without a male child. Because a woman’s mother-in-law, father-in-law, husband and relations jeer at her. Is that what women are really scared of?
One of the best-known contemporary writers of Tamil, Lakshmi Kannan lives in Delhi