Ratna had often heard her grandmother, her fatherís mother, tell Ahalya in her presence: "Now look here, if you donít have a male child, then your life will be unfulfilled, empty of meaning. A womb that doesnít swell with a male child is but a vacuum. After all, if we donít give a male child to our family, thereís really no point in our living, is there?" Whenever grandmother talked like that, Ahalya would go red in the face, shrink back and tremble all over. Was it out of a sense of shame, sadness or bitterness or was it because she was very angry? Ratna could never say for sure. Ahalya would instantly rush to her own room. And if Ratna happened to follow her, she would pull the child towards herself, bury the little girlís face in her bosom and plant frenzied kisses on her brow, on her cheeks, crying out, "My very own little Ratna, Nagaratna, my little gem, my golden girlÖ" She would then burst into tears.
Ratnaís search for deadly snakes in gardens and anthills ended many, many years later, after she got married and moved into a house on Rash Behari Avenue in Calcutta with her husband and her little daughter. Because there were plenty of snakes in the nearby districts, plenty that roamed freely in the open, just as they did in parts of the southern district of Salem and up north in Rajasthan. These were not snakes that stood at a distance, sculpted and frozen in stone. They would not accept offerings of flowers, sweets and milk from desperate women who worshipped them. They were venomous snakes in green and brown that crawled craftily about, taking on the colours of their world, blending into situations without ever giving away their own true colours. In the neighbouring state of Bihar, in places like Katihar, Fasia Tola, Teja Tola and Budhuchak, and in some districts of Rajasthan, these poisonous snakes got into bushes and grass and houses ó even large, wealthy houses. They got in without the help of Nagapushpam. The snakes entered the saurighar, the room reserved exclusively for childbirth in a house, and hid themselves inside. In the various saurighars all over the districts of Bihar, Rajasthan and Salem, in fact wherever mothers gave birth to the tiny little Nagaratnas of the world, one could find these snakes promptly swinging into brisk action.
The snakes functioned by taking on different forms and shapes. They got into the delicate spinal cord of the newborn Nagaratnas, bent it backward and snapped it, helping the midwife kill the female baby. The snakes transformed themselves into ropes, twined around the neck of the tender, young female infant and strangled her. Or they turned into a large, black rock salt, blocked the mouth of a baby till she struggled for breath and choked to death. They even metamorphosed into fertiliser and finished their mission by poisoning the baby. They changed into various forms. They became ropy dough that was coiled around the lid of the large earthen pitcher to seal off all air. The female infant stuffed inside struggled for breath. Slowly, very slowly indeed, they granted freedom to the female soul that was trapped inside the pitcher and helped the midwife again in snuffing out the young life.
The snakes also entered the bodies of husbands whose wives protested against the killing of their baby daughters and who sobbed and screamed. The snakes made the husbands hiss in fury and spread out their hood. They slithered into the strong, muscular arms of these fathers of tiny daughters, helped them fling their own infants against the walls of the saurighar till the tender young brains spilled out. Snakes and more snakes. Venomous snakes, wherever you looked.
But what happened to the Ahalyas? Where have the Ahalyas of the world disappeared to? Ahalyas, whose bodies were wasted by fasting and praying for a male child, Ahalyas who were all gentleness? Ahalyas who wrap a simple cotton saree around their thin figures and exude the smell of mother in their skin and their hair? The motherís smell. A pleasant blend of the scent of flowers, camphor, turmeric, of affection, milk, talcum powder, the scent of love, kumkum, kindnessÖcanít really describe it. Where are the Ahalyas for all those babies in the country who are born by mistake as little Nagaratnas?
It has been a long time since Ahalya passed away. Nagaratna was told by her family that it was not right to keep on mourning and brooding for her mother, for after all Ahalya had died well, hadnít she? She had died a sumangali. That was auspicious. Ahalya was therefore allowed to vanish from their lives without a murmur. She faded like a lovely, remembered perfume.
But Ratna tried to recapture the redolence of Ahalya to an extent, with an old yellow trunk that had belonged to her mother. It was Ratnaís treasure-trove now. She would not let anyone touch it. It was packed with her motherís things. The beautiful, classy silk sarees which she never wore, the exquisite jewellery that she never wore, not even once, the familiar soft, much-washed simple cotton sarees which she always wore, the sandalwood figurines wrapped in silk to preserve the aroma, the table linen and the cover for the radio which she had hand-embroidered in floral patterns, her old diary, old sepia photographs in black and brown tints, and many other personal belongings. Occasionally, whenever Ratna opened it, it would hit her strongly, the smell that rose from the trunk. It would wrap around her overpoweringly, till she was lost in it.
Motherís smell. One can always recognise it. Unfailingly. A mix that touches the aroma of other things even as it fades. Dried petals, clove, camphor, sandalwood, frankincense and all other loved scents. All except Nagapushpam.
Translated from the original Tamil story Poonagam by the author
One of the best-known contemporary writers of Tamil, Lakshmi Kannan lives in Delhi