“Kanyakakku sarpa dosham kanunnu,” the astrologer passed his verdict: The maiden had the curse of serpents.
Malini sat, allowing the impact of the seer’s words to sink in.
Oh! The dusky skin of her thighs, pale-brown hairs on them… The slithery movements of the snakes tickled. Sometimes, her hairs got tangled on their rough scales. When she slept, they glided in sleek dancing motion between the threads of her dreams, twisting and coiling around her naked legs beneath the linen. Sometimes, the cold touch of their forked tongues awakened her to reality.
When she took a bath, they sneaked out from the shower, pounced on her as thin, cold streaks, and dazzled her breasts with chilly shivers. Sometimes they released a trickle of warmth between her legs.
They played along, all the while, tantalizing and stirring emotions in her, just to slap her with curses?
No, the seer was wrong. Somewhere in the intricacies in calculating the position of planets, he had faltered.
She remembered the jasmine garlands that the servants fetched from the market in large baskets. Small, white jasmine buds stacked in long coils. White serpents, fragrant reptiles…
The jasmine bloomed during the nights, and their heady smell wafting down from the upstairs lulled her to sleep.
Each morning, she saw the flower garlands in the dustbins that their maids brought from upstairs; crushed, brown stains tainting their pallor. Most of the flowers would be ripped off the thin, white cotton strings that held them together; lying strewn at the bottom, deprived of their brightness.
It was those smothered flowers that might have cursed her. Not the serpents; no, not those lovely, lively creatures.
“Are you listening?”
An old fang pierced, her eardrums ruptured. It hurt.
“Huh?” A shudder passed through her body.
A bald head came into focus. Magnified grey eyes behind the lenses stared at her. The tips of father’s white moustache quivered, as his eyes rolled behind the glasses.
“Yes, father. I …” She shifted on the sofa’s side, her fingers tracing unseen lines on its armrest. The chiseled teak felt smooth like glass against her touch.
Her father reclined on the other end, looking grimly at the astrologer who sat on the traditional mat woven out of grass stalks, intently scanning the horoscope.
“There is a hitch in her marriage.” The seer glanced up at her father and continued with his prediction. “Some misfortune is bound to occur on her wedding night. She must do the Naga Puja in the Sarpakkavu for forty days to overcome this curse.”
Can some rituals or offerings in the Temple of the Snakes avert what fate has in store for her? Malini wondered. Sins a person committed would haunt his generations. That was what her religious traditions dictated. Maybe, belief was only skin-deep; armor the believers donned for acceptance in a given community. Who’d care for what was written in the scriptures, when going against the teachings offered you enormous material gratification?
She glanced at her father.
Grey stubs became visible on his chubby cheeks as betel leaves and areca nut grinded between his jaws. The gold rings on his ears jumped as he nodded. “Carry on,” he said.
“This, her nineteenth year, is a crucial age,” the seer said. “The stars indicate that this stage decides the course of her life. So the rituals are important.”
“But…” Malini stopped, as the cold lash of a gaze from her father froze her to silence.
The astrologer resumed, “The stars foretell marriage before twenty. But we’ll have to eliminate the ‘Sarpa Dosham’, the curse of the serpents, with prayers and offerings to Naga Raja, the King of the Snakes.”
“What else do the stars say?” Father asked.
“Everything will be fine. Just take care of the rituals. That will avert any mishap on her wedding night,” the seer concluded. He gathered his kavadi, small cowry shells used in calculating the position of the stars, put them in a cloth bag and tied a lace around it.
Raman counted out ten five-hundred-rupee bills and handed them over to the astrologer.
Malini saw an eager smile light up his face as the seer accepted the notes; several times more than what he’d receive from an ordinary customer. Father could afford to pay lavishly, to extract accurate results.
The astrologer left. Raman spat out a stream of betel juice onto the lawn. Scarlet smeared the white roses in the garden. He wiped out the narrow red lines from the corners of his mouth. “You’ve started forgetting your manners. How often need I remind you not to interfere when men talk?” He referred to her protest when the astrologer had spread the shells of her destiny.
“I’m sorry, father,” Malini said.
Oh! The wretchedness that seeps down my legs, she thought. Can’t I express my feelings to my father?
“Tell me now. What did you want to say?” he asked.
“Father, I won’t be able to spend time for elaborate rituals. It will disrupt my studies.”
She wanted to complete her degree and get a job so that she could leave home; escape from those smothered, brown-stained jasmine.
“To hell with your studies; it’s your destiny that’s more important. Now’s your time for marriage, not after your hair turns gray.”
“But… I’m only nineteen. Can’t we wait till I graduate?”
“Bullshit. Remember, you have a dent in your destiny. We got to mend it. And what should you study for? You don’t need a job to sustain yourself.” Raman spat out a lump of betel and areca nuts.
Malini stood up. Girls from rich families were not supposed to work. She could almost feel the wretchedness seep down her legs. Involuntarily, she started for the bathroom.
“I have amassed enough wealth for generations,” Raman said.
And more sins than those generations could ever hope to seek penance for, Malini thought as she entered the restroom.
The stench of scotch arrived; the male scent of her brother. His tall figure loomed over her study table. His dark shadow swept over her laptop’s monitor.
“You’ll spend the rest of your life drawing these useless pictures on the screen. Why can’t you do something useful?” Ravi asked.
Perspiration struggled to break loose on her skin. Malini willed it back. She didn’t want her brother to smell her feminine scent. Her tongue ached to retaliate, but she didn’t want him to feel the ferocity of her rage. She bit her lower lip.
“I just don’t understand why you’re so indifferent,” he said.
Her lip throbbed achingly. Still, she held onto the reins of her anger. “I’m sorry. I’ll try to mend my ways,” Malini replied.
“I doubt it. Well, instruct the maids to keep ready all the four bedrooms upstairs. The houseboats and outhouses are full today. I’ve more tourists than I can handle.”
Ravi left. The male scent remained. A smell that wafted in the air like swirling fog, and it doused the odor of her sweat.
Backwaters of God’s Own Country flooded with boats overloaded with foreign tourists; more tourists to flood the bedrooms upstairs. More jasmine than the maids could handle.
White jasmine illuminated the dark void around Malini. Her father stood there, and his shadow spread a black veil over the brightness of the jasmine. Her brother approached, and his shadow swallowed their father’s shadow.
Father raised a hand and patted Ravi on the shoulder. “Well done, my boy. You’ll keep adding wealth to my empire. You’re such a fine boatman who knows how to row with his oars; a shrewd fisherman who knows where to lay the baits, how to haul the catch.”
The jasmine garlands twisted and coiled on the ground like mating serpents, and hissing sounds issued. Her brother laughed. The sounds resonated inside her head with a ricocheting reverberation. Her brother’s shadow loomed larger and larger as the jasmine whimpered. It moved closer, poised to engulf her.
The cold touch of a forked tongue woke her up from the reverie. It licked its way down her legs, and as it crept further down, she felt its warmth.
She should rid herself of the filth.
She had to take care of a lot of things, she’d have to hurry.
Malini heard footsteps on the staircase; rapid, heavy. She waited for the clamor to end. After a while, the sounds of passion erupted.
She was ready.
The smell of jasmine, coiled around her hair, braided in long dreadlocks like black cobras, propelled her forth as she stepped out of the bathroom.
She walked through the bedroom and out of its door. Stunned whistles of appreciation followed her.
She stepped into the next bedroom. Emissions of choked breath escaped as a girl pulled her head away from Raman’s lap, in answer to Malini’s footsteps.
Heads turned, and limbs ceased movement, as Malini treaded into the third bedroom.
Amidst the suffocating male odors in the fourth bedroom, the scent of Ravi was distinct. She stepped in, the impression of her feet silent on the marble floor.
She went straight to the dressing table, and stood for a moment in front of her Mother’s portrait; eyes closed in prayer.
“Why didn’t you let them know your eyes were open, you could see? Why couldn’t you lash out with the strength of your femininity?”
Her question cut through the sounds of passion.
Ravi stopped pumping. The girl beneath him coiled against a wall like an angered serpent, poised to strike.
Feet, soft as cotton pads, stomped the floor as the other girls ran for their clothes. Girls, who wore jasmine garlands coiled around their braids. An intoxicating smell hung in the room; the scent of jasmines that churned lust; flowers that brides embellished their hair with, on their wedding nights.
Hands pulled up trousers heaped around their feet, as the tourists heard her. Malini did not bother to count their numbers.
She walked towards her brother. “My body is young. Sell me like you sell the others. You wanted me to do something useful, right?”
Ravi closed his eyes against the fierce glow of his sister’s naked skin. His hands shot up, covering his ears.
Malini stepped closer to him and wrenched his hands away. “My body will fetch you a lot of money. It’s the only thing worthwhile to you, isn’t it?”
Serpents hissed. Forked tongues worked in and out as their mouth opened, revealing curved fangs. Their shining bodies wriggled in the heat of excitement. Malini felt the perspiration break loose on her glistening skin.
Malini saw her brother cringe as she stood before him, an overhead neon light rendering her naked skin aglow with its dusky glory. Her shadow swallowed him.
As the girls ran out of the door, Malini smelt the scent, her feminine odor. Perspiration, shining like crystal beads, kept breaking on her skin. She let it flow, allowed her smell to pervade in the thick air.
The wretchedness between her legs had ceased trickling.