He was waiting for her in the dark of the roadside shelter. It was an unearthly hour. He had only the hushed jingle jangle of his own jewellery for company. A casual passer-by would see only the dull reflected moonlight from a tiara or an epaulet, but who would pass by at this time of the night? Even the local bandits would be asleep. And why should he worry about the bandits? As for the lady, she already knows the when and the where.
As he waited, Shasta thought that the old man must be up to his tricks again. They hadn’t met each other for a while now. But Shasta knew very well that this must be something serious, for the old man was well past his prime for such a wanton show-off of power, summoning them just for his personal pleasure.
Shasta heard the familiar wafting footfalls and the smell of jungle geranium flowers. She was there. The red sari, the nose ring, and everything as he had seen her last. And many times earlier. That’s when he noticed the curved sword – held up, not so threateningly, more like the baton held by a general.
“Why the sword, Devi?”
The twinkle in Devi’s eye shone brighter than her nose ring, “Keeping an appearance. It’s been a while. Thought of impressing the old man.”
Shasta chuckled and remembered how these two would always flirt a bit before getting down to business.
“He has charms, that old man,” said he.
They found the old man in the easy chair on the veranda facing west. His eyelids half closed, pupil not moving, beads of perspiration undecidedly lingering just above the worry lines, holy basil and geranium tucked onto the hair. Little has changed and the two Gods looked at each other and smiled.
“Ah, you’ve come,” said the old man without showing any sign of movement.
“Yes, we have”, said Shasta, while Devi looked on appraisingly at the old man.
Something told them that the old man was in no mood for exchange of pleasantries. The worry lines were real and the sweat beads shone like embers.
“A job at hand?” after what felt like eons, Devi asked. Shasta quickly shot a surprised look at Devi for asking such an obvious question and immediately realized that she was trying to make a conversation.
Shasta saw the steady rise and fall of the old man’s breathing, the grey hair on the chest nodding their heads in the gentle breeze. He knew the answer would take long in coming. He stepped out on to the courtyard. The fallen gooseberries shone like phosphorescent pearls in the sand. Though it was dark, he knew he was walking on the lucky red seeds spilt all over the courtyard like drops of blood.
“Yes,” the old man finally said under his breath. “A child across the river, she’s not well.”
“What is it? Paralysis? Seizure? Psychosis?” Devi asked.
“No. Swelling… blisters… blood in urine…”
“Oh… why don’t they go to a medic?”
“That doesn’t help.” The old man’s reply was curt.
Shasta paused mid-step in his stride, “You think it is…?”
“Yes. It’s a viper.”
Shasta saw a puddle of lucky red seeds on the ground. Another seed fell from above, ran along his chest and joined the puddle. He felt disturbed. “You know what this entails? This is not your regular, nor ours.”
“I know,” the old man cut in. “I know it is not my regular. I know what it entails. But we need to. Tomorrow evening, then,” and the old man lowered himself from the trance into a slumber.
Devi tried not to look at anything in particular. She knew her eyes would wander into the sacred jungle in the northern corner of the illom1 grounds. Her heavenly reptilian mates revelled there often. They were not going to like this. This was asking for trouble.
A streak of silver was tearing slowly across the east. Devi stepped on to the courtyard and joined Shasta. They avoided looking at each other and hurried onto the illom temple. There was so much to do before the evening.
The old man wound up the last of his daily rituals by the river and walked hurriedly across the sugarcane fields to the illom temple. Up above, the darkness of night cut across the gloomily expectant evening that hung upon Panthukalam which the legend says was the playing field of the Gods.
As he pushed, the temple door opened with an agonizing wail. Devi and Shasta were ready and waiting for him inside.
He seated himself on the palaka opposite Devi and Shasta. The lamps shone bright. The flowers were fresh. The homa fire hungrily licked its lips waiting for a helping of ghee. The major lamp sat in the bronze vessel holding red sandalwood water. A square of turmeric marked a stone and a raw banana across the homa fire.
The old man started chanting the mantras. First in a low hum and as the night progressed raising the pitch. The bell in his hand chimed endlessly. Around him, incense ash grew like beards out of the ground. Camphor pills burnt like saris on a clothesline. Devi and Shasta looked on as the unlit wicks lighted on their own and the chiming of old man’s bell echoed itself further on the bells around the sanctorum. Tongues of homa fire swirled and unswirled to the chiming of the bells around them.
As the fingers of fire from camphor pills hypnotically waved and invited towards themselves, there appeared at the outlet hole leading to the gargoyle outside, flashes of a flicking black tongue. A slow triangle of a head followed it.
The Viper slithered towards the burning homa fire and poised majestically by it between the Gods and the old man. The Viper glanced towards the Gods, nodded and turned to the old man. “You called for me, my friend?”
“Yes, I did,” said the old man.
“May I know why? Would there be something I can do for you?”
“Of course. I will tell you.”
“In the human dwelling across the river from here, there is a little girl. Do you know?”
“I remember the dwelling, my friend, not the girl.”
“She goes to relieve herself in the night across the garden.”
“My dear friend, do you intend to discuss the nocturnal relieving habits of a girl with me now?”
“Hush! A moon ago she wandered farther than she should have and you seemed not to like it.”
“Ah! So that is the matter! Yes, I did not like it, as you put it.”
“You bit her violently in the calf, not just once but twice.”
“Yes, I did.”
“She was only a little girl.”
“I did not know it was her and not that it matters.”
“She’s in terrible pain now – she’s bleeding.”
“Is it not how it is meant to be?”
“Insolence! How dare you?”
“With due respect to your sense of propriety, my beloved friend, you never asked me why I did what I did.”
“You have done her wrong.”
“And it looks like you will never ask me why either. But here it is – do you know how much a ‘little girl’ weighs with respect to me? How heavy each of her step is? Especially when it is on my spine?”
“The girl is in bottomless agony.”
The Viper looked at Gods, “Have the Gods not willed the effects of my venom to be so?”
“She is dying.”
The black tongue clicked, “Have the Gods not willed so?”
“Probably they have, but I have not.”
“My respected friend, who are you? And what can you do about it?”
“Who I am does not matter, nor does who you are, but what matters is what you do,” and the old man released a long thread of a mantra, the words of which formed a silk string that snaked around the Viper, knotting itself. Constraining him. Hurting him. Tightening around him. Cutting through his scales, through his soft flesh. He was bleeding. He was writhing in pain.
“My friend, I can’t bear this, what wrong did I do?”
In reply, the binding only continued to tighten. Each muscle seemed to crawl out and cry for help. Scales peeled off, scooping up flesh when he moved. He looked pleadingly at the Gods and they pretended not to see him.
As the sanctum faded in and out of his vision, the Viper heard the old man say, “Here. This is the flesh of that little girl. Take back your venom,” and the Viper saw the raw banana roll into his view. He bit it. He bit it again and again. He bit it hard and deep till his fangs sank up to the gums. And he sucked. First he felt the stickiness of the raw banana in his mouth. Then, the moistness of his own blood. He sucked faster through the torment of the string biting into his flesh and the pulsating pain of his own venom going up his fangs. He felt the flow of the venom into his veins. He felt it spread through his body.
When the last drop of the venom was sucked dry and nothing remained of the raw banana that indicated its thread with life, the Viper rolled over the ground screaming in agony and horror. He struggled to lift his head and through blobs of raw banana glue, blood and venom, they heard him blubber, “Such an insult! So much agony! How shall I go back to my kingdom? How shall I ever live with my hood held high? How wretched I feel!”
With those words, he staggered to the stone by the turmeric marking and beat his head on it. He beat it again and again. Through the left and the right. He felt his skull crack and spine snap. In the final throes, the Viper said to the old man, “You, who I treated as an equal, who I called a friend, have caused me this. Woe unto you. Generations you father will not know peace! Let me take leave of this world, my friend.” He felt life slipping away.
Shasta saw the light go out of the Viper’s eyes. Looking up, he saw the old man panting and rabidly staring at the dead snake. The homa fire too was gasping for breath. A chilly silence echoed from wall to wall. He saw Devi staring intently at a harmless corner. He saw a drop of blood falling from the stone onto the turmeric marking. It reminded him of the falling lucky red seeds outside in the courtyard.
1Illom: A traditional Malayali Brahmin house with a temple of the family deity attached. A part of the illom premises is set aside for an abode for snake gods.