Ashalota’s arrival in our lives occurred when, trying to rescue ourselves from our fear of snakes, we were stifling in the clutches of our husbands. Who isn’t afraid of snakes? Our husbands assure us. They say, “Why are you afraid of snakes? We’re here!”
Their words make us laugh. “What brave men!” we say. Excited, they rear up and spread their hoods, display forked tongues as they coil around us. Husbands are snakes, not human. Human, not snakes. When we reach the summer-lands after the frisson of winter, they bite our upper bodies, draw in their tongues, and release us. Our snake-games stop midway. The rest of the night we refold our spread-open bodies dreaming snake-dreams. The next day the psychiatrist explains: “Sexual repression.”
“But,” we say, “we’re married. We have husbands.” He closes the file and locks it in the steel cabinet. From him we seek salvation. He opens a drawer with one hand; the other rests on a bell. He rings the bell as he places the money in the drawer, summoning the next patient. We’re forced to rise from our chairs. As we leave his chamber we wonder who is a snake, what sexual repression is, how to survive it. We are too worry-worn to notice Ashalota standing outside the gate.
We hear the vehicles outside, and wonder where all these people are going. We have no hope of deliverance; if only we could go away! The arrival of our husbands occurred only after we were tortured by the fear of snakes; it was only then that we allowed them entrance into our lives. In the measure of our lives the time before their arrival could be, thirty, forty, forty-five years. Gradually our lives grow serpentine, and snake-some. To many, our procurement of husbands is a sign of good fortune. They say we are not the kind of women who become crones in their twenties; we are still in the class of celestial nymphs. We are immersed for a while in this dream of heaven. Then we understand—our husbands are not shamans, they are snakes not human, human not snakes. If no one else knew this, the psychiatrist did. He writes up lengthy case histories. Our files secured in the steel cabinet, we leave his chamber with various pills.
As she stands outside, Ashalota’s legs fall asleep, and her pelvis throbs in pain. She believes that the man on the poster on the wall is the son of the mistress of the Boro-Bari, the Big House in her village. This house must be his. Ashalota tries to enter the house twice, but fails because of the guard. Her eyes look through the gate, across the yard, into the foyer where an aquarium sits. Didima, her grandmother, never told her that city fish even had their own houses, like a tin dochala-hut. In the Boro-Bari, the mistress also kept live fish in pots. People change when they come to the city. The fish swimming in the aquarium-ocean don’t make Ashalota happy, they make her hungry. She wonders, did Didima know that city people didn’t have food? Ashalota’s been drifting with a starving belly for two days now. In the village, her wan face would have prompted the mistress to call her in; here, she has to ask. No one would say, Here, eat. Ashalota doesn’t know how to ask for food. She watches the fish teary-eyed—here, there is only water within water, there is Didima.
Didima came to the city in the year of the famine; a tumor in her belly. What spell had the city cast on her that when she returned to the village two years later to die, she could only roll around on her mat and voice regret. She had no peace of mind in those last days. She said, “Asha, go to the city, I’m telling you, while your youth lasts. The city won’t push you aside, you’ll be valued.” The twisted mat of green bamboo burned to ash with her in the cremation grounds. When alive, she never explained to her granddaughter what market she had assessed to gain her knowledge. The last words on her tongue were, “You’ll know one day.”
But Ashalota hadn’t known what Didima meant before the month of Chaitra last year. In Ashwin, arthritis paralyzed her husband. Everything but his tongue went numb. From one Ashwin to another, a full year; Kartik, Agrahayon, Poush, Magh, Phalgun, Chaitra—in this year and a half the snake-dreams began.
We’re surprised to see Ashalota, a vine of hope, at the psychiatrist’s gate. We glance around and whisper, “Are you sick?”
Ashalota goggles at us. Her eyes mist over. Her dry lips move. “I’ve no disease. But . . .”
“I see snakes at night.”
Now our eyes mist with tears. We grasp her thin, weak wrist. “Want to see a doctor?”
“No!” Ashalota steps back.
We move toward her. “Then why are you here?”
Ashalota moves toward the wall on the left. On it is an election poster, with the picture of a candidate for Municipal Commissioner. She raises her neck like a heron and demands, “I want to go to the Boro-Bari mistress; I’m hungry.”
She’s upset when we’re surprised. If this house doesn’t belong to the Mistress’s son, whose is it? “Doesn’t he live here?” Ashalota touches the poster.
“No,” we say.
She laughs, taken aback. “Same face. The Mistress’s son and this guy.”
Didima once said that there were people who looked the same. But there were differences too. Even both of one’s hands aren’t the same. One breast can be larger or smaller than the other. Nipples can vary in hue. These lessons of the body Ashalota learnt from Didima.
Didima was a midwife. She was also a masseuse. A pregnant woman’s body changes before and after the birth. Her body is no longer her own. Didima would be called for during the pregnancies and deliveries She would light a straw torch, and ask Ashalota, “Want to come?” Ashalota led, Didima followed with the torch. She ran ahead balancing along the narrow earthen borders between the fields, the oil-bottle with twine around its neck swinging from her hand. Didima would call from behind, “Hey, you circus hussy, wait!” She would wait, but only when she was beyond the fields, near the mouth of the graveyard. Where the reign of the spirits began. From that point she needed both Didima and the fire. The rest of the way she walked clasping Didima’s waist, eyes closed, chanting the many names of Rama.
In the flickering flame of the lamp she witnessed a woman’s body tremble and awake. A woman with a belly like a vessel, breasts that were big and liquid. Didima’s oil-slicked fingers do not touch the high, waxen hills, they merely strike and fly off. The warm, close air within the room, the trembling body. Ashalota falls asleep soaring atop the high, waxen hills. She never sees the woman in the light of day. The woman who drags her baby-filled belly from this room to that, the woman who poured into the end of Didima’s sari rice measured out with tins—as if she was a different woman.
Delivery day was hard on Ashalota. Didima would light her torch, shackle the door behind her, and leave her orphaned granddaughter in the house. Ashalota’s body would ache in fear. For many years, Didima’s activities during those times remained a mystery. Complicated cases took up to two or three days. Didima would be deep in thought during those days, her cheeks stuffed with betel-leaf. She would return home periodically to assign chores to Ashalota, then, spitting out the betel-leaf juice, she would leave. Ashalota waited for the moment when she would stand in the yard and call, “Asha, a bright babe’s been born, come see.”
Ashalota would have much to do. She tended the clay-bowl in which Didima lit a smoldering rice-husk fire, and the fire itself. The fire was to heat the compresses that Didima applied to the new mother’s belly When Didima says bring over the tiny baby wrapped in blankets, she does. Unasked, she places rock-sugar water on the baby’s tongue. When the baby cries, the mother places her breast in its mouth. Slack-jawed, Ashalota watches the baby feed. This was work too. It made her thirsty. She cannot recall her mother’s face. She gets up and pumps the tube-well for water. But she can’t stay away. The smoky, sweet smell of the fire, the milk dribbling on the bed from the baby’s lips, the mother’s slack sari-clad body bared—a body which Didima tries to fix by massaging oil, applying heat—all of it pulls her. She lays the baby on her legs. She rocks the baby, and sings, and in the mystery of the birthing-house, Ashalota grows up.
“Will you hire me? I can take care of babies.”
We hear Ashalota’s plea. But answer, “We don’t have babies.”
She looks at our bodies. She seeks bellies like vessels, searches for large breasts. We see her disappointment. She sighs and tries to think about the future. She says, “Won’t you get pregnant? When?” Her eyes grow empty at our silence. What sort of barren land is this? Didima didn’t say that the city was like this! The old woman had grown senile before her death; she who was supposed to die two days later, died early mourning the city. The new mat burned to ashes in the cremation ground. Just as it was then, so it is now, all a waste. This was what the city was, and in the village an immobile husband—Ashalota squirms in her dilemma.
We are silent. Then we say, “We have snake-dreams at night.” We feel unburdened. After the psychiatrist, we hope for salvation from a hungry woman who has snake-dreams herself.
Our confession gives rise to newer thoughts in Ashalota. Gradually it moves from pregnancy and birth-houses to beyond. She looks at us anew and comprehends that a person’s body needs tending for other reasons; reasons not to be dismissed. Didima knew only birthing and massage. The year of the famine, the massages stopped. The arrival of new babies is no longer announced. The lives of mothers and children lost value. But people don’t want to die of starvation. Didima moved—she left the village for the city. Now Ashalota was witnessing the barrenness of the city herself. But what did Didima do here? She searches for the mystery of Didima in the folds of our wombless bodies, and says, “I know how to tend the body, will you hire me?”
We toss our pills into the garbage by the roadside and return home with Ashalota. Our servants sleep in kitchens, or under stairwells, on dirty quilts spread over threadbare carpets. We give Ashalota a nice bed in a tidy room. Her nightstand supports a pale orange lamp. A fan swirls at full speed above a clear mosquito net. We place fresh flowers in the vase on the nightstand every day. The doors of the common bathroom connecting our room and Ashalota’s screech when opened or closed. We massage oil on it, and turn the rusted hinges voiceless. Our husbands are angered. Is she the daughter of some lord that we’ve made her such a soft bed, the kind over which only they have a right! We are annoyed at our husbands’ bluster, and do not respond. They get angrier, and repeat their questions. We say, “Ashalota has the snake-dreams.”
Our concern about the snake-dreams makes our husbands happy. Gleefully they coil around us, neck to toe, flicking forked tongues. Husbands are snakes-not-human. Human-not-snakes. As soon as we reach the summer-lands after the frisson of winter, they bite our upper bodies, fold back their tongues and release us. We writhe from the pain of the venom, and until our husbands start snoring, we have nothing to do in bed. When they fall asleep, we open the door of the bathroom quietly and enter Ashalota’s room.
Ashalota engages in a new game. All this time, apart from her own and those of the women in the birth-houses, the female body was unknown to her. Even then her familiarity was only what she could hold within her own body from Didima’s heat and massage, and the joyous trembling of pregnant women. Knowing another female body through her own had begun there. The addiction had begun then too; with Didima the mediator. The world is a vessel of mystery. She had followed Didima’s footsteps to the city. Ashalota had faith that she was achieving the same things Didima had achieved one score years ago. The past comes to her aid. The flickering flame of the oil lamp, the sweet, smoky smell of the fire takes her by the hand and leads her to the female bodies in the orange light of the soft flower-fragrant bed.
At dawn we wake in Ashalota’s bed. We yawn and smile and think—we didn’t dream the snake-dreams. Ashalota is still asleep. We turn to her and whisper, “Did you see snakes at night?” She moans. We tickle her ears. “Ei, did you see snakes?” Ashalota’s sleep is broken. We turn off the orange lamp, and in the blue light of dawn, engage in another bout of play. By then our husbands awaken. When they don’t find us in their beds, they think we’re in the bathroom. But no one stays in the bathroom this long. They writhe in bed, and their attempts to uncoil their bodies and fall asleep in the cool dawn breeze fail. When we reenter the room through the bathroom, our husbands say, “What were you doing for so long in the bathroom?”
We’re surprised. “In the bathroom?”
They reason: “Where else can you have been?”
We understand—they’re hinting at our age. They think we’re at the age when women can no longer find lovers; when the hour of love arrives no more; when new husbands cannot be found. These husbands are our tokens of good fortune. Even with the snake-dreams through our lifetimes, we will not want divorce. We say, “We weren’t in the bathroom.”
Our husbands stare at us. They stammer, “Wh-wh-where were you?”
“In Ashalota’s room.”
“Because in her bed we don’t dream the snake-dreams.”
“Oh, that’s it!” Our fear of the snake-dreams gives them joy. Their hearts grow playful. We are annoyed. For the first time, we push them away and leave. The husbands hiss behind us. We are oblivious to their serpent-like gaze.
There are many urgent things happening at the office that day. We forget the morning’s quarrel. We send a money order to Ashalota’s husband, and in the evening we return with fresh flowers. Ashalota is ready with her massage equipment. During these extra hours between day and night, she wants to tend to us, and stay true to her contract. We feel unsettled. It is time our husbands returned. We don’t want another fight. We ask Ashalota, “Would you like a stroll in the park?” She drops her bowls of oil and sandalwood, and trills, “I still haven’t seen the city.”
Ashalota watches ducks in the park. She chases dragonflies. She watches people with fishing poles at the lake; she talks about the zillions of fish she caught in the village. She swings on the swings while she eats peanuts. Children play ball in front of her, they play on the swings, they dirty their clothes eating ice cream, they stare goggle-eyed at the lake. On the swings with the children, Ashalota is away from us.
That night a frightened scream erupts from Ashalota’s room. When we try to run there, our husbands stop us. They say, “Let us check it out first; you can follow after.” We ignore them, and break through the barricade. Ashalota writhes on the floor; an enormous black snake rests on her bed. We clutch Ashalota and tremble. A snake is a snake. Still, a snake dreamed of, and one that is live, are different things. Our husbands push us away and bravely move forward to grab the snake by its tail. We smile uncomfortably when we see them laugh, and release Ashalota. The snake is plastic, a toy. But where did it come from? There are no children in our household. Our husbands glare at Ashalota. Her body trembles like a palm leaf. They claim she must have bought it from one of the vendors at the park. Ashalota’s mute eyes seek our help. We say, “No, she didn’t. We were there with her.” But we feel a rift somewhere. At the park, Ashalota spends more time with the children than with us. What if she bought the snake then? We hide that thought from our husbands. They are cobras. They do not lower their hoods. For four or five days, they twist us into traps laid with words. We are forced to reason: “Why would she buy a snake, put it on her bed, and then be frightened?”
“A farce!” Our husbands shout. “It’s all a farce. She just wants to scare us away from this house with that snake.”
“You’re the ones who want to scare her away.” We warn our husbands. “Ashalota has rights in this house, just like you. We all have equal rights. If we live here, we will all live in harmony. If Ashalota cannot live here, no one else can.”
Our husbands waste no time in words and conspire in secret. We never get to warn Ashalota about the snake.
During this time, news arrives of the death of Ashalota’s husband. She is a widow. Hindu Law contains no provision for a wife to divorce and remarry. However, a widow can remarry. A hundred and fifty years ago, Mr. Bidyashagar made a law that opened the door. Our fear is this: how can we stop her if Ashalota wants to remarry and leave!
We do not tell Ashalota that there is a widow remarriage law. We do not find the courage to warn her beforehand about the snake; what if she thinks a live snake is more harmful than one dreamed of, and leaves! To keep her happy, every day after work we take her to the park.
In the park, Ashalota is happy. She plays with the children, pinches their cheeks. We keep our eyes on the anglers, the peanut-sellers, the vendors. If they look at her, or try to come near, no matter how far away we are, we run to Ashalota. We examine her, as if her swaying a hair’s breadth is a matter of life or death. She enjoys our jealousy. She winks and smiles. She doesn’t even look at the men. All her love is for the children. Our hearts break: perhaps one day these children will steal Ashalota from us. We can never give her a child. There is nothing we can do.
At night, beside her, our fears grow. We squirm. Ashalota says, “What’s the matter with you, why are you stiff like a jackfruit leaf?” We cannot voice our anxieties. But one night we gather our courage and blurt out, “Ashalota, will you leave us?”
“Where can I go? Do I have anywhere to go?”
“The world is so big. There are many who want you! And what if you return to your village?”
Ashalota closes her eyes. Didima, the old woman who had been a child-widow, returned before her death. Her regret was she had gone to the city, but not at the right time. The green bamboo mat was twisted out of shape from the pain of her ravaged body. Ashalota, her grandchild, had traveled to the city in her youth. Her breast awash in tears, Ashalota says, “I’ll go to the village to die. The cremation grounds wait with an open mouth. I’ll burn to ashes there.”
Our hearts tremble in fear. Love and death are entwined. Love plays house only with death, not with life. But we are glad thinking Ashalota our companion till death. Marriage, a state fancied, but one that is unable to resist separation. Our childless, unwritten relationship will be able to resist. We shift and resettle ourselves. But can we rest our trust in human promises? Humans change like the seasons. What if Ashalota changed? This fear is strange: it increases the attraction, keeping the fire of desire burning. Our days pass, our nights come, our months turn, our new year arrives, as we burn in our love for Ashalota. We forget about snakes seen in dreams or in life.
One day we return from work to find Ashalota absent. Our husbands have taken the day off sick although they aren’t sick. Their faces bear guilt. We ask, “Where is Ashalota?”
They reply, “Run off.”
“What! What did you say?”
Our husbands roar, “Whore bitch stole everything and ran off.”
We don’t believe them. We run toward her room. The door is padlocked. Our husbands inform us that a messenger’s gone to the police station. They will arrive soon. That room is now out of bounds. We wait for the police. They never come. At midnight our husbands whisper, “What’ll you say if the police come? Will you be able to tell them what Ashalota was to you?” We keep silent. We understand. While we were immersed in our love for Ashalota, our husbands tied up all loose ends. They hatched a perfect plan, our house itself was now in their clutches. Ashalota has not run away. They drove her out.
Every evening we wait for Ashalota on the park bench. If she is too scared of the husbands, she could meet us in the park. In the park, the children play ball, swing on the swings, dirty their clothes eating ice cream. We seek Ashalota among them. We cannot find her. The peanut seller walks past us, the men cast their lines into the lake, the vendors shake their rattles and pass. We search for Ashalota in their functions and their thoughts. We look at the dark masses of water and wonder, is it time for Ashalota to die? Did she return home to die? A funeral pyre is set aflame by the river in an unfamiliar village. We cannot deal with Ashalota’s selfishness in continuing to live without us. At night we return home to stand by the padlocked door. Our husbands place their hands tenderly on our shoulders and say, “Let that room be. Let your hearts heal. You won’t have to tell us. We’ll open the door ourselves. Then you can witness Ashalota’s magic to your hearts’ delight, OK?”
Again we dream the snake-dreams. We lie awake at night, afraid of snakes. When our eyes close in slumber, we scramble awake in bed. One sleepless night, we hear movement from Ashalota’s room. The pulse of life in that room rouses us. After many days, our bodies awaken. We stand straight. We take the key from under our husbands’ pillows, and open the shuttered room. Somebody sighs in the darkness, sits up, stretches, yawns, and moves toward the door.
We wait with bated breath. Our chests are about to explode, when, through the door, across the veranda, down the stairs slithers a huge python. It crosses the gate into the street and disappears. In the mist of midnight, we fail to understand which is more harmful, a snake dreamed of, or a snake alive.