56. The Serpent Lover
A young woman, let's call her Kamakshi, was married to a husband who was no good. He went after a concubine. She was patient—she thought that the man would mend his ways and return to her tomorrow, if not today. But he got more and more deeply infatuated with his harlot and took to staying with her night and day. His wife thought, “This is God's will, it's His game,” and held her tongue. Two or three years passed.
One day, an old woman who lived next door talked to her. “What is this, my dear? How can you take it, when your husband never talks to you and lies in the pigsty of a harlot's house? We must do something about it. I'll give you some love medicine. Mix it with his food and serve it to him. Then your man will be your slave. He'll live at your feet, do whatever you wish. Just watch.”
The despairing young wife thought, “Why not?”
She brought home the old woman's potion and mixed it with sweet porridge. But, to her horror, the porridge turned blood-red. She said to herself, “This stuff, whatever it is, instead of making him love me, may make my husband crazy. It may even kill him. Let him be happy with anyone he wants. If he is alive, by God's grace, he'll come back to me some day.” And she poured the blood-red porridge into a snake hole behind her house.
It so happened that there was a snake in that hole, and it drank up the sweet porridge. The love potion acted on it and the snake fell madly in love with her. That night, it took the shape of her husband and knocked on her door. Her husband, as usual, was out. She was startled by the knock. Who could it be? Should she let the person in? When she peeped through the chink in the door, there was a man outside who looked exactly like her husband. When she talked to him, he talked exactly like her husband. He had the same voice and manner. She took him in without asking too many questions and he made her very happy that night. He came to her night after night, and in a few days she was pregnant.
When the snake came to know of it, he wanted to tell her the truth. He said, “Kamakshi, who do you think I am? Your husband? No, I'm the king of snakes. I fell in love with you and came to you in his shape.”
Then he shed her husband's form and became a five-headed serpent. She was terrified and shut her eyes. He changed back into her husband's form again.
“You know now I'm the king of snakes. I live in that snake hole behind your house. I drank your porridge, and I don't know what you put in it, but I fell in love with you. I couldn't help coming to see you and making love to you. You're pregnant now, but there's no need to panic about it. I'll see to it that everything goes well. Your husband will come back to you and live happily with you. I'll also arrange for that harlot of his to come and be your servant,” he said, and went back to his hole in the ground as a snake.
The place buzzed with the news of the woman's pregnancy, and the errant husband heard about it too. He flew into a rage. “How could she do this to me?” he screamed. He went straight to his father-in-law and protested, “Father-in-law, I haven't slept in the same bed with your daughter for three years now. She has taken a lover, the whore. How else did she get pregnant?”
The father-in-law summoned his daughter and asked her, “Your husband is saying these slanderous things. What do you say?”
She replied, “He has never been good to me. But I've done nothing wrong.”
Her father wasn't convinced.
That night she talked to the king of snakes, who said, “Ha, that's very good. Don't you worry about it. Tomorrow the king's court will be in session. Go there bravely, and say, ‘The child in my womb is my husband's, no one else's.’ If they don't believe you, say then, ‘I'll prove it to you by taking the test of truth. In the Siva temple, there is a king cobra. I'll hold it in my hand and prove to you the truth of what I say. If I'm false, I'll die.’ ”
Next day, the raja's court assembled. The raja said to the husband, who was there with his complaint, “Tell us what your suspicions are. The elders can clear the doubts.”
The husband got up and said, “Elders, I have not slept in the same bed with my wife for three years now. How did she get pregnant? You tell me what you think.”
She rose and expressed utter surprise. “O Elders, if my husband is not with me in this, where can I go for witnesses? He comes to me every night. That's how I got pregnant. If you don't believe me, I'll go handle the cobra in Siva's temple. If I've done any wrong, may it bite me and kill me.”
The elders agreed to the chastity test.
The whole court adjourned to the Siva temple. There was an awesome five-headed snake coiled round the Siva-linga. Kamakshi concentrated all her mind and senses, and prayed aloud so that everyone could hear, “O Lord, the child in my womb is my husband's. All other men are like brothers to me. If what I say is false, may you sting me to death.”
Then she put out her hand and took the cobra, who was none other than her lover, the king of snakes. He hung around her neck like a garland, opened his hoods, and swayed gently. The onlookers were awestruck. They said, “ Che, che, there has never been such a chaste wife. There never will be another better than her,” and saluted Kamakshi. They were ready to worship her as a paragon of wives, a pativrata. The husband was bewildered and felt like a fool.
Nine months passed. She gave birth to a divine-looking son. He glowed and was beautiful. Her husband forgot all his doubts when he saw his son. He took to playing with the child every day for a long time after dinner. The concubine became anxious about his coming later and later each day, and so asked a maid to investigate the matter. The maid reported, “He has a lovely son. Your man plays with him a lot after dinner. That's why he comes late.”
The concubine too wanted to see the child. Through a discreet maid she sent a message to Kamakshi that she would love to see the child of the man they both loved. Would she kindly send him with her maid for a short time?Kamakshi, coached by her serpent king, said she would send the child on one condition.
“I've put a lot of jewelry on my son. I'll weigh him when I send him to you, and I'll weigh him again when he is returned. If anything is missing, that concubine will have to become my servant and haul pitchers of water to my house.”
The confident concubine agreed and said, “Who wants her jewelry? She can weigh him all she wants.” Before Kamakshi sent the child, she took him to the king and weighed the child with all his ornaments in the king's presence. The concubine was very taken with the child, took him home, played with him for half an hour, and sent him back carefully without tampering with any of his ornaments.
On his return, Kamakshi and her maids weighed the child again in front of the king. The king of snakes had done his bit meanwhile. Several ornaments were missing and the weight came up short. The king at once summoned the astonished concubine and ordered her to haul water to Kamakshi's house.
Her husband gave up the concubine's company, favored his wife in all things, and was supremely happy with her. In the happiness of regaining her husband, Kamakshi forgot the king of snakes. She was wholly absorbed in her husband and son now.
One night, the king of snakes came to see how Kamakshi was doing. He saw her lying next to her husband and child, fast asleep, contentment written on her face. He couldn't bear this change. In a fit of jealous rage, he twisted himself into Kamakshi's loose tresses, which hung down from the edge of the cot, and hanged himself with them. In the morning, on waking, she felt that her hair was heavy. Wondering what was wrong with it, she shook it, and the dead snake fell to the floor. She was grief-stricken.
Her husband asked, “Why do you weep over the carcass of a snake? How did a snake get into our bedroom anyway?”
She replied, “This is no ordinary snake. I had made offerings to him so that I might get my lost husband back. It's because of him you're with me now. He's like a father to my son. As you know, a snake is like a brahmin, twice-born. Therefore, we should have proper funeral rites done for this good snake, and our son should do it.”
The husband agreed, and the son performed all the proper funeral rites, as a son should for a father. Kamakshi felt she had repaid her debt and lived happily with her husband and her son.
[AT 433C, The Serpent Husband and the Jealous Girl (IO). See also AKR's comments in Ramanujan 1991b.]