The Legend of Nagakanna
(an excerpt from The Age of Smiling Secrets, a novel)
By Aneeta Sundararaj
- The Legend of Nagakanna is an edited version of Chapter 9 of the novel The Age of Smiling Secrets. This short story was published in an anthology called We Mark Your Memory: Writings from the Descendants of Indenture by the School of Advanced Study, University of London, in partnership with Commonwealth Writers, 2018.
Nandini stood inside the marquee and looked around at the business of everything. Her mother, Kamini, had her back to her. Nandini shook her head. What was she talking about? No such thing as a birthday party. These Open Days, held on the same day every year, were an excuse to make money.
Within a few years of the family business, Jasmine Crochets, operating as a private limited company, Kamini had built a substantial list of clients, customers and suppliers. To celebrate their success, Kamini hosted an annual Open Day on the 8th of August. In the days before the celebrations, the Sungai Petani house teemed with people. Caterers prepared delicious food and a marquee was set up in the garden in case it rained. At any given time, there were more than twenty women crocheting hundreds of items for sale. All these items were sold during the Open Day. By about 5 pm, a group of guests would gather around Kamini to receive samples of items still in the early stages of production in Jasmine Crochets. If their response was favourable, these prototypes would become part of next year's collection. There was also an auction for a one-off creation by Jasmine Crochets, the proceeds of which would be divided among the workers to help fund their children's education. Then came an intimate party to celebrate Nandini's birthday.
Nandini glanced at Kamini's latest creation – a bedspread with a picture of a house by the side of a kidney-shaped stream. There was a mango-coloured ribbon pulled through the loops at the border for definition. This looked familiar. A smile of recognition. She learned to swim here. Nandini looked up. Her mother's back was still to her. This was her chance.
For the first time in seven years, Nandini crossed the drain at the back of the Sungai Petani house and ventured deep into Foothills Estate. The further along she walked, the thicker the ground cover became. Unseen by the sun, the moss-covered roots of the rubber trees bulged. The living pillars, black and rough, extended high above the ground before they disappeared into a natural canopy of dark green leaves.
Nandini came to a clearing. When she turned a corner, she saw a bridge. Across it, there was a motorbike outside the front door of a dwelling place. She recognised the red helmet on the seat. Karuppan's helmet.
What was he doing here?
Karuppan stood by the window and looked out.
Kamini's child. Kamini's walk. Kamini's eyes. But the child's hair was wild. This was insane. If he turned down the volume of the tv, she would know he was avoiding her. If he allowed her inside, then …
What if she was like her father? The kind of person who called people like Karuppan that filthy name – estate boy.
Karuppan opened the front door. "Nandini," he called out.
Nandini looked up. Karuppan was standing with his legs apart and hands placed firmly on his hips. He was a tall man, at least six inches taller than her mother. Imposing. Authoritative. She smiled and crossed the bridge. "What are you doing here?" she asked.
"What about you, Kanna?" He used her nickname on purpose. "Shouldn't you be at your birthday party?"
"Huh! The party is not for me."
Karuppan gave a broad smile and the muscles on his face relaxed. He invited her inside and she surveyed the place: the television with an internal antenna, his sofa, kitchen, two pots, one pan, two plates and a stove. At the threshold of his bedroom, she turned to face him. "Sorry. Nosey." Her one-sided smile showed her embarrassment.
"No problem," he said. "Sit down." He waved his hand towards the dining table.
"Thank you. This place is beautiful."
"You live here alone?" she asked, sitting down at the small dining table.
"Yes," he answered, focusing on a spot on the wall above Nandini's head. When he returned from Kuala Lumpur five years ago, his inquiries at the Land Registry Office revealed no one owned this place that he'd once named 'Kamini's Winter Palace'. He decided then to make it his. Metal beams were inserted in key places to fortify the structure. Slabs of asbestos and red tiles replaced the attap roof. Rainwater that collected in gutters was channelled into a pipe that led to the stream behind the house. The beams on the white walls were painted black – an English cottage in the heart of a tropical rubber estate.
Karuppan never spoke of this place. He let others assume that he was in the city whenever he wasn't in town. In fact, he'd spend many nights in this, his sanctuary. But it never occurred to him that there was an unseen being watching his every move.
"So, what brings you here?"
"Nothing," Nandini shrugged. She twirled a lock of hair, picked up a gardening magazine, and flicked through the pages, paying zero attention to the articles.
Poor thing. She looked utterly bored. What could he do to cheer her up? Wasn't it what he did all the time? He once borrowed the World Atlas from the library to show Nandini where the island continent of Australia was. One day, he held the Logbook while she memorised the Sine and Cosine of 180 in Basic Calculus. He'd also helped her make a papier-mâché model of a volcano and showed her the right combination of oil paints and turpentine to create a smooth finish for models of green coconut trees, sandy beaches and the odd turtle or two. Time to try something new.
"Do you know the story of this place?" Karuppan sat opposite Nandini.
She shook her head.
"It’s called ‘The Legend of Nagakanna.’”***
Once upon a time, early in the 20th century, the colonial managers of Foothills Estate picked up about fifty Tamil indentured labourers from Madras and brought them to tap rubber in the estate. They were given homes, and a community developed as their numbers grew. In need of a place of worship, the Estate Elders commissioned a Hindu priest from Penang to help them locate a suitable place to build a temple. A party of six rubber tappers and the priest spent a month in June roaming the very depths of Foothills Estate.
On the day the Tamils call pournami, the day of the full moon, the exhausted priest decided to have a rest. He crouched down by the banks of a river, cupped his hands and scooped up some water to drink. His thirst quenched, he looked up and saw a jasmine tree in full bloom on the islet across the river. Next to the tree, a cobra raised its head and dilated its neck muscles to form a hood with a double chevron pattern. It started swaying from side to side.
A dancing snake.
The priest decided that this was an auspicious moment and declared the spot a holy one. Everyone agreed that this would be the site of the new temple in Foothills Estate. Once the bridge was constructed, a temple with living quarters for the priest was built on that islet.
The consecration ceremony called kumbavishaygam was held soon after. People entered the temple’s inner sanctum to place their hopes, prayers, dreams and offerings – gold coins, diamonds or precious stones – in the hollow below a raised platform. The cavity was then sealed and an idol placed above this platform. The entire ceremony was accompanied by continuous recitations of Sanskrit mantras for three days. After this, the temple priest alone entered the inner sanctum. The kumbavishaygam was repeated every twelve years
In the late 1920s, on a cold August morning, the priest heard a loud clanging sound coming from inside the temple. He rushed in to see a man squatting in the middle of the hall, clutching his eyes and screaming. A crowbar lay next to him. The priest pulled the man's hands away. What the priest saw, in the light of the kerosene lamp, horrified him: there was blood streaming down the man’s cheeks and the sockets of his eyes were empty.
The priest treated the man’s wounds and made him rest. Then, he summoned the Estate Elders. When they arrived, the man confessed that he wanted to steal the jewels and gold in the temple. He had raised the crowbar to strike. Before he could bring it down on the idol, he had heard a hissing sound. The last words the man uttered were, “I saw the cobra’s fangs.”
There was worse to come because he began to run in circles, clutching his ears. He could no longer hear. No one knew his name or where he came from.
The Estate Elders gave the thief a Tamil name, Nagakanna: ‘Naga’ meaning ‘Cobra’ and ‘Kanna’ meaning ‘Eyes’. He spent the remainder of his days in the temple grounds, and the people of Foothills Estate brought him milk and eggs to eat. Within a year, Nagakanna was dead. In spirit form, Nagakanna’s sight and hearing were fully restored.
During the next kumbavishaygam ceremony, the temple priests had a fright when they discovered a cobra inside the hollow. Two intact eyeballs lay in the centre of its deadly coil. At that moment, a woman in the crowd lay face down on the floor and slithered from side to side, hissing. She was in this trance for no more than five minutes. When it was over, the temple priests looked inside the hollow, the snake and the eyeballs had disappeared. No one knew how the snake got there and no one dared to find out. Henceforth, due reverence was given to this creature and every time there was a religious ceremony in the temple, at least one person in the crowd entered into a trance, slithered and hissed for five minutes.
In time, the children of Foothills Estate grew up, left Sungai Petani and the temple crumbled. The priest’s quarters remained, but became dilapidated. And the story of Nagakanna became a frightful legend.***
Round and round, the bow-legged ghost danced, overjoyed. Having eavesdropped on Karuppan’s narration, he told a slimy baby iguana and a toad, “I’m a legend, you know. A legend.”
He stopped dancing. “That bloody cobra.”
Nagakanna blamed the serpent entirely for the loss of his sight, hearing and, eventually, his life. “If it wasn’t for that snake, I’d still be alive. I was looking after my sick mother. I needed money. To buy her medicines.”
The reptile and amphibian lacked the courage to say that, instead of stealing the jewels, he could have prayed for his mother’s recovery.
The ghost’s excitement vanished when he heard what Nandini said next.
“How can she say that?” He put his hands on his hips, annoyed.
“But how? Not true-lah, this legend.” Nandini pouted.
“And why not?” asked Karuppan in his sing-song voice.
“Karuppan, the cobra’s venom is a neurotoxin,” she said, rubbing her eyes.
“Wah! Where did you learn such a big word?”
“That’s the new word I learned yesterday. It means a poison which acts on the nervous system,” Nandini answered.
“Oh,” he replied. “Don’t rub your eyes. They’re the most important part of the body and the windows to your soul. If you rub them, you can even become blind. Then what? You’ll be like Nagakanna – no one knows your name. Your life will be a complete secret.”
Nandini stopped rubbing her eyes, but was quiet. “I’m not blind. Still, I don’t know what my real name is – Nandini or Nadia.”
Karuppan didn’t know what to say. There was nothing he could do about the fact that Nandini’s father had converted Nandini to Islam without Kamini’s consent or knowledge. Even her name was changed to Nadia. He sighed.
“Come,” he said and took her hand. “I have to take you back birthday girl.”
“I suppose so,” she said rubbing her nose.
“What? You don’t want a ride on my new motorbike?” he asked.
Nandini’s head shot up and she smiled brightly.
“That’s better,” he said. With his hand on the doorknob, he turned to face her. “You know, if you become blind, you’ll become like this-” He stuck his neck out, and opened his eyes so wide that they bulged.
Nandini burst out laughing.
“That’s more like it, Kanna. Be happy,” Karuppan said and led her out the front door.
“Look at your mother. She looks so worried,” Karuppan said, when they turned into Jalan Sekerat ten minutes later.
Nandini leaned over his shoulder. Kamini stood at the front gates, wringing her hands and pacing. She turned her head when she heard the roar of the motorbike’s engine.
“Nandini! Next time you go somewhere, at least tell me first.” Holding her hand out for Nandini, she added, “Mama is waiting with your birthday cake.”
Nandini took her mother’s hand and jumped off the motorbike. “Thanks, Karuppan.”
He ran a fatherly hand down Nandini’s cheek and caught her chin.
“Thanks.” Kamini echoed her child and asked his chin, “You don’t want to come in?”
Sixteen years. And she still won’t look at me or say my name.
He looked at Kamini’s long hair tied back in one loose plait down her back. Her shoulders in her sleeveless blouse glistened; the contours of her body were deeply attractive. She had become an exotic beauty before his very eyes. He cleared his throat. “Sorry. I can’t.”
Kamini nodded and slid her arm around Nandini’s shoulders. Together, they turned, walked into the marquee. He could have stayed a moment longer to watch them and savour the smell of jasmine. Instead, he revved up the engine of his motorbike and rode away.
Ten minutes later, Karuppan threw his keys down on the plastic table at the mamak stall opposite the temple. While the hawker fried his mee goreng, Karuppan looked at the temple. A boy, with spindly arms and a thin moustache leaned a ladder against the wall. A girl with two plaits down her back stood next to him, holding on to a bunch of fairy lights. Karuppan hoped he didn’t make the same mistake. He prayed the boy would say the right thing if the girl confessed her love for him. He looked up at the heavens above and whispered, “The day she looks me in the eye, I will say I’m sorry.” Touching the scar on his left cheek, he added, “And that I love her.”