I remember the night my mother
was stung by a scorpion. Ten hours
of steady rain had driven him
to crawl beneath a sack of rice.
Parting with his poison – flash
of diabolic tail in the dark room –
he risked the rain again.
The peasants came like swarms of flies
and buzzed the name of God a hundred times
to paralyse the Evil One.
With candles and with lanterns
throwing giant scorpion shadows
on the mud-baked walls
they searched for him: he was not found.
They clicked their tongues.
With every movement that the scorpion made his poison moved in Mother’s blood, they said.
May he sit still, they said
May the sins of your previous birth
be burned away tonight, they said.
May your suffering decrease
the misfortunes of your next birth, they said.
May the sum of all evil
balanced in this unreal world
against the sum of good
become diminished by your pain.
May the poison purify your flesh
of desire, and your spirit of ambition,
they said, and they sat around
on the floor with my mother in the centre,
the peace of understanding on each face.
More candles, more lanterns, more neighbours,
more insects, and the endless rain.
My mother twisted through and through,
groaning on a mat.
My father, sceptic, rationalist,
trying every curse and blessing,
powder, mixture, herb and hybrid.
He even poured a little paraffin
upon the bitten toe and put a match to it.
I watched the flame feeding on my mother.
I watched the holy man perform his rites to tame the poison with an incantation.
After twenty hours
it lost its sting.
My mother only said
Thank God the scorpion picked on me
And spared my children.
The poem is a straightforward narrative. Usually in a modern poem the story emerges as a part of the process of thought stirred by poem’s composition through imagery and metre. In most modern poems the story is not all that important and not even apparent on the face of it . Here the poet narrates story of a scorpion bite as it can have happened in a typical Indian village home. Easier to understand and appreciate. There are no mists of confusion.
The beauty of the story lies partly in the simplicity of the narrative. What does one expect in the ordinary lives of the simple village folk ,when reacting to an incident like a scorpion biting a woman among them steeped as they are in a folk lore of their own and in superstitious beliefs? When a story can be told in words as simple as the village folk themselves are ,in their way of handling a crisis, where is the need for imagery?
Yet there is imagery and quite a lot of it. It was the night of the scorpion. The scorpion biting mother is the central event of the night, both in time and in space. It was raining for ten hours and the scorpion had to take shelter. So it it crawled under the sack of rice . What else would he do otherwise, to escape pouring rain? Mother was bitten by him because she came upon him unwittingly . God has given him a diabolic tail with which to sting in defence. Was it a calculated diabolic act? Suffice it to say that the night belonged to the scorpion. It was a story of the scorpion bite , in time. It is also a story of the village in space, where the event of a scorpion biting a woman in her home has become the stage of action for the villagers.
In the drama that ensued the villagers descended on her home like a swarm of insects. On a rainy night, hordes of insects would fill the village spaces and homes and the humans too would become insects. They buzz like insects. Their prayers for the woman’s recovery sound like an entire swarm of insects buzzing .
The woman lies on the floor as the villagers have surrounded her with their attempts to save her from poison. The attempts are many the assumption being that all or any or some of them will work. The crowd chants God’s name in a big buzz. The father , who does not believe in the villagers’ mumbo jumbo applies parrafin and lights it for the flame to burn the poison off. Holy man chants incantations for the poison to wear off.
In the end, what works out is that the poison wears off after 20 hours. It is part of the lore that a miracle has saved her life. Actually the scorpion’s poison may not lead to death .
Much of the scorpion’s sting is due to the myths surrounding it in an Indian village. If taken to a modern hospital the doctor may administer a suitable antidote .Such facility does not exist in remote villages. The illiterate villagers believe that a few incantations by a holy man will remove the poison. The villagers believe that as the scorpion moves after biting a human, the poison will go on spreading in the bloodstream. They search for the scorpion in the darkness so they can kill it and prevent the poison from spreading in woman’s body . Here the creature has got away and in their desperate search for it they mistake every moving shadow on the baked mud wall as a moving scorpion.
After the mother recovers from the poison in her blood, she thanks her stars that the dark scorpion has bitten her and not one of her children. A typical reaction by an Indian mother who would rather lose her own life than let harm come to her kids.