Many hailed Nirmala Moorthy’s first novel, Maya, published in 1997, as a remarkable first novel. Her second work of fiction, The Coiled Serpent, makes us even more aware that she is mistress of her craft. In her latest novel, The Coiled Serpent, we see the world through the eyes of three interesting female figures that are compelling in their own right.
First, there is Meena, now living in the U.S., trying to make sense of the Indian heritage that she grew up in, as a daughter. The opening lines in the novel find her looking at a gold armlet her mother gave her. “This is your heritage, Meena,” her mother said. “It is a symbol of what you really are … the women of our country have always been the true embodiment of shakti.” While the bond between mother and daughter is an intense one, Moothy’s novel explores this intensity with great honesty, clearly depicting how difficult it is for a traditional, matriarchal South Indian woman to develop a relationship with a daughter who questions her and needs room to become her own person.
Meena’s mother, Devika, is a complex, intense personality trying hard to hold on to her matriarchal culture; the “world of long ago” that Meena tries so hard to understand. Through Meena’s eyes, Devika is loved by everyone “…slender as a bamboo, pale-skinned; the whisper of her footsteps like falling rose petals. People paused and waited to hear her speak; then hurried to do her bidding.” As compelling as Devika is to adults, to her daughter, Meena, she is an overwhelming empress who rules over her dinner parties as a “steel magnolia” would: “Seated at the head of the table,” writes Moorthy, “she … made sure that the half a dozen vegetable, rice and yogurt dishes, were in constant circulation even while she talked. The silken hiss of her voice assailed the ear with the inexorable rhythm of ocean waves. Her statements were emphatic and without inflection.”
Meena and Devika’s intense relationship was turbulent partially because they were both part of a matriarchal clan or “Tarawad” immersed in being responsible members of the clan, trying hard to understand, make meaning of their past heritage while living in the present. For the future, both mother and daughter realized that there would be an increasing need to integrate South Indian and Western thinking as relatives moved back and forth between several countries.
All psychic journeys take interesting turns, and the Coiled Serpent takes us on these mysteries, using the serpent as a metaphor for our lives and journeys that unfold over time, over many mystical miles.
We enter these depths through the experiences of American-born Eleanor, the third heroine in the tale. One night, as Eleanor runs for shelter from torrential rain and hides under the roof of a local temple, she confronts her fears, her self, as she notices a cobra looking at her. “The hooded head reared about four feet from the ground,” writes Moorthy, in one of the most exquisitely written sections of the novel. “It danced from side to side, the onyx eyes unwinking; the ventral shields like silver daggers in the trellised light.” The ways in which Eleanor confronts her internal demons, finds the courage to move beyond the terrors that an abusive husband heaps on her, are unveiled to us in prose that unwinds itself with the grace of a cobra.
Each of us, male and female alike, have to create our own path, living as creatively as we can in this world. But often our creativity is enhanced when we are able, by reading about other lives, to enhance our strengths and diminish our gaps in learning. Moorthy allows us to think deeply about the lives of men and women created in her novel, with their different forms of energy or shakti. Much like a snake that can uncoil its flow of energy, we can as human beings allow positive shakti to guide our existence on this planet.
Jyotsna Sanzgiri can be reached at