Nod Ghosh begins her new novella, The Two-Tailed Snake, with some wise words from the perspective of a snake.
There is one among us, a snake with two tails, who is a man, is a serpent, no, a man really—perhaps a bit of both. Listen closely to this tale. And in parallel, you will hear another story.
Perhaps it is two tales in one.
Ghosh’s story begins as a charming coming-of-age tale set just before Partition. Joya is the fourteen-year-old daughter of a police officer in northeast India with two good friends: Maia, who invites her friends to her wealthy uncle’s estate and a boy named Yusef. The kids go to school, their days carefree.
This all changes when Maia and Yusef start to argue more than they get along. Joya is confused and asks Yusef about these quarrels.
Recently, Yusef had behaved as if everything Maia said was wrong, and only knew what was right.
“Tell me,” she said, “have you heard of the two-tailed snake?”
“No,” he said, “but the changes that are coming are far scarier than any snake.”
“What will change?” she demanded.
“Everything,” her friend replied.
Joya’s naivete is not her fault; her parents shield her not just from politics, but also from caste issues. It’s implied that Joya’s grandparents on both sides do not approve of her parents’ marriage, but her parents are modern and tell Joya that these old traditions have no place in their family.
Mama and Baba were different, but similar.
One had an ancestry of traders and merchants;
the other warriors and rulers.
Both were Bengali, from the same land, of the same blood.
One was superstitious and set store by proverbs;
the other was practical and rational.
Both believed that poor choices must be balanced by good deeds.
One thought marriage took precedence over a girl’s education; the other did not.
Ghosh doesn’t always directly tell what’s going on in the story and leaves some conclusions up to the reader to figure out. With Joya’s parents’ traits, it will soon become clear which parent is which when Joya’s father suddenly disappears one day and Joya’s mother takes her out of school and puts her to work in a clothing factory. Yusef had already left suddenly, his parents leaving many of their belongings behind. This may be the change Yusef mentioned, which was difficult enough, but Joya had never imagined her own father would disappear. Her mother still tries to protect Joya, although Joya learns here and there that her father was involved in uncovering a corruption scheme that went amiss.
To make sense of her loss and to try to convince herself that her father is not dead, Joya takes small swatches from work each night and sews them into a suit for him, all in the secrecy of her home, unbeknownst to her mother. If she continues to work on this suit, she can still hold out hope that her father will return.
Joya’s neighbors try to make sense of her father’s disappearance and blame it on the two-tailed snake. They distance themselves from Joya and her mother, worried the snake will come back for them. Joya soon falls ill with a fever and her sense of reality becomes distorted in feverish dreams.
By the end of the book, again, the conclusion is up to the reader to decipher; it’s difficult to tell what is real and what’s in Joya’s imagination. Perhaps there are some clues in the wise words of the snake: