I was named Shakuntala after the heroine of Kalidasa’s classic drama. My namesake was not a mortal like me, she was a nymph, daughter of the celestial apsara Menaka who seduced the sage Vishwamitra and stole his seed. That Shakuntala had been deserted by her mother, and her birth-father Vishwamitra, and later by her husband Dushyanta- one could say that she carried within herself the samskaras of abandonment. Some even consider it an unlucky name.
It was my mother who named me Shakuntala. I never asked her why. She was no nymph or apsara, nor a learned rasika, but a ragged hill woman with a silent, dour passion for herbs and healing. My father had died when I was barely five years old, and his absence remained a stark presence in our unsheltered life. My first memories are of my mother diligently sorting herbs from among the weeds in our garden. My father had been a Vaidya, a doctor of medicinal plants, and she had learnt what little she knew about healing from him. The sharp whiff of amalaka, the sour reek of ashwagandha are irretrievably attached to these memories of childhood. My mother also tended our two cows, and the aroma of mountain herbs mingled in her cloths and her hands with the odours of milk and dung. I loved the cows, with their gentle eyes and grainy tongues, but while milking them I was always afraid that I would carry the same odour as my mother. The comfort of her bosom smelt rank, and I would recoil from her absentminded embraces to run off and play in the garden outside our home.
We had few flowers in our modest garden, but there was a profusion of amalaka, tulsi, kantakari and other useful herbs. My mother would care for these in an order she had painstakingly learnt, intuited and improvised. The holy hemp, the pathya, was planted only at midnight on moonless amavasya nights, while the leaves of the black tulsi were never to be plucked on ravivara, the day of the sun-god. She tried to teach me something of this meager knowledge but I resisted her attempts with an anger so violent that it sometimes surprised me. I hated everything about my mother, from her tangled hair to her shuffling gait and her cracked, dirty feet. I did not ever want to become like her.
I grew up in mountain country, like the Shakuntala of the epic. The hill people from our parts were called vanvasis, dwellers of the forests. It was a harsh life, of very few comforts, and our ways were far removed from those of the nagariks or cityfolk. We had little water to wash, for it was carried up from a great distance down the hill. Yet our house was always cold, or damp, or wet, as was the firewood, which burned badly and ruined our eyes. I often woke up with a hairy spider or an adventurous centipede sharing the pallet of lumpy straw on which I slept.
A fungal smell, compounded of stale gruel, smoke and disappointment, was settled like a pall about our house. Yet I stole my joys. All day I roamed the hills, where the forests abound with deer and stag, where tigers and panthers prowl. My mother had warned me to beware of the shalabhanjikas, forest spirits who enticed and enslaved young girls, but I loved the woods, and would return home reluctantly only when the shadows lengthened and the trees whispered like ghostly spirits. I was always cautious, though, and kept to the pathways and clearings. I thought I knew how to stay out of trouble, and was restless to see the world, to wander with the freedom of birds and clouds. I told my mother this and she sighed. ‘Remember, Shankuntala,’ she said, ‘birds return to their nests at dusk, but clouds must weep their tears unseen in distant lands.’