Does Nagaina Deserve Any Mercy?

Recently in class, we read a short story called “Rikki-tikki-tavi” by Rudyard Kipling. This tale is about a mongoose who goes to live with a human family in India. In the garden of his family’s house live snakes, including a king cobra named Nagaina. Nagaina and her husband, Nag, like to kill the young of other animals in the garden, such as birds and frogs. Rikki and Nagaina eventually get into a huge altercation. Rikki wants to kill her. Should Rikki show Nagaina any mercy in this showdown between the two of them?

Just as in life — where issues such as capital punishment are nuanced and there are multiple perspectives on the issue — the decision of whether or not to kill Nagaina is a tough one. There would be those that would call for Rikki to show some lenience. They would say that Nagaina was only acting according to her nature, and that she shouldn’t be faulted for that. She is a snake, and snakes are predatory animals. Her natural prey are other small animals — and mongooses. When she is hunting and eating those creatures, she is only doing so to satisfy the will to survive. Another reason others point to as justification for treating Nagaina less harshly is that she has experienced a lot of tragedy in her life recently. She has lost both her husband, Nag, and her babies (due to hatch out of their eggs) in a violent manner. People who experience such a debilitating loss such as that are usually out of their minds with grief. Supporters of Nagaina would say that she should not be held totally responsible for her actions because she wasn’t thinking logically and rationally.

On the other hand, there are some who say that such emotion is no excuse. There is no justification for treating the other animals the way she does — namely, terrorizing and eating them — and for that, she deserves to die. Those who call for Nagaina’s death point to the fact that, at her core, she is an evil creature, and such creatures cannot be allowed to live freely in society. For example, from the very beginning of her interactions with Rikki, she had nothing but ill intentions for him; she sought to kill him as he was kept distracted by her husband, Nag. Speaking of Nag, Kipling describes him as having a “cold heart.” Only another snake with a cold heart, like Nagaina, could be happy with a cold-hearted spouse.

If you would like to read about what Rikki actually decided to do — kill her or let her live — pick up a copy of the narrative to find out.