The Sworn Maid
King Vijaya had a daughter, Ratnavali, by name. While she was still a child, her old nurse used to tell her this tale every day,
“Once upon a time, there was a pigeon couple in a certain forest. They had four nestlings. One day the forest caught fire, and the poor nestlings got caught in it because they could not fly. Seeing her young destroyed in the fire, their mother, the hen-pigeon, got heartbroken and decided to destroy herself in the fire. The cock-pigeon, too, made the same decision and flew together towards the flames. But halfway, the cock changed his mind and said to his mate, Let us not kill ourselves. If we are alive, we may have other young ones. But if we are lost, everything is lost. “Fie upon you!” said the hen. You are not at all worried about the sad death of our young ones. I shall not listen to you. Then she flew into the raging flames and got destroyed. Never believe the males. They are all swine!”
After listening to this story, the innocent princess asked the old nurse, Then what happened to the dead pigeon?”
The nurse laughed and said, “Oh, she was born as our king’s daughter and is now my sweet pigeon.” Then she kissed the princess.
Over time, the old nurse died, and the princess forgot her. But she remembered the tale of the pigeons and its moral very vividly.
She began to believe that it was all her own experience.
One day she went to her father, the king, and asked him to provide her with a lovely cottage in the gardens and issue orders forbidding all males from setting foot in the gardens.
“How is that, my dear child?” asked the king. “Why the such aversion to males? I am hoping to find a husband for you soon.”
“That is quite out of the question,” said Princess Ratnavali. “I am not going to marry in a thousand births.”
Some time elapsed, and one day a young prince and his companion came along the highway that ran past the gardens in which Princess Ratnavali was leading a life of seclusion, surrounded by her maids. The young men were so pleased with the greens that they wanted to rest there for a while.
The moment they set foot in the gardens, they heard someone shout, “Get out! Keep out. One of the maids approached them and said. “You seem to be strangers. This place is the abode of our princess, and if you trespass, the king will punish you.”
“We do not intend to abduct your princess,” said the prince
“Our princess hates the very sight and sound of males. You had better go,” said the maid.
So, the two young men came onto the road again. “Something tells me.” said the prince to his companion, “that I must marry this princess, somehow.”
“Let me first ascertain whether she is worth the trouble,” said his companion. They rode into the city and put up at the house of an old hotel keeper. They asked the old lady, “We hear your princess does not tolerate even the sight of males. Is she ugly?”
“What are you saying?” the old lady protested. “Princess Ratnavali is very beautiful.”
“Then why does she hate men ?” the companion asked.
“That is a close secret, my dears,” said the old woman. She was dropping her voice. “Let this go no further. Our princess was a pigeon in her last birth. She had four young ones, all dying in a forest fire. Then she wanted to commit suicide with her mate, who initially agreed but deserted her halfway. Then she died alone and was later blessed with human existence.”
“How did this secret come to light?” asked the young man.
“Princess Ratnavali is blessed with the knowledge of her previous birth,” said the old woman.
The following day they started on their way. But instead of going away, they changed their dresses, returned to the city, and went to the king’s court.
“Who are you? Where are you from?” the king asked them,
“We are from Nepal, O King,” said the prince’s companion to the king. This is my Master, a renowned sorcerer and magician. At his command, the desert is covered with grass, and dead trees bear fruit. You must see his magic and reward him duly.”
“Good,” said the king. “Let us arrange his performance near our gardens so my daughter, too, shall enjoy it.”
The young fellow smote his forehead and said, “Never, O king! My Master, the Master Wizard of the World, hates the very sight and sound of a female. If you insist on the ladies, we will have to depart at once.”
“Be reasonable,” said the king, “What harm is there if the girls sit behind screens without being seen by you?”
“So long as we do not see them and hear them, they are welcome,” the young man said.
So preparations for the magic performance were carried out. An arena was specially provided for the princess and her maids with a screen through which they could see the magical version without being seen.
The prince who was supposed to give the performance addressed his audience thus:
“You must all excuse me for insisting that my actions should not be witnessed openly by ladies. There is a reason for it, and I shall say to you. In my last birth, I was a wild pigeon. I was thrilled with my mate, and we had some young. But, as ill luck would have it, all our young got burnt up in a forest fire. This was such a severe blow to us that my mate and I decided to commit suicide. My mate gave me the slip at the last moment, and I flew into the flames alone. I shall never, never believe a female, nor shall I marry in a thousand lives. I curse my mate that she shall be without a mate until eternity. It was only my virtue that made me acquire this rare gift of sorcery which you will now witness,”
“Lies! Follies!” came a shout from behind the curtains, and the next instant, Princess Ratnavali rushed forth shouting at the sorcerer, “It was you who gave me the slip, and I that committed suicide.”
“Good gracious! I? I died in flames the moment you disappeared!” shouted the prince.
“You tried to fool me. You said we could have more young ones,” said the princess.
“Ah, that was only to test the strength of your will. If God wanted us to have the young ones, he would not have taken them away in the first place, and I knew it. But no sooner than I said it, you slipped off and let me die alone; you cheat!” the prince thundered.
His companion pretended to soothe the ruffled prince, saying, “Let bygones be bygones, Master. Fate has brought you together again. Stop quarrelling and be happy. That is the wish of one and all here if I am right.”
The prince appeared to calm down. He approached the princess, saying, “Excuse my indignation. I honestly believed that you did not fly into the flames.”
“On the contrary,” said the princess remorsefully, “It is you who has to pardon my silly mistake. I thought you abandoned me.”
In effect, the only magic the prince performed was eradicating the princess’s prejudice against males and marriage. For this act of sorcery, the king rewarded him with his daughter’s hand.
Chandamama August 1955 | R S Iyer