Substitute Bride

RESOLUTELY Vikram returned to the tree, took down the corpse, threw it across his shoulder and began to walk back to the burial ground in silence. “O King,” said Bethal, “you seem to think too highly of human effort. Probably you haven’t heard of the queer affair of Seela-vati. Let me say to you.” And he began the following tale:

Yajna-Dutta was an orphan boy. While still a kid, he went to Banaras, acquired great learning, and, leaving Banaras, came to Visalpur for livelihood. Dharmapala, the King, engaged him in his court, found a wife, and settled him in life. Over time, Yajnadutta’s wife gave birth to a daughter named Seela-vati.

Now Seela-vati was a beautiful baby. On the occasion of the naming ceremony, the Queen saw her and was seized with great maternal love. Day and night, she kept the baby by her side, looked after all its wants, bathed it, dressed it and gloated over it.

Sometime later, the Queen also gave birth to a daughter named Kalavati. Now she had a daughter of her own, yet she clung to Seela-vati with all her heart, treated her like an elder daughter, and could not bear to lose sight of her. Thus Seela-Vati grew up in the palace all the time. Kalavati called her Sister. They were put under the same teacher for studies.

As Seela-Vati grew up, her father, Yajna-Dutta, worried about her because she was brought up more like a Kshatriya girl than a Brahman girl. She might insist on choosing her husband from among a batch of suitors, which would be too bad. So Yajna-Dutta found a suitable boy and decided to marry Seela-vati to him.

Seela-vati was incredibly hurt when she heard about this marriage. Long ago, she had made a pact with Kala-vati that they should marry simultaneously, that each should approve of the other’s husband and so on. All this arrangement was brought to nought because of her father’s decision. So Seela-vati decided to thwart this marriage.

One evening while returning home from the royal gardens, Seela-Vati said to Kala-vati, “My dear, I shall have a dip in the river and come. You go ahead.” She went to the river, removed her clothes and placed them under a stone. Then she put on the clothes of a student-bachelor, unplaited her hair and tied it up in a knot, and walked away.

Kala-Vati waited for her Sister for a long time and then sent some men to the river. They found Seela-vati’s clothes and reported her missing. It was assumed that Seela-Vati drowned. The palace, as well as the Brahman’s household, was immersed in sorrow. Kala-Vati told Yajna-Dutta, “Sister was moody since her marriage was decided upon. I’m afraid she never approved of this marriage.”

On hearing this, the unhappy father was sure that Seela-Vati had committed suicide and that he was the cause of it. He got disgusted with himself and left the country with his wife.

Seela-Vati journeyed on foot for several days and arrived at a village called Brahma-sthal. Some villagers asked her, “Who are you, young man? Whither do you go all by yourself?”

“Sirs,” Seela-Vati replied “, I’m a poor bachelor. Kritavarma is my name. I’m an orphan. I go to Banaras to acquire learning.”

“You needn’t go as far if learning is all you need,” the villagers told Seela-vati. “We have here a great pundit of Banaras called Soma-Bhat. He can teach you everything.”

They led Seela-vati to Soma-bhat’s house. The great pundit was pleased with the bearing and behaviour of the young bachelor. He agreed to keep “him” in his house and impart education.

Now, Soma-Bhat had a daughter to be married. Her name was Satya-vati. She was never a handsome girl, and an attack of smallpox made her not only horrid to look at but also blind in one eye. Soma-Bhat never allowed the girl to be seen by others while he looked for a husband for her. At last, his efforts bore fruit, and a good-looking bachelor called Vidya-Bhaskar agreed to marry Soma-bhat’s daughter. The day of marriage was fixed. The boy sent word to Soma-Bhat that he was coming to see the bride-to-be in person.

Soma-bhat was at a loss as to what to do. He thought up a bold plan. He called Seela-Vati and said to her, “Look, my boy. I want some help from you. Fortunately, boys of your country do not shave their heads. You must dress like a girl.” Then he told her about his daughter and the tangle of her marriage.

Seela-vati was a bold girl. She was already passing off as a boy, and putting on another disguise was nothing for her. She agreed to her teacher’s request. In time the would-be-bridegroom arrived. Seela-Vati was dressed like a girl, and Vidya-Bhaskar was thunder-struck at the fantastic beauty of his future wife.

Preparations for the marriage celebrations were afoot. Friends and relatives of Soma-bhat arrived from far-off places. Most of them had not seen his daughter at all. Soma-bhat showed them Seela-vati as his daughter. He intended to carry on this deception until the muhurta and then get the bridegroom to tie the Mangala-Sutra around his daughter’s neck while hidden behind the screen.

The relatives of the bridegroom arrived to witness the ceremony. Satya-Vati, the actual bride, was kept in a basket in the dark chamber, while the false bride Seela-Vati was employed to perform Gowri worship just before the muhurta. The bridegroom’s people saw her and were quite happy.

After Gowri worshipped, Soma-bhat placed Seela-vati in a basket and took her to the dark chamber. “Where are you taking her?” the purohit shouted. “Bring her here. The muhurta is at hand.”

Soma-Bhat returned and said to the purohit, “Sir, it is our custom to hide the bride before marriage. The girl’s maternal uncle does the hiding.”

“We don’t observe any such customs,” the purohit said impatiently. “In any case, there’s hardly any time. Kindly bring the bride.”

Soma-bhat turned to his brother-in-law, winked at him, and said, “All right, bring the bride.” Soma-bhat’s brother-in-law went into the dark chamber and felt around. For the basket, they found and brought it to the place of marriage. The bride was sitting in the basket with her head bent down, and they noticed that it was Seela-Vati who became the wife of Vidya-Bhaskar when it was too late while she was being taken inside.

When Soma-bhat discovered the error, he was upset. His ruse miscarried, and his daughter was left unmarried. Also, he was under the impression that Seela-vati was a boy. The bridegroom’s people might discover this at any moment, and there would be a big scandal. He must avoid the scandal at all costs.

He rushed inside, told Seela-vati to remove the disguise, and whispered something in his wife’s ear. Soon Soma-bhat’s wife came out pretending to be possessed by their home deity. “Why did you forget me?” she shouted in fearsome anger. “How dare you marry the girl without her worshipping me first? See what I’ve done to her now!”

Everyone rushed inside and saw Satya-vati, the actual bride. Soma-bhat pretended to be distressed by the change in the bride’s appearance. But the guileless bridegroom consoled his father-in-law, saying, “It’s just my ill luck, Sir. Don’t blame yourself. For better or worse, I’ve accepted her as my wife, and she shall be all my life.”

Just then, Yajna-Dutta arrived there with his wife. He and Soma-bhat were boyhood chums at Banaras. Soma-bhat told Yajna-Dutta in confidence what had happened. On seeing the substitute bride, Yajna-Dutta recognised his daughter, Seela-vati.

Having narrated the story thus far, Bethal said, “O King, should Yajna-Dutta have considered his daughter properly married? Or should he have kept quiet and let Vidya-Bhaskar accept Satya-vati as his wife? Your head shall split if you know the answer and do not speak.”

“Seela-vati is undoubtedly the real wife of Vidya-Bhaskar,” Vikram replied. “Vidya-Bhaskar agreed to the marriage after seeing her. He tied the mangal sutra around her neck. Finally, he agreed to live with his ugly wife because she was still the same girl in a different form to him. As for Seela-vati, she went much further than her teacher wished. She played the bride right to the end without protesting. Thus she was a willing bride. So Yajna-Dutta should tell his friend about Seela-Vati and confirm her marriage. If Soma-bhat came to know that Seela-vati was a girl, he would never think of depriving her of her husband.”

The King’s silence was broken, and Bethal returned to the tree with the corpse.

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