Old Deccan Days/Little Surya Bai
LITTLE SURYA BAI.
A POOR Milkwoman was once going into the town with cans full of milk to sell. She took with her her little daughter (a baby of about a year old), having no one in whose charge to leave her at home. Being tired, she sat down by the roadside, placing the child and the cans full of milk beside her; when, on a sudden, two large Eagles flew overhead, and one, swooping down, seized the child, and flew away with her out of the mother's sight.
Very far, far away the Eagles carried the little baby; even beyond the borders of her native land, until they reached their home in a lofty tree. There the old Eagles had built a great nest; it was made of iron and wood, and was as big as a little house; there was iron all round, and to get in and out you had to go through seven iron doors.
In this stronghold they placed the little baby, and because she was like a young Eaglet they called her Surya Bai (The Sun Lady). The Eagles both loved the child; and daily they flew into distant countries to bring her rich and precious things. Clothes that had been made for princesses, precious jewels, wonderful playthings, all that was most costly and rare.
One day, when Surya Bai was twelve years old, the old husband Eagle said to his wife, 'Wife, our daughter has no diamond ring on her little finger, such as princesses wear; let us go and fetch her one.' 'Yes,' said the other old Eagle; 'but to fetch it we must go very far.' 'True,' rejoined he, 'such a ring is not to be got nearer than the Red Sea, and that is a month's journey from here; nevertheless we will go.' So the Eagles started off, leaving Surya Bai in the strong nest, with twelve months' provisions (that she might not be hungry whilst they were away), and a little dog and cat to take care of her.
Some time after they were gone, one day the naughty little cat stole some food from the store, for doing which Surya Bai punished her. The cat did not like being whipped, and she was still more annoyed at having been caught stealing; so, in revenge, she ran to the fireplace (they were obliged to keep a fire always burning in the Eagles' nest, as Surya Bai never went down from the tree, and would not otherwise have been able to cook her dinner), and put out the fire. When the little girl saw this, she was much vexed, for the cat had eaten their last cooked provisions, and she did not know what they were to do for food. For three whole days Surya Bai puzzled over the difficulty, and for three whole days she, and the dog, and the cat, had nothing to eat. At last she thought she would climb to the edge of the nest, and see if she could see any fire in the country below; and, if so, she would go down and ask the people who lighted it to give her a little with which to cook her dinner. So she climbed to the edge of the nest Then, very far away on the horizon, she saw a thin curl of blue smoke. So she let herself down from the tree, and all day long she walked in the direction whence the smoke came. Towards evening she reached the place, and found it rose from a small hut in which sat an old woman warming her hands over a fire. Now, though Surya Bai did not know it, she had reached the Rakshas' country, and this old woman was none other than a wicked old Rakshas, who lived with her son in the little hut. The young Rakshas, however, had gone out for the day. When the old Rakshas saw Surya Bai, she was much astonished, for the girl was beautiful as the Sun, and her rich dress was resplendent with jewels; and she said to herself, 'How lovely this child is! what a dainty morsel she would be! Oh, if my son were only here we would kill her, and boil her, and eat her. I will try and detain her till his return.' Then turning to Surya Bai, she said, 'Who are you, and what do you want?' Surya Bai answered, 'I am the daughter of the great Eagles, but they have gone a far journey to fetch me a diamond ring, and the fire has died out in the nest. Give me, I pray you, a little from your hearth.' The Rakshas replied, 'You shall certainly have some, only first pound this rice for me, for I am old, and have no daughter to help me.' Then Surya Bai pounded the rice, but the young Rakshas had not returned by the time she had finished; so the old Rakshas said to her, 'If you are kind, grind this corn for me, for it is hard work for my old hands.' Then she ground the corn, but still the young Rakshas came not; and the old Rakshas said to her, 'Sweep the house for me first, and then I will give you the fire.' So Surya Bai swept the house; but still the young Rakshas did not come.
Then his mother said to Surya Bai, 'Why should you be in such a hurry to go home? fetch me some water from the well and then you shall have the fire.' And she fetched the water. When she had done so, Surya Bai said, 'I have done all your bidding; now give me the fire, or I will go elsewhere and seek it.'
The old Rakshas was grieved because her son had not returned home: but she saw she could detain Surya Bai no longer, so she said, 'Take the fire and go in peace; take also some parched corn, and scatter it along the road as you go, so as to make a pretty little pathway from our house to yours;' and so saying she gave Surya Bai several handfuls of parched corn. The girl took them, fearing no evil, and as she went she scattered the grains on the road. Then she climbed back into the nest and shut the seven iron doors, and lighted the fire, and cooked the food, and gave the dog and the cat some dinner, and took some herself, and went to sleep.
Scarcely had Surya Bai left the Rakshas' hut, when the young Rakshas returned, and his mother said to him, 'Alas, alas, my son! why did not you come sooner? Such a sweet little lamb has been here, and now we have lost her.' Then she told him all about Surya Bai. 'Which way did she go?' asked the young Rakshas; 'only tell me that, and I'll have her before morning.'
His mother had told him how she had given Surya Bai the parched corn to scatter on the road; and when he heard that, he followed up the track, and ran, and ran, and ran, till he came to the foot of the tree.
There, looking up, he saw the nest high in the branches above him.
Quick as thought, up he climbed, and reached the great outer door; and he shook it, and shook it, but he could not get in, for Surya Bai had bolted it. Then he said, 'Let me in, my child, let me in; I'm the great Eagle, and I have come from very far, and brought you many beautiful jewels; and here is a splendid diamond ring to fit your little finger.' But Surya Bai did not hear him, she was fast asleep.
He next tried to force open the door again, but it was too strong for him. In his efforts, however, he had broken off one of his finger-nails—(now the nail of a Rakshas is most poisonous)—which he left sticking in the crack of the door when he went away.
Next morning Surya Bai opened all the doors in order to look down on the world below; but when she came to the seventh door a sharp thing, which was sticking in it, ran into her hand, and immediately she fell down dead.
At that same moment the two poor old Eagles returned from their long twelvemonth's journey, bringing a beautiful diamond ring, which they had fetched for their little favourite from the Red Sea.
There she lay on the threshold of the nest, beautiful as ever, but cold and dead.
The Eagles could not bear the sight; so they placed the ring on her finger, and then, with loud cries, flew off to return no more.
But a little while after there chanced to come by a great Rajah, who was out on a hunting expedition. He came with hawks, and hounds, and attendants, and horses, and pitched his camp under the tree in which the Eagles' nest was built. Then looking up he saw, amongst the topmost branches, what appeared like a queer little house, and he sent some of his attendants to see what it was. They soon returned, and told the Rajah that up in the tree was a curious thing like a cage, having seven iron doors, and that on the threshold of the first door lay a fair maiden, richly dressed; that she was dead, and that beside her stood a little dog and a little cat.
At this the Rajah commanded that they should be fetched down, and when he saw Surya Bai he felt very sad to think that she was dead. And he took her hand to feel if it were already stiff; but all her limbs were supple, nor had she become cold, as the dead are cold; and, looking again at her hand, the Rajah saw that a sharp thing, like a long thorn, had run into the tender palm, almost far enough to pierce through to the back of her hand.
He pulled it out, and no sooner had he done so than Surya Bai opened her eyes, and stood up, crying, 'Where am I? and who are you? Is it a dream, or true?'
The Rajah answered, 'It is all true, beautiful lady. I am the Rajah of a neighbouring land; pray tell me who are you?'
She replied, 'I am the Eagles' child.' But he laughed: 'Nay,' he said, 'that cannot be, you are some great Princess.' 'No,' she answered, 'I am no royal lady; what I say is true. I have lived all my life in this tree. I am only the Eagles' child.' Then the Rajah said, 'If you are not a Princess born, I will make you one; say only that you will be my Queen.'
Surya Bai consented, and the Rajah took her to his kingdom, and made her his Queen. But Surya Bai was not his only wife, and the first Ranee, his other wife, was both envious and jealous of her.
The Rajah gave Surya Bai many trustworthy attendants to guard her and be with her, and one old woman loved her more than all the rest, and used to say to her—'Don't be too intimate with the first Ranee, dear lady, for she wishes you no good, and she has power to do you harm. Some day she may poison or otherwise injure you.' But Surya Bai would answer her, 'Nonsense! what is there to be alarmed about? Why cannot we both live happily together like two sisters?' Then the old woman would rejoin, 'Ah, dear lady, may you never live to rue your confidence! I pray my fears may prove folly.' So Surya Bai went often to see the first Ranee, and the first Ranee also came often to see her.
One day they were standing in the palace court-yard, near a tank, where the Rajah's people used to bathe, and the first Ranee said to Surya Bai, 'What pretty jewels you have, sister! let me try them on for a minute, and see how I look in them.'
The old woman was standing beside Surya Bai, and she whispered to her, 'Do not lend your jewels.' 'Hush, you silly old woman,' answered she; 'what harm will it do?' and she gave the Ranee her jewels. Then the Ranee said, 'How pretty all your things are! do you not think they look well even on me? Let us come down to the tank, it is as clear as glass, and we can see ourselves reflected in it, and how these jewels will shine in the clear water!'
The old woman, hearing this, was much alarmed, and begged Surya Bai not to venture near the tank, but she said, 'I bid you be silent, I will not distrust my sister;' and she went down to the tank. Then, when no one was near, and they were both leaning over, looking at their reflections in the water, the first Ranee pushed Surya Bai into the tank, who, sinking under the water, was drowned; and from the place where her body fell there sprang up a bright golden sunflower.
The Rajah shortly afterwards inquired where Surya Bai was,—but nowhere could she be found. Then, very angry, he came to the first Ranee and said, 'Tell me where the child is. You have made away with her.' But she answered, 'You do me wrong, I know nothing of her. Doubtless that old woman, whom you allowed to be always with her, has done her some harm.' So the Rajah ordered the poor old woman to be thrown into prison.
He tried to forget Surya Bai and all her pretty ways, but it was no good. Wherever he went, he saw her face. Whatever he heard, he still listened for her voice. Every day he grew more miserable; he would not eat nor drink; and as for the other Ranee, he could not bear to speak to her. All his people said, 'He will surely die.'
When matters were in this state, the Rajah one day wandered to the edge of the tank, and bending over the parapet, looked into the water. Then he was surprised to see, growing out of the tank, close beside him, a stately golden flower; and as he watched it, the sunflower gently bent its head, and leaned down towards him. The Rajah's heart was softened, and he kissed its leaves and murmured, 'This flower reminds me of my lost wife. I love it, it is fair and gentle as she used to be.' And every day he would go down to the tank, and sit and watch the flower. When the Ranee heard this, she ordered her servants to go and dig up the sunflower, and to take it far into the jungle and burn it. Next time the Rajah went to the tank he found his flower gone, and he was very grieved, but none dared say who had done it.
Then, in the jungle, from the place where the ashes of the sunflower had been thrown, there sprang up a young mango tree, tall and straight, that grew so quickly, and became such a beautiful tree, that it was the wonder of all the country round. At last, on its topmost bough, came one fair blossom; and the blossom fell, and the little mango grew rosier and rosier, and larger and larger, till so wonderful was it, both for size and shape, that people flocked from far and near only to look at it.
But none ventured to gather it, for it was to be kept for the Rajah himself.
Now one day, the poor Milkwoman, Surya Bai's mother, was returning homewards after her day's work, with the empty milk-cans; and, being very tired with her long walk to the bazaar, she lay down under the mango tree and fell asleep. Then, right into her largest milk-can fell the wonderful mango. When the poor woman awoke and saw what had happened, she was dreadfully frightened, and thought to herself, 'If any one sees me with this wonderful fruit, that all the Rajah's great people have been watching for so many, many weeks, they will never believe that I did not steal it, and I shall be put in prison. Yet it is no good leaving it here; besides, it fell off of itself into my milk-can. I will therefore take it home as secretly as possible, and share it with my children.'
So the Milkwoman covered up the can in which the mango was, and took it quickly to her home, where she placed it in the corner of the room, and put over it a dozen other milk-cans, piled one above another. Then as soon as it was dark, she called her husband and eldest son (for she had six or seven children), and said to them, 'What good fortune do you think has befallen me to-day?'
We cannot guess,' they said. 'Nothing less,' she when on, 'than the wonderful, wonderful mango falling into one of my milk-cans while I slept! I have brought it home with me; it is in that lowest can. Go, husband, call all the children to have a slice; and you, my son, take down that pile of cans, and fetch me the mango.' 'Mother,' he said, when he got to the lowest can, 'you were joking, I suppose, when you told us there was a mango here.'
'No, not at all,' she answered, 'there is a mango there. I put it there myself an hour ago.'
'Well, there's something quite different now,' replied her son. 'Come and see.'
The Milkwoman ran to the place, and there, in the lowest can, she saw, not the mango, but a little tiny wee lady, richly dressed in red and gold, and no bigger than a mango! On her head shone a bright jewel like a little sun.
'This is very odd,' said the mother. 'I never heard of such a thing in my life ! But since she has been sent to us, I will take care of her as if she were my own child.'
Every day the little lady grew taller and taller, until she was the size of an ordinary woman; she was gentle and loveable, but always very sad and quiet, and she said her name was 'Surya Bai.'
The children were all very curious to know her history, but the Milkwoman and her husband would not let her be teased to say who she was, and said to the children, 'Let us wait. By and by, when she knows us better, she will most likely tell us her story of her own accord.'
Now it came to pass that once, when Surya Bai was taking water from the well for the old Milkwoman, the Rajah rode by, and as he saw her walking along, he cried, 'That is my wife,' and rode after her as fast as possible. Surya Bai, hearing a great clatter of horses' hoofs, was frightened, and ran home as quickly as she could, and hid herself; and when the Rajah reached the place there was only the old Milkwoman to be seen, standing at the door of her hut.
Then the Rajah said to her, 'Give her up, old woman, you have no right to keep her; she is mine, she is mine!' But the old woman answered, 'Are you mad? I don't know what you mean.'
The Rajah replied, 'Do not attempt to deceive me. I saw my wife go in at your door; she must be in the house.'
'Your wife?' screamed the old woman—'your wife? You mean my daughter, who lately returned from the well! Do you think I am going to give up my child at your command? You are Rajah in your palace, but I am Rajah in my own house; and I won't give up my little daughter for any bidding of yours. Be off with you, or I'll pull out your beard.' And so saying she seized a long stick and attacked the Rajah, calling out loudly for assistance to her husband and sons, who came running to her aid.
The Rajah, seeing matters were against him, and having outridden his attendants (and not being quite certain moreover whether he had seen Surya Bai, or whether she might not have been really the poor Milkwoman's daughter), rode off and returned to his palace.
He determined, however, to sift the matter. As a first step he went to see Surya Bai's old attendant, who was still in prison. From her he learnt enough to make him believe she was not only entirely innocent of Surya Bai's death, but gravely to suspect the first Ranee of having caused it. He therefore ordered the old woman to be set at liberty—still keeping a watchful eye on her and bade her prove her devotion to her long-lost mistress by going to the Milkwoman's house, and bringing him as much information as possible about the family, and more particularly about the girl he had seen returning from the well.
So the attendant went to the Milkwoman's house, and made friends with her, and bought some milk, and afterwards she stayed and talked to her.
This she did several times, and after a few days the Milkwoman ceased to be suspicious of her, and became quite cordial.
Surya Bai's attendant then told how she had been the late Ranee's waiting-woman, and how the Rajah had thrown her into prison on her mistress's death; in return for which intelligence the old Milkwoman imparted to her how the wonderful mango had tumbled into her can, as she slept under the tree; and how it had miraculously changed in the course of an hour into a beautiful little lady. 'I wonder why she should have chosen my poor house to live in, instead of any one else's,' said the old woman.
Then Surya Bai's attendant said, 'Have you ever asked her her history? Perhaps she would not mind telling it to you now.'
So the Milkwoman called the girl, and as soon as the old attendant saw her, she knew it was none other than Surya Bai, and her heart jumped for joy; but she remained silent, wondering much, for she knew her mistress had been drowned in the tank.
The old Milkwoman turned to Surya Bai and said, 'My child, you have lived long with us, and been a good daughter to me; but I have never asked you your history, because I thought it must be a sad one; but if you do not fear to tell it to me now, I should like to hear it.'
Surya Bai answered, 'Mother, you speak true; my story is sad. I believe my real mother was a poor Milkwoman like you, and that she took me with her one day when I was quite a little baby, as she was going to sell milk in the bazaar. But being tired with the long walk, she sat down to rest, and placed me also on the ground, when suddenly a great Eagle flew down and carried me away. But all the father and mother I ever knew were the two great Eagles.'
'Ah, my child! my child!' cried the Milkwoman, 'I was that poor woman; the Eagles flew away with my eldest girl when she was only a year old. Have I found you after these many years!'
And she ran and called her children and husband, to tell them the wonderful news.
Then was there great rejoicing among them all.
When they were a little calmer, her mother said to Surya Bai, 'Tell us, dear daughter, how your life has been spent since first we lost you.' And Surya Bai went on—
'The old Eagles took me away to their home, and there I lived happily many years. They loved to bring me all the most beautiful things they could find, and at last one day they both went to fetch me a diamond ring from the Red Sea; but while they were gone, the fire went out in the nest: so I went to an old woman's hut, and got her to give me some fire; and next day (I don't know how it was), as I was opening the outer door of the cage, a sharp thing that was sticking in it ran into my hand, and I fell down senseless.
'I don't know how long I lay there, but when I came to myself I found the Eagles must have come back, and thought me dead, and gone away, for the diamond ring was on my little finger; a great many people were watching over me, and amongst them was a Rajah, who asked me to go home with him and be his wife, and he brought me to this place, and I was his Ranee.
'But his other wife, the first Ranee, hated me (for she was jealous), and desired to kill me; and one day she accomplished her purpose, by pushing me into the tank, for I was young and foolish, and disregarded the warnings of my faithful old attendant, who begged me not to go near the place. Ah! if I had only listened to her words I might have been happy still.'
At this the old attendant, who had been sitting in the background, rushed forward and kissed Surya Bai's feet, crying, 'Ah, my lady! my lady! have I found you at last?' and, without staying to hear more, she ran back to the Palace to tell the Rajah the glad news.
Then Surya Bai told her parents how she had not wholly died in the tank, but become a sunflower; and how the first Ranee, seeing the Rajah's fondness for the plant, had caused it to be thrown away; and then how she had risen from the ashes of the sunflower in the form of a mango tree; and how when the tree blossomed all her spirit went into the little mango flower; and she ended by saying, 'And when the flower became fruit, I know not by what irresistible impulse I was induced to throw myself into your milk-can, mother. It was my destiny, and as soon as you took me into your house, I began to recover my human form.'
'Why, then,' asked her brothers and sisters, 'do you not tell the Rajah that you are living, and that you are the Ranee Surya Bai?'
'Alas!' she answered, 'I could not do that. Who knows but that he may now be influenced by the first Ranee, and desire my death? Let me rather be poor like you, but safe from danger.'
Then her mother cried, 'Oh, what a stupid woman I am! The Rajah one day came here seeking you, but I and your father and brothers drove him away, for we did not know you were indeed the lost Ranee.'
As she spoke these words a sound of horses' hoofs was heard in the distance, and the Rajah himself appeared, having learnt the good news of Surya Bai's being alive from her old attendant.
It is impossible to describe the joy of the Rajah at finding his long-lost wife, but it was not greater than Surya Bai's at being restored to her husband.
Then the Rajah turned to the old Milkwoman and said, 'Old woman, you did not tell me true, for it was indeed my wife who was in your hut.'--'Yes, Protector of the poor,' answered the old Milkwoman, 'but it was also my daughter.' Then they told him how Surya Bai was the Milkwoman's child.
At hearing this the Rajah commanded them all to return with him to the Palace. He gave Surya Bai's father a village, and ennobled the family; and he said to Surya Bai's old attendant, 'For the good service you have done, you shall be Palace housekeeper;' and he gave her great riches, adding, 'I can never repay the debt I owe you, nor make you sufficient recompence for having caused you to be unjustly cast into prison.' But she replied, 'Sire, even in your anger you were temperate; if you had caused me to be put to death, as some would have done, none of this good might have come upon you; it is yourself you have to thank.'
The wicked first Ranee was cast, for the rest of her life, into the prison in which the old attendant had been thrown; but Surya Bai lived happily with her husband the rest of her days; and in memory of her adventures, he planted round their Palace a hedge of sunflowers and a grove of mango trees.
- See Notes.