12. The Dead Prince and the Talking Doll
The king had a daughter. One daughter, but no sons. Now and then a beggar would come to the palace. He was strange, for every time he begged, he would say, “You'll get a dead man for a husband. Give me some alms.” The girl used to wonder: “Why does he say such weird things to me?” And she would silently give him alms and go in. The holy man (bava), this beggar man, came to the door every day for twelve years. And he said every day, “You'll get a dead man for a husband.”
One day the king was standing on the balcony and heard him say, “You'll get a dead man for a husband, give me some alms.” The king came down and asked his daughter, “What's this talk, daughter?”
She replied, “This bava comes every day and says, ‘You'll get a dead man for a husband. Give me some alms.’ Then I give him something. He has been saying it for twelve years, ever since I was a little girl.”
The king was disturbed when he heard this. He was afraid the prophecy would come true. He didn't wish his only daughter to have a dead man for a husband. He said, unhappily, “It's no good staying in this kingdom. Let's leave and spend our time in travels.” And he got his servants to pack everything, and left the place with his entire family.
Around that time, the prince of the neighboring kingdom fell mysteriously ill and died. But his body looked as if he had only fallen asleep. Astrologers said he would return to life after twelve years. So, they didn't bury him; instead of burying him, his father the king built a bungalow outside the town, laid his son's body in it, mortared and whitewashed the house on all sides, and left the body there, fully clothed and adorned. The father locked the main door and left a written message on it. The message said, “One day a chaste woman who has made offerings to the gods for her husband will come here. Only she can enter the place. When she touches the door, it will open. It will open to no one else.”
It was soon after this sad event that the first king arrived there with his wife and daughter and his entourage. They were all hungry and began to cook a meal for themselves. The king's daughter went for a walk and saw the locked door. The lock was of exquisite design and gleamed from a distance.
She went near and held it in her hand. As soon as she touched it, it sprang open, and the door opened. She went in. The door closed and locked itself behind her. Ahead of her were twelve doors, one behind another; they all opened at her touch, and each closed behind her as she went through them.
Right in the heart of the house she found a dead man on a cot. He looked as if he was fast asleep. Before she could wonder about what was happening to her, how doors opened before her and shut behind her, she was in the presence of the dead man.
His family had left provisions for twelve years in the house: vessels, dishes, clothes, grains, spices. The princess saw all these things around her.
She remembered the holy beggar's words, and thought, “I didn't escape it: his words are coming true.” She unveiled the face of the body. It was dead as dead could be, but calm as a face in deep slumber. “Well, what's to be done? It looks as if I am imprisoned here with this dead man. Let's do something,” she said, and started massaging his legs.
For almost twelve years she tended and massaged his body. She would wake up in the morning in the locked house with twelve locked doors, and where could she go? She bathed and cooked, kept house and looked after the dead body, and thought about all the things that had happened to her.
Meanwhile, in the forest, the mother had said, “The food is all ready, where's our girl gone?” Her father had walked outside and called her. She was nowhere to be seen. But they could hear her cries from inside the house. They had called out, “Daughter, why are you in there? Come out!”
She had answered from within, and told her father what had happened.
“I touched the locks, and they fell open. As soon as I came in, they locked themselves shut. I am alone here.”
“What is in there?”
“A dead man is lying here. Nothing else.”
“My girl, your luck has caught up with you. What the bava said is coming true. The locks can't be opened.”
They had tried to enter the house from the sides and from behind, but it was as if it was sealed. They had tried and tried and finally said, “What else can we do? We'll go, and leave you to work out your fate.” They left sorrowfully. Time passed, and they grew old.
Inside the locked house, night and day the princess massaged the dead man's legs, took ritual baths and worshiped the gods at the right times, made offerings for her husband. Around the tenth year, an acrobat's daughter came that way. She looked all around the house, tried the doors, and at last climbed onto the roof.
The princess was lonely. She was dying to see another human face. “If there's a chink in the house, I could pull in at least a child. If only I could have a girl for a companion!” she thought. Just then, she saw a young woman looking through a window.
“Hey, girl! Will you come inside?”
“Yes,” said the acrobat girl.
“Do you have any father or mother? If you do, don't try to come in. You can't get out. If you don't have parents, come inside.”
“Oh no, I've nobody.”
She pulled the girl in through the window. The acrobat girl was agile. She twisted and contorted her body and got in. The princess was happy; she had company now. With a companion inside, time went fast. Two more years rolled by.
The prince's twelve years were coming to an end. The time for his life to stir again was near.
One day, when the king's daughter was taking her bath, she heard the omen-bird speak from the branch in the window. It said, “The twelve years are coming to an end. If someone would pluck the leaves of this tree, grind them and press them in a silver cup, and pour the juice into the man's mouth, he will come to life again.”
The king's daughter heard it. At once she plucked some leaves and pressed the juice out into a silver cup. Just when she was about to take it to the dead man's lips, it occurred to her that she had not bathed yet. She should finish her bath, purify herself, offer worship to the Lord Siva properly and then give the juice to the prince. So she put down the cup and went back to bathe and offer worship.
The acrobat girl asked her, “What's this stuff in the cup? Why is it here?”
The princess told her about the bird's message and what the cup contained. As soon as she heard all this, the acrobat girl thought this was her chance. While the princess sat in worship, the acrobat girl parted the dead prince's lips and poured the juice from the silver cup. As the liquid went in, he woke up as if he had only been asleep. Exclaiming, “Siva, Siva,” he sat up straight. He saw the woman next to him and asked, “Who are you?”
She said, “Your wife.”
He was grateful to her. They became husband and wife while the princess sat inside, long absorbed in prayer, the woman who had served him for twelve long years.
When she came out, she heard the two of them whispering intimacies to each other. “O Siva, I did penance for twelve years, and it has turned out like this. Obviously, happiness is not my lot,” she thought. She began to work as their servant while the prince and the acrobat woman sat back and enjoyed themselves.
Yet, after all, she was a princess, born to a queen. The other girl was only an acrobat's daughter. The prince began to see the difference between them in manners and speech. He began to suspect something was wrong. So later that day, he said to both of them, “I'm going out for a hunt and then I'll go to the city. Tell me what you want.”
The acrobat girl, who had been longing for her kind of gypsy food, asked for all sorts of greens and dry flat bread to eat. He was disgusted. A woman should ask for saris and silk and blouses, but this one asks for wretched dry bread! Then he told the acrobat girl to ask the other woman in the house what she would like. The princess answered, “I don't want anything much. Just tell the master what I'd really like is a talking doll.”
“This one is strange, too. All she wants is a talking doll,” he thought.
After a good hunt in the jungle, he brought the acrobat girl the evil-smelling greens and leaves and dry bread from some gypsies, and for the princess a talking doll. The acrobat girl was overjoyed at the sight of the rough food; now she began to thrive and get color in her cheeks.
That night, after everyone had eaten and gone to bed, the talking doll suddenly began to speak and said, “Tell me a story.”
The princess asked, “What story can I tell you? My own life has become quite a story.”
“Then tell me your life's story,” insisted the doll.
So the princess told the doll her entire story, as I've told you so far. Just like that.
The doll nodded and said, “Hmm, hmm,” as the princess told her tale. The prince lying awake in the other room heard it all. Finally she said, “I left the silver cup there, on that ledge, and that woman gave the juice to the prince before I got back from my prayers. Now she's the wife, I'm the servant. That's the way it turned out.” And she ended the story.
As he heard the story from where he lay in the next room, the prince felt his anger mounting. When the story came to an end, he took a switch and lashed at the acrobat girl sleeping next to him, and drove her out of the house.
“You're not my wife, you're an acrobat wench! Get out of my sight!” he screamed.
Then he went in and consoled the princess who had served him lovingly for twelve years; and they talked happily to each other all night.
In the world outside, his father and mother had counted up the days and years. They knew the twelve years were over and were anxious to see what had happened to their son. They came, and all the town came with them. They found the doors unlocked, and found in the heart of the house the couple, prince and princess, whispering loving words to each other.
Gratefully, the father-in-law and mother-in-law fell at the feet of their young daughter-in-law and said, “By your good work in many past lives, and your prayers in this one, our son came back to life. He looks as fresh as if he had just woken up from a long night's sleep. It's all your doing.”
They took them to their palace and celebrated the wedding with great pomp and many processions. For the grand occasion, they sent for the bride's parents, who had grown weak and old. Their eyes had become like cottonseed, and they were ready to lie down in the earth. But their spirits revived at the good news, and they too hurried to the reunion at their daughter's wedding.
Types and Motifs
AT 437, The Supplanted Bride (The Needle Prince). Another story like No. 4, in which a faithful wife is fated to marry a dead man but restores him to life. In Europe it is often called The Needle Prince because she “finds a seemingly dead prince whose body is covered with pins or needles and begins to remove them. When she has finally removed all but a few, she leaves the side of the prince for a moment, or falls asleep. A servant girl, etc., takes her place, removes the last few needles, and marries the restored prince. The mistake is afterwards explained” (Thompson and Roberts, p. 64). In one Indo-Iranian telling, she has to fan the corpse for seven years, but she is supplanted at the last moment.
The story is often combined with the special Indian Lear-type of AT 923B, The Princess Who Was Responsible for Her Own Fortune (Motif H 592), reported in twenty-five Indian versions.
The central motif of the virtuous woman being supplanted, after she has devoted years to a husband, by a rival, a low-class false bride, is well known in European tellings as well as in Indian ones. These stories dramatize the deep fear of the competing vigor, sensuality, and guile of a lower class, as imagined by other classes. It also dramatizes the psychological split between the Black and White Bride (AT 403), two alternating aspects of the female seen from the point of view of the marrying male. The Indian tale emphasizes both the magical life-giving capacity of a devoted wife and the loneliness of a new bride in an eerie household, locked up within fourteen doors with a dead husband, as compared to the comforts of a full-scale extended family. As in other such women-centred stories, the denouement and the reversal of fortunes are effected by the recounting of the entire story.
[AT 437, The Supplanted Bride + AT 870, The Princess Confined in the Mound.]