20. Flute of Joy, Flute of Sorrow
A loving couple had a son after many years. But before the boy reached the age of three or four years, his mother died. The father didn't know what to do. Should he marry again? If he didn't, who would look after the boy? He thought a lot about it, and then married a second wife, who did look after his son very well for a while—till she got pregnant and gave birth to a son of her own.
As her own son grew bigger, she began to send her stepson to the fields to graze their cattle. They had seven cows, and the boy used to herd all seven to the grassy fields. The stepmother would send him with the previous evening's cold rice, spiced up a little. He would take it with him to the fields, eat some of it, and give some to the cows. When he felt lonely, he cried by himself. At home, his stepmother would fondly feed her own son cream of wheat and sugar and melted butter. But somehow he never grew strong, looked thin as a finger, whereas the other boy who went crying every day to the fields with the seven cows seemed to thrive on his hardships. This was because the cows were pleased that the boy shared his food with them, stale though it was. They talked among themselves and began to give him milk, all seven of them. As a result, they had little milk left in their udders when they came home in the evening. The woman watched them and the boy suspiciously for many days. She thought, “I feed my own son nothing but cream of wheat, sugar, and melted butter, but he looks thin as a finger. But this fellow is getting fat on stale rice and hot pepper.” She resented her stepson, didn't want him around. She even thought she should get him killed.
So, one day, she tied a black cloth around her head, covered herself with a sheet, and took to bed. When the husband came home that evening, he tried to get her up, but she wouldn't get out of bed.
“What's the matter?” he asked. “Tell me,” he pleaded.
“I'll stay in this house only if you do as I ask you. Otherwise I'll leave and go to my mother's,” she said.
“All right, tell me what you want.”
“Kill that son of yours and bring me his blood. If you put his blood on my brow, I'll get up,” she said.
Shocked though he was, not knowing what else to do, he picked up his axe and went to the field in search of the boy. From a great distance, the seven cows saw the man coming towards the field, axe in hand. They surrounded the boy and began grazing all around him. When the man came close and got ready to axe the boy, all seven cows attacked him and tossed him into the air with their horns. One cow took the boy on her back, made him sit between her great big horns, and carried him to a faraway hill. The other six followed.
The man knew he had to take blood to his wife. Or else she wouldn't get up from her bed. So he killed a sparrow, took its blood, and smeared her forehead with it. Then she got up.
The cows nursed the boy as if he were their own child. They gave him a flute of joy and a flute of sorrow, and said to him, “If you are in any trouble, if you are hungry, if you need anything, play on the flute of sorrow. We will come at once, give you milk, and take care of your needs. But if you are happy, play on the flute of joy. Then we will know our son is well.”
Then they left him seated among the branches of a large shady banyan tree. Whenever he was hungry, he would play on the flute of sorrow and all seven cows would appear at once, feed him milk from their udders, and disappear. When he was happy, he played the flute of joy. They would hear the joyous notes and know their son was happy and they would be content.
Days and months went by like this. One day, the neighboring king's daughter came to the hill to answer nature's call. Thinking to wash the little brass water pot she carried, she came to the well under the banyan tree. As the princess scrubbed the pot, the boy happened to scratch his head, sitting high among the branches. His hair shone, like filaments of gold. A golden hair fell on the princess's hand. She looked around to see where it had come from. She saw nothing around her. Then she looked up and saw him, wild and handsome, among the branches. She decided at once that she would marry him.
As soon as she went home, she tied a piece of cloth round her neck and took to bed. Her father tried to get her out of bed, but she wouldn't get up. She was his only daughter. He had no sons. He had brought her up tenderly.
“I'll bring you whatever you want. Why are you lying like this? Please get up. Tell me now what you want,” he pleaded.
She said, “Outside this town, there's a big banyan tree. A young man is sitting on it. Bring him and get me married to him. If you promise to do so, I'll get up.”
“Is that all?” asked the king, and sent five or six of his palace servants to bring the young fellow down.
The king's men came to the tree and asked him to come down. He didn't. So they started climbing the tree. He took up the flute of sorrow and played on it. At once, all seven cows gave up their grazing. They said, “Our son is in trouble.” They came leaping and running from nowhere, pitchforked the king's servants, and scattered them helter-skelter. They were happy to see that their son who had been frightened at first was now amused. They gave him some milk and went back to where they came from.
The servants fled to the king and told him what had happened. “That's weird,” he said, and went there himself with twenty or thirty men. The young man saw him coming from a distance and sounded his flute of sorrow. The cows knew that their son was in trouble again and came running. They found quite a little army of men at the foot of the tree. All seven cows assaulted and stabbed them with their horns, tossed them aside, and dispersed them. The king's men ran for their lives.
The princess was disappointed. She refused to get up.
In that place, there was a crow called Bronze Beak Crow. He was a very clever crow. They called in the crow and told him their problem.
“Whenever that pretty boy is in trouble or hungry, he plays a flute and summons his guardians, the cows. They are fierce. You must surprise him then, grab it from him, and bring it here,” they instructed.
But just when the crow flew over to the banyan tree, he was playing the flute of joy. Thinking that this was the flute they wanted, the crow swooped down, plucked it from his hands, and flew away. He then played on the flute of sorrow. The cows came, gave him another flute of joy, and left him happy.
Bronze Beak Crow came again and sat above him on the tree. The young fellow looked up once and saw the wily crow, ready to rob him again of a flute. As he quickly reached for the flute of sorrow, the crow swooped down and snatched it away from his hands.
Now he had only one flute. Even when he was in distress, all he could play was the flute of joy, because that was all he had. The cows would hear the happy notes all day and think, “Our son is well.” The king came with his retinue soon after, brought him down from his perch, took him home in a procession, and got him married to his daughter. And she was happy.
But he was sad. His thoughts were with his seven cows. He wanted to bring them home, but the people at the palace were afraid he would slip away, and wouldn't let him out of their sight. Many days passed.
The seven cows wondered why their son had not played either of his flutes. “We have not heard from him. Something has happened to him. Let's go and see,” they said and went to the banyan tree. He was missing, and nowhere to be found. They mooed and mooed, cried “Baa, baa” over and over, and died there, broken-hearted.
After a long time and many attempts, the sad young man was able to talk to the princess and to the king and persuade them to go with him to the forest. When he came to his banyan tree, he saw at once that the cows had died. That was so long ago, only their bones lay there. He picked seven pebbles, chanted a prayer, and threw a pebble at the leg bone of each cow.
Hardly had the pebbles struck them than they rose again as full-bodied cows. They scrambled up, crying “Baa, baa,” and licked him all over as if he were a long-lost calf. Then he herded them home as he had done many times before, in times long gone. In the palace, the cows were looked after royally as if they were seven queens. In time, he and the princess inherited the kingdom and reigned happily.
Types and Motifs
Type AT 534 Ind. Other versions have wild buffaloes or a bull instead of a cow. In one, the hero pours milk into a snake hole; the grateful snake blesses him with a golden body. The flutes are stolen by a parrot or an old woman instead of by a crow.
This story is told all over India (twenty-four versions recorded so far) and has not been reported for other parts of the world. Its first part has an affinity with 510B, which makes it a kind of male Cinderella tale, with a cruel stepmother and protective godmothers. Cows are explicitly maternal figures in Hindu India, and are worshiped as gomata, “Cow Mothers.” The golden hair motif (T 11.4.1) is as in Egyptian mythology.
In folktales of this kind, the mother (and father) figures are split into two characters, one good, one evil. Here the “bad breast,” the stepmother who feeds him leftovers and sets her husband the task of killing him, is contrasted with “the good breast” of the seven cows that give him milk and protection.
The motif of the flutes of joy and of sorrow (B 501.1) has a surprising development here. The hero, being left only with the flute of joy, can express and communicate no sorrow. All his feelings come out sounding happy on the flute of joy. It reminds one of the passage in Kierkegaard on the way the artist is fated to turn suffering into notes of music.
[AT 534, The Youth Who Tends the Buffalo Herd (IO).]