34. King and Peasant
A peasant and his wife were very poor. They had little to eat and very little to wear. They labored somewhere or other every day so that they could have some gruel. Such was their miserable life.
One day the king and the queen were traveling through the countryside in their two-horse coach when they saw the poor peasant couple laboring in the hot sun without even a piece of cloth on their backs. The king said to the queen, “Look at those poor people. Their life is such a struggle, it's hard to watch them. God seems to be blind to their misery.”
The queen replied, “God has nothing to do with these people's plight. The woman of the house is no good. So all their labor is wasted. Even if they work day and night, they won't escape poverty.”
“How come?” asked the king.
The queen said, “I'll wager with you. Let me manage this peasant's house for six months. Let the peasant's wife go and live in the palace in my place and manage it for six months. You'll see the difference for yourself.”
And so they exchanged places. The king took the peasant's wife to the palace with him, called all his servants and ordered that they should treat her with respect, do everything she asked them to do, and serve her just as they did the queen.
Meanwhile, the queen entered the peasant's house. It was so dirty that she gagged looking at it. Garbage, sticks and stones, unwashed pots, unswept floors, and a pile of ashes in the stove. The queen set about at once to clean up the place. She swept it, washed it, drew rangoli designs on the floor, cleaned all the pots, burned incense for the gods, insisted that the peasant bathe and wear a fresh loincloth every day, and said to him, “ Appa, look here. You must go into town every day and work there. You must bring home whatever you earn and give it to me. You must never come home with an empty hand. If you can't get work on some days, you must still pick up something, at least a stick from the road, and bring it home.”
Accordingly, he would go out every day and work for daily wages somewhere or other and bring home whatever he earned to the queen. After the day's expenses, she would save the pennies, put them away in a secret pot, and with that money she began to furnish the place in modest ways. The peasant ate well and soon began to look rounded and well-cared-for.
In the palace, the peasant woman quarreled with all the servants, scolded them any way she pleased, and threw about jewelry and clothes everywhere till whatever was there today wasn't there tomorrow. Precious things were lost every day. The queen's quarters were now covered with dust, garbage wet and dry, and dirty linen. The king saw that the palace was in a shambles and getting worse by the hour. He waited anxiously for the end of the six-month period.
One day, the peasant couldn't find any work though he tried everywhere. Frustrated, he turned towards home in the late afternoon. A dead snake lay on the road. He remembered at once the queen's words that he should never come home empty-handed but bring whatever he found by the roadside. So he picked up the limp cold snake and took it to the queen. She consoled him, saying, “No matter. You did well,” and she threw the dead snake on the thatched roof. Then she gave the peasant water for his hands and feet and served him food. Meanwhile, a garuda-bird was flying overhead with a fabulous necklace of rubies and pearls in its beak; it had picked up the necklace in the palace, maybe out of the garbage. But, now, when its eagle eyes fell on the snake on the peasant's roof, it swooped down to snatch it up, dropped the necklace while doing so, and whirled away into the sky. The queen heard the clatter, went out, and saw the necklace. She called out to the peasant, who clambered onto the roof and brought down the necklace. She asked him to take it at once to the market street and sell it at the jeweler's for a good price. He did as he was told, received a fabulous price, and brought back a bagful of money. She used it to buy him a new house and some land, furnishings, cattle and buffaloes, and arranged it all so that he would never want for anything. By this time, six months had come to an end.
The king couldn't wait to get the queen back. He rode to the peasant's village and pleaded with his queen, “You must hurry back. We live in chaos. We have lost so much already. I can't bear it anymore.”
He was amazed at the prosperity of the peasant. The queen explained, “Now you know. The woman in the house is like Lakshmi, the goddess of good fortune. Even in the poorest household, if she is tidy and manages with care and looks after the welfare of the man who works, Lakshmi will seek out that house and dwell in it. Otherwise, you know very well what misery follows.”
With these words, she installed the peasant's wife back in her place, gave her lots of advice, and went home to her palace to clear the garbage there and set it up for the good life again.
[NKTT, but cf. Motif P 411.1.1, Peasant and his wife in hut near castle as contrasts to king and queen.]