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36. The Lampstand Woman

A king had an only daughter. He had brought her up lovingly. He had spread three great loads of flowers for her to lie on and covered her in three more, as they say. He was looking for a proper bridegroom for her.

In another city, another king had a son and a daughter. He was looking for a proper bride for his son.

A groom for the princess. A bride for the prince. The search was on. Both the kings' parties set out, pictures in hand. On the way, they came to a river, which was flowing rather full and fast, and it was evening already. “Let the river calm down a bit. We can go on at sunrise,” they said, and pitched tents on either side of the river for the night.

It was morning. When they came to the river to wash their faces, both parties met. This one said, “We need a bridegroom.” That one said, “We need a bride.” They exchanged pictures, looked them over, and both parties liked them. The bride's party said, “We spread three great big measures of flowers for our girl to lie on and cover her in three more. That shows how tenderly we've brought up our girl. If anybody promises us that they'll look after her better than that, we'll give the girl to that house.”

To that, the boy's party replied, “If you spread three great measures of flowers for her, we'll spread six.” They made an agreement right there.

When they were getting the town ready for the wedding, the rain god gave them a sprinkle, the wind god dusted and swept the floors. They put up wedding canopies large as the sky, drew sacred designs on the wedding floor as wide as the earth, and celebrated the wedding. It was rich, it was splendid. And soon after, the princess came to her husband's palace.

The couple were happy. They spent their time happily—between a spread of six great measures of flowers and a cover of six more.

Just when everything was fine, Mother Fate appeared in the princess's dream, and said, “You've all this wealth. No one has as much. But who's going to eat the three great measures of bran and husk?” So saying, she took away all the jasmine, and spread green thorn instead. The girl, who used to sleep on jasmines, now had to sleep on thorns. Every day Mother Fate would come, change the flowers, make her bed a bed of thorns, and disappear. No one could see this except the princess. The princess suffered daily. She suffered and suffered, got thinner and thinner till she was as thin as a little finger. She didn't tell anyone about Mother Fate's comings and goings or about the bed of thorns she spread every night. “My fate written on my brow is like this. Nobody can understand what's happening to me,” she said to herself, and pined away.

The husband wondered why his wife was getting thinner by the day. Once he asked: “You eat very well. We look after you here better than they do at your mother's house. Yet you're pining away, you're getting thin as a reed. What's the matter?” The father-in-law, the mother-in-law, and the servantmaids all asked her the same question. “When Mother Fate herself is giving me the kind of trouble that no one should ever suffer, what's the use of telling it to ordinary humans? It's better to die,” she thought, and asked for a crater of fire. She insisted on it.

She was stubborn. What could they do? They did what she asked. They robed her in a new sari. They put turmeric and vermilion on her face. They decked her hair in jasmine. They piled up sandalwood logs for the pyre, sat her down in the middle of it, and set fire to it. Then a most astonishing thing happened. Out of nowhere, a great wind sprang up, picked her out of the burning log fire, raised her unseen by others' eyes into the sky, and left her in a forest.

“O god, I wanted to die in the crater of fire, and even that wasn't possible,” she said, in utter sorrow.

When the wind died down, she looked around. She was in a forest. There was a cave nearby. “Let a lion or tiger eat me, I can die at least that way,” she thought, and entered the cave. But there was no lion or tiger in there. There were three great measures of bran and husk heaped up, and on the ground were a pestle and a pot. She wondered if this was what Mother Fate meant when she had asked in her dream: “Who's going to eat three great measures of bran and husk?”

What could she do? She pounded the bran each day, made it into a kind of flour, and lived on it. Three or four years went by this way. All the stock of bran and husk disappeared.

One day she said to herself, “Look here, it's three or four years since I've seen a human face. Let's at least go and look.” She came out of the cave, and climbed the hill. Down below, woodcutters were splitting wood. She thought, “If I follow these people, I can get to a town somewhere,” and came down. The woodcutters bundled their firewood and started walking towards a nearby market town like Bangalore. As they walked on, she walked behind them, without being seen.

As the men walked, the sun set in the woods. They stayed the night under a tree. She hid herself behind a bush. Then she saw a tiger coming towards her. “At least this tiger will eat me up; let it,” she thought, and lay still. The tiger came near. But he just sniffed at her and moved on. She felt miserable, and she moaned aloud, “Even tigers don't want to eat me.” The woodcutters heard her words.

They got up and looked around. They saw a tiger walking away from where she was. They were stunned, terrified. When they could find words, they came close and talked to her. They said, “You must be a woman of great virtue. Because of you, the tiger spared us too. But you are crying! What's your trouble? Why do you cry?”

She begged of them: “I've no troubles. Just get me to somebody's house. I'll work there. It's enough if they give me a mouthful of food and a twist of cloth. Please do that much, and earn merit for yourself.”

They said, “All right,” and took her with them.

Nearby was a town, like Bangalore. The woodcutters went to the big house where they regularly delivered firewood, and talked to the mistress there. “Please take in this poor woman as a servant here,” they said. She said, “All right,” and took her in. The woodcutters went their way. She started work in the big house, doing whatever they asked her to do.

One day the mistress's little son threw a tantrum. The mistress said to her, “Take this child out. Show him the palace. Quiet him down.” So she carried him out, and as she was showing him this and that to distract him, a peacock pecked at the child's necklace, took it in its beak, and swallowed it. She came running to the mistress and told her what had happened. The mistress didn't believe her.

She screamed at her, “You thief, you shaven widow, you're lying! You've hidden it somewhere. Go, bring it at once, or else I'll make you!”

The poor woman didn't know what to do. She cried piteously. “No, no, I swear by god. It's that bird, that peacock, it swallowed the necklace,” she said.

They didn't listen to her. The mistress said, “This is a tough customer. She won't budge for small punishments. We'll have to give her the big one.”

And she proceeded to punish her most cruelly. She had her beaten first, then had her head shaved clean and naked; asked the servants to place a patty of cow dung on it, and put an oil lamp on it; and herself lighted the wick.

She was given household chores all day. At night she had to carry the lamp on her head and go wherever they asked her to go. Everyone called her Lamp Woman, Lamp Woman. Time passed this way.

One day, the mistress's elder brother came there. He was the Lamp Woman's husband. But he didn't know anything. He came to his younger sister's house, dined there, and sat down to chew betel leaf and betel nut. The mistress sent the Lamp Woman to light the place where he was sitting, enjoying his quid of betel leaf.

She knew at once that this man was her husband. She swallowed her sorrow and stood there, with the lamp on her head. Though he looked at the Lamp Woman, he didn't recognize her. She had changed so much. He believed that his wife had perished in the fire. He thought this was some shaven-headed servantwoman getting punished for some wrong she had done. Without even looking at her, he asked her, “Lamp Woman, tell me a story.”

“What story do I know, master? I don't know any story.”

“You must tell me some story. Any kind will do.”

“Master, shall I tell you one about what's to come yet or what's gone before?”

“Who can see what's to come? Tell us about what's gone before.”

“It's a story of terrible hardships.”

“Go ahead.”

The Lamp Woman told him about the palace where she was born, how she got married, slept between cartloads of flowers, how Mother Fate appeared every night in her dream and tormented her on a bed of thorns, how she thought she could escape it all by dying on a pyre of sandalwood, how the wind miraculously carried her to a forest, and how she lived there on a meal of bran and husk; how she came with the woodcutters to this place and entered domestic service; how the peacock swallowed the necklace when she was consoling the child; how she was called a thief and made to look like a shaven widow; and how she was condemned now to walk about as a Lampstand Woman. All this she told the prince, in utter sorrow. As he heard the story, he listened to her voice and began to see who she was. He recognized that this was his long-lost wife. He took down the lamp from her head and lovingly hugged and caressed her. He scolded his younger sister and brother-in-law for punishing his wife so cruelly. They fell at his feet and asked forgiveness—but he put his wife on his horse and left at once for his own town.

Everyone was very happy to see that the princess hadn't really perished in the fire.

Types and Motifs

Type AT 930, The Prophecy. In the Aarne-Thompson index, types 930–945 are tales of fate. Other tales of fate, prophecy, etc. in this collection are “Muddanna” (No. 41), “What the Milk Bird Said” (No. 73), “The Mother Who Married Her Own Son” (No. 40), and “A Sage's Word” (No. 55). Mother Fate = vidhiyamma. Fate is female in these folktales.

[NKTT, but cf. Motif M 302.2, Man's fate written on his skull; Motif H 11.1, Recognition by telling life history. See also AKR's comments in Ramanujan 1991b.]

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