A powerful king ruled over a large kingdom perched on the foothills of the Himalayas. He was very wealthy but an incurable miser. He gathered taxes from the people of the land for every little thing but did nothing to bring comfort and succor through the collected money to them. So the people in his kingdom disliked him.
At the very edge of his kingdom on a thickly-forested slope lived an old woman called Bhoga. She had been named after the Goddess of Wealth, but she was poorer than a church mouse. Her thatched mud hut consisted of one room. She tried to eke out a living by growing vegetables on the rocky soil around it. Selling them daily in the market hardly earned her enough to eat one meal a day. During festivals the land resounded with sounds of joy and happiness, but Bhoga’s hut would be silent. On Deepawali nights the entire kingdom shimmered with lights, but Bhoga’s hut would be dark. She had no oil to light even one small lamp.
One day, the King’s daughter expressed a desire to bathe in the gurgling stream that ran through the forests just beyond the gates of the kingdom, quite near Bhoga’s hut. It was a few days before Deepawali. The beautiful girl was the old King’s weakness. He could refuse her nothing and she was thoroughly spoiled. He said to her, ‘Go to the forest, my daughter if you so wish. Enjoy yourself playing in the stream but let my soldiers accompany you. There are wild animals in the forest and I want you to be safe.’
Next morning, the princess and her maids were driven in a chariot through the main street of the kigdom towards the forest. Behind her smartly marched a contingent of soldiers. The people of the kingdom gathered to see her. Dressed in a bright yellow sari with a pink veil, the princess looked like the pale October sun in a rosy sky. A gold necklace heavy with diamonds and rubies, a family heirloom, hung on her neck. The people greeted the princess joyously clapping their hands for she was a gracious and kind girl.
When the chariot and the soldiers reached the glade through which the stream flowed, the armed men took up positions in a protective circle around the rippling waters. The bushes and the thick foliage formed a green circular curtain behind their back. This curtain afforded cover for the princess and her maids to comfortably swim in the stream. Before wading into the waters, the girls removed their outer garments and jewels. The princess’s ruby and diamond necklace was carefully laid on her pink veil by the maids. Laughing merrily, the girls swam and bathed in the stream.
Bhoga heard their laughter and came out of her hut that was on the slope above the stream. From her vantage point, she observed the girls blithely gamboling in the clear, cool stream. She smiled at their antics. All of a sudden the sunlight glinting on an object among the trees caught her eyes. She squinted and noticed the gleaming necklace lying on the bank of the stream.
Not only the old woman, a grey crow perched on a nearby tree also saw the necklace. It was entranced by the shining object and flew down to investigate. At close quarters, it looked even more magical. The crow hopped nearer and picked it up in its pincer beak. Then it rose up, the necklace hanging in the air. As it flew overhead with its prize, one of the soldiers happened to look up. He saw a grey bird flying off with the princess’s necklace. He gave an alarm and the soldiers crashed through the undergrowth waving their hands at the crow. They shouted at it. They screamed at it. They abused it. Frightened at their gestures, the crow flew this side and that, up and down, in circles and zigzags to rid it of the bellowing men. The necklace was too heavy and obstructed its flight. So the crow opened its beak and the necklace fell. The soldiers saw the necklace dropping into a patch of bushes up the slope. With difficulty, they clambered to the spot. Parting the bushes they looked here and there. They looked everywhere. They went over every inch of the stony ground very carefully. They searched for days but did not find the diamond and ruby necklace…the royal heirloom.
The soldiers could not find the necklace because Bhoga had found it. When the crow opened its beak, it was right over Bhoga’s hut. The necklace sailed through the air and plopped in the middle of Bhoga’s vegetable garden. She was hoeing the weeds when glittering jewels tumbled over her feet. Astounded, she blinked at the rubies and diamonds sparkling in the dust. She dropped her hoe and picked up the heavy necklace with both hands. Amazed, she slid it through her muddy fingers. She had never seen such an opulent ornament in all her life.
She slipped inside her hut and hid it under her mattress. She knew it was the princess’s necklace: royal jewels. She waited for the King’s soldiers. But nobody came. When seven days had passed, Bhoga decided to take matters into her own hands. She wore her least dirty sari and hid the necklace in the waistband of her underskirt. Then she walked down the slope, through the forest, entered the kingdom and to the King’s palace.
At the mighty gates of the palace, she was stopped by the royal guards. Unafraid of their rough manners and rude questions, she said, ‘I will say nothing to you. I will only speak with the King.’
‘And why should the King speak to a dirty beggar like you?’ sneered the head guard.
‘Because I have something precious that the King seeks. If he wants it, he has to speak with me,’ Bhoga said quietly. ‘If you do not allow me to go into his presence and he comes to know, you will suffer,’ she added grimly.
The head guard did not know what to do. The crone looked like a vagabond but her voice had a ring of authority he had never seen in such a person as her. He sent a messenger to the King.
For the last few days, ever since the loss of the necklace, the King was beside himself with worry. Not only did it cost a lot of money, it was a family heirloom. Losing the valuable necklace would bring ill-luck on the royal family. So when the messenger gave him Bhoga’s cryptic missive, he immediately asked her to be brought in. In the hopeless situation he was, anything was better than nothing; anyone who could help, even a beggar woman.
Bhoga stumbled into the King’s court pushed by a burly guard. ‘Leave her alone,’ the King waved his hand. To her, he said, ‘Don’t be afraid, old woman. Tell me what you have to say.’
‘Your Majesty, you have lost a valuable necklace…’ She began.
‘Yes, yes. I have. How do you know? Do you know where it is?’ The King stood up in his excitement.
Bhoga took the necklace out of its hiding place and held it up. The entire court gasped as the white and red stones shimmered like tongues of fire. The King let out his breath with a satisfied, ‘Ahhhh…’
Bhoga stepped forward. She bent down and laid the necklace on the cushion at the King’s feet. The king picked it up and lovingly let the stones run through his fingers. It is the lost necklace. On! What a beauty! Thank God, it is back with me. Then he turned to the old woman. He was deeply grateful to her for bringing back his treasure. ‘Thank you, Grandma. You are truly an honest person and your loyalty deserves a reward. Ask me for anything, Grandma. Gold, jewels, land, house…whatever you ask for, I will grant you. You have brought back my family’s pride.’
Bhoga looked at the King for a long while. Then she shook her head. ‘No, Your Majesty. I don’t want gold or jewels or land or house.’
The royal courtiers murmured among themselves at this strange answer.
The King frowned. ‘No. No. I have to reward you. I cannot let you go back empty-handed. Tell what you wish…anything you desire.’
For a miser that the king was, this was a very magnanimous gesture. The courtiers looked at each other.
Bhoga narrowed her eyes. ‘Will you give me anything I desire?’
‘Anything!’ The king declared.
‘Anything? Are you giving me your royal word, Your Majesty?’
‘Anything,’ the King repeated stoutly.
Bhoga paused and then spoke loudly, ‘You must command your people that this Deepawali, not a single house in the kingdom will light a single lamp.’
The King was flummoxed. ‘What? No lamps on Deepawali?’
‘Yes. Not one house. Not one lamp. Not even in your own palace,’ Bhoga was quite emphatic.
‘But why?’ asked the puzzled King.
The courtiers whispered to each other, ‘Is she a mad woman?’
‘You promised, Your Majesty. I ask for this boon that the whole kingdom will be dark this Deepawali night. Will you grant me this one wish of mine?’
The King was gleeful and thought, ‘I have been let off quite lightly. This reward costs me nothing.’ ‘Alright Grandma, I grant you your wish,’ said the bemused King. Looking towards the court, he said, ‘Let it be known that this is my command. On this Deepawali night, not a single house in my kingdom will light a lamp. Chief Minister, ensure that my orders reach every nook and corner of my realm.’
The Chief Minister noted the order and Bhoga went home pleased.
Deepawali night arrived; a dark moonless night. The whole world replaced the moon and her luminosity by lighting oil lamps, candles and fairy lights. But in the kingdom of the miser king there was utter gloom. Laxmi, the Goddess of Good Fortune and Wealth went to each lighted home and blessed it with good luck and prosperity for the year to come. After traversing many parts of the Earth, the Goddess finally reached the dark kingdom. Blinded by all the lights that had welcomed her across the world, the Goddess was suddenly surrounded by lightlessness. It was inky black and with no moonlight to show her the way she stumbled on the rocky path. Frowning at the murkiness, Laxmi grumbled, ‘Whose black kingdom is this? Nobody has lit even one lamp for me. Does nobody want me to visit their homes here? Don’t they want to prosper? What strange people!’
As she slipped and slid on the hilly road, the stones cut into her soft, bare feet. She walked right through the kingdom from one end to the other without being able to see any of the houses along her dark path. She did not even see the palace in the shadows. Thus that year, Laxmi entered no homes in the kingdom. Finally, she walked out of the kingdom and came upon the thick forest. Amazingly, through the trees a faint spark winked at her. ‘There! At last a light,’ Laxmi said and began to quickly walk towards it. The leafy boughs scratched her tender cheeks and pulled at her hair. But the Goddess’s gaze was focused on the glow that became brighter and brighter as she approached it. Eventually, panting and gasping from the uphill climb, Laxmi reached a small mud hut. Its door was wide open. She peeped in. Inside was small idol of herself holding the golden casket heaped with coins and grain and a tiny white owl at the bottom. A single flickering oil lamp burned before it. Spread around the lamp were platters of fruits, sweetmeats and the special coconut and jaggery balls that Laxmi loved. She looked around the windowless room. It was empty.
Laxmi was delighted. ‘Ah! Finally a devotee who cares for me! Offering me all my favourite food! And I am so hungry and tired from the long walk. I will rest a while and partake some food to please my ardent admirer,’ she said. She stepped into Bhoga’s hut through the only door it had. As she entered the hut, poverty rushed out of it. With a sigh, Laxmi sat down and contentedly began nibbling at a coconut ball.
Now Bhoga, hiding in the bushes nearby, had observed everything. All day she had swept, swabbed and cleaned her hut. She had eaten nothing for two whole days. With the money from her vegetable sales, she had bought oil, fruits, sweetmeats and all that was needed to worship Laxmi. When she saw Laxmi relaxing inside her hut and feasting on her offerings, she quietly crept to the door of the hut. In one quick motion, she slammed the door shut.
Laxmi jumped up at the sound. She ran to the door and shook it. But it was tightly closed. She banged on it, shouting, ‘Open up! Open the door! You can’t shut me in.’
Bhoga said, ‘With all due respect, Mother Laxmi, you are captive in my hut.’
‘But you can’t do that. Nobody can capture Laxmi,’ she said.
‘Mother, all my life I have prayed to you for a little comfort, a little food, a little prosperity, but you turned a deaf ear to my pleas. So now I have captured you. If I keep you with me, I will never be poor again. How can I let you go?’ Bhoga chuckled.
‘Listen my child, let me go. You cannot tie me down. I have to go to the homes of all my devotees tonight and I haven’t even completed half the list. What do you want? I will give you everything you desire. Please open the door and let me go.’ Laxmi pleaded.
Wily Bhoga shook her head. ‘No, I won’t. You have to live in my home now.’
‘I cannot. Nobody can harness Laxmi. Let me go, my child.’
Laxmi implored, entreated and beseeched until the old woman took pity on the Goddess of Fortune and said, ‘Alright Mother. I will let you go but only if you grant me a boon.’
‘Anything. Anything you want,’ said the harassed Laxmi.
‘I cannot let you go altogether. From the moment I open the door, you must leave an avatar of yourself here in the guise of a young girl. When she grows up and weds, your avatar must become the girl-child that is born of her. After that every first girl-child born in my family must be Laxmi. This cycle must continue in my family for the next seven generations. Do you agree?’
Poor Laxmi had no choice but to acquiesce to Bhoga’s demands. She gave her word that it will all transpire as Bhoga wished.
Extracting her promise, Bhoga opened the door and the Goddess of Fortune stumbled out. As Laxmi stood before her glowing with celestial glory, Bhoga bent down low to the ground in obeisance. When she opened her eyes, the dazzling Goddess had vanished. She heard a merry laughter of a child inside her hut. As Bhoga gazed at the door in wonder, a little girl came out. Her skin was like golden corn, her eyes were dark bumblebees under winged brows and her lips were dewy petals of a rosebud. Bhoga had never seen such a lovely child. She named her VijayaLakshmi, another name of the Goddess of Wealth.
From that day on, Bhoga’s destiny turned and her wheel of fortune climbed upwards. The soil around her hut became fertile loam and grew such incredible vegetables that people came from all over right up to her hut to buy them. She amassed a lot of gold and bought more lands. Wealth heaped up in her home that rose to become a mansion vying with the King’s palace. Her fascinating daughter’s fame spread far and wide and finally reached the King’s ears. He came to see her and was so enchanted that he chose her as a bride for his prince.
Wedded to the royal son, Vijaylakshmi gave birth to a lovely baby girl who delighted her parents and grandparents. With the birth of her granddaughter, the next avatar of Laxmi, Bhoga became even wealthier. When the King died and the prince ascended the throne, Bhoga’s wisdom became the power behind her royal son-in-law. She helped to make his kingdom prosperous, his people satisfied and prove a valuable friend to the neighbouring kingdoms. His great realm came to be known as the Golden Kingdom. His people loved and blessed him. Bhoga lived happily with her grandchildren in her palatial home. Every year on Deepawali night, the kingdom shimmered with lights to herald Laxmi’s coming. But the gracious Goddess never failed to visit Bhoga’s home to bless her lovingly. Bhoga accepted her bliss with quietitude. Her serenity came from a supreme contentment; that she had been able to harness Laxmi’s power to spread love, good fortune and happiness amongst all.
First published in www.storyfuntastika.com Copyright@Sutapa Basu