It was a hot day and a very poor milk woman hobbled along the long, dusty road that led to the bazaar. By her side skipped her little girl sometimes lagging behind to pick the daisies that grew on the verge. As she was so tired the milk woman laid down her heavy metal cans brimful of milk, kicked off her shabby sandals to rest her weary feet and fell fast asleep in the strong sunshine.
Suddenly two Eagles swooped down from the cloudless sky with a great fluttering of wings. They winched up the little girl by her yellow ribbons, and swiftly bore her away to their nest in the topmost branches of a high tree. Their home was made of bronze and teakwood and to get in and out you had to bolt and unbolt seven massive teak clad bronze doors.
The Eagles loved the little girl as if she was their own daughter because she was so like a little bird. Mr Eagle looking at Mrs Eagle with his bright brown eyes said, ‘we’ll call her Surya Bai which means Sun Lady.’ And how they pampered her! Nothing was too good for her – wonderful toys and clothes and gifts, fit for a princess.
Surya Bai lived happily with them for many years. On her sixteenth birthday, Daddy Eagle said to Mummy Eagle. ‘You know, Surya Bai doesn’t have a ruby ring like most princesses. I think we ought to remedy that.’
‘Just what I was thinking! You’re a mind reader!’ exclaimed Mummy Eagle smoothing her feathers, ‘but I’ve heard that the only place where we can locate anything like that is by the Red Sea and that will mean an expedition lasting…’ and she broke off to count on her claws ‘… almost twelve months’.
The Eagles fretted about leaving Surya Bai all alone but then they decided she’d be completely safe and secure in the virtually impregnable home with a year’s supply of food and the dog and the cat to keep her company. And so they kissed her goodbye and soared away.
Now the cat, jet black with white ears and white tail, was very mischievous and one day she gobbled up rather more than her fair share.
‘You naughty, naughty kitty,’ scolded Surya Bai,’ just look what you’ve done!’ The food has got to last until Mummy and Daddy Eagle return and if you persist in eating at this rate, we’ll soon have nothing left and we’ll starve, you included. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.’ And she banished the cat into a far corner for the rest of the day. Puss was very annoyed and hissed and spat. She was furious at being punished, especially as the dog was making provocative faces at her. So she ran to the fire that was kept burning all day and all night and huffed and puffed till she’d blown it out.
Surya Bai was at her wits end. ‘What am I to do now? How am I going to re-light the fire?’ she wondered, ‘and if I can’t cook myself a meal, I shall starve and die,’ and she burst into tears.
‘Don’t cry, Surya Bai’, begged the dog. ‘Dry your eyes and stand at the edge of the nest and tell me if you can detect a plume of blue smoke in the distance.’
Surya Bai sniffed and blew her nose hard and running to the window fastened her gaze in the direction where the dog pointed with his paw, ‘Yes,’ she said ’so there is. I’ll climb down and see if there’s someone who’ll lend me some matches.’
She slid down the tree carefully shutting each of the seven doors behind her and made her way towards the billowing smoke. Before too long she found herself in a clearing by a tiny cottage made entirely of black volcanic mud and banana leaves. Surya Bai tapped on the door.
A voice croaked, ‘who’s out there? Is it you my son?’
‘It’s me, Surya Bai,’ she replied. ‘My fire has gone out—would you lend me some matches?’
Now what poor Surya Bai didn’t know was that she’ d wandered into the country of the rakshas and the voice was that of an old crone who was none other than a rakshas herself. A rakshas is a particularly hideous and nasty demon with a long hairy nose, long pointed ears and slit eyes and it can transform itself into any shape it wants.
When the hag of a rakshas caught sight of Surya Bai she said to herself, ‘what a pretty little thing and what a simply delicious meal she’d make for my son. I’ll see if I can detain her here until he returns home.’
She turned to Surya Bai and smiled cunningly. ‘Ooh you poor little mite. Don’t you worry yourself. I must have some firelighters or matches somewhere. But first help me to pound this rice; I’m frail and my arms aren’t as strong as they once were.’
Surya Bai squatted on the floor and pounded the grains, backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards with a flat, crescent shaped stone. When she had finished, the junior rakshas still hadn’t returned from hunting.
The old rakshas was determined to keep Surya Bai there for as long as it took so she said, yawning and showing her pointed black teeth, ‘I’m exhausted — look, grind this corn for me and afterwards you’d be doing me a great favour if you’d sweep the floor and clean the house as it’s in need of a good going over.’
So Surya Bai, who was a willing, obedient little girl, ground the corn and swept the floor with a broom she’d found under a pile of rags in the kitchen. But there was still no sign of the junior rakshas and the mother knew she couldn’t persuade Surya Bai to stay very much longer without arousing her suspicions. ‘Why are you in such a hurry to go, dear? If you fetch me some water from the well, I’ll give you several big boxes of matches.’
Surya Bai went round to the back of the cottage, lowered a tin bucket into the well and drew up some fresh, cold water which she poured into a glass and handed to the old rakshas.
‘Thank you, dearie,’ said the rakshas. ‘Now you’ll find the matches in a trunk near my sewing basket. And before you go take some dried corn and sprinkle it along behind you as you make your way home so as to leave a trail behind my place and yours because I want my son to bring you a thank you present for all you’ve done for fragile old me.’
Surya Bai beamed and as she skipped back to the nest she scattered handfuls of corn as she ran along. The dog wagged his tail furiously when he saw her but the cat was still sulking. After re-kindling and re- lighting the fire, she cooked supper, fed the dog but not the cat, and then, because she was so tired, fell fast asleep.
Just after she’d left the old rakshas, the junior rakshas had come rushing home, famished after a day’s hunting during which he’d not managed to bag a single buck.
‘Be quick, son,’ urged his mother ’you’ve just missed a tasty little morsel. But no problem— I told her to leave a trail and you’ll have no trouble following it.’
The junior rakshas set off in hot pursuit and soon reached the bottom of the tree. He scrambled up to the outermost door of the nest. ‘Oh, I can easily get in,’ he thought for he was the champion wrestler of the rakshas. ‘The door is no match for me. I’ll just shake and keep shaking until the whole thing disintegrates.’ But the door didn’t yield. Then he had a bright idea. ‘Let me in little one,’ he called, disguising his voice, ‘it’s me— Daddy Eagle. Mummy Eagle and I’ve brought you some magnificent surprises from the pyramids of Egypt.’
But Surya Bai didn’t hear him because she was asleep. Now all this shaking and banging and mimicry had made the young rakshas rather irritated and hoarse so he gave the door another kick and thumped it for a good ten minutes. It still didn’t budge an inch. Then, disgusted, he gave the door a final swipe and in all the to-do, one of his fingernails broke off and got stuck in the door. You may not know this but the fingernail of a rakshas is more poisonous than a scorpion’s bite.
Next morning, when Surya Bai opened the doors one by one till she came to the seventh and final door, she felt something graze her hand. It was the rakshas’ fingernail and she immediately collapsed in a coma.
At noon the Eagles returned to the nest delighted to be home again. On the threshold they found Surya Bai with her eyes tightly closed. They did their best but failed to revive her and were convinced she hadn’t long to live. They couldn’t bear to see her like that so they kissed and cuddled her and Daddy Eagle slipped the gorgeous ruby ring on her finger and with Mummy Eagle flew sadly away.
That afternoon, about tea time, a Rajah happened to ride by on an ebony horse. He was out hunting with friends and, glancing up, the nest had attracted his attention. ‘Get up there and tell me what it is,’ he commanded an aide. The Rajah was young and very handsome; he had a black moustache and curly black hair and wore a suit of the purest gold edged with precious gems and decorated with wild geese feathers. On his left shoulder perched a falcon.
The aide, who had by now reached the top of the tree, couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw Surya Bai lying there so beautiful and motionless. He felt her pulse and realised she was just in a deep sleep. He slithered down as fast as he could and reported excitedly to the Rajah. ‘Sire, oh Sire,’ he said, hardly able to find the words, ‘there’s the loveliest girl imaginable up there.’
The Rajah gave a quick order to six footmen to bring her down. ‘What’s this?’ he muttered to himself as he saw something sticking out of her hand. It was the fingernail. He jerked it sharply out of her palm and slowly Surya Bai opened her eyes, blinked and gazed round her. The Rajah bent over her and said very tenderly, ’Dear lady, I am the Rajah of Indahaar. I was out riding when I noticed that strange object,’ and he pointed to the nest. ’Curiosity got the better of me. Won’t you tell me who you are?’
‘I am the Eagles daughter,’ Surya Bai told him, ‘and that’s my home. The Rajah threw back his head and laughed, ‘I can’t believe it,’ he said. ‘You must be of royal birth and a princess.’ Surya Bai shook her head and sighed. ’Alas, I am not and now I’m all alone what’s going to become of me?’
The Rajah stood up and straightened himself to his full height till the jewels on his suit tinkled. ‘You shall be a princess by marriage,’ he declared, ‘for I shall make you my Rani (Queen).’ He swung her onto his saddle and rode off with her and she was crowned the very next day.
The Rajah was the step-son of the Queen Mother who was a spiteful woman and very jealous of Surya Bai’s beauty and sweet nature. For a long time she’d wanted her own niece to marry the Rajah and she resolved to break up the Rajah and his Rani but couldn’t find a way as they loved each other dearly.
Now Surya Bai had a faithful lady- in -waiting who was very fond of her and knew the Queen Mother was plotting against her. One day, as she helped Surya Bai comb her long black hair with a comb made from an elephant’s tusk, she said, ‘Rani, I want to warn you about the Queen Mother. She’s very embittered and will stop at nothing to stir up trouble for you.’
Surya Bai laughed. ’What nonsense – she’ll soon get used to me. I don’t see why we can’t live happily together.’
But the Queen Mother was determined to get rid of Surya Bai and found the perfect way to do it. Surya Bai was trying on some jewellery the Rajah had given her and she and the Queen Mother were standing by a deep pond in the courtyard of the palace. The lady –in- waiting whispered to Surya Bai. ‘Stand back, Rani, you’re too near the edge,’ but Surya Bai didn’t hear her.
The Queen Mother sharply ordered the lady –in- waiting indoors. No sooner was her back turned than the Queen Mother took Surya Bai roughly by the shoulders and shoved her into the water. Then she hurried away as fast as she could. Surya Bai had never learned to swim and although she tried desperately to reach the bank she floundered. As she sank to the bottom of the pond, a lotus flower sprang up of a most delicate shade of pink and white.
The Rajah was frantic when Surya Bai was nowhere to be found and had the palace turned inside out. ‘What shall I do, what shall I do?’ he wailed in despair to the Queen Mother.
‘Ask Surya Bai’s lady- in -waiting,’ retorted the Queen Mother, maliciously seeing a way to get even with her, ‘she was her best friend.’
The Rajah summoned the lady- in- waiting and demanded to know what had happened to Surya Bai. But the woman remained silent knowing that she couldn’t accuse the Queen Mother without proof of her guilt. The Rajah, taking her silence for a confession of wrongdoing, had her incarcerated in the deepest and darkest dungeon in the palace.
The Rajah became so wan and unhappy that his subjects feared he was on the verge of death. Then one day, as he sat by the pond in a morose mood, he happened to notice the lotus flower and, as he watched it more closely, it glided towards him.
‘Oh, you beautiful thing,’ he said bending down to caress its petals, ‘you remind me so much of my love Surya Bai’ and every morning after breakfast, he’d go down to the pond and talk to the little flower and gradually gained a measure of peace.
The Queen Mother, jealous as ever, was enraged when she noticed the Rajah’s devotion to the plant. She ordered courtiers to rip out the lotus flower and burn it in the jungle when the Rajah was away. No sooner had they carried out her command and scattered the ashes of the lotus than a guava tree sprang up. At the very top hung the biggest and most perfect guava, both in shape and colour, which the kingdom had ever seen. People came from far and wide to admire it and the news reached the Rajah. He proclaimed that the magnificent guava was to be preserved specially for him.
One day, Surya Bai’s real mother, the milk woman, sat down to rest under the guava tree. Plop! Down rolled the guava into a milk can. The milk woman was horrified. ‘Goodness, I could be executed for being in possession of the Rajah’s prize guava. Nobody will ever believe it fell off accidentally.’ She loaded the cans on her shoulder and trundled home to her husband and her children as fast as she could.
After supper she told her family the story. ‘Deepak, ‘she said to her eldest son, ‘in that can over there you’ll find the guava. Lift it out and bring me a knife and we’ll each have a slice.’
So Deepak emptied the can. To the family’s astonishment a doll-sized woman clad in silk clothes stepped out. They could hardly speak so flabbergasted were they.
‘Let’s keep her as a member of the family,’ they decided,’she’s so pretty.’ So Surya Bai stayed and grew a little bit every day until she became the size of an ordinary young woman.
One day the milk woman said to Surya Bai. ‘Go into the meadow and milk the cows.’ She thought it was time Surya Bai learned a skill to earn her living. When Surya Bai had filled the pails with fresh milk the Rajah came riding past and caught sight of her. He recognised her at once and decided to follow her home.
Furious with rage he shouted at the milk woman. ‘So it was you who kidnapped my wife. Give her back to me this instant or I shall have you beheaded.’ The milk woman had never seen the Rajah in her life and thought he was mad. She picked up a stick and whacked him and his horse about the head, pulled his hair till he cried for mercy and chased him out of her garden.
The Rajah and his horse limped slowly back to the palace. ‘I’m pretty sure it was Surya Bai and I mean to get to the bottom of this,’ he thought as a doctor tended to his injuries. Then he had a brainwave. ‘This is what I’ll do. Surya Bai had a lady- in- waiting who was devoted to her. I’ll enlist her help.’
So, not wanting any of the palace staff to know of his plan he picked his way carefully down into the dungeon, holding his nose as he descended the fetid, stone stairway. ‘I want you to befriend the milk woman,’ he ordered the lady- in- waiting. ‘Find out all you can. If you haven’t sorted it all out within a fortnight, I shall have you exiled to the land of the rakshas.’
The lady -in – waiting lost no time in becoming acquainted with the milk woman and soon she was invited in for a cup of tea. There she saw Surya Bai and knew she was the missing Rani. ‘Tell me,’ she asked the milk woman, ‘has the little lady ever said anything about herself?’
‘It’s very strange.’ The milk woman shook her head. ‘Not a word. She doesn’t talk very much, you know.’ The lady- in- waiting knew she could solve the mystery if she stayed a little longer. ‘Could I ask you for another cup of tea as your milk is so delicious and, maybe, we could encourage her to tell us something,’ she suggested.
The milk woman was delighted to hear how much the milk was appreciated and rose to make another, milkier, cup of tea. ‘What a good idea! I’ve never thought to ask because I thought it might seem like prying. But now that you mention it, I don’t see why I shouldn’t.’ And she called out to Surya Bai who was busy watering flowers in the garden,’ come here, my dear and tell us your story.’
Surya Bai neatly wiped the watering can and stowed it away in the shed and then came and sat down between the lady- in-waiting and the milk woman. She told how she had been snatched away by the Eagles whereupon the milk woman erupted, ’you’re the little girl I lost!’ and hugged and kissed her. Then Surya Bai talked about her life in the nest and her encounter with the rakshas and how the Rajah had come by and made her his wife. The lady- in-waiting threw herself at Surya Bai’s feet and kissed them and said humbly, ‘Rani, we have all been mourning you for so long.’
Deepak was despatched to the Rajah who arrived post haste resplendent in a carriage made of mica and sapphires drawn by twelve prancing horses. He climbed out quickly and flung open the milk woman’s door.
There he saw Surya Bai smiling shyly and he was almost weeping with joy and relief. ‘I thought I had lost you forever. Come my sweetheart let’s return in triumph to the palace.’ And he and Surya Bai holding hands and laughing and waving rode back in the carriage through the streets that thronged with cheering people. As they stood on the palace balcony acknowledging the roars of the crowd, the two Eagles power dived from the sky bringing with them the dog and the cat as a gift for Surya Bai.
And what happened to the Queen Mother? She had been bribed by the rakshas to destroy Surya Bai and weaken the power of the Rajah. The Rajah was beside himself with rage when he learned of his step-mother’s evil deeds. His first thought was to condemn her to a slow and painful death by pouring boiling oil over her. Then he consulted his Ministers and they agreed that she should die a quick death. So just before dawn the next morning, before the birds began to twitter, the treacherous woman met her doom when she was bound with ropes of steel and tossed into the pit of cobras that guarded the high walls of the town.
©Serena Fairfax 2012