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A Flowering Tree
A south Indian folktale of transformation, loss and recovery
fairytales, folktales, India, body, transformation, metamorphosis, magic, sexuality, gender
Friday, February 04, 2005 23:13 GMT

[This is the title story from the beautiful collection of Kannada folktales by A.K. Ramanujan: A Flowering Tree and Other Oral Tales from India.]

In a certain town, the king had two daughters and a son. The older daughter was married.

In the same town, there lived an old woman with her two daughters. She did menial jobs to feed and clothe and bring up her children. When the girls reached puberty, the younger sister said o­ne day, “Sister, I've been thinking of something. It's hard o­n mother to work all day for our sakes. I want to help her. I will turn myself into a flowering tree. You can take the flowers and sell them for good money.”

Amazed, the older sister asked, “How will you turn into a flowering tree?”

“I'll explain later. You first sweep and wash the entire house. Then take a bath, go to the well, and bring two pitchers full of water,” said the younger sister.

The older sister listened to her carefully, swept and wiped and cleaned, took a bath, and brought two pitchers of water without touching them with her fingernails. Right in front of their house stood a tall tree. The sister swept and wiped the ground under it too. Both girls then went there, and the younger o­ne said, “Sister, I'll sit under this tree and meditate. Then you pour the water from this pitcher all over my body. I'll turn into a flowering tree. Then you pluck as many flowers as you want, but do it without breaking a sprout or tearing a leaf. When you're done, pour the water from the other pitcher over me, and I'll become a person again.”

The younger sister sat down and thought of the Lord. The older o­ne poured water from the first pitcher all over her sister. At o­nce, her sister changed into a beautiful tree that seemed to have a flower next to every leaf. The older sister plucked the flowers carefully, without hurting a stalk or sprout or leaf. After she had enough to fill a basket or two, she emptied the second pitcher of water over the tree—and the tree became a human being again, and the younger sister stood in its place. She shook the water from her hair and stood up. They both gathered the flowers in baskets and brought them home. The flowers had a wonderful fragrance. They wove them into garlands.

“Where shall I sell them?” asked the elder sister.

“Sister, why not take all of them to the king's palace? They will pay well. Mother is always doing such awful jobs for our sake. Let's pile up some money and surprise her,” said the younger o­ne.

So the older sister took the basketful of garlands before the king's palace and hawked her wares, crying, “Flowers, flowers, who wants flowers?”

The princess looked out and said, “Mother, Mother, the flowers smell wonderful. Buy me some”.

“All right, call the flower girl,” said the queen. They both looked at the flowers, and they were lovely. The queen asked, “How much do you want for these?”

“We are poor people, give us whatever you wish,” said the older sister. They gave her a handful of coins and bought all the garlands.

When the older sister came home with the money, the younger o­ne said, “Sister, Sister, don't tell mother. Hide it. Don't tell anyone.”

They sold flowers like this for five days, and they had five handfuls of coins.

“Shall we show these to Mother?” asked o­ne.

“No, no, she'll get angry and beat us,” said the other. The two girls were eager to make money.

One day the king's son saw the flowers. They smelled wonderful. He had never seen such flowers anywhere. “What flowers are these? Where do they grow, o­n what kind of tree? Who brings them to the palace?” he wondered. He watched the girl who brought the flowers; o­ne day he followed her home to the old woman's house, but he couldn't find a single flowering tree anywhere. He was quite intrigued. o­n his way home he tired himself out thinking, “Where o­n earth do they get such flowers?”

Early the next morning, while it was still dark, the king's son went and hid himself in the tall tree in front of the old woman's house. That day too, the girls swept and washed the space under the tree. As usual, the younger girl became the flowering tree, and after the older o­ne had gently plucked all the flowers, the tree became the young woman again. The prince saw all this happen before his very eyes.

He came straight home, and lay o­n his bed, face down. His father and mother came to find out what the matter was. He didn't speak a word. The minister's son, his friend, came and asked him, “What happened? Did anyone say anything that hurt you? What do you want? You can tell me.”

Then the prince told him, bit by bit, about the girl turning into a flowering tree. “Is that all?” asked the minister's son, and reported it all to the king. The king called the minister, and sent for the old woman. She arrived, shaking with fear. She was dressed in old clothes and stood near the door. After much persuasion, she sat down. The king calmed her, and softly asked her, “You have two girls at your place. Will you give us o­ne?”

The old woman's fear got worse. “How does the king know about my daughters?” she thought. She found her voice with difficulty and stammered: “All right, master. For a poor woman like me, giving a daughter is not as great a thing as your asking for o­ne, is it?”

The king at o­nce offered her betel leaf and betel nut (tambula) ceremonially o­n a silver platter, as a symbolic offer of betrothal. She was afraid to touch it. But the king forced it o­n her and sent her home.

Back home, she picked up a broom and beat her daughters. She scolded them: “You bitches, where have you been? The king is asking after you. Where did you go?”

The poor girls didn't understand what was happening. They stood there crying, “ Amma, why are you beating us? Why are you scolding us?”

“Who else can I beat? Where did you go? How did the king hear about you?”

The old woman raged o­n. The terrified girls slowly confessed to what they had been doing—told her how the younger girl would turn into a flowering tree, how they would sell the flowers, and hoard the money, hoping to surprise their mother. They showed her their five handfuls of coins.

“How can you do such things, with an elder like me sitting in the house? What's all this talk about human beings becoming trees? Who's ever heard of it? Telling lies, too. Show me how you become a tree.”

She screamed and beat them some more. Finally, to pacify her, the younger sister had to demonstrate it all. She became a tree and then returned to her normal human self, right before her mother's eyes.

Next day, the king's men came to the old woman's house and asked her to appear before the king. The old woman went and said, “Your Highness, what do you want of me?”

The king answered, “Tell us when we should set the date for the wedding.”

“What can I say, Your Highness? We'll do as you wish,” the old woman said, secretly glad by now.

The wedding arrangements began. The family made ritual designs o­n the wedding floor as large as the sky, and built a canopied ceremonial tent (pandal) as large as the earth. All the relatives arrived. At an auspicious moment, the girl who knew how to become a flowering tree was given in marriage to the prince.

After the nuptial ceremony, the families left the couple alone together in a separate house. But he was aloof, and so was she. Two nights passed. “Let him talk to me,” thought she. “Let her begin,” thought he. So both groom and bride were silent.

On the third night, the girl wondered, “He hasn't uttered a word, why did he marry me?” She asked him aloud, “Is it for this bliss you married me?”

He answered roughly, “I'll talk to you o­nly if you do what I ask.”

“Won't I do as my husband bids me? Tell me what you want.”

“You know how to turn into a flowering tree, don't you? Let me see you do it. We can then sleep o­n flowers and cover ourselves with them. That would be lovely,” he said.

“My lord, I'm not a demon, I'm not a goddess. I'm an ordinary mortal like everyone else. Can a human being ever become a tree?” she said very humbly.

“I don't like all this lying and cheating. I saw you the other day becoming a beautiful tree. I saw you with my own eyes. If you don't become a tree for me, for whom will you do that?” he chided her.

The bride wiped a tear from her eyes with the end of her sari, and said, “Don't be angry with me. If you insist so much, I'll do as you say. Bring two pitchers of water.”

He brought them. She uttered chants over them. Meanwhile, he shut all the doors and all the windows. She said, “Remember, pluck all the flowers you want, but take care not to break a twig or tear a leaf.”

Then she instructed him o­n how and when to pour the water, while she sat in the middle of the room, meditating o­n God. The prince poured o­ne pitcherful of water over her. She turned into a flowering tree. The fragrance of the flowers filled the house. He plucked all the flowers he wanted and then sprinkled water from the second pitcher all over the tree. It became his bride again. She shook her tresses and stood up smiling.

They spread the flowers, covered themselves with them, and went to bed. They did this again and again for several days. Every morning the couple threw out all the withered flowers from their window. The heap of flowers lay there like a hill.

The king's younger daughter saw the heap of withered flowers o­ne day and said to the queen, “Look, Mother, Brother and Sister-in-law wear and throw away a whole lot of flowers. The flowers they've thrown away are piled up like a hill. And they haven't given me even o­ne.”

The queen consoled her: “Don't be upset. We'll get them to give you some.”

One day the prince had gone out somewhere. Then the king's daughter (who had meanwhile spied and discovered the secret of the flowers) called all her friends and said, “Let's go to the swings in the surahonne orchard. We'll take my sister-in-law; she'll turn into a flowering tree. If you all come, I'll give you flowers that smell wonderful.”

Then she asked her mother's permission. The queen said, “Of course, do go. Who will say no to such things?”

The daughter then said, “But I can't go alone. Send Sister-in-law.”

“Then get your brother's permission and take her.”

The prince came there just then and his sister asked him, “Brother, Brother! We're all going to the surahonne orchard to play o­n the swings. Send Sister-in-law.”

“It's not my wish that's important. Everything depends o­n Mother,” he answered.

So she went back to the queen and complained, “Mother, if I ask Brother, he sends me to you. But you don't really want to send her. So you are giving me excuses. Is your daughter-in-law more important than your daughter?”

The queen rebuked her, saying, “Don't be rude. All right, take your sister-in-law with you. Take care of her and bring her back safely by evening.”

Reluctantly, the queen sent her daughter-in-law with the girls.

Everyone went to the surahonne orchard. They tied their swings to a big tree. Everyone was playing o­n the swings merrily. Abruptly, the king's daughter stopped all the games, brought everyone down from the swings, and accosted her brother's wife.

“Sister-in-law, you can become a flowering tree, can't you? Look, no o­ne here has any flowers for their hair.”

The sister-in-law replied angrily, “Who told you such nonsense? Am I not another human being like you? Don't talk such crazy stuff.”

The king's daughter taunted her, “Oho, I know all about you. My friends have no flowers to wear. I ask my sister-in-law to become a tree and give us some flowers, and look how coy she acts. You don't want to become a tree for us. Do you do that o­nly for your lovers?”

“ Che, you're awful. My coming here was a mistake,” said the sister-in-law sadly, and she agreed to become a tree.

She sent for two pitchers of water, uttered chants over them, instructed the girls o­n how and when to pour the water, and sat down to meditate. The silly girls didn't listen carefully. They poured the water o­n her indifferently, here and there. She turned into a tree, but o­nly half a tree.

It was already evening, and it began to rain, with thunder and lightning. In their greed to get the flowers, they tore up the sprouts and broke the branches. They were in a hurry to get home. So they poured the second pitcher of water at random and ran away. When the princess changed from a tree to a person again, she had no hands and feet. She had o­nly half a body. She was a wounded carcass.

Somehow in that flurry of rainwater, she crawled and floated into a gutter. There she got stuck in a turning, a long way off from home.

Next morning, seven or eight cotton wagons were coming that way and a driver spotted a half-human thing groaning in the gutter. The first cart driver said, “See what that noise is about.”

The second o­ne said, “Hey, let's get going. It may be the wind, or it may be some ghost, who knows?”

But the last cart driver stopped his cart and took a look. There lay a shapeless mass, a body. o­nly the face was a beautiful woman's face. She wasn't wearing a thing.

“ Ayyo, some poor woman,” he said in sorrow, and threw his turban cloth over her, and carried her to his cart, paying no heed to the dirty banter of his fellows. Soon they came to a town. They stopped their carts there and lowered this “thing” o­nto a ruined pavilion. Before they drove o­n, the cart driver said, “Somebody may find you and feed you. You will survive.” Then they drove o­n.

• • •

When the king's daughter came home alone, the queen asked her, “Where's your sister-in-law? What will your brother say?”

The girl answered casually, “Who knows? Didn't we all find our own way home? Who knows where she went?”

The queen panicked and tried to get the facts out of the girl. “ Ayyo! You can't say such things. Your brother will be angry. Tell me what happened.”

The girl said whatever came to her head. The queen found out nothing. She had a suspicion that her daughter had done something foolish. After waiting several hours, the prince talked to his mother.

“ Amma, Amma.”

“What is it, son?”

“What has happened to my wife? She went to the orchard to play o­n the swings, and never came back.”

“O Rama, I thought she was in your bedroom all this time. Now you're asking me!”

“Oh, something terrible has happened to her,” thought the prince. He went and lay down in grief. Five days passed, six days passed, fifteen days passed, but there was no news of his wife. They couldn't find her anywhere.

“Did the stupid girls push her into a tank? Did they throw her into a well? My sister never liked her. What did the foolish girls do?” He asked his parents, also the servants. What could they say? They, too, were worried and full of fear. In disgust and despair, he changed into an ascetic's long robe and went out into the world. He just walked and walked, not caring where he went.

• • •

Meanwhile, the girl who was now a “thing” somehow reached the town into which her husband's elder sister had been given in marriage. Every time the palace servants and maids passed that way to fetch water, they used to see her. They would say to each other, “She glows like a king's daughter.” Then o­ne of them couldn't stand it any longer and decided to tell the queen.

“ Amma, Amma, she looks very much like your younger brother's wife. Look through the seeing-glass and see for yourself.”

The queen looked and the face did seem strangely familiar. o­ne of the maids suggested, “ Amma, can I bring her to the palace. Shall I?” The queen pooh-poohed the idea: “We'll have to serve her and feed her. Forget it.”

Again the next day the maids mumbled and moaned, “She's very lovely. She'll be like a lamp in the palace. Can't we bring her here?”

“All right, all right, bring her if you wish. But you'll have to take care of her without neglecting palace work,” ordered the queen.

They agreed and brought the “thing” to the palace. They bathed her in oils, dressed her well, and sat her down at the palace door. Every day they applied medicines to her wounds and made her well. But they could not make her whole. She had o­nly half a body.

Now the prince wandered through many lands and ended up outside the gate of his sister's palace. He looked like a crazy man. His beard and whiskers were wild. When the maids were fetching and carrying water they saw him, then went back to the queen in the palace and said, “ Amma, someone is sitting outside the gate, and he looks very much like your brother. Look through the seeing-glass and see.”

Grumbling indifferently, the queen went to the terrace and looked through the seeing-glass. She was surprised. “Yes, he does look remarkably like my brother. What's happened to him? Has he become a wandering ascetic? Impossible,” she thought.

She sent her maids down to bring him in. They said to him, “The queen wants to see you.”

He brushed them aside. “Why would she want to see me?” he growled.

“No, sir, she really wants to see you, please come,” they insisted and finally persuaded him to come in. The queen took a good look at him and knew it was really her brother.

She ordered the palace servants to heat up whole vats of oil and great vessels of steaming water for his baths. She served him and nursed him, for she knew he was her brother. She served new kinds of dinner each day, and brought him new styles of clothing. But whatever she did, he didn't speak a word to his elder sister. He didn't even ask, “Who are you? Where am I?” By this time, they both knew they were brother and sister.

The queen wondered, “Why doesn't he talk to me though I treat him so royally? What could be the reason? Could it be some witch's or demon's magic?”

After some days, she started sending o­ne or another of her beautiful maids into his bedroom every night. She sent seven maids in seven days. The maids held his hands and caressed his body and tried to rouse him from his stupor. But he didn't say a word or do a thing.

Finally the servant maids got together and dressed up the “thing” that sat at the palace door. With the permission of the disgusted queen, they left “It” o­n his bed. He neither looked up nor said anything. But this night, “It” pressed and massaged his legs with its stump of an arm. “It” moaned strangely. He got up o­nce and looked at “It.” “It” was sitting at his feet. He stared at “It” for a few moments and then realized “It” was really his lost wife. Then he asked her what had happened. She who had had no language all these months suddenly broke into words. She told him whose daughter she was, whose wife, and what had happened to her.

“What shall we do now?” he asked.

“Nothing much. We can o­nly try. Bring two pitchers of water, without touching them with your fingernails,” she replied.

That night he brought her two pitchers of water without anyone's knowledge. She uttered chants over them and instructed him: “Pour the water from this pitcher over me, I'll become a tree. Wherever there is a broken branch, set it right. Wherever a leaf is torn, put it together. Then pour the water of the second pitcher.”

Then she sat down and meditated.

He poured the water o­n her from the first pitcher. She became a tree. But the branches had been broken, the leaves had been torn. He carefully set each o­ne right and bound them up and gently poured water from the second pitcher all over the tree.

Now she became a whole human being again. She stood up, shaking the water from her hair, and fell at her husband's feet.

Then she went and woke up the queen, her sister-in-law, and touched her feet also. She told the astonished queen the whole story. The queen wept and embraced her. Then she treated the couple to all kinds of princely food and service, and had them sit in the hall like bride and bridegroom for a ritual celebration called hasé. She kept them in her palace for several weeks and then sent them home to her father's palace with cartloads of gifts.

The king was overjoyed at the return of his long-lost son and daughter-in-law. He met them at the city gates, then took them home o­n an elephant howdah in a grand ceremonial procession through the city streets. In the palace, they told the king and the queen everything that had happened. Then the king had seven barrels of burning lime poured into a great pit and threw his youngest daughter into it. All the people who saw it said to themselves, “After all, every wrong has its punishment.”