There was a king. He wasn’t much of a king. His realm extended from the river on one side of the villages to the palm trees across the rice paddies on the other. He had no army, no golden chariot, not even a treasury full of gold. But he was still a king.
This king had a son. The prime minister also had a son, as did the general in charge of the palace guard. The three boys grew up together and were the best of friends.
One day, an old mendicant sage came to the palace. Like all of his sort, he had a long, straggling beard and hair done up in a topknot, wore a lot of beads around his neck, and he carried a gourd which he rattled angrily as he walked.
This ancient sage strode into the palace and the guards hurriedly stood aside to let him pass, for fear that he would turn them into frogs or worse. He marched straight into the throne room, where the king was discussing the day’s business with his ministers while a row of petitioners waited.
“Welcome, Venerable Father,” the king said, immediately abandoning the business of the day on seeing the mendicant, because he knew that to risk the wrath of one of these was to ask to be punished. “Please tell me how we can be of service to you.”
The sage rattled his gourd a bit less angrily at this sign of respect. “I have a need of a good strong youth,” he said, “to help me get rid of a certain demon which disturbs my rituals and frightens away my devotees. Can you give me such a young man?”
“We will do everything in our power to help you,” the king said. “But which young man will go to attempt such a task?”
“I’ll go,” said the prince, who was listening.
“I’ll go too,” the prime minister’s son said at once.
“So will I,” the general’s son chimed in.
“There you are, Holiness,” the king said, relieved. “Three young men all ready to serve you.”
“I will only need one,” the sage said. “Which of you is it to be?”
Then the prince jumped up eagerly. “I’ll go, of course.”
“Very well,” said the sage. “Come.”
So, pausing only to tie on his long curved sword, the young man followed the old mendicant as he led him out of the palace and down to the bank of the river, where a boat was waiting. Getting into it, the sage ordered him to row it across. It was a long way to row, and the prince had never done such a thing before, so he was soon tired; but he did as he was told. Finally they arrived on the other side of the river, which – since it was in another kingdom – the young man had never visited.
There the mendicant led him through a forest to a small stone temple by the side of a pond. “Here,” he said, rattling his gourd, “is my ashram. Each night, the demon comes out from under that pond and destroys all the preparations I have made for my dawn rituals. All night he storms around the temple, bellowing like a monster bull, and frightens away anyone who hears. It is only owing to my magic charms that he has not killed me, because he has most certainly tried.”
“He cannot beat a strong young man like me,” the prince assured him. “I will wait for him to come out during the night, and when he does, I will cut him to pieces.”
“It will soon be dark,” the mendicant said. “I will begin preparations for tomorrow morning’s rituals, and I will then go and wait in my hut on the other side of the pond. I have placed a magic circle around the hut, so that the demon can’t enter it.”
“You can sleep well, Holiness,” the prince said. “I will see you in the morning.”
“I will be here shortly after sunrise,” the old sage responded. He made preparations for the morning ritual, setting out wood for the sacrificial fire, baskets of flowers, pots of milk, and incense ready for the lighting. Then, after a word or two, he left for his hut just as dusk was falling.
The prince had scarcely sat down to wait for the demon when he heard a nasal voice speaking from the tamarind tree that grew just beside the temple. “What a handsome young man,” the voice said. “What a pity that he will never see the sunrise.”
“Yes,” another equally nasal voice replied. “And to end in such a way, too!”
“Who are you?” the prince demanded, taking out his sword. “Speak, or I will find you and destroy you!”
But the voices in the tree quickly fell silent, and though the prince looked up into it, he could find nothing in the growing darkness.
The hours passed by, and the night grew deeper, and the prince was tired with the exertion of the rowing. At last, despite all his precautions, he dropped into a deep sleep. Thus he was taken by surprise when, with a great bellowing, the demon came out of the pond. Without a moment’s hesitation, he seized the prince, before he could even draw his sword, and swallowed him whole.
The next morning, the mendicant went straight back to the king. “I demand that you give me one more young man,” he said. “The one you sent with me yesterday proved quite useless.”
“Where is my son?” the king asked. “What has happened to him?”
“The demon has eaten him, of course,” the sage replied. “Give me another or I shall turn you into a moth.”
“I shall go at once,” the minister’s son said. “I will go and avenge the prince, my friend.”
Despite his shock and sorrow at the news, the king reluctantly agreed, and the prime minister, with even greater misgivings, gave his blessings. Then the sage took the minister’s son and took him down to the boat. As before, he ordered the youth to row him across the river, and, once there, took him to the temple. There he gave him the same instructions as he had given the prince the previous evening. “Be careful,” he warned. “Your friend must have made some mistake, due to which he was surprised and eaten.”
“I will not make any such mistake,” the minister’s son said. “I will fulfil my duty and avenge my friend as well.”
“We shall see,” the sage said, gathering the wood for the morning’s fire. “We shall see.”
Soon after the sage had left for the safety of his hut, the prime minister’s son heard the nasal voices in the tree.
“Another one,” the first voice said, “and even more handsome, too!”
“What red cheeks,” the second voice replied. “What fine, muscular limbs! He’s so delightful to look upon!”
“Such a pity that he, too, has only a few hours left,” the first voice said. “If only there was some way he could avoid his fate.”
The minister’s son had listened this far, but could bear no more. Jumping to his feet, he ran to the tamarind tree and began climbing it, his sword in hand. The voices abruptly fell silent, and though he searched as long as he could, he found nothing.
As the hours passed, the minister’s son also began feeling the effects of exhaustion. At first he got up and began walking around to keep himself awake, but little by little his weariness overtook him, and he sat down with his back to a pillar to rest his aching muscles. Soon he fell asleep, his sword in his hand, and there the demon found him, and swallowed him whole.
The next day, the sage went back to the king for the third time. “Your minister’s son has gone the same way as your own,” he said. “You must give me a third young man, for you promised to help me in all the ways you could.”
The general’s son had already buckled on his sword. “I will go with you, Holiness,” he said. “I will avenge my friends and fulfil the king’s promise, too.”
So the sage went with him down to the river, and ordered him to row the boat. But the general’s son shook his head. “I have never rowed a boat,” he said. “I can’t do it.”
Then the sage rattled his gourd in a temper and again ordered him to row.
“I can’t,” the general’s son repeated. “I have never done any such thing, and if I tried I would probably upset the boat and we would all drown.”
So, with extremely bad grace, the mendicant himself had to row the boat back across the river. Eventually they arrived at the other bank, and the old man led the general’s son to the temple and told him what was required.
“At what time does the demon emerge from the pond, Holiness?” the general’s son asked. “What is it like? Does it have any weaknesses?”
“Do not bother me with such questions,” the old sage said, busying himself with his preparations. “Your task is to destroy it, not ask for unnecessary information.” Without any further words, as night fell he left the young man in the temple and went away.
Soon afterwards, the general’s son heard the nasal voices in the tamarind tree.
“A third one,” the first said. “And he’s even more handsome than the other two.”
“Ah, it will be such a pity that he will not survive the night,” the second voice replied.
“It will be such a tragedy, indeed,” the first voice said. “But his doom is sealed.”
The general’s son sat, listening intently, but made no word or gesture to indicate that he had heard anything.
“If only he knew,” the first voice said, “the demon’s secrets, he could find a way to evade his fate. But, no, there is no way he could find out.”
“Yes,” the second voice replied, sighing. “If there was only some way that he could know that the demon cannot be killed or harmed with his sword. Trying to fight it will only result in his own destruction.”
“Ah, it might be different if he only knew that there is no way to harm the demon except by capturing its life. And its life lies in a sealed box inside a subterranean cavern deep under the bottom of this pond.”
“Then, perhaps,” the first voice said, “if he could only hide away from the demon during the night, at the very first light of dawn – but not a moment later – he could swim down to the cave and from there bring out the box. And when he has the box in his hand, the demon would be his to do with as he wished.”
“But he could never hide from the demon,” the second voice replied, “for he, poor thing, does not know that the only way to conceal himself from the creature is by making an unbroken circle around his feet with tamarind leaves, and staying within that circle, no matter what happens, until the demon goes away.”
“He doesn’t know any of this,” said the first voice, “and so he will end, just as the others did, in the creature’s belly.”
The voices fell silent, and the general’s son got up quietly and with his sword cut down a small branch of the tree, from which he stripped off the leaves. Marking a circle around himself with them, he waited for the demon to come.
He had to wait for a long time. As the hours passed, he began feeling tired. But since he had not expended his energy in rowing the long distance across the river, he did not fall asleep, and so made sure he always stayed within the circle.
Precisely at midnight, the water of the pond began stirring, and a moment later the demon emerged with a roar. He was as tall as a palm tree, and had immense teeth and eyes as red as blood. When he walked the ground trembled under his tread. He came straight to the temple and peered inside. The demon looked right at the young man, who expected at any moment to be seen and devoured, so that he had to restrain himself from trying to run away. But he remembered what the voices had said, and stood perfectly still in the circle of leaves; and after a few moments the demon looked away.
“Where is he?” the demon asked himself in a voice like thunder. “Where is my meal for tonight?” Extending a hand the size of an ox, he began groping around the floor of the temple, but somehow always failed to enter the circle of the tamarind leaves. In a rage, he stormed away, and roaring hunted through the forest on both sides of the temple. But every little while he returned to peer inside it again, and hunt around with his hand, in the hope of startling his quarry from hiding.
The general’s son was, of course, very frightened, but he kept reminding himself of what the voices had said. And, after a long time, the sky in the east began to turn faintly lighter and the demon, with a final roar of fury, returned to the depths of the pond.
The general’s son didn’t hesitate a moment. Quickly removing his shoes and tunic, he ran to the water’s edge and dived in. The pond was deep and dark, and he thought about the demon which he had seen leap into this same water only minutes earlier. But he kept in his mind what the voices had said, that he needed to enter the water at the very first light of dawn. And, just as his lungs felt like bursting from the effort, he touched the mud of the pond bottom. Feeling his way along, within moments he found the entrance of the cave, and swam down into it. Soon, his fingers touched a little box; picking it up in one hand, he turned himself round with difficulty and swam back up to the surface.
Once on land, he looked over the box. It was small and silver in colour, and there seemed to be no way to open it. He could not see a keyhole or any other way of levering up the lid. Still examining the box, he dried himself off as best he could and got dressed again.
He heard the voices as soon as he got back inside the temple.
“He’s got the box,” the first one said. “Now if only he knew how to open it, he could have the demon in his power.”
“But he doesn’t know how to open it,” the second lamented. “If he does not get it open before the sun comes up, the demon will be able to take the life back again, and hide it once more.”
“If only he knew,” the first said, “that to strike the box with the haft of a sword seven times is what will open it, he could do that. But since he does not know, the poor lad is doomed to failure.”
The sky in the east was already pink and yellow, and it was obviously only a few moments before the sun would rise. The general’s son quickly picked up the sword, and holding it by the blade, began rapping on the box. At the seventh tap the lid popped open.
Picking up the box, the general’s son looked eagerly inside, not knowing what he would find. But all that he saw was a small white stone, about as big as his thumbnail.
“He’s found the demon’s life,” the first voice observed. “And just in time, too, for the sun is just about to rise.”
“Now if only he crushed it under his feet,” the second said, “the demon would die instantly. But if he kept it with him...”
“Alas, the sun has risen,” the first voice said, “and we must retire for the day. It’s a great pity, for I wish I could see what he chooses to do now.”
At last the general’s son found his voice. “Wait, please,” he called. “May I know who you are?”
There was a brief pause. “We are ghosts who live in the tree,” the second voice responded at length. “We come awake at dark, and sleep when it is morning again.”
“We must go now,” the first voice said. “I wish we could see what you do now, but...” The voice faded away and was gone.
The general’s son was still looking up into the branches of the tree when the old sage emerged from his hut on the other side of the pond. The young man saw him and quickly hid the stone and the box in the pockets of his tunic. When the sage arrived, he greeted him politely.
“You survived the night?” the old mendicant asked. “So have you killed the demon as you said you would?”
“Not yet,” the general’s son said. “I have some unfinished business with him.” Casually, he put his hand in his pocket and closed it round the stone. “Once that business is over, I shall decide whether he should die or live,” he added, and squeezed the stone as tightly as he could.
For an instant, the old sage’s eyes flared bright red. “What business is that?” he growled.
“I think,” the general’s son said. “I’ll tell him that myself. If he agrees, he can live. If not...” He squeezed the stone again, so hard that it might almost split in two.
With a howl, the sage leaped away from him and into the pond. The water swirled and splashed, and a moment later the demon emerged. Towering over the young man, he gnashed his immense teeth.
“Give me my life back,” he roared. “Or I shall break your neck and tear you to pieces.”
But the general’s son merely laughed. He took out the stone, set it on the ground, and put his shoe on it. “If you try,” he said, “I will crush this to powder under my heel. You know what will happen then.”
The demon opened and closed his hands, and his red eyes glared terribly, but he could do nothing. “What is it that you want of me?” he asked.
“Just this – bring my two friends back again, as they were. And never again try to trick young men into coming here so you can eat them.”
The demon nodded reluctantly. Reaching into his mouth, he pulled out first the prince, and then the prime minister’s son. When he put them down on the ground, they shook their heads and sat up, as though waking from a deep sleep.
“Now listen,” the general’s son told the demon. “As long as you never do anyone any harm, we will not hurt you. But if you ever try to play a sage again, or eat anyone –“ He brought his foot down on the stone. “Then...”
“I won’t,” the demon said. “Never again, I swear.”
“Go away,” the general’s son said, and the demon vanished into the water.
And so the three young men made their way back to the boat, and rowed across the river to their own country, where their parents, who had thought them all lost, rejoiced exceedingly at their return.
But that evening, the general’s son got back into the boat and went across the river by himself. He wanted to tell the ghosts how it had all ended.
Settling down in the temple, he waited for dusk to come.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014
Note to readers: While, for convenience, I have used the term “demon”, the correct form would be rakshasa – a man-eating monster of Bengali fables. The concept of the traditional Western demon is unknown in Indian mythology.