Once upon a time in an unknown village lived a man who had two wives. From each, he had a daughter. The elder daughter was Subhadra and the younger Nauli.
Subhadra’s mother died within a few years of her birth. After this, her stepmom gave her a hard time. One day she called her daughter Nauli and said-
‘Listen! Take Subhadra for a bath on the pond and push her in it. She will die and we will live in happiness.’
Nauli did as her mother said and pushed Subhadra into the pond.
But Subhadra didn’t die. Jaldev (Water God) saved her, took her to a nice city and left her there. Since she didn’t know anyone, she couldn’t find anything to eat. Hunger and thirst troubled her. She decided to walk around. Finally, she met an old woman and said-
‘Please give me something to eat, give me some work. I am hungry’
‘I will give you food, drinks, clothes and everything else but you have to work 3-4 years for me. If you do so, I will even pay you,’ she told her.
Subhadra agreed and got to work. She had to graze and milk cows-goats.
One day a clowder of cats followed her. She took some milk out of the vessel and fed them. They started meandering around her. She gave them milk each day.
As time passed, the old woman made her clean the lawn and sieve rice too. Subhadra began feeding the birds in the process.
Three years passed.
One day the old woman sent Subhadra to a dark room and made her handpick some rice. This treatment distressed her and she wept at her condition. The cats heard this, came in, and asked –
‘Why are you crying Subhadra?’
Subhadra explained everything.
The cats told her to not worry and promised to help her out. That night the cats stayed in that room without sleeping. Subhadra handpicked from whatever light came through their eyes.
The next day, the old woman asked Subhadra to bring water in a sieve. Subhadra cried as she went. The birds came to help her. They brought mud in their beaks and used it to cover the holes in the sieve. Subhadra took the water home with success.
Her valor pleased the old woman. Since Subhadra had proved herself to be proficient at work, the old woman asked her to fetch a box from the lake. She went and brought it home. The old woman asked her to rotate it three times. Hardly had she rotated it once, she found herself standing near a pond. She had a box in her hand. It was full of gold, silver, jewelry and nice clothes.
At that moment, a prince came from god knows where. He came near Subhadra and asked-
‘Who are you?’
Subhadra told her story. The prince proposed to her for marriage. But Subhadra said she would only do so with permission from her parents. The prince agreed.
Subhadra went home. Her stepmom was horror-struck.
‘Didi had pushed me into the pond to kill me. But I didn’t die. I lived in joy’, Subhadra said.
Subhadra’s father arrived. He was elated to see his daughter. He asked where she had been all these days. Subhadra told the entire story including the proposal of the prince.
Meanwhile, Nauli burnt with envy.
‘I will also go to that pond and return like Subhadra,’ she said to herself.
The next morning she jumped at the exact point at which she had pushed Subhadra. But Nauli never returned. She had gone for the meat but had drowned in the soup. Meanwhile, Subhadra wed the prince and lived in great joy thereafter.
This is a fable with a dark ending. Otherwise it has a generic plot of greed and suffering.
When it comes to characters, Subhadra’s life teaches us that perseverance and the ability to endure hardship will always have good returns. She tolerated everything life threw at her. She only had hardwork and patience to turn to.
Nothing significant happens to the original culprit – Nauli’s mother.
Subhadra’s father has been portrayed as a naive man who never has a clue on what goes on. The old woman is confusing. She shows signs of grace but also puts Subhadra into tough tests. Her eventual action signifies her mythical nature.
Nauli, on the other hand is both senseless and greedy. If you don’t work hard on yourself – on your character and values – that’s how you will end up! The prince is a pragmatic man who seems to be ready to cooperate with Subhadra throughout life.
If we are to give a realistic spin to this tale, we have to eliminate the mythical parts. There are a few.
The first is of Jaldev (Water God) who saves Subhadra, takes her to a nice city and leaves her there. This seems to have been added for the mythical air. Although Subhadra’s fortune revolves around water, we may look at Jaldev as a metaphorical representation of water – which may have played a significant part in the life of some person. Subhadra may have been rescued by someone. But being too hurt to go back home, she may have wandered into the city.
The actions of cats and the birds don’t seem plausible. Subhadra may have had a small light from somewhere through which she did the whole rice thing. Subhadra had enough sense to fill the sieve with mud or whatever there was – so there is no need for mythical birds.
The Prince could be a normal honorable lad. The old woman could have been lonely without an heir and could have handed her valuable belongings to Subhadra seeing her decency and character.
(This has been translated from Nepali Lok Katha Sangalo, compiled by Ram Bikram Sijapati)