Once There Was A King by Rabindranath Tagore
"Once upon a time there was a king."
When we were children there was no need to know who the king in the fairy
story was. It didn't matter whether he was called Shiladitya or Shaliban,
whether he lived at Kashi or Kanauj. The thing that made a seven-year-old
boy's heart go thump, thump with delight was this one sovereign truth;
this reality of all realities: "Once there was a king."
But the readers of this modern age are far more exact and exacting. When
they hear such an opening to a story, they are at once critical and
suspicious. They apply the searchlight of science to its legendary haze
and ask: "Which king?"
The story-tellers have become more precise in their turn. They are no
longer content with the old indefinite, "There was a king," but assume
instead a look of profound learning, and begin: "Once there was a king
The modern reader's curiosity, however, is not so easily satisfied. He
blinks at the author through his scientific spectacles, and asks again:
"Every schoolboy knows," the author proceeds, "that there were three
Ajatasatrus. The first was born in the twentieth century B.C., and died at
the tender age of two years and eight months, I deeply regret that it is
impossible to find, from any trustworthy source, a detailed account of his
reign. The second Ajatasatru is better known to historians. If you refer
to the new Encyclopedia of History...."
By this time the modern reader's suspicions are dissolved. He feels he may
safely trust his author. He says to himself: "Now we shall have a story
that is both improving and instructive."
Ah! how we all love to be deluded! We have a secret dread of being thought
ignorant. And we end by being ignorant after all, only we have done it in
a long and roundabout way.
There is an English proverb; "Ask me no questions, and I will tell you no
lies." The boy of seven who is listening to a fairy story understands that
perfectly well; he withholds his questions, while the story is being told.
So the pure and beautiful falsehood of it all remains naked and innocent
as a babe; transparent as truth itself; limpid as afresh bubbling spring.
But the ponderous and learned lie of our moderns has to keep its true
character draped and veiled. And if there is discovered anywhere the least
little peep-hole of deception, the reader turns away with a prudish
disgust, and the author is discredited.
When we were young, we understood all sweet things; and we could detect
the sweets of a fairy story by an unerring science of our own. We never
cared for such useless things as knowledge. We only cared for truth. And
our unsophisticated little hearts knew well where the Crystal Palace of
Truth lay and how to reach it. But to-day we are expected to write pages
of facts, while the truth is simply this:
"There was a king."
I remember vividly that evening in Calcutta when the fairy story began.
The rain and the storm had been incessant. The whole of the city was
flooded. The water was knee-deep in our lane. I had a straining hope,
which was almost a certainty, that my tutor would be prevented from coming
that evening. I sat on the stool in the far corner of the veranda looking
down the lane, with a heart beating faster and faster. Every minute I kept
my eye on the rain, and when it began to grow less I prayed with all my
might; "Please, God, send some more rain till half-past seven is over."
For I was quite ready to believe that there was no other need for rain
except to protect one helpless boy one evening in one corner of Calcutta
from the deadly clutches of his tutor.
If not in answer to my prayer, at any rate according to some grosser law
of physical nature, the rain did not give up.
But, alas! nor did my teacher.
Exactly to the minute, in the bend of the lane, I saw his approaching
umbrella. The great bubble of hope burst in my breast, and my heart
collapsed. Truly, if there is a punishment to fit the crime after death,
then my tutor will be born again as me, and I shall be born as my tutor.
As soon as I saw his umbrella I ran as hard as I could to my mother's
room. My mother and my grandmother were sitting opposite one another
playing cards by the light of a lamp. I ran into the room, and flung
myself on the bed beside my mother, and said:
"Mother dear, the tutor has come, and I have such a bad headache; couldn't
I have no lessons today?"
I hope no child of immature age will be allowed to read this story, and I
sincerely trust it will not be used in text-books or primers for schools.
For what I did was dreadfully bad, and I received no punishment whatever.
On the contrary, my wickedness was crowned with success.
My mother said to me: "All right," and turning to the servant added: "Tell
the tutor that he can go back home."
It was perfectly plain that she didn't think my illness very serious, as
she went on with her game as before, and took no further notice. And I
also, burying my head in the pillow, laughed to my heart's content. We
perfectly understood one another, my mother and I.
But every one must know how hard it is for a boy of seven years old to
keep up the illusion of illness for a long time. After about a minute I
got hold of Grandmother, and said: "Grannie, do tell me a story."
I had to ask this many times. Grannie and Mother went on playing cards,
and took no notice. At last Mother said to me: "Child, don't bother. Wait
till we've finished our game." But I persisted: "Grannie, do tell me a
story." I told Mother she could finish her game to-morrow, but she must
let Grannie tell me a story there and then.
At last Mother threw down the cards and said: "You had better do what he
wants. I can't manage him." Perhaps she had it in her mind that she would
have no tiresome tutor on the morrow, while I should be obliged to be back
to those stupid lessons.
As soon as ever Mother had given way, I rushed at Grannie. I got hold of
her hand, and, dancing with delight, dragged her inside my mosquito
curtain on to the bed. I clutched hold of the bolster with both hands in
my excitement, and jumped up and down with joy, and when I had got a
little quieter, said: "Now, Grannie, let' s have the story!"
Grannie went on: "And the king had a queen." That was good to begin with.
He had only one.
It is usual for kings in fairy stories to be extravagant in queens. And
whenever we hear that there are two queens, our hearts begin to sink. One
is sure to be unhappy. But in Grannie's story that danger was past. He had
only one queen.
We next hear that the king had not got any son. At the age of seven I
didn't think there was any need to bother if a man had had no son. He
might only have been in the way. Nor are we greatly excited when we hear
that the king has gone away into the forest to practise austerities in
order to get a son. There was only one thing that would have made me go
into the forest, and that was to get away from my tutor!
But the king left behind with his queen a small girl, who grew up into a
Twelve years pass away, and the king goes on practising austerities, and
never thinks all this while of his beautiful daughter. The princess has
reached the full bloom of her youth. The age of marriage has passed, but
the king does not return. And the queen pines away with grief and cries:
"Is my golden daughter destined to die unmarried? Ah me! What a fate is
Then the queen sent men to the king to entreat him earnestly to come back
for a single night and take one meal in the palace. And the king
The queen cooked with her own hand, and with the greatest care, sixty-four
dishes, and made a seat for him of sandal-wood, and arranged the food in
plates of gold and cups of silver. The princess stood behind with the
peacock-tail fan in her hand. The king, after twelve years' absence, came
into the house, and the princess waved the fan, lighting up all the room
with her beauty. The king looked in his daughter's face, and forgot to
take his food.
At last he asked his queen: "Pray, who is this girl whose beauty shines as
the gold image of the goddess? Whose daughter is she?"
The queen beat her forehead, and cried: "Ah, how evil is my fate! Do you
not know your own daughter?"
The king was struck with amazement. He said at last; "My tiny daughter has
grown to be a woman."
"What else?" the queen said with a sigh. "Do you not know that twelve
years have passed by?"
"But why did you not give her in marriage?" asked the king.
"You were away," the queen said. "And how could I find her a suitable
The king became vehement with excitement. "The first man I see to-morrow,"
he said, "when I come out of the palace shall marry her."
The princess went on waving her fan of peacock feathers, and the king
finished his meal.
The next morning, as the king came out of his palace, he saw the son of a
Brahman gathering sticks in the forest outside the palace gates. His age
was about seven or eight.
The king said: "I will marry my daughter to him."
Who can interfere with a king's command? At once the boy was called, and
the marriage garlands were exchanged between him and the princess.
At this point I came up close to my wise Grannie and asked her eagerly:
In the bottom of my heart there was a devout wish to substitute myself for
that fortunate wood-gatherer of seven years old. The night was resonant
with the patter of rain. The earthen lamp by my bedside was burning low.
My grandmother's voice droned on as she told the story. And all these
things served to create in a corner of my credulous heart the belief that
I had been gathering sticks in the dawn of some indefinite time in the
kingdom of some unknown king, and in a moment garlands had been exchanged
between me and the princess, beautiful as the Goddess of Grace. She had a
gold band on her hair and gold earrings in her ears. She bad a necklace
and bracelets of gold, and a golden waist-chain round her waist, and a
pair of golden anklets tinkled above her feet.
If my grandmother were an author how many explanations she would have to
offer for this little story! First of all, every one would ask why the
king remained twelve years in the forest? Secondly, why should the king's
daughter remain unmarried all that while? This would be regarded as
Even if she could have got so far without a quarrel, still there would
have been a great hue and cry about the marriage itself. First, it never
happened. Secondly, how could there be a marriage between a princess of
the Warrior Caste and a boy of the priestly Brahman Caste? Her readers
would have imagined at once that the writer was preaching against our
social customs in an underhand way. And they would write letters to the
So I pray with all my heart that my grandmother may be born a grandmother
again, and not through some cursed fate take birth as her luckless
So with a throb of joy and delight, I asked Grannie: "What then?"
Grannie went on: Then the princess took her little husband away in great
distress, and built a large palace with seven wings, and began to cherish
her husband with great care.
I jumped up and down in my bed and clutched at the bolster more tightly
than ever and said: "What then?"
Grannie continued: The little boy went to school and learnt many lessons
from his teachers, and as he grew up his class-fellows began to ask him:
"Who is that beautiful lady who lives with you in the palace with the
seven wings?" The Brahman's son was eager to know who she was. He could
only remember how one day he had been gathering sticks, and a great
disturbance arose. But all that was so long ago, that he had no clear
Four or five years passed in this way. His companions always asked him:
"Who is that beautiful lady in the palace with the seven wings?" And the
Brahman's son would come back from school and sadly tell the princess: "My
school companions always ask me who is that beautiful lady in the palace
with the seven wings, and I can give them no reply. Tell me, oh, tell me,
who you are!"
The princess said: "Let it pass to-day. I will tell you some other day."
And every day the Brahman's son would ask; "Who are you?" and the princess
would reply: "Let it pass to-day. I will tell you some other day." In this
manner four or five more years passed away.
At last the Brahman's son became very impatient, and said: "If you do not
tell me to-day who you are, O beautiful lady, I will leave this palace
with the seven wings." Then the princess said: "I will certainly tell you
Next day the Brahman's son, as soon as he came home from school, said:
"Now, tell me who you are." The princess said: "To-night I will tell you
after supper, when you are in bed."
The Brahman's son said: "Very well "; and he began to count the hours in
expectation of the night. And the princess, on her side, spread white
flowers over the golden bed, and lighted a gold lamp with fragrant oil,
and adorned her hair, and dressed herself in a beautiful robe of blue, and
began to count the hours in expectation of the night.
That evening when her husband, the Brahman's son, had finished his meal,
too excited almost to eat, and had gone to the golden bed in the
bed-chamber strewn with flowers, he said to himself: "To-night I shall
surely know who this beautiful lady is in the palace with the seven
The princess took for her the food that was left over by her husband, and
slowly entered the bed-chamber. She had to answer that night the question,
which was the beautiful lady who lived in the palace with the seven wings.
And as she went up to the bed to tell him she found a serpent had crept
out of the flowers and had bitten the Brahman's son. Her boy-husband was
lying on the bed of flowers, with face pale in death.
My heart suddenly ceased to throb, and I asked with choking voice: "What
Grannie said; "Then..."
But what is the use of going on any further with the story? It would only
lead on to what was more and more impossible. The boy of seven did not
know that, if there were some "What then?" after death, no grandmother of
a grandmother could tell us all about it.
But the child's faith never admits defeat, and it would snatch at the
mantle of death itself to turn him back. It would be outrageous for him to
think that such a story of one teacherless evening could so suddenly come
to a stop. Therefore the grandmother had to call back her story from the
ever-shut chamber of the great End, but she does it so simply: it is
merely by floating the dead body on a banana stem on the river, and having
some incantations read by a magician. But in that rainy night and in the
dim light of a lamp death loses all its horror in the mind of the boy, and
seems nothing more than a deep slumber of a single night. When the story
ends the tired eyelids are weighed down with sleep. Thus it is that we
send the little body of the child floating on the back of sleep over the
still water of time, and then in the morning read a few verses of
incantation to restore him to the world of life and light.