A number of young girls were drawing water at the village well and telling each other their fantasies of when and whom and how they would marry.
One of them said, “My uncle will come loaded with wedding presents and dress me in brocade, and I’ll get married in a palace.”
Another said, “My uncle is coming soon with a camel-load of sweets.”
The third said, “Oh, my uncle will be here in no time in a golden carriage filled with jewels.”
Bopoluchi was the prettiest of them all and she looked sad—she was an orphan and had no one in the world to arrange a marriage for her of give her a dowry. Still, not to be outdone by the others, she said, “And my uncle will bring me dresses, sweets, and jewels in golden plates.”
A robber, disguised as a peddler selling perfumes to country women, happened to be sitting near the well. He heard what Bopoluchi said. He was so struck by her beauty and spirit that he decided to marry her himself. So the very next day, he disguised himself as a rich farmer and came to Bopoluchi’s hut with trays full of silken dresses, sweets, and rare jewels—things he had looted and put away.
Bopoluchi could hardly believe her eyes, for it was just as she had fantasied. The robber even said he was her uncle, her father’s long-lost brother, and had come home to arrange his niece’s wedding with one of his sons.
Bopoluchi couldn’t believe her ears, but she believed him and was ecstatic. She packed up her few belongings and set off with the robber.
But as they went along the road, a crow in a tree croaked: Bopoluchi, beware! Smell the danger in the air! It’s no uncle that relieves you But a robber who deceives you!
“Uncle,” said Bopoluchi, “the crow croaks in a funny way. What does it say?”
“Nothing,” said the robber. “All the crows in this country croak like that.”
A little farther on, they met a peacock which, as soon as it caught sight of the pretty girl, began to scream: Bopoluci, beware! Smell the danger in the air! It’s no uncle that relieves you But a robber who deceives you!
“Uncle,” said the girl, “that peacock screams in a funny way. What does it say?”
“Oh, nothing,” said the robber. “All the peacocks scream like that in this country.”
Then a jackal slunk across the road and began to howl: Bopoluci, beware! Smell the danger in the air! It’s no uncle that relieves you But a robber who deceives you!
“Uncle,” said Bopoluchi, “that jackal howls in a funny way. What does it say?”
“Oh, nothing,” said the robber. “All the jackals howl like that in this country.”
So Bopoluchi traveled with him many miles till they reached the robber’s house. Once they were inside, he locked the door and told her who he was and how he wanted to marry her himself. She wept and wailed, but the pitiless robber left her with his ancient crone of a mother and went out to make arrangements for the marriage feast.
Not Bopoluchi had long, beautiful hair that reached down to her ankles, but the mother of the robber was so old she didn’t have a hair on her head.
“Daughter,” said the old hag, as she was getting the bridal clothes ready, “how did you manage to get such beautiful hair?”
“Well,” replied Bopoluchi, “my mother had a way of making it grow by pounding my head in the big mortar for husking rice. At every stroke of the pestle, my hair grows longer and longer. It’s a method that never fails.”
“Maybe it will work for me, too, and make my hair grow,” said the old woman, who had always wanted long hair and never had much.
“Maybe it will. Why don’t we try it?” said Bopoluchi.
So the old mother put her head in the mortar, and Bopoluchi pounded away with such force that the old woman died.
Then Bopoluchi dressed the dead body in the scarlet bridal dress, seated it on the bridal chair, drew the veil over its face, and put the spinning-wheel in front of it, so that when the robber came home he might think it was his bride. Then she put on the old woman’s clothes, picked up her few belongings, and stepped out of the house as quickly as possible.
On her way home, the robber saw her hurrying by. He had stolen a millstone to grind grain for the feast. She was scared he would recognize her, but he didn’t. He thought she was some old woman hobbling along. So Bopoluchi reached home safely.
When the robber came home and saw the figure in the bridal dress sitting in the bridal chair spinning, he thought it was Bopoluchi. He called her to help him with the millstone, but she didn’t answer. After calling a few more times, he flew into a rage and threw the millstone at her head. The figure toppled over, and when he came close, it wasn’t Bopoluchi at all, but his own old mother with her head bashed in. The robber wept and cried aloud and beat his breast because he thought he had killed his own mother. Soon it became clear to him that Bopoluchi was no longer around and had run away. He was wild with rage and ran out to bring her back, wherever she was.
When she reached home, Bopoluchi knew that the robber would certainly come after her. Every night she begged her neighbors to let her sleep in a different house, leaving her own little bed in her own little house empty. But she couldn’t do this forever, as she soon came to the end of friends who would let her sleep in their houses. So she decided to brave it out and sleep in her own bed, with a sharp billhook next to her. Sure enough, in the middle of the night four men crept in, and each seizing a leg of the bed, lifted it up and walked off. The robber himself had the leg close behind her head. Bopoluchi was wide awake, but she pretended to be fast asleep until they came to a deserted spot and the thieves were off their guard. Then she whipped out the billhook and in a flash cut off the heads of the two thieves at the foot of the bed. Turning around quickly, she cut off the head of the third thief, but the robber himself ran away in a fright and scrambled up a nearby tree like a wild cat before she could get at him.
Bopoluchi cried out to him, brandishing her billhook, “Come down, if you are a man, and fight it out!”
But the robber would not come down. So Bopoluchi gathered all the sticks she could find, piled them around the tree, and set fire to them. The tree caught fire, and the robber, stifled by the smoke, tried to jump down and broke his neck.
After that, Bopoluchi went into the robber’s house and carried off all the gold and silver, jewels, and clothes that were hidden there. She had them brought home to her village in silver and gold platters, on camels and donkeys. She was now so rich she could marry anyone she pleased.
Copyright © 1994 by A. K. Ramanujan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.