The Blue Lotus: Myths and Folktales of India by Meena Arora Nayak is a collection of Indian myths and folktales. An excerpt from Postomoni, the opium girl’s story:

With water and mantra, the rishi made the boar a regal elephant.

The mouse-elephant thanked the Brahmin and went towards the city with a plan. He remained in the fringe of trees bordering the palace till he saw the king. Then he sauntered out and trumpeted, and let the king’s men catch him without any resistance. When the king came to examine him, his heart pounded with excitement, but he stood majestically, showing off his proud trunk, curving tusks, and well-proportioned limbs. The king declared that he should be trained as a royal mount, and the elephant catchers put him in the royal stables. There, he began to live in style, eating expensive foods, bathing in scented water, and wearing covers of soft fabrics with paisley patterns of red, yellow and blue. From then on, whenever the king desired a ride, he called upon his new elephant, and the mouse-elephant felt like he had achieved his life’s goal.

One day, the queen expressed a desire to bathe in the river, so the king ordered his favourite royal elephant to be readied. The mouse-elephant was not happy at this turn of events, because he could not bear the thought of a woman riding him. When the queen climbed into the howdah fitted on his back, he gave a loud trumpet and raised his front legs in affront. The queen fell down, and the king came running to her. He picked her up, kissed her and checked her for injuries, and then kissed her again and carried her in his arms into the palace.

The mouse-elephant was not happy at this turn of events, because he could not bear the thought of a woman riding him.

Oh to be that queen, the elephant thought. Loved and cossetted by the king, living in the lap of luxury. What a life! That evening he broke his ropes and ran out of the royal stable into the forest. Arriving at the palm tree hut of his rishi friend, he banged on the door with his trunk. When the rishi opened the door, he recognized the elephant. ‘Welcome, my dear friend,’ he said. ‘You look grand, dressed up as the king’s elephant. Have you come to show me your finery?’

‘No…actually…’ and the elephant told the Brahmin all about the queen and how he felt insulted by her but then realized that no one on earth could be happier than the queen. ‘Now, that’s a life worth living,’ he declared. ‘The life of a queen! If you make me a queen, I’ll never ask you for anything else.’

The rishi laughed. ‘I can change you into anything you like, my friend, but even I can’t make you a queen; for that you need a king to marry you. But here’s what I can do. I can change you into a beautiful young woman, and then it’s up to you to secure your own king. What do you say?’

‘I can change you into anything you like, my friend, but even I can’t make you a queen; for that you need a king to marry you.

‘Yes,’ said the elephant.

The rishi performed the ritual, and the elephant was transformed into the most enchanting, intoxicatingly beautiful woman in the world. The rishi named her Postomoni, the poppy seed girl. She began living with the rishi in his hut, and she was quite happy to be back home, but every day she waited for the king of her dreams to come and make her his queen.

One day a king did come. He had separated from his hunting party and was lost. The mouse-woman was at the window, looking out, when she saw him in the courtyard, and she knew immediately that this handsome man on a regal horse was her king. Going outside, she coyly asked him who he was, and when she found out that he was, indeed, a king, she invited him into the hut.

‘Who are you?’ the king asked her, hardly able to take his eyes off her loveliness. ‘Are you a rishi’s daughter?’

‘No,’ the young woman replied. ‘I, too, am a princess by birth. The rishi who adopted me told me what happened to me. You see, my father’s kingdom was conquered, and he and my mother had to flee. They hid in the forest, but a tiger ate my father. My mother, who was pregnant with me, died as soon as she gave birth to me. I lay on the ground all by myself, hungry and helpless, but hanging from the tree under which I was born, was a beehive from which honey was dripping, and it fell into my mouth. That’s what kept me alive till the rishi found me. He brought me home, and this is where I’ve been living all my life.’

‘I’m in love with you, O beautiful maiden,’ the king said. ‘And now that I know you are also of royal blood, I want to make you my queen.’ Postomoni readily agreed, and she and the king were married that very day with the rishi’s blessings. After that the two left for the king’s capital.

Back in his palace, the king deposed his first queen and installed his beautiful new bride as the chief queen. The two of them lived happily for a while, and all went well for Postomoni, but then one day, as she stood by a well, she suddenly felt dizzy and fell in and died. The king was heartbroken. He ordered his men to bring out the body of his beloved queen so that she could be cremated with full royal honours. But just then, the rishi appeared. ‘Leave Postomoni in the well,’ he advised the king.

‘Leave Postomoni in the well,’ he advised the king.

‘How can you say that,’ said the shocked king. ‘She was not only of royal blood but also my queen, and she deserves last rites that are suitable for her status.’

‘She was not of royal blood or your queen. She was a mouse that I changed into a cat, a dog, an ape, a wild boar, an elephant, and finally a beautiful maiden. Let her be. Instal your own queen as chief queen again, and let the mouse remain in the well.’

‘Whoever she was, I loved her,’ the king replied, ‘And I want to memorialize her.’

From her flesh and bones a plant will grow out of the well; it’ll be a poppy with beautiful red flowers that will bear her name—Posto.

‘Then have the well filled with soil,’ the rishi instructed. ‘From her flesh and bones a plant will grow out of the well; it’ll be a poppy with beautiful red flowers that will bear her name—Posto. People will use the seeds of that plant to create a powerful opiate. Whoever uses it will have the qualities of all the forms that Postomoni desired in her life. He will be restless like a mouse, sly like a cat, suspicious like a dog, mischievous like a monkey, filthy like a boar, powerful like an elephant, and oblivious like a queen.

And that is the story of opium.

Excerpted with permission from The Blue Lotus: Myths and Folktales of India by Meena Arora Nayak published by Aleph Book Company. Rs 999, 586 pp.

Picture Credit: Aleph Book Company

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