In a small village in South India lived a poor farmer. He had two children, Uma, an eight-year-old girl, and Gopal, a baby boy.
When his wife died, his daughter Uma took over the responsibility of looking after her brother. A few years later the farmer also died, and the two children became orphans.
Uma was very mature for her age. She knew that she would have to be both father and mother to Gopal. She also had to make ends meet. She had to plough the field, manure and water the land, sow seeds and ultimately harvest the crop. The neighbours, who admired her courage, helped her, and she had a good harvest and was able to support her brother and herself.
The years went by and Gopal finished his studies.Then one day he said to his sister, “You have spent the better part of your youth looking after and providing for me. By now you should have been married and you should have had a family of your own. But marriage of a girl requires a lot of money and I have none. Neither can I provide you with an adequate dowry.”
But Uma did not worry. One day, one of the young village men, who had always loved Uma, called on Gopal.
As was customary, he asked Gopal for his sister’s hand in marriage. He said that he was not interested in a dowry and valued Uma for her unselfishness and undaunted courage.
So the wedding date was fixed and soon afterwards Uma was married. Before leaving for her new home she said to Gopal, ” Soon you will get married too. You must continue with our custom of performing Lakshmi puja on the first Friday of Shravana. You must promise that you will make your wife keep up this tradition.” Without hesitation Gopal promised to honour this small request of his sister.
Years passed. Gopal worked hard and his fields yielded abundant harvest. He married Kamala, the pretty, spoilt daughter of a wealthy farmer.
A few weeks later was the holy month of Shravana. The whole village began making preparations to celebrate Lakshmi Puja,
particularly those homes where there were newly married women. For on this occasion, women are specially invited to participate and the place of honour is given to married daughters and sisters who are considered very esteemed and respected guests. It is believed that if the girl blesses the house, then it will have happiness and prosperity but her curse can spell doom. Gopal remembered his promise and told his wife about it. Kamala agreed to celebrate Lakshmi Puja lavishly. But on one condition. “You must not invite your sister, ” Kamala implored. “She is poor and will arrive in rags with her brood of children all looking scruffy. She will shame us, and my family will laugh at me if they know that you have such penniless relatives”.
Gopal agreed. He did not want to upset his rich, pretty wife. He did not invite Uma.
It was the first Friday of Shravana. Gopal’s house was filled with people. The mingled fragrance of flowers and incense hung over the house. From the kitchen wafted an aroma of spices. Special cooks had been engaged to prepare a variety of delicacies. As the guests poured in, they were welcomed with garlands of flowers, rose water was sprinkled on them, and they were offfered tambul and coconuts.
At the height of the festivities Uma appeared. Kamala’s pretty face turned pale. Kamala was carrying a big silver bowl containing prasad. She was going around the room giving prasad to the guests. Uma came up and hugged Kamala, ” You are looking very pretty, Kamala. Where is my brother? It gives me great happiness that he never broke his promise to me. I know you must have been very busy and forgot to invite me. It doesn’t matter. I am no guest. I do not have to wait for an invitation to come to my own brother’s house.”
Uma chattered cheerfully, completely unaware of the sudden silence in the room. Kamala’s rich friends sniggered. Kamala felt humiliated and Gopal was ashamed.
This went on for seven years. Each year, Kamala performed Lakshmi Puja on a lavish scale. Hundreds of guests attended and feasted sumptuously. Uma was never invited but she always came. She would arrive in her patched-up clothes take prasad on a banana leaf, talk cheerfully to Gopal and Kamala and depart only after she had blessed them. The annual event was embarrassing for both Kamala and Gopal.
All these years, Uma’s husband worked hard to support his family. Uma was quite content with the little they had. Then her husband’s business began to prosper. Money began to trickle in steadily and they soon became very wealthy. Now Uma lived in a large house, dressed in the finest silks, had many servants and rode about in a fine carriage driven by four gleaming white horses.
Gopal and Kamala heard of Uma’s newly acquired riches. When the month of Shravana drew near, Kamala said to her husband, “Go to Uma’s house and invite her and her family to the puja. And do not go empty-handed. Take her some sweets and coconuts. After all, she is your elder sister”.
So Gopal went to Uma’s house and extended a personal invitation. Uma welcomed her brother affectionately and promised to attend the function.
The big day dawned. Guests began to troop in. Mantras were chanted, hymns sung, and the fragrance of flowers and camphor pervaded the house. Suddenly there was a clatter of horses. A handsome carriage drove up to the gate. Everyone stopped talking and stared. A servant descended from the coach-box and opened the door of the carriage. A lady dressed in a bright golden Banarasi saree, diamonds glittering on her neck and ears, stepped out and walked gracefully towards the house.
Kamala hardly recognised her sister-in-law. How beautiful she looked! Kamala greeted Uma affectionately and respectfully stood aside to let her enter. Gopal conducted her to comfortable cushioned seat and Kamala rushed up with a variety of sweets in a silver plate. Uma smiled gently. Turning to Gopal she asked for another cushioned seat.
Gopal rushed up with a cushioned chair. Uma took off her gold-embroidered shawl and put it on the chair next to her. “Uma must be feeling hot,” Gopal thought anxiously. He beckoned Kamala and whispered, ” Go and bring a fan.”
Kamala ran and brought a fan. She stood beside Uma and fanned her gently.
Then Uma took off her ornaments one after another and put them on a chair. Gopal asked her, “Uma dear, do you find your jewelry too heavy?”
Uma did not reply. When she had taken all her jewelry off , she picked up the sweets one by one and put them on each piece of jewelry. People stared in amazement.
Gopal asked agitatedly, “What are you doing?”
Uma smiled. “I am giving sweets to the real guests to whom they have been offered. This sumptuous feast was not laid for my benefit. You offered it to my fine clothes and gold ornaments. I am content with some prasad on a banana leaf. All these years it was all that was offered to me and my children”.
There was pin-drop silence in the room. Then the guests began to whisper among themselves and throw glances at Gopal and Kamala. They both wished that the earth would open and swallow them up.
Then Uma rebuked them gently, “Affection and love do not change with wealth. I can bless you equally whether I am in rags or in fine silks. Your house will always prosper and happiness will abound in it.”
First published by National Book Trust, India