S. L. SADHU

 
Chapter 2

The Devil Outwitted

ONCE there lived a young man in a village. He had no land of his own but worked on the farms of several landlords one after another and thus picked up a living. He was handsome and industrious and entered into matrimony as could be expected. Fortunately his wife was an uncommonly good one. She had attractive features, a strong physique and a sweet disposition - a rare combination. She shared the burdens of her husband and made him happy and somewhat prosperous.

Once, while she was returning from the spring with two pitchers of water - one upon another - on her head in the company of several other women, she and her husband came in for a poignant taunt from her companions. How and why it started is needless to state but in effect they told her that they were landless beggars and had little stake in the village. When she reported the matter to her husband the "earth seemed to slip from under his feet." He had all along been feeling that the landed class, even those petty peasants who could not pay their rent to the State, did not treat him as an equal because he had no land to call his own. The land gave a subtle but respectable status to a tiller of the soil. Minus a piece of land of his own he was like a woman unable to get a husband. Apart from his own feelings on the subject, he was now upset that his wife had got hurt by the unsophisticated though callous observations of the village women-folk.

The peasant was gifted with youth, health and strength. Said he to his wife, "Is that what is worrying you? I never thought that my wife would be upset by such idle gossip. Anyway, before the year is out, you will also be the owner of a small farm of your own."

She felt somewhat reassured but could not see how it would be possible for him to implement what he said. "May be," she thought, "he has some resources unknown to me." She had grounds for her fears because, as far as she knew, he had had no savings. As a cultivator he was entitled to a share ranging from one half to one third of the produce of the farm he worked on. But prices of agricultural produce were low and did not leave anything by way of surplus. His savings had gone away on the occasion of his marriage when he had to make a settlement on his wife. She also helped her husband in earning their living, but soon came extra mouths to feed in the shape of their offspring and their affairs did not go far on the road to prosperity.

The peasant approached the local patwari with a present and told him everything. The patwari was mighty glad that this latest client would bring him a little money in one form or another.

"I shall make you a peasant-owner" he assured him.

"But I have nothing to purchase it with" rejoined the peasant.

"Don't worry", said the patwari. "When I have given you my word, I shall prove true to it."

The patwari explained to him how he could become a landholder without having to pay the price on the understanding, of course, that the young man would render adequate service to the official. There was a piece of land on the outskirts of the village which was entered as barren in the revenue records. The patwari advised the young man to reclaim it and assured him that he would help him in owning it in course of time.

The young peasant set about his task with might and main. He was helped by his wife and in a few weeks the land was practically fit for cultivation. The peasant was making preparations for sowing seeds. Late one night he was about to return home from this newly-acquired farm when he found a hen with a number of chicks occupying his path. Surprised to see this brood at such a late hour he was about to make his way when a flock of sheep came within his sight, and he was obliged to go from one side to another and suffer much inconvenience on this account. He walked thus for quite a long time, up hill and down dale, getting his clothes rent by brambles, or suffering from a fall now and then, but he nowhere got near his house. It was dark and he could not make out whereabouts he had been led astray. After a while he saw three or four men coming with a lantern from a distance. He came to know through them that he had strayed quite a few miles from his home to which they escorted him. "It is the devil's doing," they told him.

The next evening when he was about to start from his [arm he had some more experiences which the devil alone could cause. He planted his pocket-knife into the ground and sat down. Lo ! the devil came forward in the guise of a man with his heels in front and toes pointing backward. The young peasant did not in the least lose his presence of mind.

"What can I do for you, my dear Sir ?" he addressed the visitant.

''You have been tilling my farm," replied the other.

"Is that so, but the patwari...."

"To hell with the dishonest rogue!"

"Never mind, my dear Sir, I have all my life been cultivating land for people. Could your honour get a better tenant than this humble servant?"

The devil obviously felt flattered with the respectful attitude of the peasant. "I have no special prejudice against you. Only I thought that a tenant would take the permission of the owner," said he.

"For that transgression I crave the indulgence of your honour's generosity," submitted the peasant. "And what rent may this humble servant be commanded to pay?" he asked.

Oblivious of the ironical attitude of the peasant, the devil was taken in and demanded the same rent as other well-known landlords.

"Indeed, Sir, I shall feel it a great honour to render unto your worship one half of the crop, but which half it would please your highness to accept, I pray this humble servant may be commanded, the upper half or the lower half."

"Of course, the upper half," said the devil ingenuously.

"By all means, your highness. When the crop is about to be harvested, will it please you to come and have your share?"

The devil was mighty pleased and disappeared. The peasant left for home with a light heart.

He did not tell anything about the visitation to his wife but decided to raise turnips on his land. The seed was sown and in good time the leaves raised their head from the earth. The devil saw it thus and felt pleased that at last through his wisdom he was making a fortune through labour not his own. Then came harvest time. The peasant was up and doing, cutting with his sickle the leaves from turnips. A big heap of leaves he piled for the devil and the turnips his wife carried home. While the devil was deliberating how best to dispose of the produce of his land, the leaves started turning yellow and brown. He carried them to the market but the prospective customers only winked to each other or grinned at the wisdom of the seller. "Is it a conspiracy or what?" said the devil to himself, deliberating over his failure to dispose of the turnip leaves.

He came to know ultimately that he had cut a sorry figure on account of his ignorance of farming. "For once this young peasant has scored over me. But none of this more. I shall teach him a lesson now," thought he.

The next sowing season came and the peasant once again asked the devil "Which part of the crop will it please your honour to have?" The devil did not like to give the peasant the impression that he had been worsened and that he was smarting under the discomfiture.

He simply told him that he would take the lower portion. "By all means, your worship, and this humble servant shall work with utmost zeal to his entire capacity to win the approbation of your honour," said the peasant.

The devil was highly pleased with this unctuous verbiage.

This time the peasant sowed barley and in due course the entire farm was full of green waving crop. It pleased the devil to watch this emerald spot, particularly when the wind forced it to bow to him in courtesy. Gradually the virgin stalks were heavy with ears, and the crop turned yellowish and golden. It was a bumper crop that the peasant raised.

Once again he and his wife got busy with harvesting. They plied their sickles deftly and did a good job of it. Sawing the stalks into two the peasant took all the ears and the grain leaving the stubble and the roots for the devil. When the latter came to collect it, the peasant respectfully submitted that the entire share was kept for the rightful owner, untouched. And the devil was so glad! But in the market they laughed at his stupidity and he understood that he had been duped once more.

"I must teach this fellow a lesson" said he to himself and he felt relieved to throw the bundle of stubble into the stream. By experience he had found that it was either the root or the top that mattered. To eliminate all risks he determined to have both as his share and leave the middle of the crop to the peasant. And he communicated it to him.

The peasant agreed unhesitatingly. The devil was sure to trip him up. But the peasant had his own plans. This time he sowed maize. The crop was rich and luscious. The stalks grew tall and full of white milky cobs. In time the grains of maize became brown and strong on the cobs. The devil came and got his due, the roots and the lofty crowns; and the peasant bundled together all the stalks in between with the rich cobs growing on them.

The devil soon realized that even the third time he had been defeated. "He is more than a match for me," he came to the conclusion. He called the peasant.

"What is your highness's pleasure?" submitted the latter courteously.

"Pleasure, indeed!" the devil replied. "It is too much for me," he added, "the land and its problems. From this time forth I have absolutely no claim upon your farm and you can do with it what you like."

"Your highness, I am much grateful to you!"

There is a French variant in which the peasant sowed pole-beans on the third occasion. Afterwards they hold a contest in wit, the last one of its kind, in which, of course, the devil is defeated.

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