Chapter 30


THE boat was formerly the most convenient means of transport in Kashmir. Once a large family of priests was proceeding in a boat to a holy shrine at a village on the river bank. The boatmen use the paddle, the punt and the rope in propelling the boat over long distances. The boatman and the boatwoman take their turns at the stern and both of them are equally skilled in steering. The one who propels the boat from the bow with either the punt or the paddle carefully observes the depth of water underneath and wishing to avoid reefs, shoals or sandbanks warns the steerer to push off or close, to steer right or left.

On this occasion the bowman wanting to avoid shallow water shouted to his wife at the stern to steer to the right. The word "right" in Kashmir has the same sound as the word for an offering of monetary gift to priests after a religious ritual. The word is coveted by priests as much as a "brief" is by a lawyer. The priests in the boat had, therefore, a feeling that somebody was offering money to them and involuntarily they rushed to the bow in a body. The equilibrium of the boat was upset and it capsized.

* * *

A priest and his son were seated side by side on the occasion of a thanksgiving dinner in the house of a layman to which they were invited. Choice dishes were in front of them and they relished the fare highly. While they were having dinner the son felt thirsty and drank water. The father looked at him ferociously and nudged him with his elbow. The son felt that he had been guilty of some breach of etiquette. When both of them reached home, with great humility the son asked the father where he had been guilty of a breach of etiquette. The latter was once again infuriated and gave his son several blows. This seemed to take the edge off his fury and he advised his son that when a member of the priestly class is invited to dinner by the laity, he should not drench himself with water but take as much of the delicious viands as he can. "Water, is always available at my home but good dishes, sonny, are not in our destiny."

The son realizing the point of his father's advice, rejoined, "But father, if we take a little water it whets our appetite and increases our capacity to take more food. When we take our meals at home we should not take water along, but when we dine out it is in our own interest to take a little water in between morsels."

The father once more lost his temper. He pounced upon his son and gave him a few more blows. The son was in utter confusion till the father added, "Why did you not tell me so earlier. I could have done greater justice to the meal."

* * *

ONE day a man called upon a priest. The latter was sitting in his study. The visitor submitted his problem to the priest for his verdict: "Two neighbours own an ox each. One of the animals kills the other. Should the owner of the ox killed be entitled to compensation from the owner of the surviving ox?" The priest pondered over the matter, analyzed all its facts and came to the conclusion that his visitor was obviously the master of the ox possessed of greater animality and bellicosity. But he wanted to be cocksure and asked the visitor his profession.

"I am an oilman, sir," replied the other.

"There you are," said the priest to himself, "his ox had too much of oilcake, hence his extraordinary hitting power."

Now he was as sure of the case as he could be and pronounced his verdict: "A very foul offense has been committed by the oilman's ox grown overweeningly fat on oilcake. The owner should offer the victim an ox for the killed besides an indemnity of ten rupees."

"Worthy sir," said the oilman, "your ox has killed my ox. May I request you to compensate me?"

"Is that so? Let me make sure of the law that has been laid down precisely for such an offense," replied the other. He began to turn the pages of a book and pour over them. His face was once again invested with self confidence and he declared, "The particular ox had come to the end of the span of its existence and was bound to meet death anyhow. Death, like life, is in the hands of the Almighty. The other ox was only the instrument of Destiny. No compensation is indicated or justifiable."

* * *

A householder once invited his family priest to his house to supervise the recitation of prayers. Ordinarily the householder never bothered himself about such functions and even earned some notoriety by calling it a waste of time and money. But on this occasion he was persuaded by his womenfolk to suffer himself to go through the ordeal of this ceremony because his son had been ailing for a pretty long time and the physicians had not been able to bring him round despite their best efforts.

The priest was a shrewd man and was convinced that the householder could not have approached him but for some dire necessity. He was, however, glad that the scoffer had come to pray. When the religious ceremony was over, the invitees were served a meal and the priest was happy enough at this increase in his clientele. At the end of the function the householder was expected to present a monetary gift to the priest by way of his "fee" before wishing him goodbye and the gift offered was insignificantly smaller than the priest expected even from a man of heterodox practices like his host. The priest objected, and to it the householder replied, "This is more than enough for a priest for reciting a few verses."

The priest realized that the householder had learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. He wanted to bring home to him that he could hit back and even at the risk of using language which he considered impolite and vulgar he replied, "Yes, this is enough, more so because the priest led the service without making ablutions befittingly."

* * *

SEVERAL hundred years ago a holy man lived in Kashmir. He is credited with having performed many miracles and a large number of people frequently surrounded him. He did not live a retired life like anchorites but performed all the duties as a citizen and householder. He was gifted with scholarship and wit and commanded considerable influence with the people.

The State makes a handmaiden of the Church wherever it can. It tries to control the thought processes of the people by all means at its disposal even by winning over and cleverly brainwashing influential leaders whether religious or secular. A nobleman sought to win over this holy man and cultivated his friendship. This was perhaps to serve as a weapon in his armoury for feathering his own nest and the holy man who understood the subtle plan did not apparently discourage him. In course of time the nobleman gained some popularity on account of his association with the holy man. To command greater stature in the eyes of the people he once invited the holy man to dinner at his own residence and, surprisingly enough, the latter agreed. He knew that his friendship was being sought to serve the nobleman as a handle and not for love or holiness.

The holy man proceeded to the nobleman's house on the particular day. The doorkeeper was familiar with the associates and guests of the nobleman who arrived in proper attire. They wore starched turbans, precious shawls, golden ornaments and embroidered footwear. They were attended by servants or equerries. As a complete contrast here was this beggar in a skull-cap, an all too short Reran with sleeves exposing his forearms. How could he claim the honour of the dinner-table along with other august company?

"Begone, sirrah, or you will receive a kick on your hip. Your sleeves cannot cover your elbows and yet you claim to be a guest in this house" they told him. Several guests were witness to this incident but they had no inclination to interfere.

Soon after the holy man returned. His beard was well-combed, his turban high, his pheran was starch-white and his sleeves were long enough to reach his knees in keeping with the fashion. He wore rings and a fine shawl. He was saluted by the doorkeeper as he passed into the hall where he was given the seat meant for the chief guest. Dinner was served and everybody was looking to the chief guest to say grace.

The chief guest, however, did no such thing. He produced his sleeves and said, "Sleeves eat, do justice to the dinner." Everybody was surprised, but the holy man repeated the address to the sleeves. The host felt embarrassed and begged him to excuse any lapse on his part. The holy man explained what had happened adding that only his dress, his sleeves, deserved the honour of the dinner. The nobleman wanted to chastize the doorkeeper to satisfy the guest but the latter forbade it saying that the servant was not the chief sinner in the house. The lesson went home to the nobleman and the holy man left without touching the food.

* * *

BEFORE germicides and disinfectants were known, the number of people suffering from fungi of the hair, scabies or excessive scruff was large enough. Their number was larger in a cold country like Kashmir. Such people did not enj oy growth of hair on the head and felt embarrassed in company. They never uncovered their heads for fear of earning the appellation "copper" which, with reference to the context, applied to the head covered with scabies or excessive scruff

Once there was a man with a so-called "copper" head. He had many friends and enjoyed their company but was extremely sensitive to a reference to hair. He would blush and expose his intense embarrassment. His friends wanted to cure him of it but did not succeed.

Once he uncovers his head," they said, "he will gradually get over that maidenly shyness. But how to get him lift his turban?"

They framed a plan. The "copper"-head was extremely fond of indoor games like chess and dice. One day, while he was busy playing, one of his friends quietly placed on his turban a live-coal. The live-coal burnt several folds of his turban from which wisps of smoke rose. His friends knew everything about it and expected him to throw off his turban in alarm and thus expose his head. But the "copper"-head was not easily perturbed. He sensed the mischief and quietly left the room to remove his turban in the passage. The friends felt that their plan had come to nought and that he had singly outwitted all of them. They came to the brink of disappointment.

One of them had a brain wave. Taking advantage of the weakness of the man for chess he shouted, "Look how easily you have been checkmated." The man was in an embarrassing situation of the worst kind, i.e. bare-headed he was extinguishing the smouldering embers of his turban. But the word "checkmate" produced in him a reflex action and he rushed into the room to see how he had been affected adversely. The moment his friends saw his bare head, they burst out into loud laughter and the man understood their trick. He lost some of that hypersensitiveness and the friends did nothing to cause him any embarrassment.

* * *

MARRIAGES in most parts of India are arranged even now by the parents of the bride and the bride-groom. In the past it was entirely the responsibility of the parents. Men with any physical deformity found it difficult to seek the approval of the father of a maid. Maids being regarded beyond the pale of the application of law, the prospective father-in-law thoroughly satisfied himself though only indirectly that the candidate for the hand of his daughter was physically fit. Where a rumour existed as to a physical or other defect in the would-be-groom, the scrutiny was more searching, though still indirect. Not that men with a physical defect were always condemned to bachelorhood. Far from that, but they had to seek a bride several degrees below them in the social hierarchy.

Once upon a time a young man with a limp in his foot was being considered for the hand of a young maid. The go-between had conveyed it to her father that the young man was perfectly normal and invited him to observe the man for himself. The aspirant for marriage had assured the go-between that he could artfully ape the gait of a man with a perfect pair of feet. An appointment was fixed upon. The father of the bride took his position at a place on the roadside and the young man was asked to pass that way unmindful of the observer.

The prospective bridegroom appeared in the street in a shawl so artfully draped as to cover the limping foot to the very toes. The observer, even though he had concealed his identity, could get no direct evidence of the limp for the moment. Next, he very successfully aped the gait of a normal man by subjecting the toe to some heavier strain. Thus he expected to hoodwink the father of the bride.

The man had hardly walked a few steps in the street when an old friend accosted him. They met after a pretty long time and their hearts swelled with genuine pleasure. They talked for many minutes there and then and parted only reluctantly because the friend was going on an urgent business. The meeting, however, led to bitter consequences because in the joy of friendship the young man had forgotten the mission which led him out of his house. He began to walk with the habitual limp quite long enough to be caught by the secretly placed observer. He attempted the "sleight-of-foot" again but it was too late; for he had already exposed his club-foot.

* * *

IT so happened that an officer in public administration exposed a bad social and personal foible, viz., his inveterate stammer. The more he came into touch with his officers or members of the public, the more this weakness came to the forefront. Whenever he was asked to explain something verbally to his superior officers or elucidate anything for the benefit of those subordinate to him, he cut a sorry figure, and the feeling of this deficiency worried him a great deal. He was otherwise very capable and earned the esteem of his officers. To spare himself the mental torture on this account he got himself transferred to an out of the way station where his duties as the captain of a fortress did not expose him to any contact with the public. He was happy indeed at this voluntary exile

Years rolled by. The old ruler died and was succeeded by another. Ministers and officers changed places but the captain was uniformly happy. One day his fortress was inspected by a new head of the army who was also the younger brother of the ruler. A fitting welcome was to be accorded to the distinguished visitor.

In keeping with the accepted protocol the captain invited the headmen of villages and other distinguished people of the locality to a reception held under a grand shamiana. A detachment of troops stood phalanxed and guns were fired to welcome and salute the prince. In a few moments the visitor took his seat of honour and the captain stood by him in respect and awe. The captain was called upon to conduct the deliberations of the reception and to explain to the distinguished audience the significance of the visit of the prince. It was an ordeal for him but he had to shoulder this exacting task. He began, and at the very fifth word he stammered and stuttered. He made an effort to steer clear but how could he help the habit of a life-time. Hardly had he spoken a couple of sentences when the prince frowned, beckoned to one of his aides and motioned to him to handcuff the stammering captain.

The commands of so distinguished a man as the army chief were carried out instantaneously. The captain, handcuffed and chained, was cast into prison in one of the subterranean cells of the fortress. The captain was fairly popular at his headquarters and the people who had come for the reception took amiss the treatment accorded to him, but "mum" was the word. The situation was tense and the function came to a premature end, but nobody knew why the captain was thus incarcerated. Some hazarded the guess that it was because of disloyalty, others thought he was hatching a conspiracy, but no one could say anything with confidence. All the same, everybody was extremely sorry for the fate of the captain.

The personal staff of the captain who waited on the prince felt equally sad. One of them, a man of commonsense and imagination who performed odd jobs for the prince, soon made a guess. He discovered that the prince was a stammerer himself and that the captain was punished because he was suspected, most probably, of feigning stammering. To his mind this fact had injured the amour propre of the prince and if he could be convinced that the foible in the tongue was native to the captain, he might be pardoned.

These people sought the intercession of some aged headmen and venerable priests of the locality and the subject was broached first to the lieutenants of the army chief and later to him direct. The chief never suspected that the humble captain suffered from the same defect as he, an august prince, himself. He, therefore, had concluded that the captain aimed at insulting him by feigning to stammer and the wages for the deed was incarceration. The evidence of these disinterested people convinced the visiting dignitary of the innocence of the captain and he was once again given the command of the fortress.

* * *

THERE lived a poet in Kashmir about a hundred years ago. tie was very popular for he entertained one and all with his spontaneous verses, humorous or satiric, full of sparkling wit and repartee. Men of means willingly extended their patronage to him, partly out of their love for the muse and partly out of an apprehension lest the poet's battery of sarcasm may otherwise be directed against them. Feudal lords gave him grants of paddy in return for which he sometimes recited panegyrics in their honour.

Once upon a time he called on a nobleman who was a big landlord and held an eminent appointment in public administration. Having been informed of the poet's arrival the nobleman received him in his audience chamber. The poet as usual entertained the nobleman with the creation of his fancy which was sparkling with wit, sarcasm and humour. His felicity of epithet and diction was appreciated.

After the intellectual repast was over the poet said, "Last night I had a dream, my lord."

"What was it about?"

"I had the honour of meeting my lord, your late departed father."

"And what did the nobleman tell you?"

"He told me that I should get from your lordship thirty kbirwars of paddy. I have come here to convey his commands to your lordship and to request you to carry it out," said the poet.

There was an outburst of laughter. Even the nobleman could not help laughing, though the joke was obviously against him. Trying to be even with the poet, however, he said, "I also saw him in a dream last night."

"And what was his pleasure?" asked the poet.

"He commanded me to have thirty lashes given on your bare back," retorted the nobleman with obvious glee.

There was once again loud laughter and the nobleman was almost hilarious for having put the poet in the wrong. But the latter was not to be outdone. He was nothing if not a past master in repartee. He retorted, "Is that so my lord? I am surprised that he continues to be a double-dealer, pretending to be friendly to everyone but true to none. How else is it that what he told me is contrary to the instructions given to you?"

The nobleman lost the contest in wit and the poet had the last laugh.

* * *

THOUGH  there is a reunion of cousins of several removes on the occasion of a wedding or bereavement, the feelings of envy and rivalry are always uppermost in one's mind against one's fellow-collaterals, cousins descended from the same paternal grandfather, great-grandfather and great great-grandfather. An idea of the intensity and bitterness of these feelings can be gauged from one or two maxims current about the theme: "If you drop a cousin into a well with his head downwards he will still express his enmity for you with his legs." "If your cousin is so small in stature as not to be able to hit you on any vital part of the body, he will still manage to scratch and injure your legs." Harming a collateral in any form always gives a subtle satisfaction.

In a village lived two brothers. One of them died unexpectedly before they had divided their ancestral property and the moral duty of looking after his brother's children fell upon the surviving uncle. He proved to be a typical "uncle" and his nephews had to put up with harsh treatment at his hands. When they grew up to be young men and could dispense with the officious attention of their so-called guardian, he imposed many obstacles in the way of the division of the ancestral property. He managed to retain a slice of their land for himself. The nephews reconciled themselves to this loss in the hope that they would be able to live a life free from the daily pin-pricks.

Once they were free from their uncle's clutches, he invented fresh means of persecution. By this time the nephews also had imbibed the spirit of "cousinhood" and they also retaliated as far as they could, but the uncle was a past master in this art and had the finesse. It was a regular "cat and mice" life discussed all over the village.

In course of time the uncle grew old. He had seen enough of life and was pretty well satisfied with the role he had been able to play. But he had obviously not satiated his heart with the sadistic persecution of his immediate nearest collaterals, the children of his brother. He wanted to do something really topping. Some time

later he fell seriously ill and he felt that he would not survive that illness. He would not mind his death but his yearning was still not quite satisfied. He thought of a plan and executed it.

He called his nephews and heaving a deep sigh addressed them thus: "Children of my dear brother who is treading the path of truth! I have not been fair to you. It weighs heavily upon my heart that you suffered at my hands. Would you be so good as to forgive me?"

The nephews were overcome with emotion and said, "Dear uncle, let bygones be bygones. We don't want you to feel that you did us any wrong."

"No", he said, "nothing will give me relief until you do something by way of vengeance to be reckoned against you in the eyes of God. I would count it a favour if you drag me by the feet on the bare ground."

The nephews were nonplussed but he importuned them and they were persuaded to oblige their old uncle. He was already counting his last breaths and the strain in being dragged by the feet proved to be the last straw on the camel's back. The old uncle gave up his ghost and the nephews felt they had made peace with their uncle. But their satisfaction was short-lived, for the police soon persecuted them on the charge of culpable homicide. The people said that the uncle had at last done something really topping and bagged the highest prize.

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