Four thieves happened to meet at Kashii during cu’r'ha’man’i yog, one of the many religious festivals in India. Some people say a holy dip in the river Ganges during cu’r'ha’man’i yog brings even more virtue than a holy dip during an eclipse. That’s why sinners eagerly await cu’r'ha’man’i yog, like crows in a place of pilgrimage, to relieve themselves of their heavy burden. Even relatively pious people join the sinners for the holy dip. They hope to acquire enough virtue to neutralize any sins they might commit in the future.
According to the code of conduct of common people, one has to sleep at night and work during the day. This is not the case for thieves: their code of conduct tells them its a sin to sleep at night.
The four thieves came from far-flung places: Lahore, Peshwar, Tutikorin, one of the biggest salt producing towns in southern India, and Calcutta. They met in a traveler’s inn and in no time were the best of friends. How true is the proverb, “Birds of a feather flock together.”
One of the thieves suggested, “Friends, we’ve got to stay awake the whole night, so let’s tell some interesting stories? Any one of us can challenge the storyteller about the truth of his story. But if he can’t prove the story’s false, he’ll have to pay 2,000 rupees in cash on the spot.” The other thieves thought it was a great idea.
The Lahore thief told the first story. “Friends, my grandfather had about ten million buffaloes. I say about ten million because they never finished counting them all – it was rather like trying to count the stars in the sky. Each buffalo gave 4,000 litres of milk every day, milk as pure as the gum of a banyan tree. The problem was, though, there weren’t enough people to sell the milk, nor, indeed, were there enough people to drink it. They threw so much milk away that five huge white rivers were formed – the Sattadru, Vipasa, Iravati, Chandrabhaga and Vitasta. The Greeks called them the Sutlej, Beas, Rabi, Chenub and Jhelum respectively. Those magnificent rivers carried their milk to the coast where it mixed with the salt water of the oceans. You can probably guess what happened next. My grandfather became rich, and therefore idle, and gave the responsibility of milking the cows to his servants. This had disastrous results as you would expect. The servants mixed so much water with the milk that it lost its brilliant white colour altogether. If you go to that place now you’ll only find rivers of water – there’s not a single drop of milk left. You’re welcome to go anytime. I guarantee you’ll see I’m telling the truth.”
The Peshawar and Tutikorin thieves chuckled to themselves. They had no intention of challenging the authenticity of this story. It would have been a waste of 2,000 rupees. The Calcutta thief exclaimed, “What a pity! I’m so sorry to hear about the tragic fate of your grandfather. How unfortunate that the grandson of a family whose buffaloes produced enough milk to make five great rivers has been forced into the street to pick pockets with a pair of scissors. What bad luck. This is the irony of fate.” The other thieves thought the Calcutta thief was a complete idiot.
The Peshawar thief told the next story. “There is no historical document to prove the exact number of buffaloes our friend’s grandfather kept. None of the great travelers – Hiuensung, Megasthenes or Fahien and the like – mentioned anything about the buffaloes in their diaries. But they did make a record of the millions of ducks owned by my grandfather. His ducks were considerably larger than the common duck of today. I suppose you’ve heard about the huge ships Titanic and Normandy – people say they were as tall as eight story buildings. Well, our ducks could eat a ship of that size as a snack in the morning and afternoon. They could swallow it in one gulp. Those ducks used to swim in the same five rivers our friend just mentioned. Alexander the Great you know who he was, don’t you? – marched to India with the intention of conquering the entire country. He succeeded in capturing Maghada, but for some reason didn’t advance much further. Those who only know a little history say he was overawed by the bravery of King Puru (in Greek, Porus). Some say he turned back when he heard tales about the valour of the Bengalis of Rarh (in Greek, Ganga-Ridi). But, my friends, the truth is otherwise. When he noticed those giant ducks floating on the five rivers he made an about-turn. He thought they were warships.
“My grandfather’s biggest problem was finding a place to keep all the eggs. Finally he had them stacked in a long row 2,500 miles long and five miles high. This wall of eggs was called the Dimalaya1. A well-known philologist claims that in ancient Tibet da was pronounced as ha. Therefore Dimalaya became Himalaya. Of course, there is considerable debate about this – there is no end to disagreement among scholars. That’s why it’s said there are as many opinions as there are scholars – naekah muniryasya matam’na bhinnam.
1. Dim means egg and a’laya means stack or house.
“I heard my grandfather placed giant hens on top on the wall to hatch the eggs. In the Austric language hens are called sima, so some people called that high wall, the Simalaya. Another famous philologist told me that in Sylhet Bengali sa is pronounced as ha. That’s why Simalaya has became Himalaya.
“I’m sure you’ve heard the name, Mahaprabhu Caetanyadeva. Mahaprabhu was well aware that sa was pronounced as ha because his ancestral home was in Dhaka-Daksin village in Haviganja sub-division of Sylhet district (in present Bangladesh). One day, on returning to Navadwip from one of his many trips to Manipur, the people asked him to tell some stories about his ancestral home. `It’s a spectacular place,’ said Mahaprabhu. `Anyone who wants to experience the charm of the Bengali countryside should go to Sylhet. Its verdant beauty is without parallel. But if ever you go there don’t pay homage to the brahmin scholars.’
“`Why, Mahaprabhu?’ asked the surprised listeners. `If we pay homage to the brahmin scholars our future welfare is guaranteed.’
“`Well, I suppose you could pay homage,’ said Mahaprabhu, `but make sure you don’t seek their blessings.’
“`But why, Mahaprabhu?’ they asked. `The main purpose of paying homage to the brahmin scholars is to seek their blessings. When we are blessed by a noble soul the thorns are removed from our path, and success is assured.’
“Mahaprabhu said, `What else can I say? I hate to think what would happen if a brahmin scholar said hata’yurbhava (be dead) instead of shata’yurbhava (live for hundred years) when he blessed you. Remember that in Sylhet Bengali the people pronounce sa as ha.’
“I think it’s clear to you,” said the Peshawar thief, “how Simalaya became Himalaya. When Kublai Khan attacked India, a few eggs of the Dimalaya cracked under the hooves of his Turkish horses. This is how the spectacular Kyber and Bolan mountain passes were made. You know,” he concluded, “those mountain passes are very beautiful at this time of year. Why don’t you take a trip there and verify my story for yourselves?”
The Lahore and Tutikorin thieves had immense trouble suppressing their laughter. The idea of challenging this story didn’t even enter the minds. The Calcutta thief’s reaction was altogether different. “How tragic that the descendent of such enterprising forebears has ended up as a mere street thief. What terrible misfortune! What a strange twist of fate!” he cried. “This man’s a raving lunatic,” thought the other thieves.
Next it was the turn of the Tutikorin thief. “Friends, my grandfather had a small house with a small garden in which there grew an unusual tamarind tree. It was unusual because its tamarinds were golden and produced a sweet scent when they were made into chutney. One day my grandfather made a disastrous error. It suddenly occurred to him that if the tamarinds are golden it means there must be a gold mine under the tree. So he and his relatives grabbed their shovels, axes, and pick axes and dug for a hundred years, a hundred months, a hundred hours, a hundred minutes and a hundred seconds. They dug such a huge hole that the tree was uprooted in one piece.
“The tragedy of this story is that they didn’t find the gold mine. All they found was salty water, gallons of it, which gushed out in an endless torrent. The hole filled up the entire garden – it was small, remember – leaving little space for movement. The hole is still there, and these days is called the Bay of Bengal. If you don’t believe me, I suggest you go and taste the water. You’ll find it very salty.”
The Lahore and Peshawar thieves thought this story was hilarious. They declined the offer, of course. They had no intention of losing 2,000 rupees, and didn’t like the taste of salt water anyway. But the Calcutta thief said, “I’m flabbergasted. How astonishing that the grandchildren of such unique grandfathers – a grandfather whose buffaloes produced five great rivers, a grandfather whose duck eggs made the Himalayas and a grandfather who dug the Bay of Bengal in his garden – how astonishing that these grandchildren have dropped to the lowest rung of the social ladder as street thieves. Oh! the irony of fate. Oh! the cruelty of nature. Oh! the curse of aristocracy.” And he beat himself on the head.
The other thieves concluded that the Calcutta thief was about as intelligent as a donkey. They wondered how such an idiot could be so successful in a city as large as Calcutta. “Hey Calcutta thief,” they said, “It’s your turn to tell a story.”
The Calcutta thief began his story as the night was coming to an end. “When my grandfather was born cotton hadn’t been discovered. Clothes were made with teak leaves joined together with small twigs. The tailors were very talented in those days – they even made suits and shirts for men and mini skirts and maxi skirts for women out of those leaves. My grandfather was the head clerk of a governor general of a province in the then India. Unfortunately I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth like you. My grandfather’s family was not at all wealthy. We didn’t have buffaloes, ducks or a golden tamarind tree.
“One day the governor general went hunting in the forest. My grandfather followed him, flattering him as he went. They didn’t have guns in those days, but used catapults and bows and arrows instead. Suddenly, the governor general spotted a deer. He quickly loaded a small stone in his catapult and fired. But he was too late, the deer had already fled. Then he spotted an antelope. Unfortunately he didn’t have any stones left and looked around him for alternative ammunition. He picked a black seed from a nearby tree and shot it at the antelope. He missed his target but hit my grandfather who was standing nearby. The seed, which happened to be a black cotton seed, pierced his skull and embedded itself in his brain.
“Everyone knows that Calcuttans have extremely fertile brains. My grandfather’s brain was no exception. The cotton seed thrived in that fertile environment and quickly grew into a huge cotton tree that produced thousands of kilos of cotton.
“`Banerjee, old chap,’ said the governor general one day, “there really is no sense in your working for me any more. Go and get rich by selling all that cotton of yours.’ My grandfather left his job and returned home.
“My grandfather sent his seven sons, including my father of course, to the seven corners of the globe and started an international cotton trading company. They had a complete monopoly as the only productive cotton tree in the world was growing in my grandfather’s head. Demand was so high that the cotton was sold immediately after it was harvested. What happened next reminds me of the Lahore thief’s story of the watery milk. The business was left in the hands of the servants, who were totally incompetent. They sold the cotton on credit and made no attempt to collect payments. Recently, my father and my uncles called their sons to a meeting and said, `We’re sending each of you to a different part of the world to recover the money owed.’I was given the responsibility of Kashii and the surrounding area. It’s fortunate I met you three here as I’ve just noticed the names of your fathers in my notebook. Look, here they are, written in Bengali. Oh, sorry, you can’t read Bengali, can you? Well, it says that the Lahore, Peshawar and Tutikorin thieves are liable to pay 2,000 rupees each against debts incurred by their fathers. Now the question is, are you prepared to clear these debts?”
The three thieves thought, “If we say the story is false – and that will be difficult to prove – we’ll have to pay 2,000 rupees each as a fine, and if we admit that the story is true, we’ll have to pay off the debts.” They decided it was better to clear the debts.
The fourth thief took the money, counted it, had a holy bath in the Ganges, placed a few wood apple flowers on the head of an effigy of Shiva and returned to Calcutta by the first available down train. The remaining three thieves continued their meeting for a while and came to a unanimous decision that the Calcutta thief should be invited to chair the All Indian Thief and Dacoit Conference due to be held the following year.
Shrii P.R.Sarkar’s Short Stories Part 1