In a certain town lived a fool and his wife who was also a fool. They had grown worse in their folly by fighting daily about the question of who was the better fool. Their neighbors were quite tired of their noisy fights. One day, when their fight was at its noisiest, a clever man arrived in town, and it didn't take him long to discover the cause of their fights. He knew right away that advice would not be of any use. So he cornered the fool and told him, “Go and see the world. See how many kinds of fools there are in the world. What's the point of fighting like this?” And he sent him out to see the variety of folly in the world.
So the fool wandered long and far till he came to a town where everyone was an idiot. The houses were filled with darkness even at midday. So they were trying to gather sunlight in baskets and carry it into the houses. The fool watched them and laughingly asked them, “What are you doing?”
They said, “Don't you see? We're trying to bring light into our houses. So we're filling up these baskets with sunlight. But our houses are still dark.”
“O, that's easy. If you pay me a fee, I'll fill your houses with light.”
They were delighted and gave him a hefty fee. He went into each house and opened all the windows and skylights. Where they didn't have any, he axed the walls and made big holes. Light poured into the rooms. The people of the town were amazed.
Then he wandered on till he saw a house where grass grew on the terraced roof where a little sand had collected. The woman of the house wanted her buffalo to eat the grass. So she was trying to get the buffalo to climb to the top of the house. The fool asked her, “What are you trying to do?”
“O, my son's buffalo is hungry. I want to let it graze on the terrace. But the buffalo is stupid. Even though I beat him, he won't climb onto the roof. What shall I do?”
“For a fee, I'd be happy to graze him,” he offered.
“Take it, here,” said the woman, giving him some money.
He at once asked for a ladder, climbed onto the terrace, cut some of the grass, and threw it in front of the buffalo, who happily began to chew on it.
Right then, he heard people making a rumpus in another lane. The fool went there to see what was happening. Several wrestlers and weight lifters were engaged in the task of taking a huge piece of timber into a house. The door was too narrow for it and they couldn't get the piece past it. When the fool arrived there, the big fellows were getting ready to break down the door and the surrounding wall. He offered to help, for a decent fee, of course. They were happy to get any help. He made them cut the piece of timber in quarters and carry it in.
When he looked at all these fools who were much worse than he, good sense dawned on him.
“My wife and I are such smart people—not like these dolts!” he thought.
So he returned home and began to live like other people.
Types and Motifs
Type AT 1210, The Cow Is Taken to the Roof to Graze. Type AT 1245, Sunlight Carried in a Bag into a Windowless House.
Hundreds of numskull stories (Types AT 1200–1349) are told all over India, as elsewhere. Sometimes they are organized into a series, as in the present tale or as in AT 1332, Which Is the Greatest Fool, or they are strung elaborately into whole fooltowns, as in the British tales of the men of Gotham or the Danish tales of the fools of Molbo. The best-known of these in southern India are the adventures of Paramartha Guru and His Disciples, first told in written form by Father Beschi, an Italian Jesuit who lived in Tamilnadu and wrote in Tamil in the eighteenth century. One is not sure whether he reported these from Europe or heard them locally. Yet they have certainly become part of the Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada oral traditions. [For a translation of Costantino G. Beschi's collection, see Benjamin Babington, The Adventures of the Gooroo Paramartan (London: J. M. Richardson, 1822).]
Numskull tales, as in Europe, are very old, told and retold in the earliest collections like the Jātakas and the Pañcatantra. Large numbers of them punctuate the longer romances in the Ocean of Story.
Numskull tales are often the opposite of riddles, with which they share a preoccupation with the play of logical operations and the defiance of what one would call common sense. A riddle begins with a question that seems illogical and sorts out the logic in the answer: e.g., Question: A white house without a window or a door. What is it? Answer: An egg. Numskulls begin with a logical practical question and end with a foolish illogical answer: e.g., Q: How shall we bring light into a dark house? A: In baskets. As we can see in the above example, the numskull takes a phrase like “bring light” literally.
Both riddles and numskull tales play at crossing a culture's categories (that seem logical and self-evident within a specific culture): e.g., animate/inanimate, natural/man-made (as in the above riddle about the egg being likened to a house), literal/metaphoric, material/immaterial, etc. For instance, in the present tale, sunlight is treated as a material object that can be carried from one place to another.
Riddles frequently depend on metaphors; numskull tales, on undoing the metaphors. The latter literalize metaphors. “Guard the door,” says a man to the fool. The fool pulls out the door and guards it [AT 1009, Guarding the Store-room Door]. They undo the ambiguity of idioms in a language. “This rice is for the road,” says the woman to the fool, who casts the rice along the way on the road. The shock, the surprises, and the fun of these tales are in the lively play across these categories.
For other uses of literalization, see No. 43, “A Ne'er-do-well,” in which a con man plays the literal fool. Literalization is a much wider device: it can be used by canny jesters to make a point. Tenali Rama once offends his royal master, and the king angrily asks the jester never to show his face, so the jester walks about with a pot over his head. (For an insightful discussion of this theme, see David Shulman 1985). It can be a creative device in myth, magic, ritual, and folk medicine: to soften a lover's heart, a woman might chew a hard nut; love is supposed to be blind, so the love god is pictured as blind. In all these cases, language is primary and other forms are modeled on it. [The frame story might be related to AT 1384, The Husband Hunts Three Persons as Stupid as his Wife.]