32. In the Kingdom of Foolishness
In the kingdom of foolishness, both the king and the minister were idiots. They didn't want to run things like other kings. So they decided to change night into day and day into night. They ordered that everyone should be awake at night, till their fields and run their businesses only after dark; and they should all go to bed as soon as the sun came up. If anyone disobeyed, they would be punished with death. The people did as they were told for fear of death. The king and the minister were delighted at the success of their project.
Once a guru and a disciple arrived in the city. It was a beautiful city, it was broad daylight, but there was no one about. Everyone was asleep, not a mouse stirring. Even the cattle had been taught to sleep. The two strangers were amazed by what they saw around them, wandered about town till evening, when suddenly the whole town woke up and went about its daily business.
The two men were hungry. Now the shops were open, they went to buy some groceries. To their astonishment, they found that everything cost the same, a single duddu—whether they bought a measure of rice or a bunch of bananas, it cost a duddu. The guru and his disciple were delighted. They had never heard of anything like this. They could buy all the food they wanted for a rupee.
When they had cooked and eaten, the guru realized that this was a kingdom of fools and it wouldn't be a good idea for them to stay there. “This is no place for us. Let's go,” he said to his disciple. But the disciple didn't want to leave the place. Everything was cheap here. All he wanted was good cheap food. The guru said, “They are all fools. This won't last very long and one can't tell what they'll do to you next.”
But the disciple wouldn't listen to the guru's wisdom. He wanted to stay. The guru finally gave up and said, “Do what you want. I'm going,” and left. The disciple stayed on, ate his fill every day, bananas and ghee and rice and wheat, and grew fat as a streetside sacred bull.
One bright day, a thief broke into a rich merchant's house. He had made a hole in the wall, sneaked in, and as he was carrying out his loot, the wall of the old house collapsed on his head and killed him on the spot. His brother ran to the king and complained: “Your Highness, when my brother was pursuing his ancient trade, a wall fell on him and killed him. This merchant is to blame. He should have built a good strong wall. You must punish the wrongdoer and compensate the family for this injustice.”
The king said, “Justice will be done. Don't worry,” and at once summoned the owner of the house.
When the merchant arrived, the king asked him questions. “What's your name?”
“Such and such, Your Highness.”
“Were you at home when the dead man burgled your house?”
“Yes, my lord. He broke in and the wall was weak. It fell on him.”
“The accused pleads guilty. Your wall killed this man's brother. You have murdered a man. We have to punish you.”
“Lord,” said the helpless merchant. “I didn't put up the wall. It's really the fault of the man who built the wall. He didn't build it right. You should punish him.”
“Who is that?”
“My lord, this wall was built in my father's time. I know the man. He's an old man now. He lives nearby.”
The king sent out messengers to bring in the bricklayer who had built the wall. They brought him tied hand and foot.
“You there, did you build this man's wall in his father's time?”
“Yes, my lord, I did.”
“What kind of a wall is this that you built? It has fallen on a poor man and killed him. You've murdered him. We have to punish you by death.”
Before the king could order the execution, the poor bricklayer pleaded, “Please listen to me before you give your orders. It's true I built this wall and it was no good. But that was because my mind was not on it. I remember very well a harlot who was going up and down that street all day with her anklets jingling and I couldn't keep my eyes or my mind on the wall I was building. You must get that harlot. I know where she lives.”
“You're right. The case deepens. We must look into it. It is not easy to judge such complicated cases. Let's get that harlot wherever she is.”
The harlot, now an old woman, came trembling to the court.
“Did you walk up and down that street many years ago while this poor man was building a wall? Did you see them?”
“Yes, my lord. I remember it very well.”
“So you did walk up and down, with your anklets jingling. You were young and you tempted him. So he built a bad wall. It has fallen on a poor burglar and killed him. You've killed an innocent man. You'll have to be punished.”
She thought for a minute and said, “My lord, wait. I know now why I was walking up and down that street. I had given some gold to the goldsmith to make some jewelry for me. He was a lazy scoundrel. He made so many excuses, said he would give it now and he would give it then and so on all day. He made me walk up and down to his house a dozen times. That was when this bricklayer fellow saw me. It's not my fault, my lord, it's that damned goldsmith's.”
“Poor thing, she's absolutely right,” thought the king, weighing the evidence. “We've got the real culprit at last. Get the goldsmith wherever he is hiding. At once!”
The king's bailiffs searched for the goldsmith, who was hiding in a corner of his shop. When he heard the accusation against him, he had his own story to tell.
“My lord,” he said, “I'm a poor goldsmith. It's true I made this harlot woman come many times to my door. I gave her excuses because I couldn't finish making her jewelry before I finished the rich merchant's orders. They had a wedding coming, and they wouldn't wait. You know how impatient rich men are!”
“Who is this rich merchant who kept you from finishing this poor woman's jewelry, made her walk up and down, which distracted this bricklayer, which made a mess of his wall, which has now fallen on an innocent man and killed him? Can you name him?”
The goldsmith named the merchant and he was none other than the original owner of the house where the wall had fallen. Now justice had come full circle, thought the king, back to the merchant. When he was rudely summoned back to the court, he arrived crying, “It's not me but my father who ordered the jewelry! He's dead! I'm innocent!”
But the king consulted his minister and ruled decisively: “It's true your father is the true murderer. He's dead, but somebody must be punished in his place. You've inherited everything from that criminal father of yours, his riches as well as his sins. I knew at once, even when I first set eyes on you, that you were at the root of this horrible crime. You must die.”
And he ordered a new stake to be made ready for the execution. As the servants sharpened the stake and got it ready for the final impaling of the criminal, it occurred to the minister that the rich merchant was somehow too thin to be properly executed by the stake. He appealed to the king's common sense. The king too worried about it.
“What shall we do?” he said, when suddenly it struck him that all they needed to do was to get a man fat enough to fit the stake. The servants were immediately all over town looking for a man who would fit the stake, and their eyes fell on the disciple who had fattened himself for months on bananas and rice and wheat and ghee.
“What have I done wrong? I'm innocent. I'm a sanyasi! ” he cried.
“That may be true. But it's the royal decree that we should find a man fat enough to fit the stake,” they said, and carried him to the place of execution.
The disciple remembered his wise guru's words: “This is a city of fools. You don't know what they will do next.” While he was waiting for death, he prayed to his guru in his heart, asking him to hear his cry wherever he was. The guru saw everything in a vision; he had magic powers, he could see far, and he could see the future as he could see the present and the past. He arrived at once to save his disciple, who had got himself into a scrape again through love of food.
As soon as he arrived, he scolded the disciple, told him something in a whisper, then went to the king and addressed him: “O wisest of kings, who is greater? The guru or the disciple?”
“Of course the guru. No doubt about it. Why do you ask?”
“Then put me to the stake first. Put my disciple to death after me.”
When the disciple heard this, he caught on and began to clamor: “Me first! You brought me here first! Put me to death first, not him!”
The guru and the disciple now got into a fight about who should go first. The king was puzzled by this behavior. He asked the guru, “Why do you want to die? We chose him because we needed a fat man for the stake.”
“You shouldn't ask me such questions. Put me to death first.”
“Why? There's some mystery here. As a wise man you must make me understand.”
“Will you promise to put me to death if I tell you?” asked the guru. The king gave him his solemn word. The guru took him aside, out of the servants' earshot, and whispered to him, “Do you know why we want to die right now, the two of us? We've been all over the world, but we've never found a city like this or a king like you. That stake is the stake of the god of justice. It's new, it has never had a criminal on it. Whoever dies on it first will be reborn as the king of this country. And whoever goes next will be the future minister of this country. We're sick of living the ascetic life. It would be nice to enjoy ourselves as king and minister for a while. Now keep your word, my lord, and put us to death. Me first, remember.”
The king was now thrown into deep thought. He didn't want to lose the kingdom to someone else in the next round of life. He needed time. So he ordered the execution postponed to the next day and talked in secret with his minister. “It's not right for us to give over the kingdom to others in the next life. Let's go up the stake ourselves and we'll be reborn as king and minister again. Holy men do not tell lies,” he said, and the minister agreed.
So he told the executioners, “We'll send the criminals tonight. When the first man comes to you, put him to death first. Then do the same to the second man. Those are orders. Don't make any mistakes.”
That night, they went secretly to the prison, released the guru and disciple, disguised themselves as the two, and, as arranged beforehand with their loyal servants, were taken to the stake and promptly executed.
When the bodies were taken down to be thrown to crows and vultures, the people panicked. They saw before them the dead bodies of the king and the minister. The city was in confusion.
All night they mourned and discussed the future of the kingdom. Some people suddenly thought of the guru and the disciple and caught up with them as they were preparing to leave town unnoticed. “We people need a king and a minister,” said someone. Others agreed. They begged of the guru and the disciple to be their king and their minister. It didn't take many arguments to persuade the disciple, but it took long to persuade the guru. They finally agreed to rule the kingdom of the foolish king and the silly minister on the condition that they would change all the old laws. From then on, night would again be night and day would again be day, and you could get nothing for a duddu. It became like any other place.
Types and Motifs
Type AT 1534A, The Innocent Man Chosen to Fit the Stake (Noose). Reported twenty-one times so far only from India, this tale usually has three parts: 1) the holy man and his disciple; 2) the collapsed wall; 3) the man chosen to fit the stake. The second section is often told as a separate tale (AT 2031A). This popular tale, describing a topsy-turvy land, with its biting political satire and lethal ironies, has inspired plays in many Indian languages and given rise to proverbs like the following Urdu-Hindi one:
andher nagarī caupaṭ rājā
ṭake ser bhājī ṭake ser khājā
A city of misrule, a ruinous king:
a penny (for) a ser of vegetables,
a penny (for) a ser of sweets.
(A ser is a measure.) In Kannada, the proverbial phrase duddige panceru, “five measures (of anything) for a penny,” derives from this story.
The logic of this story, like the logic of many other numskull tales and fooltowns, comments on values revered in the culture. Here the folktale takes on the well-known Hindu logic of ethical responsibility in theories of karma (action and consequence). One is reminded of stories like the one in the Mahābhārata (“Anusasana Parva”) in which a snake bites an old woman's son to death. A hunter catches the serpent and wants to punish it, but the wise mother asks him not to put it to death, as that would not bring her son back to life. An argument ensues, at the end of which the snake speaks up: “O foolish hunter, I didn't bite this child out of anger or choice. I was sent by Death on this errand. If there is any sin in this, it is his.” The hunter is not convinced. The serpent philosophizes: “The potter's wheel, rod, and other things are not independent causes for the pot. They are causes working in union. So one must doubt any simple relationship of cause and effect.” And so on. Death then appears and argues, “O serpent, I was guided by Time to send you on this errand. I'm like a cloud tossed by the wind. All creatures in heaven and earth are influenced by time. Why do you blame me?” The hunter, still angry, shouts, “Then both you and the serpent are to blame. I shall kill you both.” Then Time (kāla) arrives and says, “Neither the serpent nor Death is guilty, nor am I. We are only the immediate exciting causes of this death. O hunter, the past karma of this child is the true cause of this death. Neither the snake nor Death, neither you nor the mother, is the cause. The child's death is the result of its own karma.” Bhishma, lying on his deathbed of arrows on the battlefield, tells this story to Yudhishtira, who is grief-stricken and guilt-ridden over his part in the deadly war. The present folktale uses the same logic (of passing the buck) and reduces it to absurdity—one more commentary on a classical position.