43. A Ne'er-do-well
A merchant and a ne'er-do-well (let's call him Bekabitti) lived in the same town. The merchant won his customers with slippery words and cheated them out of house and home. A miser, he never gave a penny to anyone. When people went to him for charity and contributions to renovate the temple, he would pretend he didn't understand what “contributions” meant. He would ask them for endless explanations of what and how and why, which tired out the visitors and drove them away. The ne'er-do-well, who was watching all this from the sidelines, wanted to teach the merchant a lesson.
He went to the merchant one day and said, “Sir, you know I'm Bekabitti, the ne'er-do-well. I don't have anything to eat. I'd like to work for you.”
The merchant thought he was getting him for free. So he said to Bekabitti, “If you're here today and gone tomorrow, it won't do for me. If you promise to work for me permanently, till I ask you to go, I'll give you a job. Otherwise, I'll give you nothing.”
“That suits me very well. I'll work for you permanently. But if you throw me out, will you pay me a thousand rupees?”
“I throw you out? Never!” said the merchant, quite pleased. So they signed a contract accordingly.
Bekabitti moved in the next day and stayed with the merchant, according to the contract. In the morning, he asked the master, “What are my tasks? Tell me what to do.”
The master said, “Look at this horse. Every morning, wet some horse gram and put it before him. Then take him to the tank for a wash. Bring him some grass. Then tie him up. That's about all for now.”
“Is that all? That's easy,” said Bekabitti.
He woke up next morning, wet some horse gram and put it in front of the horse, but at an arm's length. He waited a while and threw away the horse gram. Then he took the animal to the tank but never into the water. “Come, have a wash,” he said to it, and waited. Then he cut a handful of grass and brought it to the horse, but never close enough for him to eat it. Then he threw it away.
After a few days of this treatment, the horse was famished and feeble. The poor beast could hardly walk. When the merchant came to the stable, the horse looked hardly alive, his eyes were half-dead. The merchant was furious.
“What's this, Bekabitti? Do you bring him any horse gram, or not?”
“Yes, master. I do. Twice a day.”
“Do you wet the grain?”
“Yes, master. You can see for yourself.”
Then he showed his master the heap of grain he had thrown together, after bringing it to the house every day. The master couldn't understand what the matter was.
“Why do you keep it here? Don't you make him eat?”
“No, master. I do only what you tell me. You asked me to wet the horse gram and place it before him. That's what I do. You never told me I should make him eat it.”
The merchant struck his forehead several times in dismay.
“What about water for the horse?”
“I take him to the tank and bring him back.”
“You don't make him drink?”
“No. Did you tell me to?”
“Now, do you bring him grass?”
“Surely, there is the grass, as much as a haystack.”
The merchant was quite upset. Why did I ever get such a man for a servant? he thought. But if he sent him away, he'd have to pay him a penalty of a thousand rupees.
“Look here, Bekabitti,” he said, after some thought. “From today on, make the horse eat the wetted grain. Make him drink the water. Make him eat the grass. Understand?”
Bekabitti did what he was told. The horse began to revive.
A few days later, the merchant had to visit his mother-in-law. He told Bekabitti to be ready for the journey in the morning. His wife was delighted that her husband was visiting her family. She made packets of curried rice and yogurt rice and snacks like holigi and cakkali. She packed them in a box and locked it. She gave Bekabitti a separate packet of rice and dish of roasted flour (hurihittu) and said, “Take these. These are for the road. Don't open that box. If you open it, scorpions will sting you, beware. If my mother gives anything for me, bring it back carefully.”
The master and his servant left town at an auspicious moment. Bekabitti spilled his rice and the roasted flour all along the road while the merchant rode on in front of him. When they were halfway in their journey, they found a stream and a mango grove, where the merchant tied up the horse. He said to his servant, “Bekabitti, keep a couple of spoons of rice for me and you go ahead and eat. It will take me a while to bathe and say my prayers. Meanwhile, wash my dhoti and spread it on the bushes to dry.”
When he went for his bathe in the stream, Bekabitti washed his master's dhoti, tore it into strips, and hung them all over the bushes. He ate all the rice, saving exactly two spoons of it for his master. He opened the box, ate all the cakkali and holige he could, threw away the rest, and put a couple of scorpions in the box. The merchant came back after his bath and prayers and asked Bekabitti to bring him a freshly washed dhoti to wear.
Bekabitti said, “Master, according to your orders I've spread your dhoti on the bushes. The pieces were not enough for all of the bushes, what I shall I do?”
The master looked at the fate of his dhoti and said, “ Ayyo! Why did you do this? What shall I wear to my mother-in-law's house? Get me at least one of your own dhotis.”
Bekabitti had deliberately brought a dirty dhoti, colored and streaked by Holi festivities. When the merchant found he had nothing else to wear, he wrapped it around his waist and looked like a striped tiger.
“All right, serve me some food.”
“Master, I've saved two spoons of rice for you, just as you ordered. I ate the rest.”
The merchant felt miserable. He scolded Bekabitti, using every bad word he knew. Then he said, “At least, get me the box!”
Bekabitti brought the box and put it before his master, who opened it and put his hand in it only to be stung by scorpions. Wild with pain, he cried, “Why the hell did you do this?”
“Sir, the mistress had said there were scorpions in the box. When I opened it, they weren't there. I thought she must have forgotten to put them in, so I put a couple of them in it. I didn't want my mistress's words to be false.”
The merchant called him a bastard and other such names, and asked him to bring at least the hurihittu. Where was that to be found? Bekabitti told him, “The mistress had said, ‘The rice and hurihittu are for the road.’ So I scattered them carefully on the road as we came. It didn't last all the way. If you don't believe me, you can go back and see for yourself.”
The merchant kicked his heels like a madman and cried in hunger and dismay. Then he pulled himself together and said, “Well, what's done is done. My mother-in-law lives in the next town. Go and tell her that I'm on my way. Then she will have cooked a dinner for me by the time I arrive.”
Bekabitti went ahead and looked for her house. He found her sitting on a verandah and told her he was her son-in-law's servant. He had been sent ahead to give them the news of his arrival. The mother-in-law was delighted. She said, “Tell me how our son-in-law is.”
“O, he is on his way. He must be just outside town by now. He's not very well these days and is on a strict diet. He has sent word to say that he'd visit you only if you give him what he wants. Otherwise he'll have to stay somewhere else.”
“ Ayyo, he's our family's only son-in-law. How can he go elsewhere? We'll give him whatever he wants. You'd better tell us everything he needs.”
“Nothing much,” said Bekabitti. “You must serve balls of flour, fry everything in bitter castor oil, and serve it with three hot green peppers. His drinking water must be boiling hot, with a lot of salt. He can sleep only in a small dark room on bare palmyra mats, surrounded by heaps of dry red chilies. All this is part of his regimen. That's what he has asked me to tell you.”
The mother-in-law was alarmed. She wondered what strange and terrible diseases her son-in-law was suffering from. But she went in to make all the required arrangements. She didn't want anything to go wrong.
When the merchant arrived at his mother-in-law's, he was famished. She gave him water to wash his hands and feet with, and invited him to eat. He eagerly went to the kitchen, where he was lovingly served balls of flour, hot green peppers, and a tumbler full of boiling salt water. He could neither eat this nor leave it. What had come over his loving mother-in-law that she should serve him this kind of strange fare? Maybe they'd gone poor and bankrupt, he thought. Courtesy kept him from speaking out. He closed his eyes and swallowed the balls of flour. When he bit into the hot pepper, his mouth burned. So he drank the water that was all salt. His stomach was on fire. For courtesy's sake, he quickly asked his in-laws how they were and then came out of the kitchen. A bed was ready for him in a separate room to which he was led by his mother-in-law. The fire in his stomach and his bewilderment at what was happening was added to the reek of dry red chilies in the sacks all around his thorny palmyra bed. He was wretched and wondered why he had ever come to visit his in-laws.
Bekabitti enjoyed himself. He ate all the special dishes that had been originally made for a son-in-law. Then he latched his master's door from the outside and lay down nearby. In a little while, the merchant's stomach was rumbling in distress—he had diarrhea and had to go out. His need was urgent, but the door was latched. Though he called Bekabitti many times, there was no answer. He didn't want to be thought a nuisance. So, finally, he relieved himself in an empty gourd sitting in a corner and waited for morning. At dawn, Bekabitti unlatched the door. At once, the merchant ran out with the gourd to empty it outside the village before anyone saw him. Bekabitti woke up all the in-laws and said to them, “Your son-in-law is angry. He is leaving the house in a hurry. He asked me to tell you.”
The whole household ran after him, crying, “Son-in-law, don't be made at us. Stop, stop, and talk to us.”
In shame, the merchant ran faster and faster, trying to hide the gourd of shit he was carrying. The hunger of the previous day, loose bowels, a sleepless night with red chili sacks all around him—they all overwhelmed him. He could run no more. He threw the gourd to one side and sank to the ground in a dead faint.
His in-laws carried him home and nursed him. While they were busy, Bekabitti howled and wept in the street, crying, “My poor master! His own father-in-law and mother-in-law are trying to murder him! Help! Help!”
He went crying to the police, who came at once, arrested all of them, and took the merchant who was still in a swoon. There Bekabitti lodged a complaint.
“My master was running from the house with a gourd in his hand. His in-laws ran after him, caught him, and tried to kill him,” he said.
A policeman ran out and brought back the gourd full of shit. By this time, the merchant was coming to. He hardly knew where he was or what had hit him. He stammered and asked what was happening. His mother-in-law told him everything. The police told him what Bekabitti had said to them.
At once, the merchant took out a thousand rupees from his satchel and gave them to Bekabitti, admitting defeat.
“Enough, enough!” he cried. “I've had enough of you. I'm defeated, done for!”
He folded his hands and saluted Bekabitti in a gesture of goodbye.
Bekabitti quit the merchant's service richer by a thousand rupees, and left him alone after that day.
[AT 1000, Bargain Not to Become Angry.]