77. A Story to End All Stories
A certain king was enormously learned. He knew all the arts. Once, on a whim, he sent word through his provinces that he would give a reward of a thousand rupees to anyone who could tire him out with a story; if he ever got bored and stopped saying “Hmm, hmm” to the story, he would admit defeat and pay up.
Learned pundits came to his court from over a hundred places, told him story after story till they got tired and sick. He continued to say “Hmm, hmm” every sentence of their telling. He never tired of it.
Finally a pundit came from the north. He told the clever king many long and involved stories. The king enjoyed them all and never once showed any sign of fatigue. The pundit exhausted himself and felt defeated. His face fell. One day, as he was walking away from the palace, utterly dejected, he met an old friend who asked him, “Why do you look so depressed?”
The pundit was happy to see him and unburdened himself of the whole story. The friend said, “Is that all? Cheer up. Take me with you tomorrow and I'll defeat him.”
In spite of all the pundit's protests, the friend went with him to see the king, who gave him permission to begin a new story, and so he began one.
“Once upon a time, in a certain town, there lived a king. Near the town was a big pond. On its bank was a huge banyan tree. Right under it, a farmer had stored all his ragi grain in several kanajas (grain containers) after harvesting and threshing the ragi. Thousands of sparrows lived in the banyan tree. Every sparrow would eat a grain, take a small drink of water in the pond, and fly back to perch on the tree. There were twenty enormous kanajas filled with grain. Each day, a sparrow would fly down, eat a grain, take a small drink of water, and fly back to the tree. Then the next sparrow would fly down, eat a grain, take a small drink of water, and fly back to the tree,” and so on.
And he went on like this for hours. The king began to get tired of saying “Hmm, hmm, hmm” to every sentence of the story. Every day, after the morning bath and food, they would gather for the story, which never seemed to end.
Again the storyteller resumed: “The grains of ragi were not exhausted. The sparrows continued to eat. One of them would eat a grain, drink the water, and go back to the tree. Then the next one would eat a grain, take a drink …,” and so on.
The king was disgusted. “ Thu, this fellow is repeating himself over and over. How can I keep on saying ‘Hmm, hmm’ to him?” he wondered wearily. Finally he asked the storyteller, “For days you've been telling me the story. Tell me, by now, how many kanajas of grain got empty?”
“ Ayyo, my lord, in all that I've told you these many days, not even one quarter of a kanaja was eaten by the sparrows. There's so much more left for the sparrows to eat and for me to tell. So one of them ate a grain, drank the water, and went back to the tree. And then the next one …,” and so on.
The king's heart sank. For days, he had hardly been able to attend to any of his household or state affairs. “When will all the twenty kanajas get over? Ayyo, ayyo, how many more days will it take? How long, O lord!” he cried within himself. He was afraid he would be stuck with saying “Hmm, hmm” for months. So he said to the storyteller, “You win. You're a great storyteller. With your story, you've brought me the biggest headache of my life. You've achieved something that none of the great pundits could achieve with their beautiful stories. You're greater than all.”
Then he gave the man his reward of a thousand rupees and was happy to see the pair of them go.
As soon as they were outside, the two friends skipped with joy that they had taught a foolish king a lesson. “We've done it,” they said. “Never more will he trouble a learned man or a storyteller.”
[AT 2301A, Making the King Lose Patience.]