Tota Kahini or The Bird’s Tale
1. Once there was a bird. It was uneducated. It used to sing, but it had never read the scriptures. It hopped about and it flew but it did not know what good manners were. The king said, ‘This kind of bird is of no use, for it eats the fruits of the forest and this is leading to losses in the markets.’ He ordered the minister, ‘Teach the bird a lesson.’
2. The duty of training the bird fell upon the shoulders of the king’s nephews. The learned men sat and discussed at length why the accused creature was versed in the wrong kind of knowledge. They concluded that the nest the bird built out of ordinary straw was not enough to hold a great deal of knowledge. Thus the first thing needed was the construction of a good cage. The pundits went home happily with their grants from the king.
3. The goldsmith set about making a golden cage. This was so amazing that people from near and far came to look at it. Some said, ‘This is the ultimate in education!’ Others said, ‘Even if it is not educated, it got a cage out of all this! What luck!’ The fellow got a sack filled with money as payment. He set off for home in high spirits immediately. The wise man sat down with the bird to teach it. He took a pinch of snuff and said, ‘This will never do with a few books.’ The nephew then sent for the writers. They made copies of books and then copies of the copies till there was a mountain of paper. Whoever saw this said, ‘Bravo! This is education if nothing else.’ The scribes had to carry their rewards home by bullock cart. They went back quickly too. From that day onwards there was no more need in their homes. There was no end to the attention the nephews gave the costly golden cage. There were ongoing maintenance costs. It also needed regular dusting and polishing which made everyone agree, ‘This is improvement.’ Many people had to be employed and many other people were engaged to keep an eye on the first lot of employees. This army filled their coffers with fistfuls of cash each month. They and all the cousins they had of every hue were now able to behave like men of means and leisure.
4. There is need of every kind in life, but never a shortage of critics. They now said, ‘The cage is an improvement, but what news of the bird?’ This remark made its way to the king’s ears. He called for his nephews and said, ‘Royal nephew, what is this I hear?’ The nephew said, ‘Oh Great King, if you wish to hear the truth, send for the goldsmith, the learned men and the scribes, call those who repair the cage and summon those who keep an eye on those that repair the cage. The naysayers are the ones who have not made any profit out of this.’ The king understood exactly what was going on and gifted a golden chain to his nephew immediately.
5. The king expressed a wish to see for himself how the great education of the bird was going. One day he arrived at the classroom with all his courtiers. At that very moment the gates rang out with conch shells, bells, drums of every kind, cymbals, flutes and gongs, The learned men were loudly reciting the lessons , their sacred tufts of hair shaking with the effort. There was a welcoming roar from the masons, the goldsmith, the scribes, the overseers and their supervisors as well the various cousins. The nephew said, ‘King, you see what a great affair this is!’ The king said, ‘Astounding! And so noisy too!’ The nephew answered, ‘Not just noise, there is much meaning to all of this.’ The king happily crossed the gate and was just about to mount his elephant when a critic hiding in the bushes said to him, ‘Great king, but did you see the bird?’ The king, startled though he was, had to admit, ‘Alas! That completely slipped my mind. I did not get to see the bird.’ He came back and said to the pundit, ‘I should like to see how you teach the bird.’ He went and saw. It pleased him greatly. The pomp surrounding the bird was so great that it was hardly to be seen. And to tell the truth, it did not seem that important that one saw the creature. The king understood that there was no lapse in the arrangements. There was no food in the cage, nor any water; but the pages of a hundred wise tomes were being stuffed into the bird’s mouth. It was unable to open its beak even to shriek, let along sing. It was truly thrilling. This time while mounting the elephant, the king told his principal ear-boxer to box the ears of the critic very soundly indeed.
6. The bird grew more and more civilized each day as its life drained away. Its guardians understood that the situation was very encouraging. And yet the bird still fluttered its wings most annoyingly each morning as it gazed upon the morning light, thanks to its intemperate nature. It was even observed that on some days it tried to gnaw through the bars of its cage with its puny beak. The jailer said, ‘What insolence!’ The blacksmith was brought to the schoolhouse, complete with his bellows, hammers and furnace. With a tremendous clanging an iron chain was fashioned and the bird’s wings were also clipped. The king’s sycophants made glum faces and shook their heads saying, ‘In this kingdom the birds are not just ignorant, they have no sense of gratitude either.’ Then the wise men picked up pens in one hand and spears in another and gave a demonstration of real teaching. The blacksmith made so much money that his wife was able to buy herself gold jewellery and the king rewarded the jailer’s vigilance with a title.
7. The bird died. No one had even noticed when this had happened. The good for nothing critic went about saying, ‘The bird is dead.’ The king called for his nephew and asked, ‘Royal nephew, what is this I hear?’ The nephew said, ‘Great king, it has been educated.’ The king asked, ‘Does it flap around anymore?’ The nephew answered, ‘Dear God, No!’ ‘Does it fly anymore?’ ‘No.’ ‘Does it burst into song anymore?’ ‘No.’ ‘Does it shriek when not fed?’ ‘No.’ The king commanded, ‘Bring the bird to me once, I so wish to see it.’ The bird came. The jailer came with it, as did the guards and the mounted policemen. The king poked the bird; it did not utter a single sound in agreement or in protest. There was just a rustling from the dry paper that filled its body.
Outside the palace, the southerly winds of spring sighed among the new buds and drove the skies above the flowering forests quite mad.