“If I give you broken rice, would you tend my goats?”
“If a tiger were to come wouldn’t you remain un-scared?”
After that, it was my intention to blow air through rounded lips “vuff” and then seeing the kid close his eyes in a scare, make fun of him that he has not remained un-scared. Our childhood story went thus. As in that I blew air into his eyes. But Kunnu didn’t close his eyes in a scare, and what’s more, didn’t so much as move the lids. If he were even to betray a little scare, it would be taken that he was scared. Then he could be laughed at no end. Since he didn’t close his eyes, and what was more, didn’t even bat his eyelids, I didn’t have the right to ridicule him.
“You can’t,” said the parrot.
“That means you have been seeing all that has been going on,” I said.
“Are you feeling hurt that you couldn’t scare Kunnu? Had you thought a little deeper, it would surely have struck you that gone are the days for that story long, long ago. The times that gave birth to the story are different. That kind of situation - for centuries was there without a whit of change till very recently. But today such things wouldn’t go. Your efforts to make them go now would be totally useless!” said the parrot.
“But … several people have been telling this story just like this for so long…” I said hesitantly.
-This time, the parrot produced a thin smile.
“The good or the bad of a thing does not depend on the length of time it has been in currency. Since it has been coming for a long time or even centuries it does not make the mistake good. There must be other things too to make it good. Why are you tending the goats? It’s just for your living. Why did one come forward to tend the goats? Surely for his living. Why does a tiger come there? It’s for its own living. Isn’t it so? If the tiger comes for the goats, to protect the goats courageously, all that you offer is only a measure of broken rice. The one who is to stand watch knows the danger involved in it. For some reason, if he had forgotten it, you reminded him of the danger with your question. He replied in habitual agreement. For the hungry tiger, to satisfy its hunger a man or a goat is just the same. It would just cleave, carve and eat. This, the man knows. Even knowing this, if he is prepared to risk his life, doesn’t it mean that the value of man’s life isn’t so much as that of a handful of broken rice?” said the parrot.
“Even if the tiger doesn’t come that way, I’d give the goatherd the promised broken rice: I wouldn’t break my promise,” said I.
“You said you’d give broken rice for promising and for tending the goats. Even if one goat were lost, you’d take him to task. If he were to be killed by the tiger you wouldn’t mind. What you want is the safety of your goats, not his. You would have understood by now what I wanted to say emphatically,” said the parrot raising the voice a little.
“Yes I understood that what you meant was that in this society man doesn’t have the value of a goat kid. “
“It’s precisely what I meant,” said the parrot.
For a moment I couldn’t find my voice.
“Why did your attention swerve to goats of late?” I asked the parrot to find out what the matter was.
“Oh, that!” the parrot laughed gaily, with ease.
“I don’t know whether you know this or not. For three months I roamed about in the world of freedom,” began the parrot.
“I heard so. I have been meaning to ask you to narrate some of the experiences but for some reason or the other kept postponing it. Sometimes, you are not to be found and sometimes I don’t have free time. Are there many goats there? Perhaps for that reason you go on thinking of those…? I asked.
The parrot shook her head once and with its beak played with the empty metal bowl before it. It sighed feebly.
“Those three months felt like an aeon each. Imagining rosy things, I entered the world of freedom. Only till then I never knew it was a vicious circle. Several countries got entangled and are wriggling in it. The name of that vicious circle is “Free world”. In those countries, which blow their trumpets saying that they alone have freedom, there is not a whit of freedom,” said the parrot.
“Do you mean to say there are rigorous restrictions there? Is it your opinion that there is little freedom for anyone there?” I asked.
“It’s not that. The freedom there is not the one I imagined. There, people have freedom to live in huts, under the trees, by the roadside, or wherever, to take shelter. They have freedom to quiver in hunger. Children under five, have freedom to die of hunger or of disease for lack of medicine. The unemployed, those who are habitual idlers, those who are rowdies, goondas and the like have freedom to live the way they like. There for the youth there is freedom to go about in gangs of dacoits even robbing banks. They have freedom to commit heinous murders and gang-rapes. Those in that circle smuggle arms and traffic in drugs, hasish, heroin, opium and the like freely. They have freedom to indulge in these things without a scruple. There, women have a right to go into flesh trade for want of a better employment. For young girls around the age of puberty, there is freedom to go round committing petty offences to satisfy their hunger. When nothing is there to eat they can do anything. For freedom like this there is no scarcity. The governments, the political parties and the money-bags that run them take enough care to protect their freedom,” said the parrot.
“I asked you about goats and you reeled of something about freedom,” I said pointing out the mistake to the parrot.
“All the time I’ve been talking of goats alone! It is the ‘goats’ that enjoy that freedom. All those countries have been doing their best to keep those goats in that very free world. Even among these the black goats are different from the white. Though all are goats, though their problems are just the same, the white ones believe they are superior to the black ones. Very often there is bloodshed in the scuffles between the two. Then tigers leap into the arena and control the goats. The tigers there know how to get whatever mean and ugly things they want done by those goats. The tigers too have their freedom there. Goats too have it. But the limitations of their freedom are different. Isn’t that too a kind of freedom?”said the parrot, in derision.
“While listening to you I could understand the subject in its outline. Having been there for three whole months, you will have known things at greater detail. I agree. But how come the goats don’t know this even now?” I said.
“I wouldn’t have been surprised if the goats had not known anything. Now they are coming to know. Having come to know they are getting united. United they are getting strengthened. They are seeing that the tigers are roaring. They are attacking goats without any restraint. They are dumping them in pools of blood. I could not tolerate the freedom of the few to kill and the freedom of the many to be killed. Just a few people control the entire economy. Goats have the freedom only to do what they are asked to do. There being nothing else in that world surprised me. I have seen practically that when there is no economic independence, freedom doesn’t mean anything. Seeing that, I had to return.” said the parrot emphasizing the word freedom.
“When you said that the times when it was enough to give broken rice to tend goats had gone forever, I didn’t understand that. Now that you have explained it in detail, I understand. It is no longer possible to keep the goats just as goats only. Since it so, this story has to be rewritten. Even goats are uniting as flocks and showing the strength of flocks. Is it not just to write about them! Someone within me is saying this strongly. I’d start doing that good deed right away,” said I.
“I have faith that you keep your word… Shall I tell you one thing? In my view taking the side of god and the side of the falling one is just the same,” said the parrot.
-Till it told me so I never realized that.
Original story in Telugu by Ravuri Bharadwaja. Bharadwaja, who could not go beyond the seventh grade in school, was honoured with the celebrated Jnan Peeth Award just a few days before his demise. The octogenarian poet, writer, and an employee as program assistant by All India Radio wrote this story among the myriad he did.