Different Strokes|Feb 26, 2004 3:02 PM| by:

Darkness and Light from the Arabian Nights

A story from the Arabian Nights: On his deathbed a wealthy man told his only son, “You are a good boy but, I’m afraid, you are given to flattery a bit too much. Be on your guard; otherwise those so called chums of yours, who are but hungry hyenas, would tear out your entrails once I’m gone – and I’m going.”

“I’ll be careful, Father,” promised the boy.

The dying father smiled. “I’m happy you say so. However, in case you run into the red and reach a stage of utter despair, open that small door at the western nook of this room. Remember, never do so out of curiosity.”

Alas, no sooner was the father gone than the young man’s friends closed in on him and began sucking out all his wealth through flattery, deception and other tricks. And, once he was reduced to a pauper, they deserted him unceremoniously.

A time came when he was obliged to starve. One day he bought some bread and a mugful of milk in exchange for his shoes and turban. But, while he was drawing water from the well, a dog decamped with his bread and a crow dipped its beak into the milk.

The young man cursed his own fate. At last he sought out three of his friends who professed themselves to be his best well-wishers, who used to announce that there was nothing they could not sacrifice for him. The three then sat in a tavern chitchatting and nibbling some delicacies and took no notice of him. He went closer to them and narrated his misfortune to them. Instead of offering him help or even a share of their food, they laughed and commented, “Do you presume us to be so very naïve that we could believe any cock and bull story? Did the dog and the crow conspire to harass you together?”

Snubbed, the deeply humiliated young man returned home in a dazed state. He was sure that the time had come for him to act according to his father’s parting advice.

He opened the door of the mysterious chamber and, to his amazement, found a rope hanging from the roof. A scrap of paper tied to it read: “If you’re reduced to a state when you had to open this room, better hang yourself!”

That seemed to be quite a sage advice for the youth. He wept, but resolved to follow it. He gave a pull to the rope in the process of making a noose out of its end.

Instantly the other end of the rope came out of the roof along with a bag. It contained some gold and a letter that said, “Since you were ready to die, take the old life to have ended and begin anew. More than this much gold, your experience ought to be your best investment.”

The young man, overwhelmed with gratitude, resolved to begin a new life. As he had inherited the goodwill his father commanded in the business world, he prospered speedily in his ventures and became quite wealthy in a year.

Friends who had deserted him came crowding around him once again. He did not lack in courtesy towards them.

One day, when those three friends who had snubbed him sought some favour from him, he took them aside and said, “Would you believe? We had an old door made of steel lying for long leaning against a boulder. A dog chewed it and gulped it completely. As if conspiring with it, a crow swooped down on the boulder that weighed a tonne and flew away with it. Isn’t that rather strange?”

“Oh those sinister dogs and crows! They’ve lately changed so much! They can do anything,” said the friends feigning absolute trust in the young man’s statement.

“No, my friends, they are what they were a year ago. You’ve changed. When I was poor, a dog running away with bread and a crow dipping its beak in milk was absurd. Now that I’m rich, a dog can chew up a steel door and a crow can fly away with a boulder in its beak.”

The story ends here. But does it really?

A few years ago I was having tea with an editor in a certain state capital. A newly elected MLA joined us uninvited. The leader of his party was the editor’s friend. The MLA’s glowing tribute to the leader surprised me. According to him the leader not only deserved to be the Prime Minister of the country, but also the chief of a world government if that could ever be formed.

The MLA ignored this stranger’s presence and subtly suggested to the editor that the latter could convey his evaluation of the leader to the leader. “He is likely to include me in his ministry. What I wish him to know is, I don’t care if I’m made only a minister of state or even a deputy minister, instead of a cabinet minister, as long as I get an opportunity to serve selflessly the state under his enlightened leadership.”

The editor smiled, looking at me askance and nodded. I do not know if he conveyed the MLA’s aspiration to serve the state selflessly under his friend’s leadership. But the MLA found no place in the ministry.

I ran into the ex-MLA at the office of a state-run corporation he headed. He was an important man under a different leadership. He did not remember our earlier meeting. In the course of our conversation I referred to the politician who was his leader earlier and who possessed the promise to be the chief of the world government.

“O that chap! It was an accident that he had become the party leader. I wonder if he deserved a watchman’s post,” he said with the same sanguinity with which once he had disclosed the leader’s mighty potentiality.

The darkness on which the Arabian Nights threw light still runs deep.

Manoj Das

(Manoj Das is an internationally known creative writer. He is the recipient of India’s national recognition, the Sahitya Akademi Award and the nation’s most prestigious literary award, the Saraswati Samman. As a social commentator, his columns in India’s national dailies like The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Hindu and The Statesman, revealing the deeper truth and the untraced aspects behind current issues, have been highly appreciated.)