Short story: The Parrot’s Tale by Rabindranath Tagore

The Parrot’s Tale by Rabindranath Tagore (Translated from the Bengali by Radha Chakravarty)

(Excerpted with permission of Rupa Publications India from Spinning Yarns: The Best Children’s Stories from India by Deepa Agarwal.)

Once there was a bird. He was uneducated. He sang, but did not read the shastras. He hopped about and flew, but didn’t know good manners.

‘Such a bird is of no use,’ declared the king, ‘but he harms the sale of fruit in the royal market by eating up the wild fruits in the forest.’

He sent for the minister. ‘Educate this bird,’ he ordered.

II

The king’s nephews were given the responsibility of educating the bird.

The pundits assembled and considered the matter at length. The question was: ‘What is the reason for this creature’s lack of education?’

They concluded that there was not much room for learning in the bird’s nest, made from a few humble straws and twigs. Hence it was necessary, first of all, to make him a proper cage.

Receiving their dues, the royal pundits went home happily.

III

The goldsmith now set about making a golden cage. So marvellous was the cage he made, people from far-off lands came there to admire it. Some said, ‘It is the height of education.’ ‘Even if he doesn’t get an education, at least he has a cage,’ declared others. ‘What a lucky bird!’

The goldsmith was rewarded with a bagful of money as reward. He went home happily.

The pundits got down to the business of educating the bird. ‘This is not a task to be achieved with just a few books,’ they declared, inhaling snuff.

Now the royal nephews summoned all the scribes. Copying many textbooks and making copies of copies, they produced a mountain-high pile of books. Anyone who saw it exclaimed: ‘Shabash—congratulations! This heap of knowledge is full to bursting!’

Loading a bullock with all the money they received as payment, the scribes rushed home. They no longer had any trouble making both ends meet.

There was no end to the royal nephews’ fussing over the very expensive cage. There was no end to all the repair and maintenance, either. And there was such a to-do about dusting, wiping and polishing that the sight made everyone declare: ‘These are signs of progress.’

The work required a lot of manpower, and to keep an eye on the workers, even more men had to be deployed. Month by month, they collected their payments by the fistful and stuffed the money in their safes.

These men, and all their maternal and paternal cousins, settled happily in palatial brick-built mansions.

IV

Many other things are lacking in this world, but there is no dearth of fault-finders. ‘The cage is improving,’ they said, ‘but nobody asks after the bird.’

The matter reached the king’s ears. He sent for the nephews and demanded: ‘O nephews, what’s this I hear?’
‘Maharaj,’ said the nephews, ‘if you want to hear the truth, summon the goldsmiths, pundits, scribes, the maintenance workers and their supervisors. It’s because the fault-finders don’t get enough to eat that they say such evil things.’

From this reply, the situation became clear to the king. Golden necklaces were ordered at once, to adorn the nephews’ necks.

V

The king wanted to see for himself the tremendous pace at which the bird’s education was progressing.
At once, the area near the portico began to resound with the noise of conchs, bells, dhak, dhol, kada, nakada,
turi, bheri, damama, kanshi, flutes, gongs, khol, cymbals, mridanga and jagajhampa. With full-throated abandon,
shaking the unshaven locks of their tikis atop their tonsured heads, the pundits began to chant mantras. The
masons, workmen, goldsmiths, scribes, supervisors and their maternal and paternal cousins sang the king’s glory.
‘Maharaj, can you see what a to-do there is!’ observed a nephew.

‘Amazing! The noise is quite extraordinary,’ observed the Maharaja.

‘It’s not just the noise; the money that’s gone into it is not inconsiderable either,’ the nephew pointed out.
Delighted, the Maharaja crossed the portico and was about to mount his elephant when a fault-finder concealed in the bushes called out: ‘Maharaj, have you had a look at the bird?’

The king was startled. ‘Oh no!’ he exclaimed. ‘I had clean forgotten. I haven’t seen the bird.’

He went back and told the pundit, ‘I need to observe your technique for training the bird.’

He was duly shown the technique. What he saw pleased him greatly. The method was so much more important than the bird that the bird could not be seen at all; it seemed needless to see him. The king realized that the arrangements lacked nothing. There was no grain in the cage, no water, just a mass of pages torn from a mass of books, being stuffed down the bird’s throat by the end of a quill pen. The bird’s song could not be heard of course, for it was too stifled even to scream. It was a thrilling sight, enough to give one goosepimples.

Now, while mounting his elephant, the king instructed the Chief Ear-puller to tweak the fault-finder thoroughly
by the ears.

VI

Day by day, the bird arrived at a half-dead state, in a civilized fashion. His guardians saw this as a hopeful sign. But still, by natural instinct, the bird would gaze at the morning light and flutter his wings in a way that was unacceptable. In fact, one day he was seen struggling to cut through the bars of his cage with his fragile beak.

‘What audacity!’ cried the Kotwal, the law-maker.

Now the blacksmith appeared in the training quarters, armed with bellows, hammer and fire. How hard he beat the iron! Iron shackles were forged, and the bird’s wings were clipped.

Gravely shaking their heads, the king’s associates declared: ‘In this kingdom, the birds lack not only brains, but gratitude as well.’

Now, armed with pen in one hand and rod in the other, the pundits accomplished the dramatic feat called education.

The blacksmiths gained so much importance, their wives bedecked themselves with ornaments, and seeing the alertness of the Kotwal, the king bestowed him with a shiropa, a turban of honour.

VII

The parrot died. Nobody could say when. The wretched fault-finder spread the word: ‘The bird is dead.’

‘Nephews, what is this I hear?’ demanded the king. ‘Maharaj, the bird’s training is complete,’ declared the nephews.

‘Does he hop about any more?’ the king enquired. ‘ Arre Rama! No,’ demurred the nephew.

‘Does he fly any more?’

‘No.’

‘Does he sing any more?’

‘No.’

‘Does he scream if he does not receive grain for his feed?’

‘No.’

‘Bring the bird to me at once,’ the king ordered. ‘Let me see him.’

The bird was brought. Along with the bird came the Kotwal, paiks and horsemen.

The king prodded the bird. But the bird neither opened his beak, nor made any sound. Only the dry pages torn from books rustled and sighed in his belly.

Outside, stirred by the fresh spring breeze blowing in from the south, the sighing of new leaves spread anguish in the sky, above the newly blossoming woods.

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