When Akbar ruled over the Mughal Empire in India, his capital was the old, historic city of Agra. The royal family and many of the courtiers lived in the Agra fort. At the back of the fort was a maze of narrow, winding lanes where the common people lived. In one of these lanes stood a paan (betel leaf) shop owned by a man named Ismail. The shop was small but the paans served were unforgettable. Ismail also served sherbet too in different flavours--- keora, gulab and sandal. There was a string cot permanently placed in front of the shop so people could relax while they sipped the sherbet and enjoyed the paan.
One day a stranger came to Ismail's shop. It was a very hot afternoon and the stranger looked tired. Ismail gave him a tumbler of cold water to drink and asked him whether he lived in the city.
The stranger shook his head and said he did not. He was a stranger who was living at the inn that was located two lanes away from Ismail's shop. On hearing this Ismail asked him about his purpose to visit. The stranger sat down on the string cot in front of the shop and answered that he has come to see whether Emperor Akbar will accept him as a courtier.
Ismail with some surprise said that very few people receive such an honour. The stranger was still eager to try his luck.
Day in and day out the stranger came to Ismail's shop, sat on the cot and chatted for a while. He was a widely travelled man, very intelligent and witty. But he seemed restless, with little to do and always waiting for the day when he would get a position at court.
One day the stranger came as usual, asked for a glass of sherbet and sat down on the cot. He had barely taken a couple of sips when a man came running down the lane and stopped abruptly in front of Ismail's shop. He was panting hard and seemed to be in a tearing hurry. He asked Ismail to quickly give him a seer of lime. Ismail laughed and asked him to slow down. But the man was in a hurry as the seer of lime was ordered by the emperor himself.
All this time the stranger had been looking on, curiosity writ large on his face. Now he stood up and said, in a voice of authority and asked why he needed the seer of lime. He also asked whether he worked for the emperor. The man replied with pride that he did work for the emperor. He made paan for His Majesty after each meal, wrapped it in gold leaf and served it to him on a gold platter. That day too after the midday meal was over, His Majesty took a paan as usual. Next minute he turned around and told him to go the bazaar and bring a seer of lime.
Now the stranger enquired whether the emperor was annoyed when he ordered for it. However the servants were not allowed to look into the face of the emperors while talking. So the man could not possibly reply to this. The stranger then advised the man to buy a seer of curd instead if he wanted to save his own life. At this the man was scared out of his wits. He bought a seer of curd from a halwai's shop and hurried back to the fort.
Akbar took one look at the man and demanded if he has brought the lime. Them he ordered him to sit and eat it. While Akbar went back to court, the man lifted the earthen pot of curd and happily drank it up.
The following morning the man was back at work. At the sight of him Akbar turned purple with rage. On asked whether he had eaten the seer of lime the poor man fell at Akbar's feet and told him the whole story. Akbar was not one to lose time. He immediately sent his men to Ismail's shop and, in less than an hour, the mysterious stranger was standing in the royal durbar, facing Akbar, the great Mughal emperor. Akbar was seated on his throne. He looked majestic in his silken robes and jewel-studded crown. He had a commanding voice as well. But the stranger seemed perfectly relaxed.
Akbar asked why the stranger has advised his servant to buy curd instead of lime.
The stranger bowed his head and replied that he was surprised to see a man buying a whole seer of lime. After knowing the whole story he understood he must have put too much lime in the paan and the royal tongue must have been cut. As a punishment the emperor has wished him to eat a whole seer of lime.
Akbar was impressed with the stranger's perception but he was still annoyed with what he did. On being enquired about this the stranger bowed his head again. He asked for forgiveness and said that he simply wished to save the life of an innocent man. moreover he wanted to prevented the emperor from taking the life of an innocent man in a fit of anger.
At last Akbar asked his name. The man replied, Birbal.
Akbar smiled and finally included Birbal in his court, offering him a place of honour.
Delighted beyond words, Birbal bent right down to the floor and bowed to the emperor. And that is how the famous wit Birbal first entered the court of Akbar.
|More Articles in Indian Folktales (25)|