Saturday, October 13, 2007

The most beautiful child - a folktale retold...

Emperor Akbar surveyed his crowded court. “I think,” he announced, “that my Prince Khurram is the most beautiful child in Agra. Don’t you all agree with me?”

The courtiers knew how very fond Akbar was of his grand children. They all cried out together: “You are very right, your Highness! Certainly, your Majesty!”

Birbal, Akbar’s chief Minister, however, remained silent. Akbar looked at him. “Why are you silent, Birbal?” he asked, a puzzled frown creasing his brow. “Do you think differently? Don’t you agree that my grandson is most beautiful?”

Birbal bowed low before his emperor. “You have posed a very difficult question, your Majesty,” he said. “There is no real test for beauty.”

Akbar stared crossly at Birbal: he was not used to being contradicted. “Is that so? All right, then, let us have a contest.” He waved his hand at the courtiers. “Let me see if tomorrow any of you can bring along a child who is more beautiful than my grandson!” And so saying, Akbar majestically rose to his feet and swept out of the hall followed by his attendants.

The courtiers, too, had hurriedly got to their feet and bowed low as Akbar made his exit. After the Emperor had gone, the courtiers straightened themselves and stared at one another. What would the old boy think up next?

Nevertheless, the ‘old boy’ being who he was, his wishes were commands and commands had to be obeyed. Akbar’s courtiers spent the rest of the day frantically searching among families of their friends and relations for good-looking children. As a result, the next day, the moment Akbar graced his court, his eyes encountered a historic sight. In a hall usually filled with middle-aged and elderly men, their features scarred with the lines of experience, Akbar saw a sea of smooth, cherubic faces, and eyes that stared at him wide-eyed and with anything but the respect due to a king. Where Akbar’s entrance usually created a hushed silence, today his ears were bombarded with the sounds of childish voices, some shouting, some crying and some laughing. Yes, following Akbar’s instructions, each of the nobles had brought along a small child to court.

Akbar had not forgotten about the contest he had arranged. He walked among his nobles and inspected each child carefully: “Hmm… That child is too fat. And that one there is too thin. And this child has eyes too far apart.” Finally: “Hmm…no, I still think my Khurram is the most beautiful child in Agra,” he announced. He turned to Birbal. “But why have you not brought a child?”

“Your Majesty, I have found the most beautiful child in Agra,” answered Birbal. “But to see him, I am afraid you will have to disguise yourself and come with me to the child’s house.”

Akbar’s curiosity was thoroughly roused. A child more beautiful than his grandson! Such a child would have to be very good looking indeed! “All right, then,” he told Birbal, “we will dress like ordinary citizens and go to see this child.”

A few hours later, a group of six men slipped out of Akbar’s palace by a side entrance. All six were similarly dressed – in long robes made from some coarse material and high turbans. All had long bushy beards which hid most of their faces. An observant person, however, might have noticed that one figure in the group walked a little more erect than the others, a little more confidently, you might even say a little more ‘royally’. And not surprisingly. For this bearded figure was none other than Emperor Akbar – in different clothes but with the same royal bearing. The figure leading the group was, of course, Birbal.

They walked until finally Akbar began to wonder what he was doing. Birbal had led the group almost to the outskirts of the city and the houses they passed were beginning to look more and more shabby and dirty.

“How much further do we have to go, Birbal?” asked Akbar, complainingly. He was tired.

“Just a little distance more, my lord,” assured Birbal. “Please be patient.”

Finally Birbal came to a halt in a small clearing surrounded by a few ramshackle huts. He pointed to a distant hut, in front of which a small boy was playing.

“There, my lord is the most beautiful child in Agra!” declared Birbal.

Akbar stared at the grimy little boy. “But-but, that is the ugliest child I have ever seen, Birbal! Have you dragged me all this way for a joke?”

Birbal smiled secretly. “I beg of you, your Majesty, please wait for a little while!”

As the men watched, the child got to his feet, a clay doll in his hands. He began to totter towards the hut. Suddenly, the child stumbled – and fell flat on his face! For a few seconds, the child’s face was numb with shock. Then he screwed up his eyes and began to howl.

Immediately a woman rushed out of the hut and ran to the fallen boy. “My poor child!” she cried. “How dare the earth hurt my jewel! We will kiss it all better, pretty one.”

A surprised Akbar turned to Birbal. “How can she love this ugly child?”

The child’s mother heard him. Picking up the boy in her arms and cuddling him, she turned to face the men. “How DARE you!” she cried, livid with anger. “Go and search all of Agra and see if you can find a lovelier child! Now go away, you blind fools, or I’ll give you a proper thrashing!”

Past battles had taught Akbar to know when it was best to retire. Now, after one startled look at the angry woman, Akbar and his companions beat a hasty retreat. As they made their way back to the palace, Akbar said thoughtfully: “I now understand what you mean, Birbal. Every child is the most beautiful in the eyes of its parents…”
“…or its grandparents, your Majesty!” added Birbal with a grin.