With the holy month of Ramzan upon us, an old Sufi story comes to mind that could well have originated in India, from one of those ancient anthologies. In fact, I think it’s from the‘Dashakumaracharita’ or ‘Tale of Ten Princes’ and wish very much that I could call eminent translator Mr A.N.D. Haksar to ask. This compendium, also a favourite of some Thai scholars of Sanskrit, is attributed to a gentleman named ‘Dandin’ (meaning ‘staff-bearer’, could he have been an ascetic?). They say it may have been written around the seventh century CE and its author seems to have known the region of Vidarbha (Nagpur-Amaravati-Akola). You and I may know Vidarbha better as ‘Nala-Damayanti country’ or as present-day ‘Varhad’ in eastern Maharashtra, famous for its ‘thaytsa’, the fabulous pounded-chilli spread that I call ‘Berar pesto’. Anyhow, whether it came from Central India, the sands of Araby or the plains of Persia, it’s a deep story that I’ve often thought of as a piece of inspiring universal heritage to help us examine our lives, at those points when introspection is required to get on with the show.
So, the story goes that a rich and well-travelled merchant had an exotic songbird as a pet that he kept in a golden cage and fed rich tid-bits to. His wife, children, servants and visitors also adored the bird, it spoke so amusingly, sang so well and never minded how many times it was asked to perform. One day, the merchant was to set off to the lush coast of the country where the bird came from and being a nice man, he asked everyone what they wanted as a present.
He asked his pet songbird as well and it fluttered its wings and answered sweetly that it had everything in its golden cage but would be so obliged if the merchant could go to so-and-so jungle, whistle for the songbird’s relatives and tell them about its present life. The merchant did all that, at which one of the birds plummeted dead to the ground and lay still. When the merchant came home and told his pet what had happened, it promptly fell down from its perch and lay still. Grieving for his lost pet, the merchant put it out of its cage. The songbird flew up, right as rain, and explained to its astonished former owner, “You kept me a prisoner in a golden cage because of my song. To become free, I had to give up that life.”
— Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture