Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Hungry Ghost

Courtesy: Cover of Chandamama January 1963 edition
You are never old enough to listen to stories from your parents...I mean "bedtime" type stories :) Why do we grow out of this habit? I think more and more people should spend time telling stories - there'll be less anger :) My long vacation in India was a throwback to idyllic summer holidays. Hot, still afternoons and a good story in your hand. This time, my dad, who is an avid collector of old editions of all sorts of books, chose to narrate stories from Chandamama. He would read out as I went went about pottering in the kitchen, and time would stop, at least for me. In many ways, this was therapeutic - there is so much rage and negativity flying around in all the newspapers these days; everybody seems to be baying for blood...and the TV channels...crass, third-rate programs and "news" ...what are we doing to ourselves? 

Anyway, this particular story had me in splits...and I consumed more sajjappas from the nearby Venkateshwara Iyengar Bakery. It is from a 1963 edition of Chandamana! 

The Hungry Ghost
By B.Baburao

Courtesy: Chandamana January 1963 edition

The King of Chitrapur was in deep sleep with his mouth wide open. A mischievous pishachi (ghost) that was floating by entered his mouth and took up comfortable residence inside the King.  The next day, the King woke up feeling ravenously hungry. The royal cooks prepared the usual breakfast for him, but it did not satiate his strange hunger. The cooks were taken aback by the King’s behaviour, but scurried around to cook some more...and more. Finally, after having eaten breakfast fit for twenty people, the King seemed satisfied.

Now the cooks got ready for the usual lunch-time serving. The menu required four lambs, twelve chicken, one vegetable dish, ten ser (each ser is almost a kilo; 933.1 grams to be accurate) cooked rice. The King ate all of this by himself. Now it was clear, something was wrong with the King. The ministers and scholars of the court discussed this problem of the King’s hunger. They called in the royal doctors. But nothing was found wrong with him – even in appearance, the King did not look like one afflicted by any disease.

The King’s hunger created a great problem now. The royal kitchen could not keep up – so the cooks began to literally loot farmers of the kingdom for stocking up. There was threat of civil rebellion in the kingdom. Alarmed by the situation, and also feeling sorry for the trouble he is causing, the King decided that instead of burdening only his kitchen, he would now impose himself on his feudal lords. He would take turns and visit each of these samanthas , perhaps stay with them for a week, or fortnight...or even a month. Now, whenever the King announced his visit, hearts would start pounding.

Sabhapati was an intelligent brahmachari (bachelor), who had just finished his education in Kashi. He was well-versed in all the shastras and had won accolades from all the great scholars and pundits. Having triumphantly completed his education, he was on his way back to Chitrapur. He decided to lodge in one of the samantha’s homes for the night.

The arrival of Sabhapati created a flutter amongst the surrounding villages of Chitrapur. People from near and far flocked the samantha’s home to get a glimpse of this young, accomplished man. A social gathering of scholars and public took place only to hear Sabhapati. He mesmerised the crowd with many strange stories from his travels. He made them roar with laughter with his jokes. Indeed people felt their stomachs will become sore – they enjoyed his jokes so much. But Sabhapati noticed only the samantha remained grim.  Upon enquiring, the samantha described his royal problem – the King was arriving as a guest, and what this means.

Sabhapati heard the story and thought for a while. Then he said, ‘Samantha, I will solve this problem. But the condition is you must do as I say. No questions asked.’ The samantha  agreed.

That evening, the King came with his royal family. Even as his foot crossed the threshold, he started bellowing, ‘Bring my snacks! Bring my snacks!’

A maNe (low wooden stool, used for sitting cross-legged on the floor) was kept only for the King and all the savouries and sweets were brought out. The King, forgetting all decorum, started gobbling up the food. Sabhapati sat near the King, chewing on a blade of grass.
The King noticed Sabhapati and said, ‘Have you gone mad? You are eating grass like cattle.’

‘Not at all Your Highness,’ Sabhapati replied politely. ‘It is not decorum for you sit alone isn’t it? That is why I am giving you company.’

The King was now embarrassed. He kept a fruit on a plate and pushed it towards Sabhapati. Sabhapati nonchalantly started peeling the fruit. He said, ‘I have a request for you, if you don’t mind.’

‘Go ahead.’

‘I request you to please sleep for a while before you sit down for dinner.’

‘Yes. Anyway I was thinking of sleeping for an hour or so. So your request is granted.’

As soon as the King fell asleep, Sabhapati tied up his legs and hands. Everyone waited for the King to wake up. The King stirred after two or three hours. As usual, as soon as he woke up, a ravenous hunger attacked him. He was flummoxed to see his hands and legs were tied.

Meanwhile, Sabhapati asked the cook to bring in all the aromatic dishes. Upon getting the aroma and seeing the dishes, the King’s mouth started watering. But Sabhapati seemed unmindful of the King’s hunger. He sat near the king and arranged the food in front of himself. Then, he began talking.

‘I want to tell you a strange story, dear King. I heard this from a Siddha (yogi). Protected by the towering peaks of the Himalayas, there is a beautiful valley. In that valley, there is an extraordinary palace. Its walls are made of milk and fruits. The thorana for the main door is made of vade and jilebis. Inside, the porticos are made of halwas. The entire roof is covered with rottis. In every room there are tanks filled with steaming hot kheer, cream of milk, coconut milk, draksharasa (grape juice) and so on. Not just that, mounds of chitranna (lemon rice) are piled around these tanks...’ Sabhapati continued to describe this food paradise. As he narrated, he would hold out a piece of the royal food, as if he intended to feed the King. He would bring the food close the King’s open mouth, and withdraw it suddenly.

The pishachi inside the King could not take this taunting and teasing any longer. Frustrated, it sprang out of the King’s mouth and tried to snatch the food from Sabhapati’s hand. But shrewd Sabhapati was quicker – he caught hold of the pishachi and thrust it in the fire heating up the kitchen stoves. That was the end of that mischievous, hungry ghost!
The King fainted as soon as the pishachi emerged from his belly. When he recovered the next day, he felt light and lively. His normal appetite had returned, and he was no longer tormented by hunger.

He rewarded Sabhapati with enormous riches and everyone lived happily ever after.


Translation © Sumana Khan - 2016

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