Monday, October 12, 2009

Minister’s Job

I was watching a program on Asianet, the Malayalam TV channel, yesterday. The young girl who was singing the song on the stage was doing a brilliant job. She seemed to have become completely one with her singing. It looked as though the audience and the judges did not exist for her. And yet she was aware of the live background music – a slight disharmony, and she showed she had noticed it.

The song she was singing was a charming folk number with an interesting plot. The female monkey asks the male monkey, her lover, I believe, or maybe her husband, to bring a paan for her. He goes and comes back with a paan leaf – a betel leaf. Just the leaf. She asks for the betel nut to go with it – It is only then that he realizes his mistake. You don’t chew paan without the betel nut. He goes and gets the betel nut. She now asks for the tobacco to go with the betel nut and the paan leaf. He has to make another trip to get it. And then she asks for the last item – the lime paste to go with it. Of course he hasn’t brought it. He has to make a fourth trip to bring it!

Paan means all four together, though just the leaf alone is also called paan. She had to send him four times to get her paan.

The delightful song reminded me of a story my father told me when I was a child in Kerala.

Once upon a time there was a king, and he had a minister. The other officers of the king were very jealous of the minister, for his salary was many times that of the other officers. One day they went as a team to the king and complained of the injustice. Why should he be given so much, they asked him, when they were given much lower salaries? They can understand some difference, because he was the minister, but many times their salary? The king said he would explain.

Looking out of his window, he saw an elephant. The mahout was taking him along the royal highway. The king asked the minister to leave them all alone for a few minutes and after he had left asked one of the officers to go and find out the price of the elephant – he was interested in buying the elephant.

The officer came back and told him the price. Did you enquire how old the elephant is, asked the king. “Sorry, I didn’t,” said the officer.

The king sent another officer to find it out and he came back and informed the king that it was fifteen years old. “To whom does the elephant belong?” asked the king. The officer said he hadn’t asked the mahout that question.

“All right,” said the king and he sent yet another officer to find this out. When he came back and gave the answer to the king, he asked, ‘How long is its trunk?” Of course he did know the answer and another officer had to be sent to find out the length of the elephant’s trunk.

Ancient Gajashastra of India, the science of elephants, said that a good elephant should have a trunk that stretched to the ground and is longer still so that its tip has to be curled upwards. It should have wide ears and a wide forehead. The colour of its nails showed its health – and it should have either eighteen or twenty toenails. The right tusk should come out of its mouth at a place slightly higher than the left one did. Its breathing should be deep and even, its skin should have fine dots all over, its trumpeting should sound like thunder. The complexion of the elephant, how strong it is, how pleasing its shape is, its overall size, how glowing it is, how tranquil its nature is, the way it held its head, the season in which it went into rut, all these things were important.

By the time the king got all the answers he wanted, a long, long time had passed because so many trips up and down had to be made. The mahout had by then stopped on the roadside seeing the interest of the king in the elephant , or else it would have been a couple of miles away by the time the officers got all their answers.

The king now sent a messenger to the minister, asking him to come. When he came, the king asked him the question he had asked the first officer – precisely the same question. Telling him that he was interested in buying the elephant, the king asked the minister to find out how much the elephant would cost.

A few minutes later the minister was back. The king asked him about the price and the minister told him the answer. The king then asked him about the age of the elephant – the minister had found that out too and gave the king the information he wanted. When the king asked him to whom the elephant belonged, the minister had his answer ready for that too. The king asked the minister all the questions he had asked the officers and a few he hadn’t, and the minister had answers for all of them without making another trip to the mahout.

The king now turned to the officers who had been standing and watching the exchange between the king and the minister. They were now standing with their heads hung down in shame, their faces red with embarrassment. “Got your answer?” asked the king. The officers apologised both to the king and the minister and left.

“A minister’s job,” said my father, concluding the story, “is different from the job of other lesser people. A minister does things differently. That is why he is the minister.”

I never forgot the story Father told me though I cannot say I have been as successful in being like the minister in the story as I wish I had been.

A couple of months ago a friend of mine, a professor from Hawaii University, visited my home along with his wife and another common friend of ours, a professor from XLRI. We had a long, long conversation that began after lunch – and the conversation, we all knew, was to continue for hours more. [Eventually when we finally ended our discussions on that day, it was past midnight.]

In between I had to take a small break in the evening, though, on a small errand that could not be avoided. As I was leaving, I suggested that I would go the optician’s and get the spectacles of the wife of the professor from Hawaii repaired. One of its kamanis had come lose and we all felt all it required was to have the screw that had fallen off replaced. She needed the glasses for regular vision. It was no more than a minute’s work and in any case I was going near the optician’s place.

Reluctantly they agreed to my suggestion.

As I was leaving my drawing room where we had all been, the professor from Hawaii – let’s call him Prof. B – called out to me and said, “Do the minister’s job, acharya.” [He had just started calling me that.]

“Do the minister’s job.” My friend’s words were spoken that instant in my room, and yet I was hearing those wards from a long distance away, from a long ago. Strange feelings surged through me and for a moment I was not sure what I should do. I stood absolutely still.

That was the expression I had heard from my father years ago, and it had meant precisely what Prof. B had meant. So many decades had passed since my father told me the story, and I hadn’t heard from anyone else that expression. My childhood, that evening from long ago when I sat with my father on the steps leading to our house that was slightly raised above the ground level, the many, many other stories Father had told me on similar evenings sitting on those steps – all that had come back to me in an instant.

I walked out of the room quietly, without a word. I did not want the profundity of the moment disturbed by talk. Something beautiful had happened, and I knew I had to share its beauty with my friends. But I also knew it was not the moment to share. Sharing will have to wait. At that moment I had to be alone with my feelings.

I didn’t tell my friends anything about it later, after when I came back either. We were talking about different things – mostly Indian philosophy and psychology – and I hadn’t still digested what had happened fully. The only person I told of what had happened was my wife – the next morning.

I plan to send this blog to Prof. B and that would be the first time he would hear about what his words had done to me that evening.

Did I do the minister’s job that evening? I do not know. Perhaps I did, perhaps I didn’t. The optician said the frame had to be replaced and I wasn’t sure if I should choose a new frame on Prof. B’s wife’s behalf. I did find out all I could about fresh frames available in his shop [especially since the words ‘the minister’s job’ were fresh in my mind!]. The optician’s shop was the oldest and the most reputed in town, but I have always believed certain choices should be made by the individual concerned – and that included the choice of spectacle frames.

I remember that after I came back all of us went out together to the market. We decided to combine Prof. B’s wife’s choosing a new frame for her glasses with a little bit of much needed shopping. A short trip that we all enjoyed much.

Prof. B is originally from the lower Himalayas. I had no idea that fathers in such faraway places told their children some of the same stories that fathers in Kerala told their children.

That is, hoping it was from the story of the king and minister and the officers that he had learned the expression ‘the minister’s job’ and that it was his father who had told him that story. I am sure he would let me know after he reads this blog.

I must also thank the young girl on Asianet for singing that song yesterday.

O0O

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