Vishnu Tiger and the Crocodile

Once upon a time, in a deep forest, there lived a big, brave, ferocious tiger called Vishnu Tiger. Vishnu Tiger had a wife called Kamakshi Tigress, and 6 little baby tigers. They were called Appulu, Bappulu, Chappulu, Dappulu, Eppulu and Fluffy. Appulu, Bappulu, Chappulu, Dappulu and Eppulu were serious and fierce like their parents. But Fluffy was the naughtiest tiger cub in the world. She would play with her food during dinner-time. She would pull her brothers’ and sisters’ tails when they were taking a nap in the afternoon sun. She would cry and splash water all over Kamakshi Tigress when her mother was giving her a bath. She would stay awake till late in the night and pester her parents to play with her. She was very, very naughty.

Every day, Vishnu Tiger took his children out, two by two, to teach them how to hunt. One day he took Appulu and Dappulu with him. When they were deep in the jungle, Appulu and Dappulu decided to go off on their own to catch some prey that would impress their father. They searched high and low and up and down, and finally, Dappulu lifted her paws to the air and caught a dragonfly.

“Oh Appulu! Oh Dappulu!,” said the dragonfly. “What kind of prey is a dragonfly to the children of Vishnu Tiger? Let me go and find some bigger animal. I promise that I will be of some help to you and your family some day.”

So they let the dragonfly go and they went back to Vishnu Tiger.

The next day, Vishnu Tiger took Bappulu and Chappulu with him to hunt. As they followed their father, Chappulu suddenly smelled the fresh scent of an animal and dived into the undergrowth. In a few minutes, he was back with a water rat in his mouth, that was shivering with fear. “Oh Bappulu! Oh Chappulu! Please let me go! A water rat is too small a prey for the children of Vishnu Tiger! I promise you that if you let me go, I will help you and your family some day.”

So they let the water rat go, and ran ahead and joined Vishnu Tiger.

The next day, Vishnu Tiger took Eppulu and Fluffy with him to hunt. Now Eppulu hated going out with Fluffy because she always got him into trouble. But all the other tiger cubs had had their turn, so he was forced to go along.

Soon enough, Fluffy decided that she and Eppulu would catch something really big and impress their father. So they slunk away into the undergrowth and came to a clearing near a water hole.

Eppulu suddenly paused, smelled the air around him, and with a sudden leap, jumped up and caught a mosquito. But Fluffy made him release it. She said, “No, no! We must find a bigger animal!” So Eppulu let go of the mosquito.

Then a little while further, Eppulu paused, then pounced, and came back with a hare in his mouth. Fluffly wasn’t impressed. “We need to find a much bigger animal!” she said. Eppulu was very irritated, but he let the hare go.

Then suddenly Eppulu caught a whiff in the air. Wild boar! There was a single boar standing in the moonlight near the water hole, grazing. “Let’s get that boar,” whispered Eppulu to Fluffy. “He should be big enough.”

But Fluffy had noticed something else. Resting near the water hole was another animal, that looked like a giant log of wood. It was Karthik the crocodile. He was the biggest, meanest crocodile in the entire jungle. He had just trapped and eaten an enormous deer all by himself, and was having a pleasant nap after all the exercise and the feasting.

“I’m going to hunt that animal!” whispered Fluffy to Eppulu, and before the startled Eppulu could make so much as a whimper, she bared her fangs, jumped on Karthik the crocodile, and gave him a sharp bite on the top of his nose.

Karthik the crocodile jumped up, very cross to have his sleep disturbed. And with a single thrust of his massive jaws, he caught both the tiger cubs firmly in his giant mouth and, shaking them from side to side, slowly made his way back into the water.

Eppulu and Fluffy were scared out of their wits and started yelling and screaming for someone to save them. But Vishnu tiger was far away in the jungle!

Just then, who should see them but the water rat. When it saw the predicament that the tiger cubs were in, it ran and it ran till it came to the edge of the clearing. There it saw the dragonfly, and panted out, “Vishnu Tiger’s children are in danger! Tell Vishnu Tiger!”. Then the dragonfly flew and flew until it found Vishnu Tiger, and it told him the news.

In one bound, Vishnu Tiger leaped over the undergrowth and ran all the way to the water hole, where Karthik the crocodile was just entering the water. With a roar, he jumped into the water and attacked Karthik the crocodile. The water churned as the two giant animals fought tooth and nail. Finally, Vishnu Tiger raised his mighty paw and gave Karthik the crocodile a huge slash across the nose. Karthik the Crocodile dropped Eppulu and Fluffly and slipped away into the water.

Vishnu Tiger carried the wet and squealing tiger cubs home to Kamakshi Tigress. Then he took Fluffy by the scruff of her neck and gave her a nice little beating – spank, spank, spank!

It didn’t have the slightest effect on Fluffy and she remained as naughty as ever. But at least she never went near a sleeping crocodile again.

Some thoughts on Independence Day

Over the last few years, I have been reading various alternative voices of Indian history, and this has opened my eyes to perspectives beyond what we study in school. The Indian freedom struggle from the British is also a topic that has multiple narratives. The one we study in school is the one we celebrate every Independence Day — that a group of freedom fighters, mostly educated professionals who sacrificed lucrative careers (e.g. Gandhiji, Jinnah, Nehru, Patel), led the entire country to freedom and independence; and that this independence removed the evil yoke of British imperialism from Indian soil. After Independence Day, Indians were no longer second-class citizens; and India regained control of our own economic destiny.

But there is an alternative view of this. While the educated, professional classes were fighting for freedom from the British, a much larger section of the Indian population — Dalits, tribals and the lower castes — were fighting their own freedom struggle. This freedom struggle was not from the British but from the fetters of the Indian caste system; and these fetters were greater than almost any atrocities that the British inflicted on Indians. The lowest castes were not just considered racially inferior — they were considered sub-human. Any labor of these castes was considered entirely for the profit of the higher castes. These castes constituted 25-50% of India’s pre-1947 population.

The crucial difference in view is this. Not only did the atrocities of British imperial rule leave the lowest castes unaffected (so degraded was their condition already); but in many cases, British rule actively helped them in their struggle to their own independence. The Mahars — an untouchable caste to which Ambedkar belonged — were entirely, utterly subjugated by Peshwa rule: buried alive to protect secrets, trampled to death by elephants for protesting their condition, denied education, “playfully” put to death when the Peshwas felt like it. The Mahars considered the British to be their saviors. The East India Company recruited the Mahars in thousands for their army; and a major landmark in Dalit history is the Battle of Koregaon, in which Peshwa Baji Rao II’s Maratha Army was defeated by the British. This day is marked in Maharashtra, not as a day of British victory, but as a day of Dalit victory over their oppressors; Koregaon even has a monument commemorating this.

To read Ambedkar’s scholarly works is an eye-popping experience. One learns about various movements, rebellions and struggles that were entirely absent from our history education. One such incident is the Mahad Satyagraha. On 20th March 1927, Ambedkar led a group of 3,000 Dalits to the Chavadar Tank in Mahad, to drink a few drops of water and assert their right to use this pool — a right which had been granted to non-Hindus, animals and caste Hindus, but denied to the Mahars. They had the full backing of the British Government for this Satyagraha; and Ambedkar considers this day the true “Independence Day” for Dalits. The Mahad Satyagraha was followed by widespread riots by upper-caste Hindus. Ambedkar even spent a night at a police station. But in June 1927, an unprecedented event happened: 5 upper-caste Hindus were sentenced by the (colonial) magistrate to 4 months’ hard imprisonment for violence against Dalits. Ambedkar said: “Had the chief officers in the district not been British, justice would have been denied. Under Peshwa Rule, I would have been trampled to death by an elephant.”

I consider Ambedkar second only to Mahatma Gandhi as the greatest Indian of the last 200 years. He is a scholar; his writings sparkle with logic and wisdom, if only one is able to look beyond his complete, wholesale hatred of Hinduism. In my circle of friends, we tend to look at caste issues through the one-dimensional lens of reservations; we are aghast that someone with merit is denied an opportunity because a seat is reserved for someone from another caste. Yet every month in India, Dalit boys are killed for marrying caste Hindu girls; entire political parties have been created for the sole purpose of providing representation to caste Hindus that want to maintain caste hegemony (the foremost in Tamil Nadu being the one led by “Change, Progress, Anbumani”); and in the margins of our urban society, Dalits still live in segregated villages and drink water from separate tumblers.

Reading works about and by Ambedkar (and other Dalit doyens) should be compulsory for every Indian. Our celebration of Independence Day is not — should not be — a celebration of our fellowship with other people ‘like us’. It’s a great day to remind ourselves that this country is not only ours; there are a great many people, living somewhere out of our peripheral vision, who share this country with us, who have an equal right to everything it has to offer — and are still very far from Independence.

The Book of War

It is a rare pleasure to find a book that takes over your life. You think about it even when you’re not reading it; you spend your day in restless anticipation of going back home to the book. It has been several years since I felt that way about a book; Harry Potter long ago, perhaps! And now — Parva, by S L Bhyrappa, originally in Kannada but which I just finished reading in the English translation.

Parva is, at the heart of it, a retelling of the Mahabharata; but Bhyrappa invested a huge amount of time and energy in primary research before he wrote it. He visited all of the important places where the action in the Mahabharata takes place; he studied the history and anthropology of the early Vedic era when the story is based; and he extensively researched its various recensions to distill the ‘essence’ of it. Bhyrappa’s purpose was to retell the Mahabharata shorn of its mythological and religious aspects, as basically a humanistic story about human beings who are driven by destiny to an extraordinary battle that will change their world irrevocably.

The adventure of reading Parva started, for me, even before acquiring the book. I could not find it online — the first book in ages that I can say that about! It is published by Sahitya Akademi, a Central Government undertaking, and finally I figured the only way to get it would be to take half a day off and visit their office in Chennai on Anna Salai. When I reached there, they told me, with some disappointment, that they did not have a copy there — it had been years since someone had inquired about Parva; but they suggested I visit their godown in Taramani and search for it there. Finding the godown was an adventure in itself; and the whole place was infested with decaying books in haphazard mountains with rats scurrying around, and I was half afraid that I would catch some plague as reward for my persistence. Finally I found the last two copies — anticlimactically cheap, at Rs 160 per book for an 800-page hardcover — and promptly bought both of them.

Parva narrates the Mahabharata as a series of flashbacks. The action takes place over about 6 months, beginning in the midst of war preparations and ending just after the war ends. Each chapter of the book is told from the perspective of one character — some major, like Arjuna, Bhima and Karna, and some minor, like Shalya or Krishna’s friend Yuyudhana. Each chapter combines a little bit of action with a lot of reminiscence, as the character at its centre recalls the past through the prism of the tension of war. In this ‘stream of consciousness’, Bhyrappa’s brilliant research shines in an exploration of the motivations and relationships between different characters, set in the context of their age and their experiences.

Thus, Parva brings an altogether wondrous dimension to each of the characters of the Mahabharata. For example, Shalya, who equivocates between joining the Pandavas and joining the Kauravas, is most concerned about how to improve the status of his Madra kingdom among the Aryas, who regard the kingdom rather disdainfully because of their practice of giving away brides in exchange for wealth. Yuyudhana (Satyaki) and his fellow Yadavas are torn between supporting their king Balarama, who openly favours the Kauravas, and their hero Krishna, who is on the side of the Pandavas.

In the case of the major characters, each of these mini-essays brings a mini-revelation. Case in point is the relationship between Arjuna and Draupadi, which begins as intense romantic attraction; but when Arjuna finds himself frustrated by the brothers’ one-year-each rule, he has a falling-out with her and goes away in a huff, satiating his desire by marrying numerous other princesses, and eventually Subhadra. This leaves Draupadi feeling betrayed and heart-broken, causing a rift between them which never heals; Arjuna always considers Subhadra his primary wife, lavishing attention and pride on Abhimanyu while entirely ignoring his son with Draupadi.

Arjuna is, on the whole, painted with a realistic but gently negative brush in Parva — being prone to fits of pique and possessing a dangerous streak of cowardice and impetuousness that, more than once, has to be exorcised by Bhima or Krishna. One wonderful instance of this is during the dice game, when Bhima makes his terrible vow; and Arjuna makes a rather weak addendum, saying he will kill Karna and his followers if Duryodhana does not give back the kingdom after 13 years. Then Bhima says to him, “Arjuna, do not make a vow like a dog that has been thrashed. Do it like a lion, that whether he returned the kingdom or not, you shall kill them. I swear that I shall smash Duryodhana’s thigh, tear apart Dussasana’s intestines, and drink his blood. Let your vow be equally heroic.” But Arjuna still does not possess the resolve to make that vow.

An unusual relationship that is explored in Parva is that between Vidura and Karna. One would not associate these two characters as having anything to do with each other; and yet, they must have had deep interactions, being the twin beacons of the Suta community, one a magnificent scholar and the other a magnificent warrior. The mutual undercurrent of jealousy and disapproval between these two, alongside grudging mutual respect, is something Bhyrappa brings out.

Parva provides uncannily deep insights not just into individual characters, but also Mahabharata society as a whole. The role of the sutas is one such — originally storytellers and charioteers placed in the caste hierarchy between the vaishyas and kshatriyas, they are continually exploited by the kshatriyas who make use of their girls as servant women (and frequently, as sexual partners). Mixed-caste offspring between the sutas and kshatriyas are gradually ascending the caste ladder, adding a dimension of tension to the social fabric. In some kingdoms, like Virata’s (where the Pandavas spend their 13th year), the queen and her brother Keechaka are sutas but already nobility. In the Kuru kingdom, however, sutas are still not given much respect, and Karna, for all his valour, is still considered by everyone except Duryodhana as lesser than a kshatriya; and thus, Shalya considers it the ultimate insult that he is made charioteer to Karna of the charioteer caste.

Another disturbing undercurrent is the very unequal relationship between the nagas, nishadas, rakshasas and yakshas (portrayed in Parva as the indigenous tribes of the forests) and the Aryan city-builders. Bhima is the only Aryan who has any feeling of sympathy for the rakshasas, perhaps as a result of marrying into their community; the other Aryans treat them the way cowboys treated the Native Americans — as squatters on land that was divinely ordained for Aryan colonisation. The story of Ekalavya is cast in this context, where it is not Drona egged on by Arjuna who compels him to mutilate himself, but Bhishma, representative of Aryan hegemony, having this threat to their kind neutralised by collaborators within Ekalavya’s tribe. The nadir of exploitation of these tribes must surely be the genocide of Khandava vana, the dense forest that Arjuna and Krishna burn down, mercilessly slaughtering every animal and tribal within to create the shining city of Indraprastha.

Geography, too, is explored in rich detail to provide a stunning backdrop for each chapter. My favourite instance is the way in which Krishna’s Dwaraka is painted, on a Western beach. Everywhere in Yuyudhana’s narrative you can hear the waves in Dwaraka, where the Yadavas master the art of seafaring and foreign trade to regain their lost wealth after having been driven away from Mathura by Jarasandha. The dry, dusty plains between Dwaraka on the West Coast and Hastinapura near Delhi, is the backdrop for Arjuna’s abduction of Subhadra. He carries her away on his chariot, a trip that must have been incredibly exhausting given the weather, the geography and the 15-odd days that it must have taken. From the coolness of the Himalayas to the dense forests where the Pandavas spend their various exiles, India’s geography provides the rich tapestry that the Mahabharata deserves as a background.

And then there is the war. The war begins halfway into the book; and what a narrative! The Mahabharata of traditional mythology sanitises the war, which is portrayed as a sequence of heroic duels between great warriors: Karna vs Gatotkacha, Arjuna vs Jayadrata, and so on. The war of Parva, however, is a real war, a massive war in which every king of India is forced to take sides, the armies so big they eat through entire cities for each meal.

The war of Parva has the same scale of numbers as, say, World War 2. And the same scale of brutality. Parva is an uncompromisingly anti-war book, presenting the Mahabharata war in all its unsanitized gore. The distant commanders are out of touch with their rank and file, who on both sides are dispirited, fatalistic, and uninspired by this fraternal battle that will not improve their lot regardless of which side wins. Sexual violence is routine, the only way the soldiers are able to rouse their manly courage before battle. The ever-devouring hunger of the armies that drains every town and village of its food and provisions, leaving even Dhritarashtra’s palace without a drop of oil to light a lamp. The fatalities so numerous that chariots cannot drive unimpeded by dead men and dead horses. And both sides, increasingly desperate, gradually abandoning any semblance of honour, fighting night and day, exhausted, driven by the desperation of the dying.

And in its absolutely climatic ending, written as one powerful 15-page paragraph, it is revealed that all that Arjuna fears have come to pass — of the tens of thousands of warriors, only a few hundred remain; the country is sucked dry of its wealth and food; the mass of the Aryan race decimated and already, many kingdoms fraying at the boundaries attacked by tribal warlords taking advantage of a military vacuum; and hundreds of women, pregnant by dead soldiers, wailing to Yudhishtira to support them. Truly, it has hardly mattered who won and who lost — an era is over.

Parva stands at the pinnacle among the books I have read in the recent past. More than that. In the last few months I have read three amazing books on the Mahabharata — Irawati Karve’s Yuganta (originally in Marathi), M T Vasudevan Nair’s Randamoozham (originally in Malayalam), and Parva (originally in Kannada). The realisation, almost too late, is what a vast body of modern Indian literature is inaccessible to those of us who restrict ourselves to English. The best works of Rushdie, and even R K Narayan, are minor entries amidst a long list of Indian literature in Indian languages; and even among them, Parva stands very nearly at the top.

Now is the Golden Age of the epics

Book recommendation – Yuganta by Iravati Karve. You don’t have to look beyond Quora to find people passing off all kinds of weird stories as being in the Mahabharata. There was one I read recently where Karna outdoes Arjuna in Drona’s eye-of-the-bird lesson by shooting an arrow into both eyes .

Till only a few decades back, any kind of objective study of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana was more or less impossible because they were so amorphous. In the last few decades, however, there are two amazing projects whose culmination finally makes these epics tractable in academic circles. I refer to the preparation of the “Critical Editions” of the epics – by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, prepared over 50 years (1919-1966), of the Mahabharata; and by the Maharaj Sayajirao University of Baroda (1951-75), of the Ramayana. These versions have been prepared by carefully collating hundreds, perhaps thousands, of manuscripts from different periods of Indian history, and trying to untangle later additions from the original versions of these epics.

The critical editions are, of course, in Sanskrit. (For the Sanskrit-initiate, here is the former: http://bombay.indology.info/mahabharata/welcome.html). There are attempts to translate them into English – which is something to look forward to. In the meantime, there have been precious few authors who have created amazing commentaries based on the critical editions. Of them, Iravati Karve’s book is the best book on the Mahabharata that I have ever read, and would recommend it very highly.

I think we are living in the Golden Age of the epics – at least, the “most golden age” of the last 300 years. In the coming 20-30 years, we should see English versions, research publications (and who can say, perhaps Amar Chitra Katha versions!) of these critical editions, finally “standardizing” the epics and enabling serious researchers to plumb their hidden depths.

Here is my review of Yuganta on Amazon:

Yuganta is, quite simply, the best book on the Mahabharata that I have read. The razor edge of Irawati Karve’s intelligence transforms the entire Mahabharata from a work full of religious allusions and inconsistencies explained away by deus ex machina into something much more valuable – the ultimate humanist story, of real people, facing real problems, and with real consequences that they had to come to terms with.

Karve’s book is perhaps the only commentary on the Mahabharata that I have read, which is based on BORI’s Critical Edition of the Mahabharata. This 18-volume Critical Edition, which consumed nearly 50 years of research to produce the ‘definitive Mahabharata’, is referred to in Yuganta repeatedly; and for good reason. The Mahabharata, being the touchstone of Indian epics, has seen accretions and extrapolations ever since it was first written; each addition adding layers of religion on top of a brilliantly consistent and realistic work. Karve strips away these layers and presents the beauty of the work underneath.

Karve particularly thrills in demolishing myths and cutting characters down to size. Bhishma as the avuncular grandfather-figure who sacrifices much, achieves much and means good to all people? In the light of Karve’s analysis, he becomes a shirker and an old man of 90, who spends most of the time that he commands the Kaurava army in trying to broker peace rather than in trying to win the war. Karna, whom every reader of the Mahabharata idolizes? Karve certainly points out the good in him, but explains how all of his so-called “bad karma” stems from a terrible lack of judgment and a misplaced sense of charity and goodness.

My favourite chapter in this book, though, is the one about Krishna. I must admit that I have never been a Krishna fan, taking him for a bit of a womanizer and a person with flexible morality (going by his actions in the Mahabharata). After reading Karve’s stunning takedowns of Bhishma, Karna and Draupadi, I was looking forward to seeing Krishna ravaged by her wit.

Au contraire. Karve is the first writer who has made me admire the role of Krishna in the Mahabharata. She paints a lovely, human picture of him as the ultimate “karma yogi”, detached soul, whose only real friend in the Mahabharata is Arjuna. And she makes a compelling case that it is because of Krishna that the Pandavas managed to rule at all — the Pandavas, one addicted to dice, one a muscle-man, one an adventurer with no sense of state-craft, and two children. Krishna was everything to them — advisor, champion, diplomat and counsellor — who gave them everything without seeking anything in return.

Krishna the human hero, in the light of Karve’s impeccable balance of his positive and negative qualities, is so much more worthy of admiration. And Karve no less – in the vast library of books about the Mahabharata, this is the most intelligent, most humanistic and most worthy book about that marvellous epic. 5 stars.

 

Runners and cookers

I read through a long comic strip about running today: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/running

I’ve tried running, and unlike the author of the comic above, I do not run because it makes me feel good. I run (very occasionally) because they say it’s good for my heart. When I finish a run, I do not feel exhilarated or enlightened. I feel tired, sweaty, hot and thirsty. Most of all, I feel bored. I struggle to finish a 5k if I’m not plugged into music. I’ve run through pain, through fatigue, through dehydration – but I’ve often given up mid-run because of boredom.

Here’s the thing about recreational running: there’s no one I know who runs because of the destination; it’s always the ‘journey’ for them. They don’t run to escape from an armed predator who is closing in on them, or to chase down a prey. There is an inherent pointlessness to running. Runners celebrate that. They consider running to be a battle against the spirit rather than against the world; they get the infamous “runner’s high”, not because they have defeated someone else or won a prize, but because they’ve finished.

There are two kinds of people in this world (yeah right :)). One kind values the effort, and the other values the result. I wonder if running encourages more and more people to belong into the first category. Running is, after all, the ultimate symbol of achievement that comes just by working hard. All you have to do to feel a sense of runner’s high after completing a half marathon is — running those 21 kilometers. The high rewards effort. It’s a one-variable problem: you run, you ‘win’.

If only life were like that. Life’s battles don’t often go to the one that works the hardest; more likely, they go to the luckiest, the smartest, the friendliest.I don’t like running at a philosophical level because it encourages the causal idea between effort and results. It is a comforting thing to believe this — to the runner, running strips away the worry, the tension, the pressure of life, every uncertainty dissolving into the one reality of the run, which is unmitigated, uninterrupted effort. But it is wrong. If only life was that simple.

I don’t enjoy running; what I do enjoy is cooking. Cooking stands in stark opposition to running. Most people who enjoy cooking do not particularly relish the process as much as the product. There is a sense of calculation in cooking: you choose the ingredients, you choose timings and temperatures, you choose quantities, and you adjust constantly. And it isn’t the hours of effort spent in cooking that make it worthwhile – it’s the gratification of seeing a series of calculated choices lead to an incredible taste/smell/sight experience. And it isn’t a solitary journey of the Self. Cooking is inherently social; to cook to gratify another person’s senses is always a layer of uncertainty, of risk, which makes it so much complex as an experience.

I invariably get a high from cooking. When I cook something, and it turns out ‘just right’, a lovely stew of chemicals drenches my brain. For me, this chemical rush is much more awesome than the chemical rush that follows running. It’s a creative rush, but it’s also a rush of realization. Precise cooking can lead to thwarted taste experiences in so many different ways: ingredients can go bad, flavors can inexplicably strengthen and weaken, stoves can misbehave, the audience can be cantankerous. The joy of cooking is the joy of conspiracy – the knowledge that you have embarked on a task that is inherently uncertain, in which the most sincere of efforts have no guarantee of reward – but when you pull it off, there’s a feeling that the whole universe has conspired to make things work.

And that’s why I completely disagree with the opinion of the cartoonist. There is more Zen in a thimbleful of cooking than in an entire marathon of running.

Two stories

Story 1

Whenever anyone who was anyone in Aleppo wanted to buy a horse, they would go to only one person: Sheikh Raschid, who bought horses from all over Arabia, and whose clientele included even the Prince of Cordoba. One day, the Sheikh was struck down with an ailment which no doctor could diagnose, and soon after, he passed away.

The Sheikh left behind three sons, each a paragon of virtue in his own way – Abdul, the eldest; Abu, the second, and Abbas, the youngest. All his wealth was to be divided among them. Now, Sheikh Raschid understood nothing as much as he did horses, and so most of his wealth was in his stables. And he left very precise instructions on how his horses were to be apportioned among them. Abdul, the eldest, would get half of the steeds. Abu would get one-third. And Abbas, who was only twelve years old, would get a ninth share.

And so, after an appropriate period of mourning, the three sons went early one morning to the stables to carry out their father’s wishes. Counting the horses, they found their father’s inventory consisted of 17 fine stallions and mares.

The sons were perplexed. How would they divide 17 horses into half?

As they stood outside the stables, wondering how best to solve this conundrum while remaining faithful to their father’s wishes, they saw an old man riding on a horse towards them. Seeing them, the man stopped to find out what the problem was. The Sheikh’s sons told him of their tricky predicament.

The man thought awhile, and said, “Good sirs, I am a merchant from Damascus, and I am on my way to sacred pilgrimage. I have been looking for an opportunity to do a good deed, so that Allah may smile upon me, and here is one such opportunity before me. Here is my horse. What use is he for me any more? Add him to your numbers, and make your inheritance easier to share.”

The young men were reluctant to accept the stranger’s generosity, but he was insistent, and so they agreed to add the stranger’s horse to the stable, and proceeded to divide their legacy, now a total of 18 horses.

First, they allowed Abbas, the youngest to choose, and he picked the finest 2 of his father’s horses – one ninth.

Then the second, Abu, picked one-third, or 6 of the horses.

And then Abdul picked his one-half, or 9 horses.

And after they had each picked their share, they saw that there was still one horse of the eighteen left over – the old man’s mare. And the old man said, “It appears that your problems are solved, and Allah has willed that my one horse is left over! With your permission, I will mount my old steed once again, and proceed on my way.” And thus, bidding them farewell, he galloped off into the distance, leaving them each with their rightful inheritance.

 

Story 2

There was only one horse merchant in Aleppo – the redoubtable Sheikh Raschid, who bought horses from all over Arabia, and whose clientele included even the Prince of Cordoba. One day, the Sheikh died, as all mortal men must, and his legacy passed on to his four sons.

The Sheikh’s four sons were strong, noble, just and well-educated – Abdul, the eldest; Abu, the second, Abbas, the third, and little Ali, who was only 4 years old, but every bit as noble as his brothers. All his wealth was to be divided among them. Now, Sheikh Raschid left behind very little gold and property, but most of his wealth was in his stables, in the form of his fine stallions and mares. And he left very precise instructions on how his horses were to be apportioned among his sons. Abdul, the eldest, would get half of the steeds. Abu would get one-third. Abbas would get one-sixth. And little Ali, who was too small to even climb a horse, would get one-eighteenth.

After an appropriate period of mourning, the sons, along with the Qadi, went to the stables to divide the horses amongst themselves. Counting the horses, they found their father’s inventory consisted of 19 fine stallions and mares.

The sons were perplexed. How would they divide 19 horses into half? Or into one-eigtheenth? The task was impossible. The Qadi proclaimed his helplessness. He had never seen such a case before.

As they stood outside the stables, wondering how best to solve this conundrum while remaining faithful to their father’s wishes, they saw an old man walking slowly towards them. Seeing them, the man stopped to find out what the problem was. The Sheikh’s sons told him of their tricky predicament.

The man thought awhile, and said, “Good sirs, let me tell you a little bit about myself. I, too, was a rich merchant once, but times have been hard on me, and over the years, I have slowly lost all of my wealth to calamities and bad investments. Now I have very little money left, but with what I have, I want to make one final trip, to make the holy Haj to Makkah. Allah has put you in a position to be of some assistance to me at this juncture. I am old; I do not know how far I will be able to get on my own feet. Give me one of your father’s horses, noble sirs, and you will solve your problem, while helping one less fortunate than yourself.”

The boys thought this was an excellent idea, and they gave the finest of their father’s fine steeds to the old man, and began dividing the remaining eighteen among themselves.

First, the eldest, Abdul, took half of the horses – 9.

Then Abu took his one-third share – 6.

And then Abbas took his one-sixth share – 3.

And then there were none left. And little Ali, seeing that there was not even a single horse for him among his father’s riches, began to bawl his heart out.

Hearing the little boy cry so piteously for his inheritance, the stranger felt a surge of sorrow and pity. He knelt next to little Ali and told him, “Don’t cry, little one. Your sorrow is my fault, because it is I who have robbed you of your inheritance. How many horses is your share? One-eighteenth? That makes one out of 18. Here, take back this one, the finest of your father’s horses. It belongs to you; it has always belonged to you. Learn to ride it, and ride it well! Now I will leave, and the peace of Allah upon you all!”

Thus saying, the old man handed back his horse to little Ali, and stepped back on the road, with Allah’s blessings – and all of the Sheikh’s sons’, too – upon him.