[I hereby publicly acknowledge my indebtedness to a Hindi post by Mahendra Goyal titled सामान्य ज्ञान टर्पण २ that was shared by Anindita Chatterjee, a close acquaintance of mine from my Jamshedpur sojourn, on Facebook dated September 11, 2013. I have merely retold it in English with much more liberty than is usual, have suitably embellished it for the taste of the very limited readership that I enjoy, and have written in the contemporary continuity pieces.]
You, gentle reader, only know one half of the old woodcutter’s parable if you know it at all, narrated to you by well-meaning elders. It is an old story, as old as the woodman himself and his wife of many winters. To jog your memory, fading undoubtedly with advancing age, I iterate the tale in its entirety — the half you knew and the rest that you didn’t — to complete the moral education that was well begun but never finished.
The Well-worn Tale
The woodman, sweating from overwork one sweltering afternoon in the rain forest, took a dip in the river keeping his age-worn axe on the shore. As he scrambled ashore after the much needed bath, he accidentally dropped the axe in the river and, carried by the turbulence, the axe was gone in a trice, vanished in the muddy stream. The poor woodcutter began weeping for the terrible loss in all his abject Bengali-ness, for he could not afford another one and, in that event, he and his wife would starve in these terrible times.
God heard him weep and came to him without bidding to test him, as is god’s wont, whether spelt with an upper case G (2G, 3G or 4G, as the case may be, and contemporary scam headlines dictated) or not.
Posing as a mere passerby, he dived in the river and brought out an axe, exactly the same as the one that got drowned but for the blade; it was solid platinum, slightly worn off, and no good for the poor man’s work.
“Here’s your axe,” he proffered it to the hapless woodman. “That’s not mine,” the poor man continued to sob. God dived again and brought up a gold bladed one. The woodman sobbed on without let, vehemently shaking his head.
In the third try, god retrieved the original axe. The woodman, still in tears, thanked him profusely.
At that point god got back to his own likeness (so much nothingness to some like vacant space, but different images to people of different faiths). To the woodman he came as Śiva, clad in illegal tiger skin tie-around and fly-ash talcum.
“I’m pleased with you, for you are poor but honest. You may keep all the three axes as a reward from me for your singular virtue. You may do with them as you please.”
Thus ends the tale you must have heard before.
The Untold Intermediate Tale
Before returning home the woodcutter trudged along to the distant City, the city once spelt with an upper case C and presently with a ditto K, where dwelt the right honourable chief minister of the realm and her assistants, the wealthy merchant class (mostly outlanders), the up-and-coming yuppies, and the owners of all the parcels of the land living far off from the ones they owned in this realm (and others).
An authorized dealer gave him a handsome price for the noble metal axe-heads and kept the hafts to chase stray dogs with, for they were a menace in the City. He inquired about property prices in the City (oops! Kity, by the new diktat), only to find that it was not enough to buy even a flat in a reasonable locality, let alone live off it unless judiciously invested in the right direction. Dejected by the paucity (or, is it pauKity? I’m utterly confused!) of capital, he scratched his pastoral head real bloody (for nail clippers were too expensive) but to no avail, and so sought the help of an investment consultant. Under his advice his own iron headed axe he sold in the kabadi market for just about a Rupee and, that too, only because smaller coins were out of circulation.
As advised (and ably assisted) once again, he bribed the powers that be with part of the gross proceeds, net of taxes, party donations, consultation fee, brokerage and extortion honorarium, to make a small parcel of land in the dense forest (where he dwelt) over to his own name, and got the needful permission to build a cottage, with one or two spare rooms to let out now and then, where his humble hut once stood.
And thus he began his humble business for naughty (but never immoral) purpose for pāpī city dwellers to wallow in. Unused to any kind of hospitality in their previous incarnation as hardworking woodsfolk, he and his humble wife eked out an existence from that. But the sins of the city sinners never visited them by the lord’s grace.
The Final Part of the Fable
One day, his lawfully wedded wife went to take a dip in the same river, at the same spot where her husband had once bathed, but this time in their previously owned Nano, the only vehicle they could afford, what with the rapidly rising fuel costs. Despite their newfound riches, they could not afford a chauffeur at the going (and growing) rates.
It is not clear as to why she had to go to the river when they had a well-appointed attached bathroom in the barsati of their mansion where they dwelt, leaving the lower floor for the naughty Kitizens (got it right this time!). They also owned the swimming pool meant for their pleasure-loving occasional guests. But go to the river she did. And, as luck would have it, she drowned at the very spot where the axe did several moons ago.
The housemaid alerted the woodman when she was inexcusably late for her midday pūjā. They traced the car, and also her flip-flops (made famous by the honourable chief minister herself), red Bengal towel (worn thin and almost transparent), and a change of fresh clothes. As the truth dawned on him, the erstwhile woodman, inconsolable as he was, began sobbing like a child…
… And eventually Śiva appeared as himself, heard the cause of the woodman’s woe and, without wasting any further words, dived to retrieve an unconscious woman — Aishvarya.
“Is this your wife of fifty years?” he asked.
“Yes lord, she’s mine!”
Śiva assumed his angry aspect — the four-handed rudra murti in the tāṇḍava pose — and berated the woodsman in his most truculent manner.
“How dare you lie to me, me, the destroyer of all sinners high and low? And how could I have granted you a boon not so long ago, you avaricious and lustful old fool!”
“But, my lord, you can’t curse me before hearing me out,” before the lord could utter puṇarmūṣikobhavaḥ (पुणर्मुषिकोभवः), the woodman interjected, “Or else I may have to go to the Human Rights Commission!” Livid that the lord was, he too balked at the mention of the dreaded authority of HRC.
“Had I shaken my head in denial, my lord, you’d leave the unconscious Ash on the shore, and dive again,” continued the woodman to get in his point edgewise, “And bring up Katrina, perhaps.
“At my repeat denial you’d dive a third time to bring up my age-worn wife the same way you had once retrieved my equally age-worn axe. I’d nod affirmative at her sight, for that’s how I’m built, for honesty is my genetic policy. And then you’d ask me to take all the three women as my own.”
“Hmmm… I might have done just that,” said Śiva.
“That’s why I lied to you, lord, for I’d surely have been charged with immoral trafficking if I took them to the Kity (spot on again!) for due disposal. What good would that be? If not, I’d be stuck with these extra dames, assuage their needs — hunger for Bollywood ishtyle food that tastes good but wouldn’t fatten them to scapegoat dimensions and would cost a packet; hunger for ever-new raiment, footwear and ornaments to match, hairstyles to resonate with their kaleidoscopic moods, and other esoteric beauty treatments; and several other physical and spiritual demands. I’m ill equipped to do any of those, my lord,” he said with a pained expression writ large on his countenance, “and I don’t even speak Hindi!”
“And then my lawfully wedded wife would be jealous, even without my being physically able any longer, for she avidly watches all the lewd commercials on our television every evening (being a snake charmer in another aspect, you’d surely know all about it) — now that she no longer has to cook for ourselves, nor sweep and wipe the floor, nor wash our meager clothes in the stream yonder.
“And I request you to put yourself in my humble pair of Shreeleathers, think my thoughts, feel my wife’s irate strokes with her besom made of coconut frond spines, sharper than porcupine quills, on your own bare back! Why would you want to put me to so much trouble, lord? Why do you grudge me the white lie that I had to utter in self-defence? Eminent people seek and are granted anticipatory bail every day of the week; call this my anticipatory lie.
“Now that I’ve had my say, pray do revive my old woman and take the other two off with you to your harem.”
What Śiva did and said thereafter is not known to yours truly, the mere narrator of a tale that I repeat as I had heard it said, just as Vālmikī had retold the oft-repeated Rāmāyaṇa.