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Grandmas bag of stories, p.3
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       Grandma's Bag of Stories, p.3

           Sudha Murty
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  ‘Did you like the story, Meenu?’ Raghu asked.

  ‘Oh yes,’ Meenu nodded. ‘But I liked the minister more than the king!’

  ‘That’s true, Meenu,’ Ajji agreed. ‘Kings did need intelligent ministers to show them the right path sometimes. Remember Akbar had Birbal, and Krishnadevaraya had Tenali Rama? Why just kings, we all need someone to tell us if what we are doing is wrong. It could be our parents, grandparents, teachers or even our best friend. The important thing is to listen to them and change our ways when needed.’

  The Enchanted Scorpions

  What an exciting morning the children had had that day! Ajja had asked for their help in cleaning up his old storeroom. Ajja loved to keep all kinds of old things in that room, much to Ajji’s annoyance. She firmly believed the room was the principle attraction for all the cockroaches, mice, termites and other such bugs in the house. Every summer holiday the children spent a day clearing out the room, exclaiming over all the treasures they had unearthed. Ajja even let them keep some of the odds and ends they found. That didn’t please their mothers too much though!

  Today they had found an old wooden box. It was a big box, beautifully carved all over with flowers, and vines and leaves. Inside, it had little compartments to keep all manner of things. Now these compartments were empty, but Raghu, who had been reading Treasure Island, imagined that once these were full of gold and silver coins, gems as big as eggs and all kinds of fantastic jewels.

  After examining the box thoroughly, the children decided that the day’s story had to be about lost treasure. Ajji, who knew a story about anything under the sun, started right away.

  Siddharth was a young, good-natured merchant. Looking for work, he arrived in a village. He liked the people of the village so much that he decided to use all his savings, buy a house and live there forever. While searching for a house, he met Uday.

  Uday was a poor man. His family had once been extremely wealthy landowners but were now not so well off. Uday was looking to sell his old family mansion in order to pay off his family’s loans.

  Siddharth loved the house Uday showed him and bought it immediately. Then he set about repairing the mansion, which was in ruins. As he dug out the old flooring, he found a sealed box buried underground. When he opened it, to his surprise, he saw it was filled with scorpions. He flung the box away in fright.

  That evening, he went to visit the wisest man in the village and asked him about the box of scorpions. The wise man thought for a while, then said, ‘Perhaps Uday’s ancestors hid some money in that box and buried it, to be used when someone in the family needed the money. Over the years they must have forgotten about the existence of the box.’

  Siddharth was still puzzled. ‘But the box contained scorpions,’ he said, ‘not money.’

  The old man smiled. ‘The box is protected by an old spell. If it is opened by anyone other than a family member, it will appear as if it is swarming with scorpions. Only a true family member will be able to see that the box contains money.’

  Siddharth was sad to hear this story. He remembered the tears that had sprung up in Uday’s eyes as he had looked back at his ancestral house for one last time before leaving the village. If only he had known about the hidden treasure, he would not have had to sell the house. When Siddharth reached home, he decided to keep the box safely till someone from Uday’s family came to claim it. To make sure that the box was taken only by a true descendant of Uday’s family, he took four scorpions from the box and hung them in four corners of his newly opened shop.

  All his customers would comment when they entered the shop. ‘Siddharth, are you mad? Why have you hung dangerous insects in your shop? Do you want to scare away shoppers?’

  Siddharth would only smile. He knew his goods were the best for miles around, and people would come to shop at his store, scorpions or not. Gradually the shop came to be known as the Scorpion Shop and the villagers laughed at him behind his back. But Siddharth did not care.

  Many years passed. Siddharth was now a middle-aged man with a wife and children and enough money. But he had one regret. No one had come to claim that box.

  One day, a young boy walked into the shop and said, ‘Sir, I have heard from many people in the village that you are wealthy and often help those in need. I had to stop going to school because I could no longer pay my fees. Could you please lend me some money so I can finish my studies?’

  Siddharth shook his head sadly. ‘The villagers have exaggerated about my wealth,’ he said. ‘Yes, I am earning enough, but not so much that I can help you or lend you money, though I would have loved to do so.’

  The boy flared up in anger when he heard this. ‘Sir, if you do not want to help me, please say so openly. Why do you lie? You have so much money that you don’t know what to do with it. Why else have you hung gold coins in the four corners of your shop? Surely you can spare some coins to help a poor student like me.’

  Siddharth stared at him in astonishment. ‘Wh-what? What did you just say?’ he asked, his eyes bulging in excitement.

  ‘I said if you don’t want to help . . .’ the boy repeated.

  ‘Yes, yes, I heard that,’ Siddharth cut him short. ‘But what did you say after that, about the gold coins in my shop?’

  The boy now looked at Siddharth doubtfully, afraid that perhaps this excited old man was a bit mad. ‘I said you are so wealthy that you have hung gold coins in the four corners of the shop. There they are, for the world to see!’ And the boy pointed to what appeared to Siddharth as four writhing scorpions.

  Siddharth gave a happy whoop of laughter. He rushed forward and hugged the boy.

  ‘Are you related to Uday Kamalakar? Did your family ever live in this village?’ he nearly shouted into the boy’s ears.

  The young man stepped back in alarm. Perhaps this rich man was mad and dangerous after all. ‘Y-yes, my name is Uday. I was named after my grandfather. His family lived here for many generations. Then, when they fell on hard times, my grandfather sold his old house and moved. He never recovered from the grief of having to sell his ancestral property and died heartbroken.’

  Siddharth wiped away the tears from his eyes. ‘Wait here, my son,’ he said. Rushing to his house, he came back with the old box and gave it to the young boy. ‘Go on, open it and tell me what you see,’ he chuckled.

  The boy opened the box and his eyes nearly fell out of his head. For he held in his hands more treasure than he could dream about in his wildest fantasies. The box was filled with gold and silver coins and jewels!

  He looked up in astonishment at Siddharth, who was grinning broadly. ‘Yes, it belongs to you,’ Siddharth explained. ‘I have held it safe for many years, hoping someone from Uday’s family will come to claim it. Your troubles are now over. Go home, use the wealth of your ancestors judiciously and do well in life.’

  Then he told the boy the story of how he had found the box which appeared to be filled with scorpions to anyone who did not belong to Uday’s family.

  Uday was amazed when he heard the story. He offered Siddharth half his wealth in gratitude. But Siddharth would hear none of it. ‘This is yours,’ he insisted. ‘Go, enjoy your life.’

  Uday went away with the box, and all his life he remembered the funny, honest old man who had kept his wealth safely for him.

  ‘How lovely, Ajji!’ Krishna gasped. ‘If only we had such a shopkeeper in this town!’ All the children agreed that that would have been such fun. Ajji laughed at their dreamy faces. Then she shooed them out to play in the garden. And do you know what they played till late in the evening? Treasure hunt, of course!

  The Horse Trap

  The next day, there was a surprise summer shower. The land smelled beautiful. The thirsty earth had soaked in every drop of rainwater. The children had been very busy shifting the puppies and kittens, who were roaming in the back and front yards, into the house so that they did not get drenched in the rain. Their respective mothers were very busy shifting the pappadams left to d
ry on the terrace. Summer is the season when, under Ajji’s leadership, pickles and pappadams were made.

  Meenu started a calculation. ‘Everyone needs at least five pappadams per day. For the next one month 600 pappadams will be needed. Tomorrow our neighbour Vishnu Kaka’s three grandchildren are coming. They will also eat with us these tasty pappadams. We may have to keep five per head . . . That means Ajji has to prepare 600 + 50 pappadams.’ When Ajji listened to Meenu’s mathematics, she laughed and said, ‘Don’t calculate that way. It may be true today that we will all eat five pappadams a day, but this may not be true for every day. After eating pappadams for three days, one may get bored. There is a wedding in my brother’s house and we all might go there. So we may not eat any pappadam those days. The way you are calculating, reminds me of the man who calculated the number of horses, once in England . . .’

  All the children immediately gathered around her. ‘Oh Ajji, you must tell us this story of how the horses were counted.’

  So Ajji had to stop what she was doing right there and tell them the story.

  Many many years ago, in England, there lived a great thinker and scholar called George Smith. He thought a lot about how it would be in the future, and advised the prime minister about many things. He researched how many people would live in the country in twenty years’ time, he calculated how many schools, hospitals and roads needed to be built, or how much food needed to be grown or bought from other places to feed all these people.

  His calculations helped the government immensely in planning for the future.

  George often needed to visit the prime minister’s office to talk to him about some new project and advise him. One day, the prime minister had invited him for a meeting, so he hopped into his horse carriage and set off for the office. Now George was always deep in thought and rarely noticed what was happening around him. Today, too, he sat in his carriage thinking about farms and ships and houses. But suddenly his carriage stopped with a jolt and he was shaken out of his thoughts. There was some commotion on the road and all carriages had stopped around him. Normally George would have just sunk back into his thoughts again, but today something stopped him. A horrible, strong smell. A smell that hung in the air and made you cover your nose with a hanky if you were not a scholar wrapped up in your own world.

  Today, somehow, George was not able to disconnect himself from what was going on around him. The smell kept wafting into his nose and taking his mind away from the problem he was tackling. He called out to his coachman, ‘Hi John, what is this extraordinary smell?’

  John the coachman was used to his master’s absent-minded ways, and he replied briefly, ‘Horse dung.’

  Horse dung! Now that was something George had never given a thought to. Somehow, he could now think of nothing else. Soon his carriage pulled up in front of the prime minister’s office. But George kept sitting inside, lost in thought. Finally John tapped on the window to tell his master that they had reached their destination.

  George walked to the visitor’s room still thinking. He was sitting there, reflecting on horses and their dung, when the prime minister’s secretary came to meet him. Now Adam, the secretary, was not as learned as George, but he was very sharp and intelligent. He greeted George and said to him apologetically, ‘The PM had to make time for another important meeting, and will be late in seeing you. I hope you don’t mind waiting.’

  George kept staring out of the window, watching yet more horse-drawn carriages rushing up and down the road. Thinking he had perhaps not heard him, Adam cleared his throat and repeated loudly, ‘Mr Smith, the PM . . .’

  ‘Yes, I heard you, Adam,’ George mumbled.

  Worried that this great thinker of the country was in some trouble, Adam asked gingerly, ‘Is something bothering you? Perhaps I could help . . .?’

  George looked at him excitedly, ‘You know, I just looked into the future and realized we will all die in about a hundred years. Our country will be destroyed, our way of life gone forever. And do you know why? All because of horses . . . and their dung!’

  Adam stared at George, puzzled. Surely he could not be serious?

  George continued, ‘See, now we use horses as the principal mode of transport in the country. They are used to draw carriages, in the king’s stables, even in the farms.’

  Adam nodded. This was true.

  ‘So how many horses are there now? Let’s assume that there are 500 rich families who can afford to own a horse carriage. If each family has at least two children and all of them are rich enough to own carriages, that will mean a minimum of two more carriages in a few years. Each carriage would require two horses. So, each rich family would be using four horses at the least. So then there will be 2,000 horses. If you add our king’s cavalry, and the number of horses in the farms, the numbers increase substantially.’

  Adam nodded. Yes, this sounded true enough, but what was George’s point?

  ‘How do we get rid of the dung they generate now?’

  Adam answered patiently, ‘We dig pits and empty the dung into them.’

  George nodded, ‘Now that’s my point. Imagine the scene a hundred years from now. 2,000 horses would have increased to 400,000, given the way the population is increasing. This will mean more dung! And what will we do with all this dung? Humans will need more space and houses and farming to sustain themselves. Where will we find open land to dig up and bury the dung? It will lie unattended everywhere and cause horrible diseases. If they make their way into the water sources it will be even worse. We will end up poisoning ourselves and our environment. We will become sick, and our country will become poor just by tending to so many sick people, and finally our way of life will just die out—as we all will. All because of horses!’

  Adam sat and thought about this for some time. George’s thoughts and the grim picture he had painted of the future was scary indeed. But . . . here Adam’s practical thinking kicked in; what if things did not work exactly the way George was seeing it? He turned to his friend and said, ‘Mr Smith, you are not taking into account one very important bit into your calculations—the ability humans have to innovate and adapt. Many years ago there were no carts or carriages, we went everywhere by foot. Then once we started domesticating animals we realized we could use them for transport too. But do you think humans will rest with this achievement? Who knows, in a hundred years what other modes of transport we would have invented so that we may not require horse for transport at all. Perhaps we will even be able to fly like birds!’

  George never solved this problem in his lifetime. Neither did Adam live to see how true his thoughts about the future had been. Man went on to invent so many new ways of moving from place to place that horses are no longer used in the numbers they once were. James Watt invented the steam engine, which led to the invention of railways. Then cars were invented by Karl F. Benz and became widely used in cities for transport. Finally the Wright brothers showed that humans could fly—in aeroplanes! With all these great inventions, the horse and other animal-drawn carts and carriages are now a thing of the past.

  Truly, if man did not innovate and experiment, our species would have died out—just like George had predicted!

  Everyone was very happy this story. They all teased Meenu. ‘You are the George Smith of our house. Who knows one day nobody will eat pappadams and Amma may not prepare that many pappadams. We may even buy directly from the shops if it is a small number.’

  Meenu felt very embarrassed. She hid her face with a pillow. Ajji said, ‘Don’t make fun of her. Foresight is very important. If you don’t have foresight, then you will land up in trouble like Ramu.’

  ‘Who is Ramu?’ the children immediately asked Ajji.

  ‘I will tell the story of Ramu only tomorrow.’ And Ajji bustled off. The children knew she would tell only one story a day, so they eagerly waited for the next day to hear Ramu’s story.

  A Treasure for Ramu

  Vishnu Kaka’s grandchildren had come to visit him. Vishnu
Kaka was a very good friend of Ajja’s. They had lived next door to each other for years. Unfortunately, his wife Vasanthi Kaki had died a few years back. Though there was a cook, his grandchildren—Sharan, Suma and Divya—always preferred to eat in Ajji’s house, which Ajji also welcomed.

  With seven hungry children to feed, Ajji realized telling a story would be a good way to keep them quiet till the food got cooked. Ajji started the story while peeling the cucumbers.

  Did you know that sometimes even the gods in heaven can get into an argument? That’s what happened once when Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, found herself cornered by all the other gods. Together, they accused her of one thing—that she never stayed in one place for too long! ‘No sooner are you comfortably settled in one house, do you decide to leave it, and off you go elsewhere!’ they said to her.

  Lakshmi sniffed and said, ‘That’s not true. I stay in a house as long as I am welcome. If people think ahead, work sincerely and spend money wisely, I stay with them forever. Unfortunately often when I am in one place for a while, people behave strangely, and I have no choice but to leave.’

  The other gods pooh-poohed this and refused to believe her. Poor Lakshmi decided she needed to show them proof of what she had just said. Here is what she did to show that she was correct. Remember, many human years make only a second in god years. So what took years to happen on earth, the gods could see in only a few minutes.

  Ramu and Rani were farmers. They worked hard in their fields and earned enough money to feed their children and meet their other needs. They were not rich and sometimes had to make do with fewer new clothes and not very nice food.

  One day, Rani was digging a corner of her garden in order to plant a tree. As she dug deeper, there was a loud clang! Her shovel had hit something metallic hidden underground. Excited, she dug faster, till she pulled out a large metal box. When she opened it she could not believe her eyes. It was filled with gold and silver jewels! For a while Rani stood dumbstruck. Then she did a happy whoop and ran home with the box under her arm.

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