A King's Metamorphosis
K. N. KaulHistorical
events of catastrophic magnitude give birth to historical folktales in which
the fictional characters are made contemporaries with the historical personages
of the times. The former are supposed to be eyewitnesses to the events and so
lend credibility to the narrative. In tales such as these, the reader can feel
the pulse of the bruised soul of these times and uncover the raw and bleeding
wounds on its body buried deep under the debris of different garbled versions of
chroniclers. Fiction, paradoxically, observes and records faithfully the truth
at the grass root level which History, in its cynicism overlooks. It is
correctly remarked that nothing is true in History except names and dates, but
everything is true in fiction except names and dates.
This fanciful tale centres round one of the illustrious
kings of Kashmir, Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin (1423-1474 A.D.) fondly named 'Badshah',
the great king, by his loving subjects and remembered with love and reverence by
the posterity even to this day. His benign reign spread over half a century
ushered in peace and prosperity and provided a special healing touch to his
Hindu subjects who had suffered everything that hell possessed during the
preceding one hundred years. A proud and highly civilised race had been
vanquished, dispossessed, humbled and disgraced and finally all but exterminated
systematically. Those left alive, had, over the years drawn themselves inwards
into a protective shell of make-believe, prejudices and imbecile morality. It
was here in this shell that this folktale was born and nursed and then given to
the people as an opiate. Since mind and not the body registers feelings, it has
to be drugged with fanciful and wishful anecdotes so as to allow the body and
mind to resuscitate. This folktale of ours is an apt illustration to this fact.
What happened during those one hundred years or so
before Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin appeared on the scene is a tragic saga of Evil
perpetrated upon the people of the kingdom, who were first let down by their
rulers and then forsaken by their luck. Starting with the prolonged rape of the
entire length and breadth of the valley by Dulacha or Oulcha, a Tartar chief
from Turkistan in 1319 A.D. who laid waste the land, and another by Achala,
another Turkish leader soon after a year or so ruined its people entirely. What
little was left to complete the picture of death and destruction was taken over
by Sultan Sikander (1389-1412 A.D.) hatefully known as 'Sikander But-shikan'
(the iconoclast), father of Zain-ul-Abidin. Assisted by Suha Bhatt, his Prime
Minister, a neo-convert to Islam, assuming the name of Saifud-Din, the king in
mad frenzy of skewed religious fanaticism and bigotry surpassed even the
greatest tyrants of History. Putting hundreds and thousands of his Hindu
subjects, mostly Brahmins, to sword, desecrating, plundering and destroying all
the famous temples and libraries, focibly converting some to Islam, inflicting
all possible cruelties upon them, the king stopped short at nothing. His equally
ruthless soldiers tired of wielding their swords dragged their hapless victims
to the Dal Lake and drowned them in it at a place which is still known by the
name of 'Bhatta Mazar' meaning the graveyard of the Hindus. Those who yielded,
got converted; those who could, escaped to the subcontinent; but those who
To these people it must have been impossible to believe
that a Muslim king and the son of an arch tyrant (Sultan Sikander) at that,
could be so generous, so kind-hearted, secular and large-hearted as to allow
them the same freedom and privileges as his Muslim subjects enjoyed. The only
explanation for this incredible phenomenon that could readily occur to them must
have been the intervention of some divine or supernatural power affecting the
thinking and psyche of the king. This tale that has mystified its hero, has come
down to us in the shape of this folktale. Here it is:
The day was sullen as before. Sable gray clouds behaved
like unwelcome guests having come to stay. Late winter seemed to linger on in
the valley adding to the woes of the people. The morning brought no let up in
the weather. Pandit Shri Bhatt, a local Vaid (physician) sitting in the ground
floor room of his house which served as his clinic, was pulling hard at his
Hukkah (hubble-bubble) while feeling the pulse of one of his patients. The
charcoals in the Chillum (the small earthen pot atop the Hukkah) refused to
ignite. In disgust he threw down the long wooden pipe and hurriedly scribbled a
prescription for the patient. His face was anxious and worried. Apparently he
had something on his mind. He had received the other day, through one of his
Muslim friends, a courtier, a detailed report about King Zain-ul-Abidin's
illness and also the inability of all the royal physicians to cure him. He was
anxious to prove his worth as a physician and his friend had already recommended
his name to the king. He was asked to reach the palace at noon that day and now
that he had finished with his patients, he took his medicine box with him and
left for the palace.
The guard at the palace gate escorted Shri Bhatt to the
main building. Here silence prevailed everywhere and men and soldiers talked in
hushed tones. The king's illness had engulfed everyone with deep anxiety. Even
the appearance of a brief sun winking coldly behind the clouds did not remove
some of the gloom. Straightening the loose folds of his gown he walked with a
light foot trying to avoid the sound of his footfalls. Presently he found
himself at the doorstep of the king's bedroom.
Shri Bhatt, head bent, approached the vast bedstead
upon which the king was reclining. Two royal physicians were changing the
bandage of his infected wound which a sinister looking boil at his back had
turned into. Saluting the Sultan, he stood at a respectful distance. The royal
physician addressed the king," Your Majesty, Shri Bhatt is here. May we
give him a try?"
The Sultan made a noise of disgust. "Do what you
think best, Shri Bhatt. We are in great pain," he said, throwing the back
of his hand to him.
A chill caution of a trained physician entered Shri
Bhatt's mind. He unbandaged the wound and touched lightly the skin round it
which looked red and tender. He applied some medicine on it covering it with a
bit of cotton wool and then bandaged it securely. "Tonight Your Majesty
will enjoy sound sleep and within three days, God willing, sit up completely
cured", he addressed his king.
The king's emaciated face gave back a bald and bland
smile in reply.
That night in the fenceless borderland between sleep
and wakefulness the king felt his back relieved of much of the pain and it was
late in the morning when he opened his eyes feeling refreshed after peaceful
sleep. Whether it was the efficacy of Shri Bhatt's medicine or his good fortune
that did the trick none can tell. But after a few days the king, completely
cured, did attend the court as predicted by Shri Bhatt. Sitting on his throne,
he looked around for his benefactor and spotted him standing in a corner. He
motioned him to his presence. Words came to him slowly as if he had to choose
from a difficult dialect long forgotten. Short pauses in between expressed his
gratefulness more eloquently than the words he spoke.
The king asked Shri Bhatt to name anything in the world
and that would be granted to him. Shri Bhatt expressed his gratitude for the
magnanimous offer and said that His Majesty's recovery was all that he desired.
Prompted by the king to speak out his mind as he was keen to do something for
him, Shri Bhatt kept silent. He felt like a prize winner who does not know how
to carry his unwieldy trophy home. The king's eyes bored into his face as if
trying to find a path leading to his mind. This time Shri Bhatt looked straight
into his eyes and saw in them a deep sea of generosity. Encouraged by the
stately inclination of his head and the indulgent smile playing on his lips, he
prayed that his Hindu subjects be let off the hook of tyranny and religious
persecution so that their honour and religious freedom could be restored.
Pleased with the reply, the king granted him his wish with a nod. That day after
the Darbar was over, Shri Bhatt walking along the narrow paths leading to his
home felt a strange insidious warmth engulfing his being after a long, long
time. A flirting wind brushed his face lightly as if in thanksgiving on behalf
of his suffering brethren. Tears of relief welled up in his heart and dribbled
down his beard.
The single streak of good fortune was God's last gift
to Shri Bhatt, as the king, after some time, was again down with a disease with
this time neither he nor the royal physicians could diagnose or cure. Each day
that passed seemed to sap his life force drop by drop, inch by inch. Demented
with prolonged fever, the king looked prematurely senile and his face took an
ashen hue. His royal head, once so robust and youthful, looked inadequate even
to support his beard. Gloom enveloped the city and the desperate people prayed
for divine mercy.
Shri Bhatt's failure to find out an effective cure for
the king's illness made him desperate. He was weighted down by great anxiety. He
loved his king and did not want to lose him. Now his reputation as a physician
was at stake. But more than that the decrees issued by the king had not been yet
implemented. His untimely demise would undo all that he had achieved so far.
That day Shri Bhatt went for an early dip at the
Vitasta direct from the palace where he had spent the whole night beside the
king's bed. It was predawn and the bathing ghat was deserted. Only a lonely star
beamed at him from the sky. While on way back he saw a figure approaching him.
It was a Sadhu, six foot two and Shri Bhatt had not seen a Sadhu in the city for
a long time. Folding his hands in reverence he touched his feet. The Sadhu's dim
profile was now discernible in the early light of the dawn. His head with long
matted hair, thick as a thatch, matched perfectly with his long flowing beard.
But the sight of his bloodshot eyes giving out flares of hate gave him
gooseflesh. "You are the first Brahman that I have seen since yesterday. I
have been roaming all day and night to find a temple for a day's rest but I have
not seen any. Have my eyes deceived me?" he said to Shri Bhatt without any
preliminaries. Shari Bhatt looked at him like a bird that has been shot and
parrying the question requested him to accept his hospitality as his house was
just nearby. At home he offered him some food and sat before him not knowing how
to explain the disaster that had overtaken the place, and its people. Obviously
the Sadhu did not belong to those parts and had come from the south of the
sub-continent. He summed up briefly the tragedy that had overtaken his people
and told him about the desperate situation he was in at the moment. The Sadhu
listened with rapt attention with his eyes closed. "Your king has finished
with this world and there is nothing one can do now," he said.
"But the promise he made to relieve my people of
their miseries will soon be forgotten. Justice will not then be done. If only
the king could live for a few months more!" Shri Bhatt said throwing his
hands in despair.
Something lit up the Sadhu's face. He opened his eyes
and pulled viciously at his beard as if to soften the impact of the idea that
had hit him like a bolt. He opened up in measured tones, "Listen carefully.
I can animate your king by my own Atman for hundred days immediately after he
breathes his last. I hope that much time should be enough to get your plans in
action. During that time I shall be leaving my mortal shell here and you must
promise to preserve it safely for me."
It took some time far the strange scheme to sink into
Shri Bhatt's mind. He thought the Sadhu was playing a cruel joke on him. But the
tone of the Sadhu's voice reassured him. His adam's apple moved convulsively. He
looked him up and down, not knowing what to say.
Shri Bhatt changed gear. "Am I not putting you to
a great risk? What if something unusual happens? No, no, it is asking too
much," he said hovering between despondency and hope.
Without answering back, the Sadhu now sat cross-legged
and closed his eyes softly. He did not even wait to elicit from Shri Bhatt the
assurance asked for and went into a deep trance. Slowly his breathing stopped
altogether and he looked like a statue.
Shri Bhatt raced out of the room locking it up from
outside. He flew to the palace and went straight into the King's bedroom. He
found the king's face deathly pale, cold sweat dotting his brow. Presently his
whole body convulsed and he phewed out a long sigh and lay still and stiff. The
king was no more. Shri Bhatt was all eyes now. He wanted to be the witness to
the miracle promised by the Sadhu. Yes, the miracle did occur. The king's face
began to regain its colour and very soon his body began to move. He asked for
water in a feeble voice for the first time after many days. The Sadhu's soul had
taken over while that of the king had made its tryst with his Maker.
Shri Bhatt was now fully convinced that the Sadhu's
soul had animated the body of the king. But it would take more than a hundred
days for the king to regain his shattered health completely. The period was too
short to get his plan implemented. A thought, a blend of devilment and intrigue
passed through his mind. "If the Sadhu's body is disposed of for good, his
soul would remain stay put where it is now. Better to cremate him here and now
than risk our future, " he argued with his conscience, and his conscience
agreed with what he proposed. So he got the Sadhu's body cremated with due
religious ceremonies in his own presence and earned the gratitude of his people.
As the pyre got engulfed in flames, Shri Bhatt was
heard saying to himself." After all, in the end, it is nothing but the
ashes for every one of us, tomorrow if not today. Why not today?"
Up above in the evening sky a faint honking of the wild
geese seemed to echo his thoughts, as if saying, "Yes, we know."