The Precious Present

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There was once a village on the banks of Wular - one of the largest freshwater lakes in India. Many years ago, one could reach the village by two ways only. Either from the mountain tracks, or across the lake through a boat. The lake was beautiful and attractive when calm but when not, it was impassable. Hence the village mostly remained cut off from the outside world and no outsider visited it unless it was absolutely necessary. The villagers, too, weren’t concerned about the external world. They had been blessed with everything they needed in their own village, be it crops like maize, pulses and vegetable, or fish and water nuts (which was their staple diet) from the lake. There were shops which exchanged salt and cloth for dried fish, water nuts, maize and ghee. Currency was hardly necessary. Coins were not in circulation in this area, and even if sometimes they were, it used to be copper or other lower denominations. Government officials were paid in kind, in terms of khirwars (ass-loads) of cereals. Summarily, the villagers had never seen the silver rupee coin with the effigy of Victoria, Queen of Britain or Empress of India.

One day, mysteriously a silver rupee coin was spotted in the village. It caused a lot of hue and cry and everyone showed eagerness to have a look at it atleast once. Soon the matter came to the notice of the Nambardar, the headman, and the coin was gently handed over to him for safe custody till it was decided what to do with the coin next. The headman pondered over the situation for a full tiring day and a long sleepless night, and planned to announce his decision next morning.

“Brethren”, he announced, “this coin is one of its kind that the village has ever seen. It has a stamp of our most respected ruler. (At this, he put his hand on his forehead by way of saluting the ruler). God bless our ruler with victory and prosperity, and give humiliation to our enemies. Hence the most befitting treatment that I could think of about the coin is to make a present of this respected and honoured token to His Highness in person”

The proposal was accepted by all as the headman was regarded the wisest of all. He gave them all the details about how to present this coin to His Highness so that He accepts. The gift was to be placed inside a palanquin carried by six worthy elders of the village whom he himself nominated. They got a fine palanquin and embellished it with whatever they could. On the inside of the palanquin, a finely woven blanket was spread, covered with a piece of silk that nobody could have afforded that time. In the presence of a large and august gathering, they placed the coin inside the palanquin and drew curtains as if to bid farewell to a newly wed bride. The caravan had to travel via a boat, so a doongha stood ready equipped with all requirements for the journey. As the palanquin was lifted, delightful songs portending success followed. The boatmen pushed off and made towards south, where the capital was situated. The headman gestured adieu and off they went.

The journey was tiresome due to its direction upstream. The palanquin was given a seat of honour which nobody could turn his back against. At night, they lit a lamp and exchanged turns for watch. During the journey if they were asked about the purpose of travelling towards the capital, they simply answered “we are carrying a precious present for His Highness”, but they never revealed the nature of the gift.

On the third day morning, when they reached the outskirts of the capital, they decided to carry the palanquin on their shoulders. Four of them lifted the palanquin, and one preceded with a flag, all barefoot, legs wrapped tightly in woollen puttees and backs with cotton scarves mimicking ancient courtiers. The headman walked humbly behind. All of them were delightful of the fact that they were deputed to wait for the ruler, which according to them was a great honour. Meanwhile every passer by would surprisingly observe their palanquin which was decorated in a festive manner. The tax collector at the octroi post wanted to have a look into the palanquin but was denied the access saying that no one except His Highness could cast a look inside.

To reach Shergarhi, which was the palatial residence of the ruler, the mini procession had to pass through the most principal streets of the capital. The news of their arrival and the reason for it spread widely and every single person was curious to know what the gift was. The villagers came in and made known their purpose for the sudden arrival. The captain of the guards was ordered to let them in and be treated as guests of the ruler.

Within the place they showed greater reverence and respect in regards to the gift they had bought along with themselves. The courtmen felt quite captivated and attracted towards what the gift could be, but could not dare to ask for the risk of offending their etiquette. Meanwhile the villagers relaxed in the sunshine, yet conscious of the hospitality of His Highness.

In the afternoon, when His Highness woke from his siesta, he ordered the elders to be admitted to his presence. The minister- in- waiting, prime minister, and other dignitaries of the state were present.  The headman entered barefoot and other dignitaries followed with the palanquin on their shoulders. “Sire”, said the headman, “this humble servant who had the honour of standing in front your your honourable presence is the Nambardar of the village located on the banks of Wular lake. On the account of a pleasant and honourable duty that has fallen upon us, me and our worthy elders have covered a long distance with a happy heart. We request your permission to place this at your blessed feet.”

The ruler was deeply touched with the affection of the villagers. “We are really impressed by your love and courteousness which prompted you to come from such a distant village to offer this nazar. We would highly appreciate if you place it before us.

The headman proudly drew the curtains and put his hand inside the palanquin. He appeared somewhat confused and worried and soon started raising all curtains one by one. The other men exchanged whispers and began searching more vigorously for the elite gift. But alas!, the gift wasn’t found. A few minutes passed and the villagers didn’t give up on their search for the nazar. The minister urged the villagers to be quick in their search because His Highness had other “urgent matters” to look up to. But the villagers in their excitement and cheerfulness had so carried the palanquin as to suffer the loss of the precious gift. Now it was too late. “Our faithful father, we have unfortunately dropped the nazar somewhere!”

The situation turned ugly. The ministers looked upon this situation as an insult to the ruler. A huge punishment would be perfect for such a crime. The prime minister ruthlessly said, “ it astounds me how daring these uncouth rustics are, to come right to the honourable and righteous presence of His Highness and then try to cover their crime under a naive excuse”. Your Highness, let them be taken to the prison and dealt accordingly.

The villagers were shattered. They were shocked as well as depressed as to what had befallen on them. “My head upon your Highness’ feet” said the discouraged and despondent headman. Just make a gesture, and this humble servant will offer his heart for you to feed upon. Who is there so unworthy of his salt to bring any harm to the esteem and honour of our father, our Lord. Our Holy book says the God Almighty is the most merciful. I invoke your mercy, and request the permission to explain the whole case.

The ruler was very clever and witty. He at once could make out that the villagers were innocent beings who had travelled such a distance just to show their love and affection. Yet on the advise of his councillors, he devised a plan to test their loyalty. He placed them in a cell and supplied them all requirements of cooking food. But instead of giving them coal or a fireplace, they were given matchsticks. But since they didn’t know what a matchstick was, they couldn’t cook the meal. They ate some parts raw, and kept the other part like that.

When the ruer heard this news, he became satisfied about their loyalty and good intentions. He called the villagers, heard their story and had a cheerful laugh at their innocent faith. He assured the headman that the gift was as good as accepted. Infact he gave them a rupee and then took it back as a nazar. The villagers felt greatly relieved. They were treated well again and bid farewell the next morning with many gifts. The villagers left shouting slogans of happiness and delight. Reaching their home village, they narrated the whole story of how they had been saved from destruction. The story spread to the neighbouring villages, far and near, and lingered in their memories for long.

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