or The King, the Crow,
the Stranger, and the Mantra
by Sukumar Ray
Once upon a time there lived a Maharajah.
One day the Maharajah was in his court — surrounding him on all sides were lots of viziers and generals, barons and counts, officials and nobles, soldiers and sentries — when suddenly a large raven flew in from God knows where. It settled down on a tall pillar to the right of the throne, cocked its head on one side, looked all around, then said in a deep, grave, gravelly voice: “Caw!”
Such a bizarre noise, without any rhyme or reason — everyone in the court stared at it, goggle-eyed, and all of them sat there, open-mouthed. The Minister, who was waving a sheaf of documents and was trying to explain something, was so startled that he lost track of what he was saying and stood there gulping, like a fish out of water. A young boy was standing near the door; he suddenly started bawling, and the servant who was fanning the Maharajah dropped his whisk. The fan fell on the Maharajahís head with a crash. His Majesty was on the point of nodding off, when he came to with a start, and said at once, “Call the executioner!”
Immediately the executioner appeared in the court. The Maharajah said, “Cut off his head!”
Now what was this? Whose head did the Maharajah want? Everyone in court was so frightened that each of them held on to his own head tightly. The Maharajah nodded drowsily for a few moments, then woke up with a start, and said, “Why, whereís that head?” The poor executioner said, pleadingly, “Whose head, Your Majesty?”
The Maharajah snorted. “You stupid oaf, what do you mean, 'Whose head?' I want that fellow who made that horrible noise beheaded.” At that everyone let out such a sigh of relief, with such a collective whoosh of air, that the startled crow fled the court.
Then the Minister explained to the King that it was the selfsame crow which had made such a noise. At which the Maharajah said, “Summon all the pundits in my kingdom.” And within five minutes all the pundits and philosophers in the kingdom were in attendance.
Then the Maharajah asked the pundits, “Just now that crow came to my court and caused a commotion. Can you tell me what the reason for that was?”
A crow had cawed; what reason could it have? All the pundits started scratching their heads. One of them, a callow young fellow, ventured at last, “Your Majesty, possibly the bird was hungry.”
The Maharajah replied, “What brains you have! If it was hungry, why would it come to my royal court? Do we sell nuts and raisins here? Minister, send this fellow away” — At once everyone cried out together, “Thatís right, yes, yes, send him away.”
Then an elderly philosopher declaimed, “Your Highness, whenever there is activity, there is a reason — if there is rain, we must infer there are clouds; if there is light, we must realize there is a lamp; hence, if an avian member of the genus Corvidae emits an amazing sonic vibration from its vocal cords, there must be a necessary and sufficient cause for such a phenomenon; what is so astonishing about it?”
The Maharajah retorted, “The astounding thing is, someone as dim-witted as yourself gets paid a fat salary every month for spouting such drivel. Minister, stop paying him his salary from today.” At once everybody cried out together, “Yes, yes, stop all his payments!”
But everyone in the court got rather scared on seeing the fate of the two pundits. Minute after minute passed, nobody said a word. At that, the Maharajah grew livid. He ordered that nobody would be allowed to leave the court until and unless a proper explanation was forthcoming. Everyone sat frozen on their seats, fearing for their lives. Racking their brains, some of them dissolved in their own perspiration; the heads of others grew totally bald as they scratched their pates for hours on end. Sitting on their chairs, everyone grew hungrier by the minute — the Maharajah knew no hunger, he needed no sleep — he remained on his throne, dozing with his eyes closed.
At last, when everyone had given up hope, and were calling the royal pundits all sorts of names — fools, idiots, duffers — a thin shrimp of a young fellow suddenly screamed out in agony and collapsed in the middle of the hall. The King, the Minister, the courtiers, the nobles, the viziers, the lords — everyone got up hurriedly and rushed to the man, saying, “Whatís happened? Whatís up?”
The young man was fanned, water was sprinkled on his face, and everyone assured him he would come to no harm. Finally he got up and, trembling from head to toe, said, “Your Highness, was it actually a raven?”
Everyone said at once, “Yes, yes, thatís right, but why do you ask?”
At this stranger said, “Your Majesty, did the bird sit on the right of the throne, facing westwards — and it cocked its head, and rolled its eyes, and made a sound like a 'Caw'?” Everyone said together, with unseemly eagerness, “Yes, yes — thatís exactly what had happened.”
When he heard this, the man started sobbing uncontrollably, and said: “What a pity, what a pity! — why didnít anyone call me right there, right then?”
The Maharajah said, “Say, thatís right, why didnít any of you inform him?”
Nobody knew the stranger, but didnít dare to say such a thing; they merely chorused, “Yes, yes, he should have been given the news.” Though nobody could understand why they should have told him, or exactly what they should have told him.
The man wept for a few more minutes, then contorted his features, and announced, “Drighangchu!” Now what was that! Everyone thought he was bonkers.
The Minister asked him, “Whatís this — er — Dighanchoo?”
The stranger said, “Not Dighanchoo, it's Drighangchu.” Not one of the people in the crowd understood what he was saying, but nodded their heads sagely, and said “Ohhhh!” as if that explained everything.
The King then himself asked him, “Whatís all this, then?”
The young man replied, “Your Highness, I am a very ordinary, ignorant, illiterate villager, what do I know of such things? But I have heard about Drighangchu since my childhood, so I do know that when it appears before a King, it looks exactly like a raven. When it enters the royal court, it sits on the pillar to the right of the throne, cocks its head towards the west, rolls its eyes, and makes a 'Caw!' noise. I donít know anything else about it — but perhaps our pundits know more about Drighangchu.” The pundits hastily said, in unison, “No, no, nothing more has been learnt about it yet.”
The King said, “You were weeping because you hadnít been informed, you said — but what would you have done if you were here?”
The youth replied, “O King, I hesitate to disclose that, as I fear nobody will believe me.”
The Maharajah declared, “He who doesnít believe you will lose his head — you can speak without any fear.” Everyone in the court chorused, “Yes, yes, without any fear!”
Thus reassured, the man began. “O King, I know a secret mantra, Iíve been waiting for years and years to tell Drighangchu that mantra. No one knows what amazing things would have occurred if I could have read out the mantra before it — for, there is nothing of this sort written down in any book. But such a wonderful opportunity has been lost — will I ever get such a chance again?” And he sniffed.
The Maharajah commanded, “Tell me the mantra.”
The man replied, “Oh no, never, your Majesty! It is forbidden to even pronounce that mantra in front of anyone except Drighangchu. Iím writing it down on a piece of paper — you should fast for a couple of days, then read it first thing in the morning when you wake up on the third day. If you see a raven in front of you, you can read out the mantra to it — but be careful! Nobody else should hear it! For, if the raven is not Drighangchu, and somebody else does hear the mantra while youíre reading it out — well, then, everything will be ruined!”
After this, the court broke up for the day. Everyone had been listening open-mouthed to the story for so long, and now they heaved a sigh of relief; and they all went home, talking about Drighangchu, the mantra, and what fabulous results the Maharajah would obtain if he could make Drighangchu hear the mysterious hymn even once.
The King fasted for a couple of days, and on the third day opened the scrap of paper the stranger had given him. On it was written:
Green and yellow,
Stones and brickbats,
All troubles gone,
Lost his marbles;
—not his scurvy!
The Maharajah read it in all seriousness, and memorized it thoroughly. After that, whenever he would see a raven, he would shoo everyone away, and read out the rhyme to the bird. Then he would look around carefully to see if anything amazing was indeed occurring.
Nevertheless, he still hasnít come across Drighangchu yet.
(translated from Bengali (Bangla) by Srinjay Chakravarti)
Sukumar Ray (1887-1923) is widely considered the greatest writer of stories, poems and plays for children in Bengali, more so because he was the pathfinder for Bengali comic and nonsense verse, the Lewis Carroll of Calcutta. This story, “Drighangchu,” was written in 1916, and has been translated/ recreated by various authors, including Sukumar’s son Satyajit Ray, the celebrated film director. However, these translations have approached this short story as just a variety of nonsense literature for young children — one which merely disrupts the internal physics of a typical fairy tale or fable — whereas it was actually a harbinger of the postmodern irreal imagination and one of the earliest instances of absurd fiction in any Asian language. The story was first published in the Bengali childrenís magazine Sandesh, of which Sukumar Ray was the editor, but was first published in a book only in 1944, in Bohurupee (Chameleon).
Srinjay Chakravarti is a journalist, economist, writer and translator based in Salt Lake City, Calcutta, India. His poetry and prose have appeared in numerous publications in nearly 30 countries. In North America, these include Euphony, The Melic Review, Eclectica Magazine, and The Pedestal Magazine, among many others. His story "Thief of the Moon" appeared in Issue 26 of The Cafe Irreal. His first book of poems, Occam's Razor, (Writers Workshop, Calcutta: 1994) received the Salt Literary Award from Salt, the Australian literary and publishing organization, in 1995. He won first prize in the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Poetry Competition 2007. His journalistic columns include essays and articles on economics, politics, physics (including astrophysics) and literature (including literary criticism and book reviews).