Winner of The Smile Project: A Humourous Short Story Contest
“Really! Was there no end to this madness”, marching through the endless corridors of the palace, Birbal fumed. His Royal Highness, Jalaluddin Akbar was a generous Emperor, an astute ruler, a charismatic leader, but his whims were at times, a trial. And he, Birbal was at the receiving end. Just.. just the other day he had to actually cook khichdi to drive home a point to His Highness, about the effective range of heat emissions from a distant power source; and now this! He wished His Royal Highness would take up a hobby. Play an instrument or even that new fangled game that the Foreign Devils were going on about- Golf or something. But no, Akbar, instead spent all his time thinking up the oddest of ideas.In his bid to label himself as the world’s greatest innovator, the Emporer was going nuts!
Birbal recalled the moment with irritation. It was a usual, uneventful morning at the courts that day. There were a dozen messages from Akbar’s chiefs posted at the outreaches of the vast Empire- fund petitions, espionage updates and general salutations targeted at ensuring top of mind recall for chiefs stuck in remote stations. In the midst of the routine read- out- loud from ornate scrolls, by a designated, lettered, courtier, to the unlettered Akbar, the Emperor jumps up and shouts -
“Enough! By my heavenly beard, will there never be an end to this monotony? I wish there was a way that we could communicate our thoughts and never have to resort to quill and scroll. Like .. like this!” Picking up an apple from the silver fruit platter, Akbar put it close to his ear and said, “We should be able to transmit our thoughts into this apple and the intended recipient, receive it through another apple. Birbal! Please find me such a solution!”
Just thinking about it, made Birbal mad. What was His Highness thinking? Telepathy and apple devices? Hey, this was the 16th century, for god’s sake. The apple was still a fruit! Containing his anger with an effort, he made his way through the airy corridors, past the immense Redstone courtyard with its marble fountains, and arrived at Anarkali’s apartments.
Anarkali. The Emperor's favourite concubine, the blue eyed Turkish wonder. The belle of the court. She had beguiled the royal father and his son, carrying on with each, with such dexterity, that each remained in blissful ignorance of the other. Birbal knew a master of the game, when he saw one. In the entire palace, Anarkali was the only one, who could, figuratively, think out of the jeweled box. So to Anarkali, he went.
Pushing aside the thick velvet curtains, he entered the sumptuously appointed apartment. Anarkali was curled up on her ottoman, getting her toenails painted, chewing on a bunch of pepper and mint leaves. Her eyes were closed, her fingers tapped in rhythm to the folk song being sung by a wandering baul seated in front of the royal zenana.
“Yo, Anar, wassup?” greeted Birbal with a jaunty air. He prided himself in being 'with it', speaking the same lingo as the young generation. And at 16 years, Anarkali was decidedly, the youth.
“ Hey BB, good to see ya,” drawled Anar in the new Urdu, a patois that mixed pure Persian and Arabic with street Hindi. “Would you like some pepper and mint?”
Glancing at the bunch of greens, Birbal said hurriedly,” No, thanks, but a cup of ginger tea would be nice.”
“Sure.” Anarkali languidly raised herself on one elbow and gazed at him thoughtfully. What could have bought the old geezer here?
As one of the many handmaids, hurriedly poured a cup of steaming tea from the silver samovar, Birbal proceeded to download the litany of his latest woes.
“Wow. That’s a new one. Even from someone as quirky as him. It sounds weird, bro.”
“Exactly”, said Birbal forcefully, as he took a gulp of the spiced tea. There was silence as they both ruminated on this latest problem. It wouldn’t do to go back without a solution. Given the Emperor’s latest penchant of walling up his least favourite people and that too live. No, it would not do at all.
Anar chewed on her pepper and mint, her mouth working in tandem as her thoughts whirled.
“These young people and their pepper- mint chewing”, thought Birbal, irritably, in one of his rare, not so ‘with it’ moments. Maybe Anar can’t help him this time. He was about to bid a polite goodbye, when Anarkali turned to him with bright eyes. “I have an idea!” Birbal took a deep breath and leaned forward in anticipation.
The next evening, Akbar strode into the court, the royal Princes trailing behind him. The court was filled with royal courtiers, the chandeliers lit with a thousand bright candles, the hall lined with Persian carpets, the air redolent with the incense of lilies and jasper. The harem ladies sat behind latticed marble work, their jewels sparkling in the candle light, lending the translucent lattice, a glow from within. The sitar and santoor players tinkled their instruments, the tabla players beat desultory time to the music. The dancers stood behind billowing curtains, awaiting their turn. The air was heavy with expectation.
“So Birbal, what do you have for me? “ Akbar thundered. “Do you have a solution yet?”
“Yes I do, Your Highness,” said Birbal, bowing deep. He produced two gold plated apples and held them out with a flourish. Behind the curtains, a heavily bejeweled and veiled dancer smiled. Anarkali was the item number of tonight’s entertainment line-up.
“Apples? Oh I see. You took me quite literally, did you?” Akbar harrumphed. “So what are we to do with these?”
“Your Highness, these are no ordinary apples. These are apples coated with a magical metal. One that transmits thoughts.” Said Birbal loudly. “I will demonstrate this in a minute.” He handed one apple to Akbar and another to the Crown Prince. The latter, a sprightly young lad with a hint of fuzz on his cheeks in the name of adulthood, looked mystified, at the object handed to him. Birbal held his hand and took him to the furthest end of the court. There he stood, feeling slightly foolish, and wishing that this would get over soon. He remembered his planned tryst with Anarkali that night, and felt happy again.
“Now, Your Highness, you need to look at the apple, focus, and think a thought,” instructed Birbal to a waiting Akbar. “Once you have completed your thought, it will get transmitted via the metal coating, and His Highness, the Crown Prince will receive the thought from his apple. It will flow naturally from the apple into the immediate consciousness of his mind” The court stirred. There were incredulous looks from the courtiers as they struggled to embrace this novel concept.
“That’s easy”, said Akbar, amusedly.
“That’s too easy,” muttered a suspicious Crown Prince.
“Wish that it were that easy,” thought Anarkali, smiling wickedly to herself.
“Actually it isn’t, Your Highness. You have to think of one single thought, you see. You cannot have more than one thought in your mind, not even one teensy, weensy tendril of a second thought can creep into your mind. If it does, then the apple will not transmit. It will play havoc with the signals, you see.” Birbal ordained, in his newly minted techie avatar. This was going to be fun.
Akbar frowned. He started to say something, and then changed his mind. “Very well. I shall transmit only one thought.” Turning to the apple, he stared at it fixedly and began thinking his one royal thought; when- suddenly, in the periphery of his vision, he saw a sudden whirl of pink. Anarkali stepped into his line of sight with a brilliant smile and a stylishly executed bow. Akbar lost his only thought.
Immediately Birbal stepped up to the Crown Prince and asked smoothly, “Received anything, Your Highness?” The Crown Prince, looked, smelt and turned the apple over. He pressed his hand to his forehead. He did not know what his father’s thought would feel like, but it definitely would not be the thought that was uppermost in HIS mind. That of an urgent desire to kiss Anarkali’s pouty lips. He turned to Birbal and shook his head in definite denial.
“Your Royal Highness,” Birbal strode up to Akbar, “You must try harder. Remember, it can only be one thought, no more no less.” Akbar turned away reluctantly from the lovely vision that was Anarkali, and looked at Birbal. “Let’s try once more.” He held the apple tighter and furrowed his brows. Scrunching his eyes tight, he thought. And once again, Anarkali swung in a slow pirouette, behind him this time. He could not see her, but he could hear her silver anklets, he could smell her heady perfume, he could sense her. Once again, his thought ran away from him. As did that of the Crown Prince.
One more try, and then one more. The court was getting restless. There were murmurings in the crowd. Finally Akbar turned to Birbal and said,” What is the meaning of this? It is not possible to have a single thought in one’s mind.” "Not with Anarkali sashaying her hips", he thought distractedly
“You are correct, Your Royal Highness; especially in the highly elevated, royal mind. That is why we need lowly scribes, to whom you may dictate the royal thought, that is uppermost in your mind. The apples may work for the minions, who cannot think further than one base thought. It is definitely not meant for a precious mind like yours.” Birbal said, his servile tone belying his amusement at the Emperor's plight
Akbar looked at Birbal intently, for a moment, and then nodded. “You may be right, Birbal. In fact you ARE right! Take these apples away. I am happy with my scribes and messengers.”
The court cheered. The Crown Prince looked relieved. The apples were laid to rest for the next four centuries.
And Birbal? He exchanged a slow, secretive smile with the woman, who had since retreated behind the purdah.
Anarkali had saved the day again, bless her!