Monday, June 5

From the book “The Garden of Tales”: Read the short story ‘The Crafty Jaat’

  • The book “The Garden of Tales: The Best of Vijaydan Detha”, translated from the Rajasthani by Vishes Kothari, is a definitive selection of Detha’s work that will amuse and absorb readers until the very last page.

  • Vijaydan Detha is undoubtedly the most important writer of Rajasthani prose in the twentieth century. He draws the reader into the complex and quirky world of the common folk of Rajasthan, while bringing alive the magic of folklore and fable.

  • Traversing landscapes that are both earthly and cosmic, his tales, while being about the rich and poor, the saint and sinner, are also populated by trees, animals, the wind and the rain, gods and goddesses, and even ghosts. And between them, they explore humanity in all its myriad manifestations: love and desire, innocence and cunning, wisdom and folly, greed and deceit, righteousness, valour and the illusion of power.

  • Read an excerpt from the book below.

Editor’s Note: The following is the complete short story “The Crafty Jaat”, that has been excerpted from the book.

What can one say about the art of the Nats! You won’t believe it if you hear it, but only if you see it with your own eyes. Such feats they perform using only their bodies! How they contort themselves, how they jump so high, how they run across a cloth in midair. How effortlessly they walk on ropes, perform somersaults, push a plough with their tongue, pull maunds of weight with their hair. Of all art forms, their art is the most difficult.

There was a Natni who was greatly sought after across the length and breadth of the land for the finesse of her art. She would not perform anywhere other than at the rajwadas, the royal houses. Raos, umraos, rajas and maharajas, all longed to see her performances. The opportunity to watch her would only come by once in a blue moon. Like farmers sitting in wait for clouds that bring rain, the rajas would wait for the chance to see the Natni perform.

One time, the Natni was to perform in Udaipur. The Rana of Mewar had been eagerly waiting for this moment for some years now. He was delighted to hear of her coming.

‘Perform for us a feat the likes of which no king has ever seen before,’ he told the Natni. ‘Udaipur is above all other royal houses; the feat, too, should be above all others you’ve ever performed. Also, after today, no other raja can watch it ever again. Go on, show us.’

‘Hukam,’ the Natni replied, ‘our feet can’t but move to the beat of the drum. I know the acts I know. The only thing I need is an audience with the appetite for them. I can cross Lake Pichola on a tightrope if you like.’

The Rana could scarcely believe his ears. ‘What! The Pichola?’ he asked, astonished.

‘Yes, the Pichola,’ replied the Natni. ‘The very Pichola you see here. I can cross it on a rope not once, but four times!’

The Rana thought it impossible. He said, ‘If you can cross the Pichola on a rope even once, I will hand over half the kingdom of Mewar to you. And if you can’t, then you will never perform in any other rajwada except mine.’

‘It’s easy to make a wager now,’ the Natni said. ‘But later, when giving away half your kingdom, you’ll have a fit. Think about it carefully, and only then make the pledge.’

The Rana said, ‘The Rana of Mewar doesn’t need to think so much about such things. Get ready for your act.’

And in no time, a tightrope was suspended from long poles from one bank of the Pichola to the other. Vast crowds gathered to see the Natni’s performance.

But just as the Natni was getting ready to begin her act, a thought struck her. It would take two to three hours to cross the lake. She was lactating. And her son would be famished by the time she returned. So she fed her son and put him to sleep, and only then did she climb on to the rope.

Countless eyes were fixed on her feet. The Natni started to walk on the rope as if she were walking on solid ground. The onlookers could barely breathe. They watched stunned, like dolls made of stone.

The Rana’s heart was aflutter. The thakars surrounding him said, ‘Even those who have offered more than a thousand heads in sacrifice have never had a claim on any part of Mewar. And here you have agreed to give this mere Natni half the kingdom! Your Highness, this is a crime!’

The Rana saw that the Natni was about to reach halfway across the Pichola. Darkness began to descend upon his eyes. She seemed sure to cross the lake. And if she did, half the kingdom would have to be handed over to her. But how could he refuse now, even though he wanted to! It would be a blemish on the honour of Mewar.

The Pichola was full to the brim. And it seemed like the Rana’s heart had begun to drown in its waters. Again, the thakars said, ‘It is shocking, Your Highness. It is Mewar’s great misfortune that it will now be enjoyed by acrobats.’

The Rana gasped as though he could not breathe, ‘What can be done now! I am bound by the word I gave her.’

A Jaat, who was standing nearby, said, ‘My lord, if it doesn’t anger you, then I can propose a solution.’

The thakars said excitedly, ‘If we have to sacrifice our heads during battle, we can do it without a thought. But our brains don’t really do our bidding. If you can, then play your hand right away. Mewar’s fate rests with you now!’

‘If I can both preserve the terms of the wager and save your honour, then I will do so,’ the Jaat said. He then headed quietly to where the Nats were camping near the bank.

Everyone’s eyes were glued to the Natni’s feet. She made it across the centre of the lake and moved towards the other bank. Her breasts were brimming with milk again. She thought of her son. Once she crossed the lake, she would feed him. As she moved along the rope, there was no sound except that of the soft ripples on the water. It was as if even sound itself was engrossed in watching her performance.

Then, suddenly, the shrill cry of a baby rang out. The scream reached the Natni’s ears. She instantly recognized it to be that of her son. And as soon as the mother heard the scream, even as she walked on the tightrope, her concentration lapsed and she fell into the waters of the Pichola … Chapaak! Just one splash. And then a mop of hair bobbed up and down in the lake a few times.

Fish play in the water and Nats play on land. The Natni did not know how to swim. By the time people gathered to help her, her act in this world had ended.

There, the Natni stopped breathing, and here, the Rana was able to breathe a sigh of relief. His heart calmed down. As soon as the Jaat came over, the thakars said, ‘Even swords could not have saved the kingdom today, but this Jaat saved it by pinching a child. Had that scream not reached the Natni’s ears, there was no way she would have slipped and fallen.’

The Rana patted the Jaat on the back and said, ‘One can learn the art of the Nats, but the art of a Jaat cannot be learnt. The Natni’s drowning saved me from losing face. It saved the honour of Mewar. It saved half the kingdom from drowning!

Leave a reply