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from the July 2004 issue

A True Calling

Nothing happens to a story if all you do is listen. Nothing happens if all you do is read, or memorize word for word. What matters is if you make the heart of the story part of your very life. This story is one of those.

Once there was a bhand,1 one of that rare breed that devote themselves to impersonations. This particular bhand was so adept at disguising himself that next to him the real thing looked fake. He would keep a disguise on for several days, and no one would ever find him out until he clapped his hands and hooted and hollered and went back to being his regular self. He knew a hundred different languages. Could reproduce calls of all the different species of birds and animals so well even the animals didn't realize the call came from a human throat. You should have seen him disguised as a merchant, a tribal, a hunter, ascetic, cowherd, or mullah, Lord Hanuman or a beggar! Anyone who saw his disguises would swear he had more than one face, and many more throats.

One time the bhand put on the disguise of an enlightened holy man. Even the other holy men were astounded: where had this miraculous saint been hiding all this time? And how did he suddenly show up? He decided to spend the four-month seclusion of the monsoon at the home of a Seth merchant. Crowds of worshipers flocked from nearby regions just to gaze at his holy graciousness. It made the bhand wonder if he should stay on this path of renunciation forever. But he kept hold of himself. He would hold forth to worshipers on the nature of the inner spirit, the all-encompassing holy spirit, one's dharma, moksha, and nirvana, all with such intensity his body began to feel as if it were melting. He had not been there long illuminating these matters for the Seth's family when they started to turn fanatical. Such blessings one receives only after many lifetimes of austerities! The Seth looked again at his own familial and material encumbrances and his heart rebelled. One day he brought all his wealth-innumerable gold and silver, diamonds and pearls-and laid them at the holy man's feet. Folding his hands in reverence, he said, "Lord, if you would please accept the worthless offerings of your devotee, then perhaps some of the filth of my material body will wash away. These represent nothing more than the meager flowers of my heart. After all, how am I worthy to serve you?"

The bhand saw the dazzling riches out of the corner of his eye and looked at his guise through his soul's eyes. A fierce dust storm was gathering inside his heart. He felt as if he were dangling between heaven and hell. After a few moments he opened his eyes, now sparkling like stars. The holy man smiled and said calmly, "Son, why do you insist on coating my face with your detritus? You're a family man and I'm a sadhu! If I were to hold out my hands to grab the priceless treasures you're dumping like so much gravel, it would be an insult to my vow. I am not so gullible."

The Seth never could have imagined such a thing happening, even in his worst nightmare. A man of his experience should never have made such a grave miscalculation. He was well aware of the greed and avarice of many enlightened men. They could pull gold coins from the muck with their teeth and not feel any need to rinse out their mouths afterwards. Underneath their saffron-colored robes they had the mentality of the lowest beggars wandering from village to village. The Seth had reached such a resolute decision only after his heart had turned away from the material world. And now this deity in human form had ruined everything! Still, the Seth wasn't the type to admit defeat that easily. He folded his hands together and implored, "Those of us trapped in this net of materialism and family responsibility become crooked, mean, and lustful, and there's no telling when we will be corrupted once more by the lure of wealth. Right now money may as well be dust for all we care, but we may not be able to remain firm in this conviction for long. You do not know the sins I have committed in the name of wealth. Your words have liberated us. Now it's up to you to do with this money what you will. Let your holy hand direct this wealth toward some sacred work and make our life meaningful, Lord."

"And throw dirt onto my vow? No, my son, I could not accept such an offer, even in a dream. The wealth should lie nowhere else other than inside the safe in your home. I am sorry."

The Seth and all the members of his house stood still as statues with hands folded, but the holy man's heart refused to melt. Heaps of priceless treasure was piled up between them. Neither side was ready to back down. Not the Seth's household nor the guileless ascetic. In the end the holy man was compelled to adopt a harsher tone: "To whom are you bowing, do you have any idea? Put this snake of gold back into the safe for now. Then after the monsoon season of seclusion I will do whatever you say."

The Seth prostrated before the holy man and said, "As you wish, Lord."

A profound smile danced across the holy man's lips . . . a look as deep as the earth's core. A moment later the smile disappeared back inside. And just as time is beyond a saint's control, beyond a Seth's control, a day passed, a week passed, two weeks, then a month, and then the holy man's entire monsoon seclusion was over. The Seth was beside himself with excitement that today he would get his wish. A holy man of such divine stature would never renege on a promise, not under any circumstances. He would do whatever the Seth would wish. If his hands could direct this wealth to a meritorious cause then the Seth's life would be rendered meaningful. Just thinking back on his old misdeeds set his liver trembling. Meanwhile whatever thoughts were coursing through the holy man's mind, only he could tell. Now that the period of his disguise had reached its end, the enlightened holy man revealed his secret. Slapping his cheeks and making clownish faces like any other bhand, he begged: "Grain giver, if you have been pleased with the art of this poor slave, then grant a reward! I am a servant at your feet, Shankar Bhand!"

As soon as he had announced his true identity he clapped his armpit again. Slapped his cheeks. Clapped his hands. The Seth couldn't believe his eyes. This was a truth more terrifying than death. All his calculations had been turned upside down. God forbid such a horrible thing should ever befall even his worst enemies! What words was he hearing from this man he considered an almighty god? It just wasn't possible. How could a worthless bhand have it in him to spurn these riches as if they were dust? Astonished, he asked with a voice thick with emotion, "Are you starting another leela2 just to test me? Heavens! Better my eyes should close forever than to see and hear all this."

Then he rolled up his sleeve to prove his identity to the Seth. On his naked wrist in clear blue was tattooed the name Shankar Bhand!

Instead of Lord Shankar, a Shankar Bhand! Oh, what kind of catastrophe was this? Shaking off the dizziness caused by his disillusionment the Seth started to think about the predicament he was in. Well, which saint, sadhu, or mahatma can just throw away so much wealth? Then this bhand was as good as any saint! Still the shock didn't lessen. All this had happened just because of the bhand. The faith of all his family members was ruined. How was this ignorant bhand able to weave such a delicate web of illusion? The Seth still couldn't accept reality. He thought it over a little and said, "You fool, I placed uncountable wealth at your feet. If you had taken all of it and disappeared I would have considered it my own good fortune. I would have counted the mala beads in your name. Now after throwing away so much wealth spread out at your feet you are lifting up your palms begging for rewards in the name of your art? I was a fool to offer you all that wealth and you were a fool not to take it. Whatever possessed you to be so wrongheaded?"

The bhand slapped his cheeks and replied, "What seems wrongheaded to you seems rightheaded to me. While I was in the holy man's guise it would have been an insult to those robes to be tempted by riches. For someone of my calling, taking money under those circumstances would have been improper. I can only lay claim to the rewards my patron bestows. So what if you fell into deceit? I didn't. I never forgot the truth. My family has been kept waiting for four months. Lord, may you grant a reward to a bhand such as I, celebrated throughout the kingdom, with an open hand!"

By now the Seth was back in true form. He stammered, "I'm so angry I could lash you a hundred times with my shoes. You can't possibly imagine how much you have shaken me. Greed and renunciation can't live together in the same mind. If I wish to fly to the heavens then how can I stay on earth? Oh, once you've tasted honey, how horrible it is to gulp down dirt! I'm neither fit for heaven nor fit for earth! Ask for however much you need. If my spiritual account is spoiled, let it be spoiled. You can ask for hundreds of thousands and I won't be taken in now. I see I'm the one responsible for searching out my path to salvation or ruination. Hurry up and ask for what you want and just leave me alone."

"Revered Seth, the right to receive is indeed greater than the right to give. I will accept whatever you give of your own generosity."

"Look, stop playing around like this. Go ahead, I'm giving you full freedom. Even though you're a bhand I'm ready to give you whatever you ask for, so ask."

"It is my dharma to ask. But in my profession it's considered improper to specify an amount. Forgive me, but I do not consider the role of a bhand any less worthy than that of a holy man."

"That's fine and good, but you're the one who set this turmoil brewing inside me. Already my greedy heart is starting to wake. From those many countless treasures I had surrendered to you, I shall bestow upon you only five gold coins. Whether it makes you happy or not."

"And why wouldn't it make me happy? This is as good as five thousand gold coins to me." And so saying, Shankar Bhand went on his way home. Now he had his fists full of millet, salt, peppers, turmeric, and coriander for his family. Clothes. Shoes. Bangles for wife. Clay toys for the children.

After spending nine proverbial silver nights with his wife and playing with his children, Shankar Bhand went to the king's court. The news about the sadhu disguise at the Seth's mansion had already reached the raja's ears. His name had spread like the wind throughout the kingdom. The raja rose from his throne and greeted him with respect. The bhand prostrated at the raja's feet and then bowed to each courtier in turn.

It just so happened that when he presented himself at court there had been much talk about dayans3 and witches. When the proper moment arose, the head minister implored the king, "May His Highness command Shankar Bhand to appear before us in the guise of a dayan. When will such an opportunity present itself again? The subject has been on all our lips for the past three hours."

The other courtiers approved of the minister's suggestion. When the king saw all the courtiers agree so heartily, he issued an order from his own esteemed mouth that the bhand appear the next day in the guise of a dayan.

A tremor coursed throughout the bhand's body as soon as he heard the king's order. He folded his hands in fright and implored, "I would carry out the Grain giver's order even at the cost of death, but please consider the supplications of a poor bhand. I can assume the guise of anything in this world. If I become a stone and sit on the road, no passerby would even guess this was a man. By your grace, Lord Shiva blessed my forefathers in this manner. Lord Shiva himself suggested my very name to my mother in a dream. Thanks to the greatness of Lord Shiva, taking the form of a dayan is mere child's play for me, but it could cost the onlookers dearly. If I am not able to take on the character completely during a disguise, then it will fail. The disguise would be incomplete if the dayan doesn't drink a bowlful of the fresh blood of a human victim she has ripped apart herself. O Protector of the Poor, I cannot settle for mediocrity. Before I take on a disguise, and after I have left it, I am nothing but the Lord's worthless servant, but during the disguise I absolutely lose consciousness and fully enter the new existence. I am not aware of anything else. If the Provider commands, I will happily put my head through a noose, but I pray to you with hands joined not to force me to take on the guise of a dayan."

The king was not able to fully comprehend what his subject was trying to say. One need not have a great deal of intelligence to be a raja. He asked in his superior tone, "Why? Why don't you want to appear as a dayan?"

After a long, careful explanation, the bhand said as simply as possible, "Lord Ram only knows whose murder could take place at that time. While in disguise I won't be aware of His Highness even. To a dayan, pawn and raja are equal. As it is I am slave to your feet, but there is no higher honor than the calling of a true artist. Now please carefully consider whatever order you bestow, because I will be compelled to follow it through."

Like mosquitoes, the courtiers didn't need to find any excuse to bite. Right away one of the courtiers rebuked the bhand, "So you are suggesting that the Provider gives orders without careful consideration? How dare you!"

"Why, how dare you!" The raja repeated the words of his clever courtier. "You are suggesting that I haven't been aware of what I've been doing until now? That I haven't given careful consideration to my orders?"

"No, my lord, that would be impossible. Only we foolish subjects have to stop and consider. Rulers and gods need never think over what they do! I have committed a grievous error, my lord, I beg you to forgive me. Tomorrow will the sun give careful consideration before allowing her rays to shine? The clouds think and consider before raining? The flowers before blossoming? The leaves before sprouting?"

"Stop this foolish talk," the minister interrupted. Then he turned toward the raja and said, "Your Highness, this is just a professional ploy. If a bhand doesn't blow like an empty storm cloud then he wouldn't be a bhand. And this bhand is famous throughout the world. When he was at the Seth's haveli his holy man disguise reached its target like a bull's-eye from a novice's bow and so now he thinks he can pull the same stunt here. The poor guy's never been inside an elite court before. Go ahead, do what you want. We'd all like to see you slice open a heart to fill your bowl. You know very well that you won't . . . a man's heart isn't made of dough."

The raja repeated the minister's words, "Yes, a man's heart isn't made of dough. Now you'll have to come as a dayan tomorrow. If I get in your way, then you shall have to slice my heart. Speak up. Or are you going to come up with another excuse?"

"How would I dare make excuses to my lords? If you won't listen to my warnings, then I am helpless. But tomorrow if anyone's guts are spilled you will have to forgive the crime."

"So now you'll have the Esteemed King write out a contract?" The minister scolded him angrily. "Quit this disobedient nonsense. If you don't know how to take on the form of a dayan, then say it."

After such a shadow had been cast on the bhand's reputation, how much more could he appeal? He slapped his cheeks and armpits and cried, "As your graciousnesses wish. After all, you are the lords of the lords."

Words fly from lip to lip faster than the wind. As soon as the whispers went around the court everyone in the town knew that tomorrow the bhand would appear in the guise of a dayan. Would fill her bowl with the heart of a man which she had ripped out with her own sharp nails. The sly courtiers were going to select someone from the populace to put in front of the dayan. Everyone was so afraid even the birds didn't dare enter the court.

The queens, princesses, and maidservants were sitting in the windows and balconies counting the minutes waiting for the bhand. Then, while the raja and all the courtiers were sitting in the courtyard anxiously glancing about, suddenly she appeared before them, hissing and puffing, her foot-long tongue hanging out of her mouth. All those courtiers who just the day before had clamored to see the disguise now forgot everything and took to their heels as soon as they saw the dayan. A frightful tumult ensued. This must certainly be a real dayan. She had found the perfect ruse, pretending to be in disguise. Her foot-long tongue was dripping with blood. Her hair flew in every direction. Nails so sharp they could slice through a rock. That bastard bhand must have arranged for a real dayan to come. The court emptied out in a flash. The king led the stampede. He stumbled and fell two or three times but he never even looked back to see how far behind the dayan was. As soon as he fell he got up and kept on running. This was the first time he had ever had to exert himself like this. He never before recognized the value of running. Now he understood. He was going to go running every morning and evening. You never knew when it would be useful. He was even going to order his queens to start running.

The courtiers ran in a panic like a flock of birds scattering when a rock is thrown in their midst. But the raja's brother-in-law could not run. He just stayed there in his drunken stupor. He saw everyone fleeing and tried to start moving when suddenly his eyes locked on the dayan. He stood there transfixed, as if his legs were stuck in unyielding ground.

He began trembling like a peepal leaf in a storm when he saw her long, blood-coated tongue. His own tongue shot out of his mouth in fright. After all, what did a dayan care who or what you were? She leaped on him. There was no one there to forbid this, no one there to stop her. She fell on his chest. Ripped his heart out with her sharp nails. A stream of blood spurted out. Her bowl was full in no time. Then she put her mouth against the fountain of blood. Her entire face was covered in blood. Heh . . . heh . . . heh . . . she began cackling. But no one was there to witness her bloodstained laughter. She glanced from side to side as she gulped down the bowl full of blood. Then she started to dance, pounding her heels into the ground, dham-dham-dham, jingling her iron bracelets and anklets.

After some time, she stopped dancing and looked around her. Not a soul in sight. Then she took off the dayan's guise to become the bhand once more. He slapped his cheeks and called out, "Grain giver, I am your poor bhand. I have performed this dayan guise at your bidding but no one has remained to see. How can you blame me? If there was any deficiency in my performance, then you can find fault. Oh Protector of the Poor, now if you are happy with this bhand, grant him a reward."

When the courtiers returned there was an uproar. The minister crackled like lightning, "Murderer! How dare you ask for a reward? Seize him! Seize him before he absconds!"

All twenty courtiers pounced on the bhand like hungry cheetahs and then bound him tight with rope. The raja's brother-in-law had taken all the happiness he could from this world and had gone searching for it in the next. It was necessary to experience that happiness as well. All were wide-eyed, staring at the body in fear and astonishment. Blood continued to flow from the ripped-out intestines. And still everyone was hoping the queen's brother would shake off his drunken stupor as always. Get up and grunt for more wine and women. Pounce on whichever servant girl was at hand. But surprisingly enough, instead of joy in the eyes of the courtiers, there was terror.

The raja could not figure out what the trouble was. Why had they tied up the bhand? Why was his brother-in-law sprawled on the floor like that? Why wasn't he thrashing around as usual? Why wasn't he sputtering and groaning? The raja was beginning to get cramps in his legs from all that running. But no one even seemed to care. Not a single person came to rub his legs or massage his head.

As soon as she heard about the death of her brother, the queen came running into the court as fearsome as manslaying Chandi Herself. At first the courtiers thought that this was the bhand in another disguise. But he was tied up tight. Then this must be the esteemed queen. She came close to the corpse and began wailing. As soon as she laid eyes on the bhand's despicable form she gnashed her teeth: "I will not drink a single drop of water until I see this devil's blood fed to the dogs in a bowl."

The court resumed. The raja shuddered at the talk of blood and corpses. His mind became a frozen blank. He signaled for his brother-in-law's corpse to be brought to the queen's palace. The courtiers all cried in a single voice: "Your Highness, disaster has befallen. And still the instigator's head is on his shoulders. Give the command and we'll tear him to shreds."

Confused, the raja asked, "Why, what has happened?"

"Nothing short of a disaster, Grain giver." Each courtier was anxious to curry the raja's favor. Who knew when such a golden opportunity would ever present itself again? The man who got himself killed was dead and gone. It was the living that had to worry. The raja only became more confused listening to everyone shouting out explanations all at once. He was still exhausted from his run. The cramps would come back as soon as he touched his legs. His heart was still beating fast. As they say, no one worries about his father at the point of death.

Finally, after hearing the minister's careful explanation, the raja began to understand. After all, it was his responsibility to see to law and order in his kingdom. He said seriously, "All of you are telling me to execute this bhand. Why? Where were all of you crumb-grubbers and hangers-on then? Do you really think the bhand would dare to do such a thing when he's just one man? Did every single one of you run away?"

"Yes, my lord, it behooved us to run with His Highness in order to save your invaluable life. You are our lord." Then the chief minister had to explain from the beginning. The raja was nodding his head as he listened, and the ever-patient and sincere minister was explaining to the raja once again without betraying the slightest frustration. Finally, when the raja had understood everything thoroughly, he said, "Ah, so that is how it is. I must put the murderer to death. You don't need to explain a simple matter to an intelligent person more than once. And here you fools go on and on, explaining every detail to me like I was a child. No, no, anyone could see that such a transgression cannot go unpunished."

The bhand bowed before the raja and, stifling his outrage, said, "Have you already forgotten the pledge you made yesterday? When the kingdom's ruler himself breaks an obligation then how can he expect anyone to follow? If instead of a reward I am put to death, I will comply with His Highness's wish. You are lord of lords, are you not?"

The raja could think of no reply. He sat there silent. And over in her palace the queen had not let go of the idea that her brother's final rites would only take place after the bhand's. How could the bhand be considered more important than her brother?

Yet the raja was able neither to satisfy the queen's thirst for vengeance nor to answer the bhand's protestations. There would be trouble if he didn't honor the queen's concerns and trouble if he broke his pledge. How many problems appear before a raja? Who could ever count so high? Not even he!

The shackled bhand asked, "And what does His Highness decree?"

But His Highness's brain was in a fog. He was unable to summon the proper reply and kept swiveling his head toward the courtiers on his right and then back again, over and over, like a marionette. So far it hadn't been that long . . . only yesterday, yes it happened only yesterday. In his very court the bhand had been assured that even if the raja himself came in the dayan's path it would be understood that she could rip out his guts. How much the bhand had protested putting on the guise of a dayan. But in fact no one knew what would happen, no one imagined it would turn out this way. As soon as the fatigue in his body lessened and his heart slowed down, the raja began to go over yesterday's events one by one. Ah, right, how much the prime minister upbraided the bhand for refusing. If he had disobeyed the raja's order it would have meant death. He obeyed, and now he was in trouble. The queen wouldn't rest until her brother's death was avenged. Suddenly the raja grew suspicious. Looking over at the bhand, he said, "But if you were going to rip anyone apart, why my brother-in-law? If you had attacked anyone else, it wouldn't have been such a problem."

"Oh Protector of the Poor, everyone ran away to save himself as soon as I came. Only his lord's brother-in-law was too drunk to run away."

"So, that's what it was. If only you had recognized him, then this horrible crime wouldn't have taken place."

"No, my lord, when I am in my disguise no such discernment is possible. That is why I tried so hard not to take that disguise. But no one listened to me, no matter how hard I protested."

"If this had really been the case, you should have tried harder or not taken on the disguise at all. You should have just gone back to your village."

"I acted in error, my lord. What else can I say?" He might have been able to press oil from a stone, but not a single drop of hope from the raja. The bhand understood that it was useless to try to say anything else. He bowed once more and stood silent.

"You tell me yourself, what should I say to the queen?"

"The only answer is that murderer's death," the queen cried out. "I need no other reply. You are wasting time discussing this matter with that devil. Make haste and give the order of execution."

"But he tried to warn us," the raja started to argue, in an attempt to be fair. "The head minister and even I myself ordered him to take the guise of a dayan."

Suddenly a barber stepped forward. "My lord, if you'll allow me to make a suggestion . . . so that the honor of your promise will be upheld and the queen's wish will be fulfilled."

The raja perked up and asked, "How would you do that? How?"

The barber started to explain with pride, "If this bhand is so eager to uphold the honor of his true calling, then why not ask him to take on the guise of a sati's sacrifice on her husband's funeral pyre? What did it matter to him if he ripped out someone else's guts while disguised as a dayan? Let's just see if he can uphold the same code when in the disguise of a sati4 throwing herself into the fire."

As soon as they heard the barber's suggestion all the courtier's faces brightened, but the raja still hadn't figured it out yet. Still, he was the king. Wisest of all the wisest men in the land! The head minister explained it all to him and finally the raja understood. And once he finally understood, his happiness knew no bounds. "Very good, today you have rescued my honor!"

Then, looking over at the bhand, he said, "Now let's see you refuse. Your arguing isn't going to work this time. Say something: are you willing or not? After that I'll give you a reward for both guises. Don't worry."

The bhand said, "Lord, if it's theft or adultery then I worry. What is there to worry about here? The only thing I ask is that my remains are delivered to my home and that my sons are told that in my last moments I testified that honoring one's true calling is the highest honor of all. That way they will carry on."

"That is all?" the raja asked in surprise, but the bhand said nothing further. After that the incomparable bhand did just what he said he would. Thousands gathered to see a man assume the guise of a sati. Soon a cremation pyre was laid of sandalwood. She mounted the funeral pyre with the natural bearing of a true sati. Such was the power of her conviction that flames leaped up from the pyre of their own accord.

The sati disguise had been fully realized.

As soon as the bhand's remains were burned, the raja rewarded the barber with a high posting. He bestowed upon him a golden platter filled with pearls. The raja was pleased that the matter of revenging his brother-in-law's death was solved without breaking a promise he had made.

The queen settled down after seeing her brother's murderer burned. And she was relieved to learn that her husband's honor had not suffered the slightest blemish.

How to compare a monarch's false pride with the natural honor of a bhand?

1A clownish character who does impersonations and other antics for a living. More versatile than a "bahurupiya," the man of countless guises. 2Can be understood as "play" in the sense of a staged religious drama (imagine colorfully adorned young actors, fanciful sets, a cluster of musicians and pandits nearby intoning the storyline) or "play" in the sense of fun abandon. Certain Hindu philosophies consider all of life a grand leela. 3An otherworldly figure, neither witch nor vampire, though known for feasting on human blood. 4British administrators recoiled from this practice (which they called "suttee") of a widow immolating herself on her husband's funeral pyre and outlawed the practice. Defenders then as now claim it to be a woman's show of power, a way for the purity of her devotion to transcend the material realm. ("Sati" is related etymologically to the word for truth, as in Gandhi's "satyagraha" movement.) The abstractions of this old debate were given new relevance in 1987 when a young widow in Rajasthan named Roop Kanwar committed sati. Many articles and books have been written on the incident, and a shrine has been erected on the site. But still, no one knows if she was coerced or chose to sacrifice herself. How could she ever tell us the truth?

Translated from the Rajasthani version, "Rijak ri Marjada," in Baatan ri Phulwari, Vol. 3. Hindi version, "Rijak ki Maryada," published in Kathadesh, March 1997.

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