A Kannada Folktale: Hucchayya (The Fool)

       There once lived three brothers in a town. The youngest of them was Hucchayya. That wasn’t his real name, but he was a fool and so people called him Hucchayya. But that never bothered Hucchayya.
       Now Hucchayya, as the name suggests, was not a man of guile. Nor did he know what it was to keep a secret. So, those who wished to spread a rumour had only to say: “Hucchayya, here’s a piece of news, but don’t speak about it to anyone.” Huccha would then travel through town, telling everybody he met the news, adding: “But see that you don’t speak about it to anyone.”
       Hucchayya’s two brothers had married and set up separate homes. The two of them had also split the inheritance, leaving nothing to Hucchayya. ‘He can split his time between our houses,’ they thought.
       But this didn’t suit Hucchayya, who protested –
       “You have been unjust, brothers,” said he. “I too am my father’s son. I deserve my share of the inheritance.”
       “So be it,” said his brothers. “What would you like for yourself?”
       Hucchayya was taken aback. Finally, he said: “I would like this ox,” pointing to an old ox that was on its last legs. Rejoicing inwardly, his brothers handed him the ox.
Thereafter, in spite of eating at his brothers’s homes, Hucchayya lived with his ox in the backyard and bethought himself independent.
       How well Hucchayya looked after his old ox! No mother ever pampered her infant more. He stroked it tenderly, fed it the best hay to be found, and made sure that its bucket of water was always full.
       Besides all this, Hucchayya also talked to his ox. If, as Hucchayya spoke to it, the ox shook its head, twitched its ears, or swished its tail in an attempt to shake off the flies, Huccha found in it the suitable response to his chatter and was content. And when, wishing for some grass, it licked his face with its wet tongue, it pleased him so much that he told everyone of it. “How well an animal can love!” he said.
       His affection for the ox went so far as to give it the name, Basavakumāra, the ox-prince. For a few days after the naming, he even spoke of him to all those who passed. “My Basava didn’t drink his water today,” he would say anxiously, “I wonder what the matter is.”
       Or, “My Basava went all day without shaking his tail.” And even: “My Basava didn’t utter a sound all day.” No mother ever spoke of her child more lovingly. But what did the old ox know of all this?
Weeks passed. One day, Huccha caught hold of Basava‘s tail and saying, “Why aren’t you moving your tail about, my dear Basava?” gave Basava‘s tail a little shake, whereupon the old ox collapsed. Huccha was so disappointed at the ox’s behaviour that he ceased to look upon it with any affection.

       Now Hucchayya’s brothers owned a pair of cows between them. Thinking these animals a needless burden, the brothers sold them at the neighbouring town. When Hucchayya heard of this, he too decided to sell his ox and betook himself to the same town. But his was an old ox. Who would buy it willingly? Hucchayya spent a fruitless day at the fairgrounds and when evening fell began to make his way back home. On his way, he came across a tree swaying to the wind. “Clickety click,” went the tree as it swayed back and forth. (Let us remind ourselves at this juncture that Hucchayya was a fool.)
       “What’s that, Mr. Tree,” said Hucchayya when he heard this. “Are you asking me how much I want for my ox?” “Clickety click,” went the tree.
       “I won’t take anything less than twenty-five rupees,” answered Hucchayya.
       “Clickety click,” went the tree again. “What’s that? You’ll pay me twenty-five rupees for my ox?”
       “Click.”
       “Yes? All right, here you are. Hand over the money now.”
       “Clickety click.”
       “Oh, well, if that’s the way you want it,” said Hucchayya. He went up to the tree and secured the old ox to its trunk.
       “Clickety click,” went the tree.
       “Eh? You’ll pay me tomorrow? So be it,” answered Hucchayya and made his way home.
       When they gathered for dinner, his brothers asked: “Where’s your ox, Hucchayya?”
       “I’ve sold it,” he answered.
       “For how much?”
       “Twenty-five rupees,” said Hucchayya.
       His brothers were impressed. ‘Not a bad bargain,’ they reflected. ‘Twenty-five rupees for a run-down old ox.’
       “Where’s the money, brother?” they asked.
       “He’ll give it to me tomorrow,” said Hucchayya.
       Having no reason to disbelieve him, his brothers turned the conversation to other things.
       When Hucchayya went up to the tree the next day, his ox was nowhere to be found.
       “All right, Mr. Tree, hand over the money,” said Hucchayya.
       “Clickety click,” said the tree.
       “What’s that? You’ll pay me tomorrow?” asked Hucchayya. “All right, but make sure that you do. I won’t have you telling me tomorrow to come the next day and then the next day and so on. It’s only because you’ve asked me nicely today that I’ve said yes.” Saying this, he took himself home.
       That evening too, Hucchayya’s brothers asked him where the money was.
       “He said he’d give to me tomorrow,” said Hucchayya.
       “Very well, your lordship,” said his brothers, “at least tell us who you sold the ox to.”
       “To a tree on the way to town,” answered Hucchayya.
       His brothers clapped themselves on the forehead. “When will you ever learn some sense?” they shouted.
       “The poor tree,” answered Hucchayya. “He pleaded so piteously that my heart melted and I gave in.”
       Consoled by the reflection that they had been saved the trouble of burying the old ox, his brothers dropped the matter.

       The following morning Hucchayya went up to the tree again. “Well then, are you going to pay me today?” he demanded.
       “Clickety click,” went the tree.
       Hucchayya was displeased. “I won’t have any more of this clickety click nonsense,” he warned it. “I just want my money. Otherwise, I’ll use my axe to give you a cut for every rupee you owe me. What do you say to that, huh?”
       “Clickety click,” said the tree.
       Hucchayya lost his temper at this. One, two, three, four – chop, chop, chop, chop went his axe.
       Now the tree was an old desiccated tree. Hucchayya had struck no more than ten blows than it fell. But wonders never cease, do they? For what should the tree harbour but a stolen stash of treasure! When the tree fell, the treasure spilled out in all its richness. Wrapping a portion of the treasure in his bag of cloth, Hucchayya rushed home and deposited it in front of his brothers. His brothers’s faces expressed both happiness and amazement.
       “Where did all this come from, Hucchayya?” they asked.
       “Didn’t I tell you?” answered Hucchayya. “I sold my ox to the tree. It didn’t give me my twenty-five rupees, but instead gave me all this gold and silver. There’s a lot more gold and silver by it still.”
       “Well, what are we waiting for?” cried his brothers. Saying so, they rushed to the spot with Hucchayya.
       It was just like Hucchayya had said. Spades of gold and silver lay by the fallen tree. Eagerly, the brothers gathered up all the treasure. Then, handing a small sack to Hucchayya to carry home, they said to him: “See that you don’t say a word about all this gold and silver to anyone, Hucchayya.”
       “All right,” said Hucchayya.
       The three of them were hurrying home when they came up against the village priest. “What’s this, boys,” he asked, “what have you got in those sacks?” “Oh, nothing much, Mister, just some sprouts from the field,” replied the eldest. But Hucchayya intervened – “Is it right to tell lies to the village priest, brother?” he said reproachfully. Turning to the priest, “Mister, these sacks we’re carrying are full of gold and silver.” “Here, see for yourself,” he added and undid the knot of his sack.
       The priest’s eyes glittered greedily at the sight of the treasure.
       “So it’s true!” he exclaimed and stooping, picked up a handful of gold and put it his bag of alms. This displeased Hucchayya. “The cheek!” he expostulated and brought down the axe he was holding on the priest’s head, who drew his last breath  and fell down dead. Furious at Hucchayya’s foolishness, his two brothers threw the priest’s corpse in a nearby pit and hurried homewards.
       That very night, Hucchayya’s brothers waited until he had gone to bed and then stole out. Retrieving the priest’s body from the pit, they buried it securely, flung the remains of a dead ram into the pit and returned home.
       In a couple of days, people noticed the priest’s absence and begun to discuss the matter. When Hucchayya heard this, he said:
       “That’s right, it was I who killed him. I then placed the body in a nearby pit and returned.”
       “Let’s go look,” said the townspeople when they heard this. Hucchayya led the way to the pit his brothers had flung the body into. Going up to its lip, he called out –
       “Our priest had a beard, did he not?”
       “Yes,” came the answer.
       “And did he not have two horns upon his head?”
       What’s this fool of a Hucchayya talking about, thought the crowd, and came up to the pit to see for themselves. When they looked, all they saw were the decaying remains of a ram.
       “Hucchayya was born a fool, but fraternising with a fellow like him will only make us go mad,” they thought bitterly and turned to make their way back to town. When later, Hucchayya told them of how the tree gave him and his brothers all that gold and silver, the people of the  town ignored him. So it turned out that Hucchayya and his brothers lived happily ever after.

       So they’re out there. And we? We’re out here.

Afterword:

I grew up reading the wonderful and engaging folklore and mythology of many of the world’s peoples. Naturally, my reading included Indic mythology. However, most stories I read were those that had come down through the ages along the mainstream of Sanskrit. Stories from the Ramāyaṇa, the Mahābhārata, and the Panchatantra abounded. Much less common were folktales from the many indigenous languages (often called bhāsha-s) of India’s various peoples.

The story I’ve translated here is a Kannada folktale, found in a collection – whose name I forgot and a copy of which I seem to have misplaced – compiled by Chandrashekhara Kambara. The theme, like so many other folkloric themes, is one that is found in the folktales of various other peoples. Notwithstanding these similarities, there are elements in this Kannada version that I, for one, have not come across in other stories of this “type”. Those of you who have read folklore of this sort before will have noticed that the language I’ve used is sometimes deliberately archaic.

P.S: This was perhaps my very first translation from Kannada to English; and was done several years before I got around to translating Bendre.

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Puṇyakōṭi – The Song of the Cow

Puṇyakōṭi herself may have hesitated to say it, but it is very close to the truth that there is almost no Kannadiga who has not heard the refrain ಸತ್ಯವೇ ಭಗವಂತನೆಂಬ ಪುಣ್ಯಕೋಟಿಯ ಕಥೆಯಿದು (satyavē bhagavantanemba puṇyakōṭiya katheyidu). Even I, who grew up in a predominantly English environment and never studied Kannada in school (which is where most children come across it if they haven’t already), seem to remember listening to the refrain as a child – in the same lilt familiar to so many other millions of Kannada speakers.

On its surface, the story of Puṇyakōṭi is a moral story. It is also the way most people apprehend it. The song-narrative of the upright, ever-truthful cow has brought and continues to bring tears to countless eyes. Indeed, if one does not object to a little ‘back-to-the-future’, Puṇyakōṭi’s behaviour may easily be called Gandhian. (Raja Rao, the Kannada-speaking English novelist, tells of how he related Puṇyakōṭi’s story to Gandhiji himself and how pleased Gandhiji was to hear it.)

Today, it is very possible that a moral story like this one may seem, at best, rather quaint; at worst, saccharine and preachy. Cows are no longer woven into the fabric of people’s lives, there are few thickly-forested areas (like the ones in the story) and even fewer tigers, and ideas like the truth and honesty have turned into curiosities. And yet, the memory of a people (though they themselves may transform beyond recognition) is not easily erased. The past continues to impress itself on the present. If earlier it was the radio and school textbooks that propagated the song, it is now the internet and Youtube.

A word now about the song’s origin. While nothing definitive has been said, the song has been dated to the early 1800s (and is quite possibly of even earlier vintage). And while the unity of the song’s narrative points towards it being a single author’s work, it is only fitting that the author is unknown. Because, like every true folksong, the singer of the ಗೋವಿನ ಹಾಡು (The Song of the Cow) is not an individual but society itself.

Having provided this introduction, I would now like to present my (poetic) English translation of the poem. The version I have chosen to translate is the extremely popular sung version. While it is true that this version omits a number of verses originally recorded, it does so without ever doing violence to the ಭಾವ (~emotional context) of the original. Likewise, my translation is not always literal but is an attempt to convey the ಭಾವ of the song. Also, because the original itself uses a vocabulary and rhyme-scheme that are Old-Kannada, I have taken the liberty of using a vocabulary and a grammar of “inversion” that may seem redolent of English poetry of the Romantic period.

Since there is a readily available online version of the song, I am simply providing the link here. I think it best to read the translation as you listen to the song.

Puṇyakóṭi – The Song of the Cow

Let me tell you of the ways
Of Kāḷinga, the keeper-of-the-cows,
In the flourishing land of Karnāta here,
Right in the centre of this earthly sphere.

Beneath the tender mango trees,
He sat as he played on his flute at ease,
And happy strains went forth of sound
That cálled to the cattle gathered round:

Come Gangē, come, come Gowri, come
Come, mother-Tungabhadrē, come,
Come, Puṇyakōṭi, you come too
Was how he called out his halloo.

Harking to the cowherd’s call,
The cows they gathered one and all,
And then they overflowed their milk
Until his earthern pot was filled.

This is the story of Puṇyakōṭi,
Who said the truth was the only deity.

Within the mountains spread around
Was heard tiger arbhuta‘s sound,
As round and round the hills he prowled
While his stomach in a hunger growled.

In a fury fiercely roaring,
He went rumbling thundering soaring,
Down to where the cows all were,
And sent them scattering here and there.

A straying cow called Puṇyakōṭi,
Thinking fondly of her baby,
Was returning happy to her shed
To the calf she had to feed.

Aha! thought the tiger cruel
Here at last is today’s meal,
As he bounded up with wicked laugh
And blocked her way back to her calf.

This is the story of Puṇyakōṭi,
Who said the truth was the only deity.

I have no intent to play,
I’ll pounce upon you right away,
And then I’ll tear you side to side,
The tiger boomed in villainous pride.

Tiger, listen to this plea of mine,
I’ve left my kanda ’mongst the kine.
Let me feed him just once more
And then I’ll make my way back here.

Your capture’s like a gift to me,
And if I simply let you free,
You’ll slip away and never appear –
Don’t lie to me, roared the tiger.

The truth’s my father, and my mother’s the truth,
The truth’s my sister, and my brother’s the truth.
And if I do not keep my word,
I know that it will not please the lord.

This is the story of Puṇyakōṭi,
Who said the truth was her only deity.

I’ve come back, kanda, to our shed,
To see you once before I head
Back to the tiger to whom I’ve said
That I will give myself as food.

Whose teats shall I now suckle, ma,
Whose side shall I now sleep by, ma,
In whose care, ma, shall I now live,
Who will hug me when I grieve?

O mothers dear, O sisters dear,                                                                                    
We all came fróm the same mother.
So will you please, on my behalf,
Treat as your own this orphaned calf?

Do not butt him if he rears,
Do not kick him if he errs;
Make him your own on my behalf,
Fondly treat this orphaned calf.

This is the story of Puṇyakōṭi,
Who said the truth was her only deity.

You are an orphan now, my son,
The tiger’s claimed me for his own.
I will now go and clear our debt
She said as she hugged her kanda tight.

Then saying goodbye to her child,
Not even once looking behind,
She reached the entrance to the cave
And said to the tiger – urgent-brave.

Here take my flesh, here take my meat,
Here take this hot blood of my heart,
O mighty tiger, take all of this
And sate your hunger with relish.

Listening to these words of hers,
The tiger’s eyes filled up with tears.
O if I kill and eat a lass so good,
I know that it will not please the lord.

You’re like a sister born with me,
What will I gain by killing you?
So saying, with a heavy sigh,
Off the cliff he leapt to die.

This is the story of Puṇyakōṭi,
Who said the truth was the only deity.

Puṇyakóṭi, now filled with joy,
Frolicked home to feed her boy.
Then calling on her own cowherd
She stood in front of him and said:

Let all the cows within my clan
And all the cowherds from your clan
Come together every year
And chant our Krishṇa’s name in prayer.

For he is the store of all good things,
And the máster of our good feelings.

P.S: Here is another link that just misses having the whole song, but blends the song with a very charming animation.