Mian Kamal Din (1917-2000) was the foremost storyteller of the 20th century. He had the sweep of a historian and vision of an anthropologist. He could talk of Aristotle and Alexander, Darius and Iranian princesses, Raja Porus and Raja Ambhi, Raja Ram Chandra and Ashoka, Prince Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb, Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Hari Singh Nalwa, Buddhist monks and Hindu ascetics, Muslim saints and scholars, tribal lords and peasants.

He could discover a bold hero in a petite rustler and a sloughing coward in a formidable lord. Now his story: “Four Wise Men”!

In the Mughal and Sikh era, a clan would choose its chief by placing a ceremonial turban on someone’s head. The turbaned head used to lead the people and was accountable for what his clan did. He was entitled to have a certain amount of produce from the land irrigated by wells in his jurisdiction. Subsequently he bore all the administrative expenditure and offered his visitors warm hospitality. There was a landlord who fathered four sons. He died. Forty days after his death, his clan assembled and said to his eldest son: “you don the turban”. “Turban has nothing to do with age. One who is generous, fond of public service and loyal to his people deserves the turban. Our youngest brother is the most deserving candidate,” the eldest replied.

The assembly requested the youngest to don the turban. “Can’t you see other three? I would be embarrassed to accept the responsibility when my three brothers senior to me are there,” he responded.

At last after the stalemate people suggested them to go to a famous “Suthi /an independent arbitrator [in Punjab’s culture Suthi is a wise man who does pro bono work of settling disputes among disputants]” to settle the matter on the condition that his decision would be binding on all. The four brothers departed. When they entered the wild [Bar], the eldest said, “Folks, an animal trod this path all alone without a handler”. Looking at the footprints the second said that it was a female camel. The third one commented that the animal was one eyed. The fourth one said the animal carried a load of honey. After a while the first one said, “The footprints are of a female”. The second said, “She is a weaver woman”. The third added, “She is estranged from her husband.” “And she is pregnant,” commented the last one.

In the meanwhile, a man with a lathi emerged. “Gentlemen, have you seen an animal going this way”? “A female came”? “Yes”. “Is it one eyed”? “Yes”. “It has a load of honey on its back”? “Yes”. “Sorry, we know nothing about your animal,” replied the brothers. “You better hand me my animal, gentlemen,” the man demanded. The brothers replied, Have you heard of such and such Suthi”. The man nodded. “We are taking our dispute to him. You come along. If he decides that we owe you the animal, you will have it”. Now they were five.

After some time three men with clubs joined them and asked, “Folks, have you seen a person going this way”? “Was the person a woman”? “Yeah”. “We know nothing about her”. “Return us our woman,” shouted the men with clubs. “Look, this man lost his camel. You lost your woman. Come with us. Let the Suthi settle the matter. If he decides that we owe you woman, she will be yours,” told the brothers.

Now they were eight. After a long travel when they entered the Suthi’s town, they met an aged woman. They inquired after the arbitrator. She replied that he died last year. “What a disaster! We are done for,” they sighed. Stunned, they stood motionless. A young virgin came their way with a pitcher on her head. “Why do you stand here nonplussed,” she remarked. “We came here to get our disputes settled by such and such adjudicator. But now we hear that he died last year”. “He isn’t dead but went blind three years ago. Right now he is having his sleep at his outhouse,” the girl told them nonchalantly. “He at least would able to hear us out,” the men said. They moved ahead facing a strong wind. The adjudicator was asleep with his legs against the wind. When they saw that his dhoti was around his head exposing his loins, they looked at one another and one of them muttered, “He has displayed his verdict, Read it if you can. How can he pass a judgment? He is so devoid of sense”. Hearing the noise, he woke up. Taking care of his wrap he said, “Folks, my ancestors were shepherds. When sleep inducing shepherds’ blood in my veins overwhelms me, I lose my sense. But rest assured, if I don’t settle your disputes, you are free to do whatever you like.” “But first thing first,” brothers started off. “We met an aged woman on the way and she told us that you died last year. Then we came across a young woman who told us that you have been blind for the last three years. But you aren’t dead. And you are not blind either. What’s this riddle,” the they demanded to know.

The adjudicator responded thus, “The women spoke the truth. The first woman you met is my wife. I have been dead for her since last year. And the young woman you encountered is my daughter. She reached marriageable age three years ago. She rightly said that I have been blind for the last three years.” “Now sir, please hear this camel owner’s story,” the brothers requested. The man said that he asked the brothers about the animal and they replied, “Was it a female camel? Was it one-eyed? Did it carry a load of honey? They were on the dot. Now they say they know nothing about the animal.” Suthi moved his gaze towards the brothers. The eldest explained, “The man asked me whether I saw an animal on the way. I said whether it was a female camel? I said so because I could see its urine on its footprints.” The second one said, “I saw no male footprints. So I concluded that animal was without its driver.” The third one said, “I told him that animal was one-eyed because it would graze on the bushes only on one side.” Lastly the fourth one chipped in, “Sir, I said that the female camel carried a load of honey because I could see bees on the bushes it brushed past.” “Man, they have nothing to do with your animal. Find your way and don’t delay your search for your camel….”, declared the Suthi. — soofi01@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, August 9th, 2021

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