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In two folk tales, animal tricksters set out with little or no possessions, and claim young women as brides.

The first tale from Uttar Pradesh recounts the adventures of a lazy, layabout monkey, who has a golden hair on his head, which is his most prized possession. Mother monkey tells her son one day that he will never find a bride if he does not change his indolent ways. The monkey takes it up as a challenge and sets out, telling his mother he shall prove her wrong.

The monkey first goes to a barber and asks for a haircut. The golden hair is lopped off during the haircut, whereupon the monkey confiscates the barber’s razor. When the barber asks why, the monkey runs away, shouting in reply that it was the price for the golden hair he chopped off.

Along the way he sees a gardener trimming a hedge. The monkey asks him to try trimming the hedge with the razor. The gardener is tempted. As the razor is spoiled in trimming the hedge, the monkey snatches the gardener’s blanket. When the gardener protests, the monkey tells him that he is taking the blanket since the gardener took his razor.

On his way the monkey meets an oil-seller shivering in the cold. He offers him his blanket, and upon the oil-seller accepting it, runs away with the oil can, reminding the astonished oil-seller that it was he who entered into the bargain by accepting the blanket.

Down the road, the monkey finds a woman sitting with rolled out puris. Hearing that she had run out of oil, the monkey offers her the oil can, and when the woman is done frying, runs away with the whole platter of puris, reminding her of the oil she had already received in payment.

Finally, the monkey comes upon a wedding procession. The monkey offers them the puris, which they gladly eat. Once all are consumed, the monkey walks up to the bride and picks her up, reminding the horrified party that the puris they had eaten were a fine deal they struck for the bride. The bridal party gives chase, recovers the bride from the monkey, and roughs him up. The monkey’s enterprise ends on a sour note.

In the other folk tale from Punjab, a rat finds a piece of dry root and puts it away safely for a rainy day. One day he finds a man with hungry children trying to start a fire. Taking pity on the family, the rat offers him the dry root to burn. The thankful family offers the rat a morsel of dough. The rat finds it a fine bargain, and it gets him thinking he must be a great hand at bargaining. From then onwards, the rat actively looks for them.

He comes upon a potter whose children are crying from hunger as there is no flour in the house to cook and feed them. The rat offers him his dough to cook. The grateful potter offers him a fine pipkin, and the rat again finds it a great bargain.

He next meets a cowherd who is milking a buffalo into his shoe as he has no pail. The rat offers him the pipkin to use. But when the cowherd offers him a few sips of milk in exchange, the rat insists on taking the buffalo in return. The rat finally prevails and sets out, leading the buffalo by the halter.

He comes upon a wedding party which has no meat to cook. The rat offers them the buffalo to kill and eat, and once they have eaten the meat they offer the remains to the rat. But the rat rejects them and lays claim to the bride in recompense for the buffalo. The frightened wedding party runs away, leaving the bride behind.

The bride, who turns out to be a princess, spends the night in the rat’s custody. In the morning the rat sends her out to sell fruit in the city to buy food for herself. The queen sees her daughter selling fruit and they are reunited. The rat, who had followed the princess at a distance, demands that she be returned to him. The queen receives the rat in her palace, and offers him a seat under which she has kept a red-hot stone. The rat’s behind is singed and he runs away howling, bringing his adventure to an end.

Unlike the monkey, who seems to have plotted the whole sequence of events, the rat’s adventure is more accidental, as he starts out with good intentions, and becomes greedy along the way. In both folk tales, the protagonists find it difficult to retain their human brides, and the whole adventure comes to nought. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that too. Freedom from all bonds is fundamental to a career in trickery. A settled life is not for the trickster.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi is an author, novelist and translator. He can be reached at www.mafarooqi.com and on Twitter at @microMAF.

This monthly column explores the curious world of the myths and folk tales of South Asia.

Also Read | Musharraf’s previous Lounge columns

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