Home/ Opinion / The curse of curiosity

A folk tale begins with a murder and ends in general merriment. Apparently it has rapidly changing scenes and randomly introduced characters, but in fact all of them are related and bound by a curse. A curse either brought on by curiosity or sympathy.

The story of the louse and the nit, found in different versions across South Asia, begins with the louse asking the nit: “Why are you so fair, and I so dark?" The evil nit replies: “Because I bathe every morning, and rub myself hard with the sharp stones by the lakeside." Early the next morning, the louse arrives at the lakeside and rubs itself hard with the sharp stones. They injure the louse and it bleeds to death, colouring the lake red with its blood.

Presently a bull arrives by the lakeside and sees the lake is red from the blood. The bull asks the lake, “How did you become all red?" The lake narrates how the louse died and coloured it red with its blood. Then the lake adds: “And as the lake became red so did the bull lose its horns." At once, the bull’s horns fall off.

The hornless bull arrives under a peepal tree which asks how it lost its horns. The bull explains, offering a refrain of the story told by the lake, and adds, “And as the bull lost its horns so did the peepal lose its leaves." At once, all the peepal’s leaves fall off.

A crow had a nest in the peepal tree. With the leaves gone, its nest also falls down. Finding its nest gone, the crow asks the peepal tree, “What became of your leaves?"

The peepal repeats the refrain, explaining how it lost its leaves, and adding: “And as the peepal lost its leaves, so did the crow lose an eye." At once, the crow becomes blind in one eye.

The one-eyed crow arrives at the grocer’s to buy a betel nut to fit in the hollow of his eye. The grocer asks him: “What became of your eye?" The crow repeats the refrain, explaining how it lost its eye, and adding: “And as the crow lost its eye, so did the grocer lose his mind." At once, the grocer becomes crazy and starts throwing things around.

One of the queen’s attendants who is shopping in the bazaar, asks the grocer, “What is wrong with you?" The grocer repeats the refrain, explaining how he lost his mind, and adding: “And as the grocer went mad, so did the attendant have a laughing fit." At once, the attendant breaks into a laughing fit.

When the attendant arrives at the palace and the queen sees her state, she asks her, “What is wrong with you?" The attendant repeats the refrain, explaining how she had the laughing fit, and adding: “And as the attendant had a laughing fit, so did the queen begin to dance." At once, the queen starts dancing.

The king sees the queen dancing and asks her, “What is wrong with you?"

The queen repeats the refrain, explaining how she started dancing, and adding: “And as the queen danced, so did the king start drumming." At once, the king picks up a drum and begins beating it. As the king drums, the prince claps and claps.

The folk tale ends there as the curse does not travel further. The prince is either too young to be curious about why the king is dancing, or is satisfied to only enjoy the spectacle. A more sinister interpretation could be that the prince is enjoying the sight of the king’s madness because now he will be king.

Regardless of these interpretations, this folk tale makes one thing quite clear: to approach another’s affliction with curiosity or sympathy alike embroils one into it—a moral that teaches us to be at best selfish, and at worse callous towards others’ troubles.

Another interesting aspect of this folk tale is the trajectory of the curse. It travels from the lowest of the low to the highest, with the severity of affliction becoming reduced as it reaches the royalty, showing that in our imagination there is a certain sanctity for the mightiest that offers them reprieve from earthly afflictions.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi is an author, novelist and translator. He can be reached at www.mafarooqi.com and on Twitter @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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Updated: 22 Jul 2014, 08:00 PM IST
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