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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Magic Bowls

Once upon a time there lived a man who was lazy, and his wife nagged him every day for being such a lazy good-for-nothing. The poor fellow would listen to all her abuse patiently, slip out of the house whenever he could, and stay out till it felt safe to come home

One day, her anger boiled over. She scraped together whatever stale food remained in her pots, tied it up in a dirty cloth, thrust it into his hand, and sent him packing. "Go somewhere, anywhere, and earn something. And don't you come back till you do!" she said, as she slammed the door.
The man took his bundle of stale food and trudged out of the village. He walked and walked for miles till he came to place where three roads crossed. A huge banyan tree had grown up there and had lent its shade to weary travelers for many years. The man was tired and his legs ached. He sat down under the tree. He tied his bundle of rice to one of its branches and soon he was fast asleep, his head pillowed on the roots of the banyan.
Now, there were forest spirits living in the banyan tree. They sighted the sleeping man below and the bundle of stale food on the branch above him. They wanted to taste his dinner. No sooner did they think of it than it was done. What's more, they liked that stale food very much. They had tasted nectar and all the dishes of heaven, but this was something new. They had never tasted stale rice before. It had a wonderful flavor of its own. They were pleased and thought they should give their poor sleeping host something in return for the food they had taken away. When the poor man woke up, he was hungry and looked for his bundle. When he found it, the food was gone. In its place, there were four odd looking empty bowls. Raging with hunger, he banged the bowls on the ground. At once, several lovely women appeared before him with all sorts of divine dishes in their hands, ready to serve him. He was dumbstruck by the magic of it all, but he was too hungry to be frightened or ask questions. And the lovely women served him gently, silently, attended to his slightest gesture, and treated him like a god. Soon he came to believe that he was indeed master of these nymphs. His marvelous dinner over, his heavenly servants disappeared without a trace, leaving the four empty bowls behind them. Then the man picked up the empty bowls and hurried home. He told his wife what happened and his wife was overjoyed.
They wanted to be charitable to their neighbors. Even as the next day dawned, the man was out of the house. He went to every door and invited every family in the village, rich and poor alike. Everyone was skeptical. Some laughed outright. Some thought it was a practical joke, some that the man must be crazy. The guests gathered by noon in his home. Many of them had taken the precaution of eating well before they arrived. They came just to see what was happening, and were they surprised! The poor man and his wife brought forth four odd-looking vessels and respectfully requested them to bestow upon the guests their gracious gifts. And lo and behold! dozens of lovely women, each lovelier than the next, adorned to the fingertips, rose out of the bowls. In their hands were plates full of the daintiest dishes. Silver platters appeared from nowhere before the bewildered guests, and service began.
As the guests ate, new dishes arrived by the dozen and the heavenly women served them so readily that everyone felt that they forestalled one's slightest wishes. The guests were fed till they were ready to burst. They had trouble getting up and carrying themselves home. The village buzzed with the news. Everyone talked about it. The poor man, no longer poor, was the rage for months. Now, there was a rich man in the village who thought no end of himself. He grew envious of the sudden wealth and the growing popularity of his neighbor who till yesterday had been a penniless beggar. He paid a visit to his fellow villager one day and was treated to the miracle of the bowls and the lovely women who rose from them for the mere asking. He quickly made friends with their owner, gave him and his wife gifts, and soon wormed the secret out of them.
"It's so easy," he thought. "There's nothing to it." He hurried home and ordered his best cook to make the most sumptuous dishes at once. Next morning, he traveled in a palanquin, as fast as his bearers could take him, and arrived at the spot where three roads crossed. He carefully arranged a big basket full of the finest dishes that money could command, right under the banyan tree. Then he dismissed his servants till evening, and composed himself as if for sleep. Of course, he wasn't going to sleep. He was too curious to see the forest spirits and what they would do. He lay there for a long time till somehow sleep stole over him. When he woke up, all in a hurry, he saw beside him four odd-looking bowls. And his basket was empty. He had succeeded. Of course, he had never once doubted he would. After all, he had brought for the spirits in the banyan tree the tastiest, the richest, the most royal of all human dishes. How could they help giving him what he wanted? Here they were, in full view, the magic bowls! He hurried home, asking his palanquin bearers to go faster. He called his entire household and sent them running with the news and invitations to every family in the village. People from all corners flocked to his dining hall. Their mouths watered at the memory of the recent banquet. Here was another, and a rich man's, too! Many starved themselves all day to do justice to his hospitality.
The rich man beamed at his guests and motioned them to their seats. Servants brought in the bowls with great ceremony and placed them on a pedestal. His head wrapped in a lace turban, wearing earrings and turquoises, their master stood before the bowls and loudly ordered them to bring forth a divine banquet for everyone assembled. Hardly had his voice stopped ringing when out came dozens of big burly men. They looked like wrestlers. They had rolls of muscle on their arms, and their looks would have scared the bravest of men. They came out of the bowls and went after the host and his hungry guests. They seized them one by one, whipped out gleaming razors, and with great gusto shaved every head in the hall, shaved them so close that every head was clean and shiny like a bronze bowl. Not a single guest escaped the barbers' banquet, not even the wives.
And as the terrified guests crawled out, a muscular fellow at the door held up a large mirror to their faces and forced them to take a good long look at themselves before they left the hall, never to return.

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