It was another dark night in the graveyard. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up as King Vikram grabbed the corpse off a gnarled branch of the peepal tree. He put the rattling, blackened bundle of bones over his shoulder and began his lonely march. No sooner did he take ten steps, the Vampire needled him.
“Vikrama, I have heard that you are an adventurous king. Sure, you may think yourself very brave. But you weren’t brave enough to say no to the hermit! Why didn’t you send him off to another king? Let me tell you the story of the headman who, instead of fighting a beast, sent him to live in a much nicer place.”
The Vampire began the story.
The Wary Chief
Sardavan was a large jungle with abundant wildlife and different settlements of forest dwellers. The settlements were mostly peaceful, as the people were careful about using resources and managing boundaries. Each settlement sent a representative to a council. If there was any difference of opinion amongst the different settlements, they brought the issue to the council and debated it. There was a head councilor who would take the final decision based on the debate.
Life went on smoothly and uneventfully. But you know that it’s impossible for things to be the same for a long time. You can even say that life is boring if nothing new happens. One day, kids from one of the settlements went exploring much further into the jungle than ever before. What happens when you let a bunch of kids out and about? They enjoy themselves fooling around and making noise. Well, these kids were no different! One splashed water on the others, one swung from a branch, and the others squealed. In all this din, they didn’t pay attention to a new noise around them. Slowly, like the gushing water that trickles down to drops when you close the tap, their noises simmered down. Something was not right! They listened.
CRACK! SSSHHHHHHHHHHHH, THADAM, CRACK!
They turned towards the noise. Through the gaps in the trees, the children saw a hand as big as a tree trunk pull a tree by its roots. A curious girl moved closer to get a better look. The hand belonged to a body that was wide as a wall, with the head rising above the trees.
Later that day, the children had no recollection of how they got back home. All they remembered was that they dragged the little ones away from the spot and ran.
The elders called a meeting of the council. Some villagers pooh-poohed the idea of any such being. But The parents of the children who saw the strange creature would not let go. A small scouting party left the next morning to see what the children had seen. The ground had gaping holes where trees had once stood. The tree trunks lay on the ground, wiped clean off leaves and fruits. That was not all! From a little up ahead came a crack, a whir, and then a grind. The scouting party followed the trail of broken branches. Like the kids before them, they, too, stopped in shock at the spectacle ahead.
A large man, wait! Was that a man? Well, a large being picked up an elephant with one hand under its belly and dropped it somewhere behind it. Then, this creature broke a branch off a tree, pulled the leaves off the branch, and stuffed them in its mouth. That’s what the noises were about!
“We don’t have the right weapons to attack this creature. Let’s go back,” one of the party said. “Thankfully!” someone else added as they slunk back to the path.
The council of settlements was waiting for them. “It is true! The children saw a monster,” said one. “It is taller than the trees.” “It is wider than the river.” “It has the strength of a hundred elephants!”
As you can imagine, the debate that night went on forever. Many said that they should attack the beast, but others cautioned them to go slow.
Finally, the head councilor said they must wait and watch. “We are not cowards. After all, this being is bigger than us, more powerful, and no one knows what special powers it has. Let us find out more about the beast.”
But there was one small group of people who were not happy with the decision. “This is our home. We must attack the beats before it attacks us.” The discontent brewed stronger until one day, a few youths decided that they wanted less talk and more action. That happens with young people. They feel things strongly and want to do something about it right away. Waiting is really hard, and they may not always think about whether their method will work. They just know that they want to do it the way they want.
So what did these youngsters do? They left with their weapons to search for the beast well before the gentle rays of the sun lightened the sky. With a clear purpose, they threaded through the jungle, taking care not to make too much noise.
After an hour or so, the party of warriors arrived at the site with the uprooted tree trunks. From here on, they walked stealthily. The trail of broken trees and branches led them deeper into the jungle. When they finally came face to face with the beast, they were puzzled. Except for his size and strength, he looked human! And intelligent! The beast saw them and looked equally puzzled.
A warrior threw a spear at the beast. The creature caught the spear, flicked it aside, and stared at them. The warriors were confused. This wasn’t going according to plan. The men nearest to the beast ran, aiming their weapons at it. The beast bent low and blew at them. The men fell to the ground, their weapons flying off their hands. One warrior reached for his knife, and the beast blew again. This man, too, fell down, and his knife flung far from him. No matter how many times they tried, they couldn’t get close to him.
It was now past midday. The warriors were hungry, tired, and dejected. They walked to the trail leading home without turning their backs on the beast.
A furious debate was raging around a fire when they reached home. Relief, shock, tears, and questions all played on the faces of their families in the dancing light of the fire.
The head councilor had had enough. “I’m going to see this beast for myself,” he said to the assembled crowd.
And he did! He left at dawn and followed the trail like all the others before him. He took no weapons, just some fruits and water. When he came upon the beast, the wary chief held out a fruit. The beast looked warily. What now? It seemed to say.
“Welcome to our jungle home,” the head councilor said. “I apologize for what happened yesterday.” The beast took the fruit, still looking around to see if anyone hid behind the trees and bushes.
“Our people were curious and a bit afraid when they saw you. But we have talked to them, and no one will bother you anymore.” The wary chief reassured the beast.
“Who are you? What brought you here?”
The beast could understand him, the head councilor realized. He heard the answer in his mind. “Who are you, and why do you want to know?”
“I’m the head councilor for the people of the forest. It looks like we are going to be neighbours. We want to get to know you better so that we can welcome you and help you, even.”
“You have no weapon,” said the beast.
“Do I need one to speak to you?” the head councilor asked.
Gradually, the beast shared that he had wandered into the jungle, but he liked it and was planning to stay there.
The headman said, “I will send some of our people with some welcome gifts for you. Let me know if we can help you in any way.”
Back home, the wary chief called for a meeting of all the settlements and their councilors. He told the people to stay away from the beast—to respect its boundaries. Then the council came up with a list of gifts that they would send to the beast. Every week, one settlement had to gather the things and bring it to the council, and two people would take it to the beast. The people of the forest were puzzled by the decision. But they knew the head councilor to be a wise man and did as he asked.
This went on for a while. Then one day, the head councilor took another trip to meet the beast. He had a piece of paper with some markings on it.
The beast sat down with him to chat.
“Dear friend, I wanted to let you know that I am moving from this jungle to form a new settlement in a different jungle. “
“What is this? Where are you going? And Why?” asked the beast.
“Well, you see the hills beyond our jungle? On the other said, there is an even bigger jungle with more wild animals and a wider variety of trees. We want to go there and start afresh. This jungle is losing a lot of its trees. There are empty patches here and there. We decided to find a new place before someone else took over the jungle there.”
The beast was silent. He looked around him. The sun’s rays touched the ground as there were very few trees standing.
“A few years ago, a traveller stopped to rest at our place. He told us about the many fruit-bearing trees in the other jungle. There are many types of mangoes, bananas, papayas, and jackfruits. There is plenty of water as it has two large rivers running through it and it has fewer people. Where there are fruits and water, there are bound to be more animals and birds. We can live happily there.”
“How will you go there?” asked the beast.
“Well, when the traveller described the jungle, I had my son draw us a map from his description. See, here it is!” He unrolled the paper in his hand. It was marked with lines-straight, curved shapes like hills, trees, birds, and flowing rivers.
“Why, my friend? Are you interested in moving there too?” asked the head councilor with an intense look on his face.
The beast looked at him. He hadn’t actually thought about it, but the question made him sit up. “That’s not a bad idea, surely?” he thought.
The two of them sat there in silence, until the head councilor spoke again. “Why don’t I give you my map? I have a copy at home. It will take me a few months to close up all my work here. But you can go now and find your own place. Then when we have finished packing up here, maybe in 2-3 months, we will start our journey. We will meet up there.”
The beast was happy. The head councilor’s words had planted a seed of worry in his mind. But here he was, sharing his way out!
The beast thanked him and took the map. A few days later, the councilor walked over again to send the beast off on his journey.
Two months passed, then three. But the settlement dwellers did not leave. They continued with their lives as before…except for one small thing. They went back to the clearings where the beast had pulled down the trees and planted new saplings there. In a few years, it will be like before, fully covered!
“Vikrama,” began the Vampire. “The head councilor is such a puzzling man. When the council voted to fight the beast, he said no. Instead, he befriended it and sent gifts every week. Finally, he shared with the beast his map to go to the new jungle, even if the rest of the people were scared of it. But then he didn’t take his own people to the new jungle. They just stayed on in the same place. Why was he not looking out for his people? He seems like a very strange leader! Now, if you know the answer, you must speak. If you don’t, your head will shatter to a thousand pieces.”
Vikrama didn’t hesitate at all. “The head councilor was a very wise man indeed. When the children and the scouting party came back, he questioned them to see if the beast had threatened or attacked them in any way. When he found out that it didn’t, he voted not to attack it. He didn’t know if the beast was a danger to the people of the forest and wanted to find out more about it. Then, when the young people of the forest marched on their own, he realized that he had to take some action. Thus far, the beast had not attacked anybody. But if the people of the forest went to battle with it, they would suffer more than the beast. He also had to calm the people down to show that he was taking the beast seriously.
When he went and talked to the beast, he realized two things.
1. The beast was planning to stay in their jungle.
2. While it didn’t attack the people, it did destroy the jungle by uprooting trees.
It was too big for the people to fight it with weapons, and eventually, the beast’s habits would cause problems for the people. He planned to win its trust by sending gifts of fruits and other edible items instead of attack parties.
The head councilor’s plan to get rid of the beast was brilliant. He had no plans of moving his entire settlement to the new jungle. It was all a trick to get the beast to move away. He described the new jungle in such a way that the beast would want to go there. If he had told the beast directly that he should go to the jungle, the beast might not have accepted it. By adding details about his own plans to move, the man made the beast want it too. The head councilor even gave a very reasonable explanation for why he couldn’t move right away. It takes time for families to wind up their affairs and move, but for a single person, it is much easier. After three months, the beast would have got used to the new jungle. It wasn’t going to move back. That’s when the people went about replanting trees in the clearings.”
With that, the Betaal vanished!
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