Maharaja Krishna Chandra was the king of Bengal during the middle ages. It was customary for kings in those days to patronise talented people. So every king had his own court poets, artists, singers, town planners, architects and what have you. And plenty of ministers to advise him on different matters.

And every king had a court jester. The jester was a very important person for his ability to make people laugh and feel happy. Solving the problems of the kingdom and dealing carefully with rival kings meant a lot of tension. So he needed someone to make his tension lighter with his jokes – and help him with unexpected advice where no one else could help. That was the job of the court jester.

Gopal was the maharaja’s favourite jester. A barber by profession, he had a razor-sharp wit and could make the best of any situation. He was bright and clever and had a tremendous presence of mind. But what was most important, he had a kind heart as well. He was always ready to help anyone, not just the king…

The rains had just set in. It was the season for fish – all kinds of fish, specially the hilsa, a delicacy in Bengal. Everybody bought them, cooked them, ate them and discussed them.

“Hilsa, hilsa and hilsa! I’m really tired of all this fishy talk,” cried Maharaja Krishna Chandra, “No matter where I go or who I meet, everyone is perpetually talking of fish!”

“But isn’t that only natural, your majesty?” asked Gopal with a laugh, “this
is the hilsa season, So people keep talking about it.”

The Court Jester and the Hilsa Fish
The Court Jester and the Hilsa Fish [Illustrations by Sudheer Nath]

“I find the topic tiring,” said the maharaja, “Can’t you do something to
stop people from babbling about hilsa ?”

“But Sire, I’m not clever enough to change human nature,” said Gopal, “I
could manage it for a day, perhaps.”

“Very well. Stop people from mentioning the word hilsa for a single morning
and I’ll give you a reward.”

“Done!” said Gopal jubilantly, “No one is going to mention hilsa tomorrow –
or any fish, for that matter.”

But when the maharaja arrived in court the next morning there was no Gopal
to be seen. He frowned.

Now all the fishy talk would begin the moment he gave his subjects leave to talk. Gopal ought to have been present to keep
his word. The maharaja felt really annoyed.

But before he could sit down there was a minor sensation. A fat, hefty woman with long hairy arms and big feet ambled into the court in a bright red sari, her head covered with her ‘pallu’.

She swayed like a dancer, her ankle-bells making queer tinkling sounds.

Everyone stared at her and whispered among themselves.

“Who on earth can this strange creature be?”

“It isn’t anyone we know.”

“No one in our village is brazen enough to dress up like this and walk in as bold as brass!”

“Perhaps the Nawab from the adjacent kingdom has sent her.”

“Perhaps the maharaja had sent for a new dancing girl”

“A dancing girl! She is as fat as a tub!”

The maharaja looked at the veiled woman curiously. “Who are you? Why have you come here?” he asked her. She did not reply.

“Speak up,” said the maharaja gently, “You need not be afraid.”

The woman pulled her ‘pallu’ more closely round herself. Her glass bangles
jingled looking odd on her fat wrists.

“Tell me what you want,” said the maharaja impatiently, “I have a lot of state matters to look into and you are wasting my time.”

“Perhaps she is dumb, Sire” said one of the crowd.

“Deaf and dumb,” said another.

“I guess she’s an escaped looney,” piped up a third.

Everyone made wild guesses while the woman stood dumb. The only sound she made was the tinkling of her anklets and the jingle of her bangles.

“I really don’t know what to do,” said the maharaja exasperated, “As the king I am bound to help any subject who comes to me. But how on earth do I do it if she doesn’t speak?”

A number of suggestions followed. People in the court tried several methods to make her talk but no one succeeded. The only sounds she made sounded like suppressed giggles. And she stamped her feet and shook her hands.

“Are you crazy?” asked someone.

The woman shook her head.

“Are you deaf?”

She shook her head again.

“Do you think this is a joke?”

She shook her head once more.

And so it went on the whole morning. The maharaja was fed up with her.

“Enough is enough!” he shouted. “I am tired of you. Come back tomorrow but make sure you bring someone with you who can talk. He can explain your case to me. I’ll look into it then.”

The maharaja got up. Everyone got up with him. They left the court one by
one.

But the woman stood where she was.

“There is no point waiting any more,” said the maharaja, “Can’t you see that my work for this session is over? Thanks to you, the entire morning was
wasted.”

“But my morning hasn’t been wasted, Sire,” said the woman in a strange deep voice.

The maharaja gave her a keen look. “Good heavens! It’s Gopal!” he cried, “What does all this tomfoolery mean? You have wasted my entire morning.”

“Have I Sire?” asked Gopal throwing off his ‘pallu’, and wiping his face dry.

“You know you have! I had so many important things to attend to and none of it got done because of your strange, inane joke.”

“But Sire, no one so much as mentioned hilsa this morning! Isn’t that what you wanted?”

“Well I did but…”

“I distracted everyone so completely that no one remembered a thing about hilsa or any other fish!”

“And made such a spectacle of yourself … all those bangles and anklets and sari,” said the maharaja laughing.

“But I succeeded in what I set out to do,” said Gopal.

“Yes,” agreed the maharaja laughing as he remembered Gopal’s antics, “You did succeed. I’ll have to think about your reward.”

“Please don’t give me a hilsa, your majesty!” pleaded Gopal.

Everyone burst out laughing.