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. The king had a lot of serious work to do, lots of difficult problems to solve and deal carefully with rival kings! It 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.

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.

Gopal shivered as he sat smoking his hookah one cold winter morning. The sun
was barely visible. There was smell of rain in the air. Gopal frowned. His
eyes were on the ceiling. The straw on the roof was getting really thin. If
it rained hard the roof was bound to leak.

Gopal’s wife ambled into the room frowning. “You’re a good-for -nothing man,” she said. “Have you looked at the roof of our house?” she asked.

“The straw is getting thin in places. We’ll need to put a fresh lot of hay,” said Gopal.

“Don’t you feel ashamed that you have to attend to roofs even now… after all these years?”

“Straw roofs have to be re-done from time to time. What’s shameful about it?”

The Jester and the Straw Roof
The Jester and the Straw Roof [Illustrations by Sudheer Nath]
“It is shameful that we still have straw roofs to tend to,” shouted Gopal’s wife.

“This is our ancestral home.”

“It’s no use arguing with you,” Said Gopal’s wife, “I quite see that I’m fated to live in a straw hut all my life.”

Gopal gave her a keen look. “There’s something in what you say,” he agreed.

Gopal arrived quite late at the maharaja’s court the next morning. And came later and later each following day.

“What’s the matter with you, Gopal?” he asked impatiently after a few days, “You always come late these days.”

“I am planning to have kartik puja at my place this year,” said Gopal.

“You have it every year,” said the maharaja impatiently.

“Well, it will be special this time,” said Gopal, “I am planning to invite your majesty that evening.”

“Very well, I’ll be there,” said the maharaja.

The day of kartik puja aarrived at long last. His wife was rather apprehensive when she heard about the maharaja visiting them.

“But where is he going to sit? We don’t have a seat that is high enough for him!” she said, “You leave the seating arrangements to me,” said Gopal.

“Where’s the ladder?”

“What on earth do you need the ladder for? Govinda borrowed it yesterday,” said Gopal’s wife.

Govinda was Gopal’s next-door neighbour. Gopal shot across to his house.

“My best mattress is gone! It’s not on my bed any more,” shouted Gopal’s wife after a while.

“Don’t scream your head off, woman. I’ve taken it!”

“But why? Are you quite crazy? First the ladder and now my mattress!”

Presently the maharaja’s men turned up to announce that he was on his way.

Before long there came the sound of horses’ hoofs as the royal carriage rolled into the small lane. Gopal was at the door.

But instead of asking the royal party to step inside the courtyard as usual Gopal led them to the back of the house.

“Where are you taking us, Gopal?” asked the maharaja in surprise. “This isn’t the way to your house! Don’t you usually feed people in your courtyard?”

“Of course not!” said Gopal, “I don’t have a seat that’s high enough for you in my house. I can’t insult your majesty just because you have agreed to come. I have arranged for you to sit on my terrace – at least it’s a place as high you’re used to.”

To the maharaja’s utter astonishment, Gopal pointed to the sloping straw roof of his house. There was a mattress on it, hanging at a precarious angle. A ladder stood propped against the wall, barely touching the roof.

“There, your majesty,” said Gopal in a humble voice, “A seat high enough, in keeping with your status.” <

“Are you off your head, Gopal?” shouted the maharaja, “How can anyone sit on that sloping straw roof?”

“But Sire, I am not asking you to sit on the straw. I have spread a mattress for you to sit on,” said Gopal, “It’s quite easy to climb up this ladder. Only a few rungs are missing.”

“You must be crazy if you expect me to go up that broken ladder and sit on your straw roof,” cried the maharaja, “I never heard of such cheek!”

“It is not cheek, Sire,” said Gopal, “It’s the best I can do. How else can I entertain you in a mud house?”

The maharaja looked at Gopal, his ladder and the mattress hanging down. He burst out laughing. “I get your point,” he said at last, “I’ll send my masons first thing tomorrow morning. They will convert your thatched hut into a fine brick house – a two-storeyed one! Satisfied?”

Gopal bowed low with folded hands, well pleased with himself.