Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Of a Freezing Delhi and Birbal ki Khichri Retold

"Happy new year aunty!"
"Happy new year Shoma... Though it does not feel too much of a happy new year if you ask me. It is altogether too depressing."

Yes, it is too depressing but, so is winter every year in Delhi. As the temperature plummets dangerously close to the cut-off even those who profess to 'love' the freeze, start feeling the pinch and believe me there are only a few who actually love winters when the Sun hides itself behind multiple layers of smog and if you please - clouds.

Cold and dismal days of January when you feel as if the end of world is near is not unusual in Delhi and it is something no one looks forward to either. Just like no one looks forward to the harsh summers.

Today as I sit covered from head to toe in layers of woollies, I feel suffocated and irritated.

Last night as I was entering home, I saw the watchmen of our housing society stuffed into multiple layers of winter wear stoking dead embers on a large iron skillet-like basin that is normally used by masons to mix cement. I stood near the 'fire' for a minute trying to absorb the warmth that I realized was actually non-existent given that the temperature was 4 degrees Celsius or less and the wind blowing in was sharp as a razor blade.

It reminded me of a favorite story that I loved to read and hear while growing up and I shared it with the poor shivering men who listened to it sagely nodding their heads - probably too frozen to understand but, being impolite to a resident is not an option for them. Simply titled, 'Birbal's Khichri' it is one of the many tales from the famous, 'Witty anecdotes of Birbal', a courtier of Emperor Akbar.

It goes thus;

Once on a bleak winter morning during Akbar's regime, a thief was caught and brought to the Emperor's durbaar, court of justice at Faehpur Sikri near Agra - not too far from Delhi. Since his crime was not huge he could not be thrown into the dungeon. The just king decided to award him a punishment that would set an example and deter other criminals. So, he came up with a unique idea after much soul-searching.
Emperor Akbar

"Take him to the bank of Yamuna in the evening, strip him off his warm clothes then, tie him on a scaffolding and let him chill there the entire night."

Now, Birbal who was one of the Emperor's advisers was appalled at the decision. "But, he'll surely die of cold," he begged on the thief's behalf.

But, the emperor was in no mood to relent and thus, the poor man was sent off to an almost-certain death for a paltry crime.

The next morning Akbar woke up with a bad feeling about his decision and asked after the plight of the poor thief. Upon his asking the young rogue was brought into the court. He looked chapped and blue round the edges but, was alive and mostly healthy apart from a bad sneeze or two manifesting itself at close intervals.

The amazed Emperor asked how he survived the cold and the boy said that he was saved by the king himself. Upon hearing this seditious declaration by the rascal, the Emperor roared, "What nonsense!" or something of the sort and asked, "how?"

"Sire, while I was being tied up and left to freeze by the river side, I asked my gaoler to tie me up facing the palace with my back to the river bank. He agreed and I was tied up in a manner that I was left facing your chambers in the palace that was ablaze all night and kept warm by the lights of a thousand lamps and fire burning in the hearth."

Hearing this the king probably started feeling even more guilty and said, "stop describing the warmth in my chambers and tell the court here how did I save you?"

The poor thief overcome by fear and fatigue now spilled the beans saying, "I looked at your chambers all night thinking of the heat and comfort and did not allow my mind to dwell on the bitter cold and the thick fog rising from the river and I survived. So, I thought I'll thank you for your generosity and for saving my life."

Now, instead of having the humbling effect, this speech left the king feeling silly because in his mind, his own strategy to 'set an example' had backfired. So, after a lot of stern stares and deep breaths, the emperor ordered, "throw him into a dungeon because he avoided his punishment."

The entire court was rendered speechless but no one spoke up knowing well that the king was angry and saying anything would incur the wrath of the angry Baadshah upon them. Birbal who was also present at the durbar decided to take matters into his own hands and strategise a way out for the young thief.

When the next morning dawned clear, the Emperor, refreshed by a trouble-free sleep in his warm quarters appeared at the court and at once saw that Birbal was missing in attendance. He at once inquired and was told that the courtier was unwell and therefore taking rest at home.

The king, who was very fond of Birbal decided to visit him after the day's judgments had been delivered.

When Akbar reached Birbal's home in the evening, he found that Birbal was all alone at home since his family was visiting relatives in a distant place. Akbar was shown to the backyard by a bearer where Birbal was supervising the cooking of his dinner.

Akbar was at once shocked and irritated at the sight that greeted him upon his arrival. Birbal had concocted a small spit-fire over which a vessel was hung at least 10 feet above ground in which apparently the food was being cooked.

"What is this nonsense?" The emperor roared which made Birbal turn around and almost trip on his pointy, jewel-encrusted mojris.


"Welcome to my humble abode O' Emperor of Hindustan! I'm sorry I could not appear in the court today due to my illness and am also sorry that I was not there in the house to welcome you since I have to supervise the cooks as my wife is not in town and she hates if I enter her kitchen."

"I see!" Was all that the Emperor opined to the flowery speech that was totally unlike Birbal to make. The intelligent man had no doubt realized that there was more to come.

"Why don't you join me for dinner tonight O' Badshaah? I'm getting prepared 'khichri' and though it is not much I'd be really obliged if you accept this humble request from your humble servant."

"Hmmm... and how long do you think will you need to cook this 'khichiri dinner'?" The Emperor asked pointing at the vessel hung high in the air far away from the fire-pit.

"By my calculations, if the thief was able to survive the chilly night being kept hot by the heat of  your majesty's chambers that were at least a mile off then by that rule, my dinner should be ready in...:"

"I should have known this was coming," said the humbled king who was actually kindhearted and just and thus, rushed back to the palace with Birbal in tow and calling the royal gaoler asked for the young thief to be released immediately while the king and his able and witty courtier settled down for a scrumptious meal cooked by the royal bawachis.

PS: The last part - about the royal banquet - was totally a figment of my imagination and I tacked it to the story only because the thought of warm and delicious food is the only thought that keeps my heart warm in the deadly cold, which in turn keeps my bones from freezing.

Keep happy, keep healthy and may your minds be full of stories and life full of love to keep you warm. Wishing everyone, "Happy winters" because if you imagine, it will happen. So, go on, think of this as a happy time and wait for a month - then this too shall be over!


  1. One of my favourite Akbar Birbal stories. Enjoyed reading it. A Happy New Year to you!

    1. Thanks Susmita. I love the story :)
      Hope to read more of your works in 2013.


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