Thana, Thapada and Hir
Thana and Thapada were travellers. On their way towards the plains, they met a farmer who had harvested his last strawberry yield. Tempted by the lush fruit, Thana asked the farmer to sell them a basket on market price. The farmer refused to accept money from his new friends and instead gifted them a basket full of the fruit on the condition that they must deliver the last strawberry in good condition to his daughter who lived in the plains, so she may taste one before the season ends. “This will be your debt to me, and I hope you won’t carry it on your heads for much long.”
The brothers enthusiastically agreed to the offer and the farmer wished them good bye.
Before the sun had set, Thana and Thapada were almost down to the last strawberry though they were still no closer to the plains yet. In the forest, they lost their path and soon it was so dark that they couldn’t tell what was what before touching it with their hands. They decided to stop till the sun came up.
They woke up in the morning to find a snake sitting right on top of their basket. It was probably looking for something to eat.
“Do snakes even eat strawberries”, Thana enquired of his brother.
“No, but they sure do poison them”, Thapada replied and Thana looked back dismayed as he heard the snake hiss its poison right where lay the last strawberry promised for the farmer’s daughter.
“If it is poisonous, we need to save our lives. Can we outrun it?”
“I think we have scared it enough. Running will only add to its panic. I have a different idea.”
Thapada moved like lightening. With one swift movement, he threw a chameleon lying in wait right within the snake’s range and off they ran like they so often did on their travels together.
They slowed down after a good fifteen minutes. No snake rustled the leaves. They were safe.
“What of the strawberry, bhai? It was a debt!”
“A debt I have no plans carrying on my head for longer. We need to find more. Let’s find a town.”
Find a town, they did but only when the sun was right overhead, and sweat trickled down fast under their furrowed brows. There was only one merchant in town who sold strawberries.
“We will pay you your price, but we need a strawberry urgently”, Thapada pleaded when they found him.
“I have just received my last shipment. They are the freshest, but also the last lot of the season. They are reserved every year for my family feast.”
“We just need one strawberry, and we are ready to pay you for it.”
“It is not money that I want from you. If I give you one strawberry, will you then deliver something for me to the next town?”
“Yes!” cried Thapada, “Of course we will! What is it?”
“It’s a new invention. It is made of ice, and sweetened and flavoured. I promised my mistress I’d send her one as soon as it came down from the hills, but the ice won’t hold much longer even in the cold container and I have a feast to host. Would you do it then?”
And on they went with the cold container and the lone strawberry which was their debt.
They reached the town in another half hour and were soon at the doorstep of the Seth’s authoritative mistress. She looked rich and powerful, with a small army of servants and twenty guardsmen crowding the premises.
“We have a gift for you.”
The mistress surveyed both travellers and soon caught sight of the lone strawberry peeking from the basket.
“You sure do!” she smiled and said, “Please accept some cool sherbet as my thanks.”
“We would love to, but we’re in a hurry to clear a debt that hangs over our heads. We hope you would excuse us.”
He handed her the cold container. The mistress took a quick look at the ugly metal container and looked back at the duo, offended and full of ire.
“Is this a trick? Are you going to steal the strawberries that were sent to me? I recognize who they belong to.”
“It is a single strawberry…”
“Oh! So you’ve eaten the rest? Wait till I punish you for this impunity.”
“Oh no, gracious mistress! You’re mistaken. The strawberry wasn’t meant for you. Your gift is inside this container.”
“Like a cold box could ever contain a gift! I’ll order you lashed if you don’t hand over the strawberries to me right now.”
Thana and Thapada looked at each other with unease.
“You’re right”, blurted Thana at last, “This strawberry belongs to you. The Seth only sent this one, as he couldn’t spare more owing to his feast. We were afraid you would consider it a slight, so we lied.”
“But he made sure I became a part of his feast, despite the illegitimacy and the distance! Oh, this is no slight, fools! You’d be rewarded for bringing me this symbol of his love in time. Ask me whatever I can do for you within my means and I’ll arrange it for you.”
“Thank you, mistress. We would be obliged if you could lend us a carriage for a day. We’ll send it back by tomorrow, this time. We would have asked the Seth but his were too busy to be spared.”
“That is a small favour to ask. You can have my carriage for a day. Good luck with your journey travellers!”
Soon Thana and Thapada were hopping into a carriage. But just as they were about to leave, the mistress called out to them.
“This might seem rude, but my friend here needs a lift to the next village. Will you take hir with you?”
The door opened, and in a regal red flowing garment, multi-coloured at the edges, materialized a bald figure that looked at them like the world was a new-born baby.
“No, we would love to help your friend. Come aboard! Good bye, mistress!”
Hir climbed into the carriage and introduced hirself to the strangers.
“We’re Thana and Thapada. We’re travellers burdened alas with a debt we don’t know how to pay!”
“Travellers? Interesting. I’m a traveller too. But I’m primarily a storyteller, and while I have often heard of debtors fleeing town and turning in time into travellers, how did two travellers end up with a debt that they feel so obliged to pay? The storyteller in me wants to learn your story.”
So Thana and Thapada told Hir their story as the coach rumbled into the next village towards the home of the farmer’s daughter.
“And so here we are, on the edges of the village, and still clueless as to what we’ll tell her, for she’d be so disappointed when we show up empty handed!”
“But I don’t see your hands very empty, Thana!”
It was true. He was still cupping the cold container that held the Seth’s gift to his mistress.
“You don’t have the strawberry, but you do have something that at least the Seth thought was precious. Your regret is genuine, your actions were justified and compensation is heartfelt even though it may not be the debt that you were originally intended to pay. The first rule of travel is to develop understanding, and it is only truth that can make a cold can a worthy substitute for a strawberry from one’s father’s fields. Don’t you think so too?”
“No, but we’ll take your advice. She’ll know no deception from us. Will you come with us?”
“I’m a storyteller, didn’t I say?”
They got off at a small house by a fresh-water stream. The farmer’s daughter was plucking yellow flowers against a glorious dusk.
“We come at your father’s behest” said Thana.
“I knew as much. Did he send me something?” She looked up expectantly.
“We’re afraid we’ve lost his gift in an accident. We hope you will accept this as an apology from us.”
Thapada gave her a quick recap of their journey.
“I came to live in the plains five years back. The farms are much more productive here, the soil is easy to the hand. I loved my home, but I wanted to grow out of the paternal shadow, and so I came to find my own fortune here. The only thing I miss is the love that my father puts in the strawberries that he works so hard to grow. The love that he nurtures into the strawberries and sends to me, is his way of expression; his tiny message that he never puts into words, that my independence has no bearing on his love.”
“We are sorry we were not more careful. We should never have gotten lost in the forest! We never knew it was this important.”
Hir laughed a silver laughter.
“She is saying that her father did send her a strawberry even this year.”
“Yes, he did. We know that. What are you trying to say??”
“The strawberry isn’t important.”
“Oh!” said Thana.
“But of course!” cried Thapada, relieved.
“The strawberry isn’t important!”
“No”, smiled the daughter, “but I would very much like to open your gift nonetheless.”
“So would we!”, and he handed over the container much less cold than it was around mid-day.
In the midst of thinning ice lay a smaller metal container that revealed coloured ice on a stick.
She put it in her mouth and shades of shock spread like blue ink strands diffusing in water in slow motion.
“It is strawberry flavoured ice” she uttered at last, gratitude in her voice.
“Just what you deserve”, Thana whispered, gently, and then off they went, with Hir in stride, in search of adventures that awaited them on the way.