by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
When the Rajah’s barber could no longer keep the secret, he was seen darting by the sparrow in the tamarind, by the flinty owl in the giant oak that was surely a jinn’s abode, by a flock of hill mynahs flying through the buttery light of early spring. What was it that sent him bumbling through the jungle like that? Hours before, he had met the Rajah’s terrible gaze in the mirror when he discovered two sickle-shaped horns under his hair. This secret was as a rock he had swallowed, a rock he needed to expel. He was found panting by the fox of the jungle’s dank center, by a tightly knotted vine clutching a forgotten well. He saw that the well was old and there was bamboo growing in it. He saw it was safe and he screamed his fullest scream into the well: “the-Rajah-has-horns-on-his-head!” The bamboo had been thirsty for a secret and happily soaked it up, but the next day it was cut down by a flute maker who had been in search of just the right bamboo. Soon, all his fine bamboo flutes were sold. Then, all the new flutes of Jaunpur sang out the secret: “the-Rajah-has-horns-on-his-head!” The bamboo had been thirsty for a secret. The hapless barber had poured into it his last song.
Note: This is my retelling of a favorite Urdu story from childhood. Many stories like this one are set in Jaunpur in North India, not far from Lucknow. Named after Jauna Khan, Jaunpur was known in the medieval times as a hub of Sufi culture. This story likely has roots in the Persian tradition. “Dhul Qarnain” or the “two-horned one” is a figure from the Quran, said to refer to Alexander the Great whose depictions in art, literature and folklore have been part of the Silk Road’s syncretic cultures for centuries.