Language

I don’t remember where I first heard or read this story. A fakir in India a long time ago travelled from town to town putting on a performance. He had the ability to speak nearly all of India’s 400 or more tongues fluently, as if he was born to them. He would stand in the center of town and challenge passers-by: “Win a piece of gold! I can speak any language in the world! I challenge you to stump me! Price of playing is a hand-full of rice. Speak to me in a language I can’t speak! Nobody has stumped me yet! And you can win ten pieces of gold if you can tell me the language I learned at my mother’s breast. Grand prize! Which language was my first? One hand-full of rice only!” And eventually, people would pay their handful of rice, and try a few words of the language their old grandmother taught them when they were young. The fakir always responded in kind, usually with a clever bit of poetry or doggerel, so he not only won, but was amusing and soon gathered a crowd. Then the old grandmothers themselves would come out, speaking languages out of the mountains, or from across the sea, or sacred tongues they had been taught on the sly by past lovers. The fakir spoke them all! Then one day he landed in a little town in Andra Pradesh where lived a clever little farmer who had a small rice paddy and two oxen. He was very successful but had never been educated. The farmer listened to the fakir tease and win and flirt with the crowd. And he considered the matter. At the end of the day, when the fakir was about to wrap it up and move on, the farmer spoke to him and said, “Please, stay with my family tonight. You are a very educated man and I think we may learn a thing or two from you.” The fakir of course accepted and they spent the night eating bowls of rice and drinking wine and rice beer and laughing at each other’s stories. That night as the village was sleeping, the farmer rose from his mat where he had been resting but not sleeping. He padded down to the river and drew a deep bucket of water. He hauled it back to the tent and threw it on his guest. “Aiiieeee! Oh Shiva!” The fakir called these words out in his birth tongue, a language from people far up the Ganges. “Why have you done this? Are we not friends?” he asked the farmer. The farmer replied, “Last night I fed you my rice. More than a handful by my count. And now I seek the ten gold coins in return. For the language you speak is…” and he named the language. The fakir laughed and laughed. “You are the first! No one else knew the trick, because they forgot a simple truth: we are what we were when we were in the houses of our mothers. And we become it again in moments of unthinking. We can build on top, but we cannot remove the foundation.”

Posted May 21, 2000

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