Long ago, there lived a young king, noble and wise. There was peace and prosperity in his land. On his twenty-fifth birthday, there was much celebration in the kingdom. Houses were decorated with red and blue streamers and yellow pennants. Children came out in colourful clothes and danced on streets. There was a huge community dinner for all.
But amidst all the festivities, the king looked sad and depressed.
‘Your Excellency! What makes you sad on such a happy day?’ asked the prime minister.
‘I am twenty-five today, but I am as ignorant as the mice in the royal kitchen. I know nothing except what lies before my eyes. When I was a child, I never studied. I spent all my time on the saddle of a horse. And that I regret now.’
‘But your Excellency, you are a great king. You protect the innocent and punish the guilty. People are happy. Our granaries are full, and prisons, almost empty. Last year, during the worst drought in living memory, you reduced taxes and gave away grain to the poor. Elders bless you every day, and the young look towards you for inspiration. You know everything that a king ought to. You needn’t learn anything more.’
‘No! I must study history. In fact, I must learn more. I want to study everything about the human race: how they came to be, how they started living together, how they invented the wheel and the fire. Everything! Please make a summary of all the knowledge of the world, so that I may read it.’
The minister knew his master. When the king set his mind on something, he would see it till the end. So he said, ‘Your Excellency! Your wish is my command. I will engage many scholars to write down everything that is there to be studied. I will send writers far and wide to copy every written word that is found.’
Days passed, years rolled by. On the fiftieth birthday of the king, three bullock carts came and stopped at the golden gate of the royal palace. They were loaded with fat books. The prime minister said, ‘Noble King! These three cartfuls of books contain all the knowledge about mankind.’
‘You have carried out my instruction, and I am indeed happy’, said the king, ‘but I have no time to read so many books. Please summarise them, so that I can read them.’
Another twenty-five years passed. On the seventy-fifth birthday of the king, as musicians played the drums and dancers danced in court, three porters arrived at the palace. They carried on their heads three baskets, full of books.
The king said, ‘My eyes are dimmer now. And I am too scared to go for a cataract surgery. I can't read so many books. Please make another summary of them. And bring the summary to me.’
Twenty-five years later, on the hundredth birthday of the king, there were no celebrations. Alas! The noble king was on his deathbed. The queen and the royal physician, an ancient man with a big turban and a long white beard, were by his side. The prime minister walked in with three leather-bound books and said, ‘Your Excellency, I have never failed to carry out your orders. These three books contain the essence of all human knowledge.’
The king replied, ‘I won't live for more than a few days … maybe, a few hours. How can I read three books now? But I wouldn’t die in peace unless I knew everything about human beings.’
Then the royal physician rose slowly and bowed to the king. Said he, ‘Your Excellency, you needn’t read these books, I will tell you everything about human beings.’ After clearing his throat, the old man continued, ‘Humans are born, they give birth to children, and they die.’
[My father, who was a fine story-teller, told this tale when I was small. You will perhaps agree that the story has all the flavours of the Panchatantra and other age-old fables. I have neither read this story anywhere, nor heard it from anyone else. If you came across this story earlier, please let me know. It would be great if you can tell me about its origin / author.]