As everyone knows, said the Bhat caressing his lute, everything in this world follows the formula that Vidhata, the mistress of fate, has conjured in her cloud-palace. She makes and unmakes the destinies of men and nations like the mighty wind arranges and dis-arranges the markings on sand-dunes.

Are knowledge and industry of no use then? the young disciple asked eagerly.

When did I say so? the Bhat admonished. All music lies dormant in the twelve strings of my Rawaj but would a single note emerge if I did not know how to pluck them? And when the Sun himself has to traverse the sky to meet his beloved Sandhya every day, how could we mere mortals get by without striving?

You are right, the young disciple agreed, we must labour at acquiring knowledge so as to solve the great problems of our times.

The Bhat scoffed. For solving great problems, you need more than knowledge and labour. There may be those who learn to play the lute with their toes but none who can play it without a taste for music. True sagacity and real courage are needed to solve great problems.

The young disciple nodded his head sagely. I understand, he said.

If you do, retorted the Bhat, then you are wiser than the three wise men of Marwar and almost as wise as the goat-girl.

The young disciple looked up curiously. I haven’t heard about the three wise men and the goat-girl, he said.

That’s because you haven’t lived long enough, the Bhat said acerbically. Why, the hairs of my moustache are older than you, he laughed and then stroked his moustache which was so long it had to be oiled and coiled five times and then tied with a thread to keep it neatly in place.

That is true, the young disciple bowed his head. I am like the merest sapling to your spreading banyan and every word you utter is a kernel of wisdom winnowed from the sheaf of your experiences, he added.

Pleased, the Bhat plucked at the string of his lute and a sound like jeering laughter rose from the dry throat of the leather and wood instrument.

The young disciple’s eyes gleamed and he hid his merry smile behind the free end of his turban.

The Bhat plucked at the Rawaj again and sang in a voice like the sand-edged wind.

I tell a tale that is all true
all falsehoods I verily eschew
and hold to the bardic creed I do
it isn’t a tale if it is untrue
So at the time of the tale…

And when was that? asked the young disciple.

Only a fool interrupts a song, the Bhat said severely, and that too to ask a question such as this. The tale is of all times and for all times.

The young disciple looked suitably shame-faced at the rebuke.

So, at the time of the tale, the Bhat began again, there were three wise men who had attained much fame in Marwar. The first one lived on top of a hillock and seldom spoke. When he chose to speak, it was always at awkward times when mothers were feeding their babes or householders were resting after a long day, and he said things like – “when the crop is ripe, the farmer fears locusts” or “the days are long, the nights are short, everything’s a lesson”. People, if asked, could not say what was so profound about his utterances, but they still gathered around to listen to him.

The second one was considered a man of much learning. He quoted from books of ancient wisdom and believed that answers to all problems layin those books. Our ancestors were so wise that you but need to seek, he used to say, and you will find everything worth knowing, from how to cure a carbuncle to how to neutralise your enemies, in our ancient tomes.

The third one was loquacious and went around telling everyone his thoughts on every topic, from when the rains would arrive to the reason the cows gave less milk or why the king of a neighbouring state wished to mount an attack. He talked so much and so often that it was impossible to remember all that he said. But that did not affect his fame, because from time to time he himself reminded everyone how he had predicted the rains correctly or diagnosed a plague among the chickens or written to ask the king about building a temple.

Thus the three wise men held sway over the people throughout Marwar, sang the Bhat, his voice soaring and sinking to the cadence of his Rawaj, so it was natural that when a terrible plague afflicted the populace, the King sent for them. The three set out for the King’s court confident in their powers. The people, cowering inside their homes in fear of the plague, felt comforted. Surely the plague will not be able to withstand the assault of the combined genius of three such wise men, they said to each other.

On the way to the court the three wise men came across a goat-girl. She was sitting in the shade of a Khejdi tree, her goats grazing around her.

The three wise men were dusty from travelling through the desert and their throats were parched. On seeing the goats, they had visions of cool, sweet milk and asked the goat-girl for some. The goat-girl pursed her lips and called to her goats. A stout brown goat trotted up and the girl deftly milked it.

The three wise men watched the milk fall in swift jets into the goat-girl’s brass tumbler and licked their sand-covered lips. They settled under the meagre shade of the Khejdi tree to enjoy the milk. “What brings you to these parts in this season,” the girl asked as they drank the refreshing milk. The three wise men told her about the spreading plague and the King’s summons. The girl listened keenly. “And how will you defeat this plague that you say is ravaging the land?” she asked. The three wise men gave her a condescending look. “Our advice is meant for the King,” they answered loftily. “A rustic such as you won’t be able to comprehend it.”

“Very well,” said the goat-girl, “how about I accompany the three of you? I can bring a couple of my goats along so there is always plenty of milk to quench your thirst. And perhaps I too could hear your sage advice which will lead to victory over the plague.”

The three wise men could not decline the goat-girl’s offer as they had suffered much from thirst on their journey. The goat-girl quickly rounded up her herd and drove all but two of them home-ward and followed the wise men.

Even the longest day ends
Every sinner makes amends
The stone mill turns and turns again
The bucket into the well descends

And so, continued the Bhat, the party of four humans and two goats reached the king’s court. On their way they saw the devastation the plague and hunger were causing. Every place they passed wore a deserted look. Even the palace-gates were sparsely guarded. The three wise men were immediately ushered into the King’s chamber. The goat-girl followed, leaving her goats to graze in the King’s garden.

Who could describe the splendour of the court-chamber, sang the Bhat, the eyes that see have no tongue and the poor tongue is slippery and inept.

The King was like the eclipsed moon and his courtiers were lustreless like stars at dawn with worries that had fallen on them. Upon seeing the wise men, the King said – “I have heard of your exceptional wisdom, advise me at this time of crisis.”

Thereupon, he asked his Mantri to explain the situation to the three wise men. The Mantri told them about the vile pestilence stalking the land and felling the people, causing the towns and cities to become deserted.

“The plague is like a vengeful demon destroying everything,” said the King after the Mantri had concluded. “What do you advise we should do?”

The first wise man remained silent and meditative.

The second wise man pulled out a few tomes from his bag. “As you know, Hukum,” he said, “everything worth knowing is in our ancient granth. There is no enemy that can’t be defeated by the knowledge revealed by our glorious ancestors. I have spent all my years studying these books.”

“Have you found a cure then?” asked the King eagerly.

“No,” confessed the second wise man, ‘but I will go on studying till I find a cure.”

“But the pestilence is raging now, we can’t wait,” said the King and turned to the remaining two wise men.

While the first wise man continued to remain deep in thought, the third wise man spoke. “Annadata, I have been predicting a plague of fevers for several years and every winter my prediction comes true. Just like I predicted the attacks of hollow-worms and locusts and the illness of the horns of the cows and oxen. You can ask anyone in my village and they will vouch for the truth of my statement. If I had been here at the court, I would have predicted the visitation of this pestilence too.”

The third wise man went on in this vein and after a few moments, the King turned away from him. Cutting through his babble, he asked the first wise man – “Your two friends have not offered anything useful, what do you have to say?”

The first wise man glanced around as if he had been recalled from far away. “The plague exists because you believe in it,” he pronounced solemnly. “Believe in health, bring out your best kansa platters and beat them in celebration.”

At this the goat-girl burst out laughing. The King noticed her for the first time. I am sorry, Hukum,” she said, bowing, “but anyone would laugh at this drivel.”

The King frowned. “You think you are wiser than these three? Perhaps you can advise me,” he said sarcastically.

“I make no claim of wisdom,” the goat-girl said, “but there are three things you need to do. First, call the best vaid and hakeem from near and far and set them to work on finding a cure and treating the people as best as they can. Second, visit your fields and forests, mountains and rivers to find out why this plague came about.”

“And the third?” asked the King.

“Step down from the throne because you needed a goat-girl to tell you this.” So saying the goat-girl left the court. The moment she was gone, a strange and terrible magic happened. All the courtiers turned into cooing and nodding pigeons. The first wise man became a soundless, solitary goira lizard, the second wise man a frog with eyes set so high that it always looked backwards, and the third wise man a forever cawing crow. And instead of the King, on the throne was coiled a blind dhaman snake.

Thus ends this story, may it bring its teller and listener glory, sang the Bhat.

The young disciple looked dissatisfied. But what happened to the goat-girl? Where did she go?

Now you are asking the right questions, the Bhat said, and picking up his lute and his small bundle of belongings, he walked away.

Anukrti Upadhyay is a bilingual author. Her critically acclaimed short novels, Daura and Bhaunri, set in rural Rajashan were published in 2019. Kintsugi, her forthcoming novel, will be released in July 2020.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.