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The Many Lives of Mulla Nasiruddin

There is a story about a man who once bought new shoes and wore them to go to the nearby mosque. He was being followed by a thief who knew that as the man would step into the mosque he would need to open his shoes, and then the thief would be able to make off with the new pair. However, the man being followed understood that a thief was behind him, and having decided to wear his new pair inside the mosque, got inside. The thief followed suit. The man sat for his namaz, with the thief right behind him, when the thief interrupted the man by saying “Sir, you do know you aren’t supposed to wear shoes inside the mosque. This is unholy and your prayer won’t bear any fruit.” To this the man replied, “But my new shoes remain with me. And having completed my namaz, if I can go back home with my new shoes, then where’s the harm?” The thief kept quiet on hearing this.

The man in question is Mulla Nasiruddin, a notable and lovable character in children’s stories. Legend says that Mulla Nasiruddin was a Sufi Saint from Turkey, however his stories on today’s date have travelled all across the world. The Mulla is said to have travelled once to India, and having done so, one finds his stories in almost all the major Indian languages. His stories can be said to have been composed in a satiric mode, however one may also claim that his satire is not just restricted to bring out laughter but has been implicated by a deep philosophy of how society and culture interacts. Mulla Nasiruddin’s stories provide an idea of contradiction and may be seen as a corrective measure in a society which is in duress The Mulla’s response is completely intelligible, and instead of resorting to violence one finds that he utilizes his words as his weapon to solve his problems. However, this applies to the comicality of the story as well, because without that the character of Mulla Nasiruddin cannot be possible.

Once the Mulla visited India and was walking around the streets, when he found himself to be very hungry. He was told that the fruits of Hindusthan are very delicious and juicy. So he approached a vendor and bought something which looked red and juicy, for five paise. He started eating each of them and soon enough his tongue began to burn. A passerby noticed the Mulla, and stopped him midway to tell him “Do you know what you’re eating?” He replied by saying that he was eating a fruit. The passerby said “You are unknown to this land, don’t you know these are Hindusthani chillies? If you eat them just like that you will suffer severe stomach problems?” He didn’t pay attention and continued eating the chillies by saying “I don’t care, I bought these for five paise, and I’m eating my money’s worth”.

So one finds that the comic in society is a kind of an argumentative element, instead of stopping himself on account of one passerby’s remarks, Nasiruddin is a person who keeps a hold on himself on account of his notions. This can be understood as representative of an idea, perhaps even the idea of correcting society, by not bothering about what society has to say, and bringing in the concept of ‘money’s worth’ to the table. What must be noted about these stories is the salient link it has with Orality as one finds that the stories change with place. Mullah Nasiruddin having travelled the world and traversed through languages, these stories are a carrier of cultural thought and philosophy. What one means by cultural thought and philosophy is that which is derived through the language community, and what that language community reflects. As the tales of Nasiruddin are found in different parts of the world, the matters discussed in them also vary. One such story deals with how the Mulla learned English through the radio and spoke to an immigration officer at London in a garbled way. Perspective plays an important role when reading the stories of Mulla Nasiruddin as one will be able to concretize their realisation of having read and responded to the text, based on their location. However, what matters is the simplicity with which he responds to his problems.

 The stories sometimes deal with problems the Mulla faces in doing everyday activities, for example once when he went to a barber, the barber kept cutting his cheek and putting cotton on that side. When Nasiruddin saw his reflection in the mirror after the barber had completed one side, he decided to leave it at that and left saying that he would grow barley on the other side. Another story talks of how as a subject of the king the Mulla decides to solve a very big problem of finance. Everybody in the village had pucca houses, whereas Mulla had a kaccha house. He decided on doing something about it, and went to visit the King, wearing a large pagdi. He went having decided to sell the pagdi to king. The King was surprised on seeing the Mulla’s attire, and asked him how much he paid for the pagdi. He replied “A thousand gold coins Shahanshah”. Now, a Wazir of the king realised what the Mulla was up to and decided to intervene. He whispered into the king’s ears of the Mulla’s tomfoolery, claiming how could anyone buy something with so much money. The King ignored the wazir and asked the Mulla, “Why with so much of money? Even for a King that sounds unbelievable.”  The Mulla responded “If one likes something then why should there be any other reason? For connoisseurs, this is not even a matter of inquiry. And I also know that in the entire world there is only one king who would want to buy this pagdi. Nobody else apart from him could have a heart like that.” The king became ecstatic on hearing such an answer and ended up paying double for the pagdi. While leaving the Mulla approached the Wazir and told him “You may know the price of the pagdi, but I know the King’s weakness. It would’ve been better if you had known it beforehand as well.”

The German philosopher Kierkegaard claims that the difference between a Prophet and an Ironist is that a Prophet walks with his age, while an Ironist steps out of line with his age, turns around and faces it. If one were to take up the claims of many scholars of Mulla Nasiruddin being a Sufi Saint, one would also need to realise that his words and actions are not bending towards orthodoxy, but rather is a manner of dealing with issues by contorting them or turning them on their head, and sometimes even ridiculing himself. Kierkegaard informs us that the burning gaze with which an ironist destroys that which is coming, is actually a way of sacrificing themself so that something new can come about and the world’s problems be tackled. One story of Nasiruddin tells us how he himself becomes the Joke. As he was walking on the road one day, the Mulla was met by a few beggar children, who came to him demanding food. The Mulla told them that he could share with them something of interest. The children demanded that there should be no philosophy, only then would they hear him out. So he said that the Emir had arranged for a feast that day, and all kinds of delicacies would be available. The children became jubilant and ran off towards the Emir’s palace. This prompted Nasiruddin to follow suit, thinking “I’d better go and see, because it might be true.”

There is a certain freedom with which Mulla Nasiruddin handles his daily affairs. This leads him to encounter a reservoir of possibility, because he tends to approach each problem with a solution which may not even be a solution, but a digression. His stories show him destroying every problem at the root. This however has the ability to present the character of Mulla Nasiruddin in a bad light.

One time, Mulla Nasiruddin was called to the court to be examined by lawyers, doctors, philosophers, and logicians. This was due to the Mulla’s advertising that these learned men were ignorant, irresolute and confused. The charge brought upon him was of endangering State security. He went to the Emir, and asked all the learned men one question: “What is bread”. To this seven answers came, and each was different from the other. The Mulla told the Emir that once they are able to decide together what it is that they eat everyday, can there be a possibility for them to decide on other things. He questions their judgment, and reflects on the fact that it is strange that they cannot decide on something they eat daily, but can unanimously assert that he was a heretic. This last story however gives one the impression that the ways of Mulla Nasiruddin were not held favourable by everybody, it was however quite troublesome for many.

The views and opinions expressed by the writer are personal and do not necessarily reflect the official position of VOM.
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