The Story of the Parrot: Syed Mujtaba Ali
Translator: Ujjwal Gupta
The wise and gifted of Persia used to say that if Allah had written the Koran in Persian rather than Arabic, He would have passed off Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi’s Masnavi as the Koran. I doubt if any other country has heaped such fantastic praise upon a poet.
Maulana Rumi was a devotee. He reached God the way the Kadamba-forest-wandering Radha achieved union with Krishna, beloved of the gopis — through love. In Masnavi, Rumi describes his spiritual experiences, many of them by way of stories. One such is the story of the parrot.
A Iranian trader had an Indian parrot. The parrot was the eighth wonder of the world — as wise as Brihaspati, as creative as Kalidasa, as handsome as Rudolph Valentino and as scholarly as Max Mueller.
Whenever the trader had a free moment, he would seek respite in the parrot’s company, discussing affairs of state or business, scholarly texts or the creative arts.
Suddenly one day the trader heard that carpets were fetching a high price in India. He immediately decided to go to India to sell carpets. He made his travel arrangements quickly and returned home. Before leaving, he asked every member of his family what they would like him to bring them from India. The parrot, of course, was not to be left out: it, too, was asked what it would like as a gift from India. The parrot said, “Hujoor, our friendship is an old and close one, but is there a bird that doesn’t want to be free? If you meet some of my brethren in Hindustan, would you tell them of my condition and ask them how I could be free? Since you can take counter measures in advance, it is not unfair on my part to seek such a gift.”
The trader came to India and made his pile. The gifts, too, were bought. But he completely forgot the parrot’s request. It came back to him suddenly when he was passing through a forest one day and sighted a flock of parrots. He looked up at once and called out to them, “One of your brothers is spending his days locked up in a cage in Iran. Can you tell me how he can win his freedom back?” None of the birds paid any attention to the trader’s words. But the bad news seemed to strike one of them like a thunderbolt: it dropped down dead. The trader lamented at length, blaming himself for the untimely death of an innocent bird. He vowed never to be so foolish again, and mentally slapped himself five times on either cheek.
The trader returned home and distributed his stock of gifts with a free hand. Everyone was happy —young and old, they all must have said ‘Jai Hind’! Only the poor parrot was left high and dry. The trader avoided its room, lest it should ask about the gift. No sirree, that wasn’t happening: he was determined to suppress the story at any cost.
Alas, that was not to be. Old habits die hard – even after you have shaved off your moustache, you tend to raise your hand to twirl it (with due respect to the writer Parashuram). One day, absent-mindedly, he arrived at the parrot’s quarters. Where could he go now? As soon as the parrot sighted its master, it shouted out, “As-salam-alaikum, o Rahmat Ulahi, o Barkat Ohu, come in, come in, you’re most welcome. May Hujoor’s arrival be blessed.” The trader gave a wan smile and said to himself, “Now I’m in a fix. Parrots and doves are not the same breed, I know, but this parrot is as smart as a dove.”
“Hujoor, my gift?” said the bird.
The trader found himself between the devil and the deep blue sea: he could neither tell the story, nor hide it any longer. The parrot looked at him as if he was the lowliest of traitors. Promising gifts and then arriving goddamned empty-handed? Tauba, tauba, these are the sort of creatures humans are!
Now what was the trader to do? He had to keep his word, so out came the story.
As soon as he finished his telling, the parrot dropped dead. One of his brethren had died in far-off Hindustan on hearing about his incarceration – and now in turn that devastating news had broken the parrot’s heart.
Seeing his bosom friend dead, the trader burst into tears. “What an utter idiot I am! How downright stupid of me to make the same mistake twice over,” he lamented, beating his breast in despair. But laments were of no use now. What is the point of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted? So the trader, wiping his tears, opened the cage door and threw the parrot out into the courtyard.
Now, wonder of wonders! No sooner had it touched the ground, the parrot flew up and perched on the roof. The trader was struck dumb. He kept looking at the parrot, his mouth agape. After quite a while, he recovered his senses enough to ask, “What’s the meaning of all this?”
Now the parrot said, sounding as grave as an owl, “The parrot that died in Hindustan on hearing of my ill fate did not actually die. He only feigned death to send me the message—that I too could be free, if I could feign death.”
The trader was crestfallen. He said, “I understand now. But my friend, please give me one last lesson before you fly away – for where will I find you again?”
The parrot answered, “If you can die before your death, then you can attain freedom. The dead man feels neither hunger nor thirst, pride nor humiliation. The dead man is truly free, he has achieved Nirvana, Moksha, everything. So try to die before death actually comes for you.”
The story reached the shores of India long ago.
The poet Kabir has said:
Give up your pride
He who finds the true teacher
Says Kabir, rare is the swan
Who sings his swan song
Before the death bells toll.
Our own Lalan Fakir of Bengal has also sung:
If you can die before your death,
Life’s travails shall end;
If you want to learn how,
The true Murshid you must find now.