A Tenali Raman episode:
This was the time when the Vijayanagara Empire was under constant threat from the Bahmini sultans of the Deccan, the powerful Gajapathi’s of Orissa and also the Portuguese, a rising maritime power, not to mention a few rebellious feudal chiefs. Timmarasu, also fondly known as Appaji, the wily and able Prime Minister serving in the court of Krishna Deva Raya, helped the latter in steering the Empire on a safe course in these troubled times. During one of those spells of relative quiet, Appaji requested Raya for leave of absence to visit Kashi. With the King reluctantly acquiescing, Appaji looked high and low for a suitable stand-in and finally settled for Ragoji.
Ragoji, though honest and unswervingly loyal to the King, had neither the experience nor the mental acuity of Appaji. On matters of the state, he strongly believed in ‘looking at it from all angles,’ causing inordinate delays. The administrative machinery came to grinding halt; but the frustrated officers were afraid of complaining to Raya. Even Tenali Raman was not spared – a couple of projects in his village were parked in limbo and there wasn’t much he could do about it.
On this day, Raya was out with an officer on his customary incognito rounds of the city. A little away from the main market, under a tree, a fruit-seller had piled water-melons freshly picked from the farms. Besides the pile, on a table there was a single water-melon, lustrous than the rest, being polished by the seller with great care. An intrigued Raya stopped by to ask the seller why he was paying special attention to this fruit. The seller informed him this fruit was very special, of extraordinary sweetness. It was from a plant of rare kind producing just one fruit in a year. And he had saved it for the King, planning to take it to the durbar on Paurnami, the following day. He expected handsome compensation from the King for a fruit of such rare merit.
A great idea it was, Raya agreed and promised to help him meet up with the King when he came to the durbar. But he should come before noon as the King was likely to be away later in the day according to his palace sources. Before they rode away, the seller thanked him for the gesture and gratefully presented him with a fruit picked up from the pile. He had not noticed a signal passing from Raya to the accompanying officer, perhaps to make suitable arrangements on the following day.
The day was Paurnami. The morning saw Raya preoccupied with the deal of procuring Arab horses for his cavalry offered by the Portuguese. Ragoji tied him up in knots with his arguments and counter-arguments leaving Raya in a fret. It was past noon and yet there was no sign of the fruit-seller.
The officer who had accompanied Raya on the day earlier, went out to the market looking for him and returned empty-handed. There was no one at the spot and inquiries revealed the fruit-seller had carted away all his stock in the morning. And where he went, no one knew.
It did nothing to improve Raya’s humor slipping from bad to worse.
On second thoughts, the officer went up to the guards at the palace gates and made inquiries. They readily confirmed a fellow had come earlier in the day carrying a water-melon in his hands. As instructed they were letting him in. Suddenly from nowhere Raman appeared on the scene. He raised his voice with the man though no one could make out what was said, took away the fruit and shooed him away. The man was almost in a run as if a ghost was close at his heels. And, what did Raman do? He walked away in a saunter seemingly to his house with the fruit in hand.
When he was apprised of the proceedings, Raya was furious. He ordered for Raman to be produced before him without delay. He had to be punished for his misdeed – there was no getting away this time. He had exceeded his limits of propriety.
And soon, Raman appeared before Raya. He carried a plate in his hand with a piece of silk draped over.
Raya in the manner of a fire-breathing dragon brusquely demanded he explain his abominable behavior or else…
Showing fear and deference appropriate for the occasion, Raman said: ‘My Lord, it is true I took the fruit from the man.’
‘You admit it?’ roared the King.
‘Yes, Sir, but for a reason.’
‘It better be good else be prepared to lose your head.’
‘My Lord, I took the fruit home, carved out a piece from one side, tasted it – it was extraordinarily sweet as the man had claimed, in fact it was heavenly. But I had to be sure. I took out piece from the other side. It was the same thing. And then another piece from here, and another piece from there and another piece from here…Now I’m satisfied. No enemy hands, as rumored and I had feared. Had to look at it from all angles and check it out personally. One never knows – the fruit was big and, our enemies, ingénues. And, after all my life is nothing before yours, Sir.
In a flourish, he whisked away the silk to reveal a tiny cube of the fruit at the center of the plate: ’Now this is quite safe for you to eat, Sir. My Lord, I’m also ready for any punishment you order for looking at a potential threat from several angles to protect your life.’
Before Raya could react, a stung Ragoji rose to his feet: ‘My Lord, we must ask Tenali how could anyone poison an uncut water-melon.’
‘I wouldn’t put it past them to use a sharp needle or a thorn to inject poison. And with a water-melon it could be done from so many angles.’
‘Very clever, Tenali. You eat the fruit brought for me and expect me to thank you for the act?’
‘I won’t be too surprised if the entire drama was authored by you. Anyways we get the message, Tenali.’
So Tenali Raman lived to see another day.
To everyone’s relief, Ragoji not excluded, it wasn’t long before Appaji returned from Kashi.
Krishna Deva Raya was the famed Emperor of the Vijayanagara Empire reigning from 1509–1529 CE. Tenali Raman was his court jester – tales of his wit are legendary.
Paurnami is a full-moon day. Durbar is the royal court.
And, don’t look for this episode in the published tales of Tenali Raman!