A short, millennia old Indian Tale from the Kathasaritsagara (The-Ocean-of-Streams-of-Stories) of Somadeva
Illustrated by Jef Franssen
"... I gained a fortune."
In a certain city one day in the midst of some merchants who were discussing amongst themselves their skill in their respective trades, one merchant spoke as follows:
"It is no great wonder that a man who is economical with his riches should acquire riches. For once, though I was without money, I gained a fortune. My father died before I was born, and wicked relatives then took everything from my mother so that, out of fear of them and for the safety of her unborn child, she went away and stayed in the house of Kam?radatta, a friend of my father.
There I was born to that worthy woman, destined to be the sole means of her support.
As she raised me she had to take a job as a drudge. And she, though being so poor, persuaded a teacher to take me on so that gradually I was taught writing and arithmetic. Then my mother said to me:
"You are the son of merchant, so now, my son, you must engage in trade. There is a very rich merchant in this district called Vishakhila. He gives stock on credit to those of good families who are distressed, so go and ask him for credit."
Thereupon I went to see him, but at that very moment Vishakhila was talking angrily to some merchant's son:
"Even with this mouse which you see lying dead here on the floor as stock in trade, a clever fellow would be able to make money. I gave you many coins, yet, so far from gaining interest, you have not even kept the capital intact."
When I heard this, I quickly said to Vishakhila:
"I am taking this mouse from you as stock on credit," and with these words I picked the mouse up and entering it in his ledger I went off. While, for his part, the merchant burst out laughing.
Then, in exchange for two handfuls of chickpeas, I gave the mouse to a merchant as meat for his hungry cat.
I then ground those peas and, taking a jar of water, I went and stood in a shady spot outside town by the crossroads. There I offered the cool water and the peas with all civility to a band of woodcutters who were returning home exhausted. Out of gratitude each of those woodcutters gave me two pieces of wood, whereupon I brought that wood to the market and sold it.
With that little bit of money I bought more peas and on the next day in the same way I received wood from the woodcutters. By doing this every day and thus gradually acquiring capital, I bought the entire stock of wood for three days of the woodcutters.
By chance then there arose a shortage of wood due to excessive rain. So, I sold all that wood for many hundreds of coins. With that money I set up shop and by carrying on trade I have gradually become very rich through my own skill.
I then made a mouse out of gold and sent it to that Vishakhila, whereupon he gave me his daughter in marriage. This is the reason why people call me 'Mousey', for I have gained prosperity though I was once without any money."
When they heard this all the other merchants were astonished.
For how would the mind fail to be surprised at a picture painted in thin air?
How can the mind help being amazed at a picture without walls?
For how would the mind fail to be surprised at a picture painted in thin air? How can the mind help being amazed at a picture without walls?
These are two endings to the tale of Mousey the Merchant by two different translators, who translated the tale from Sanskrit into English. Unfortunately, both are not very clear.
We have heard the tale of Mousey as told by himself. The story is almost too good to be true and that is exactly what the last paragraph is trying to say.
Mousey wants us to believe that he built a fortune out of nothing. Something a lot of people dream about but never achieve.
And we are deeply impressed, as he has proven the impossible possible. Mousey tells us anything is possible. With some skill, hard work and a little bit of luck the sky is the limit. And we are not only impressed but also a bit surprised.
The ending of the tale tells us we are right to be surprised. The whole story is just a picture painted in thin air. It doesn't exist. It can't have happened that way.
It is a picture without walls, while in real life there are always walls. There are limits to what can be achieved with just skill, hard work and a little bit of luck and those limits are reached much quicker as Mousey wants us to believe.
Mousey most likely forgot to mention a few of the things that helped him obtain his fortune. He might have exaggerated other things and put extra emphasis on things that actually weren't that crucial. And maybe, just maybe, he added something here and there, just for the drama. And who can tell if he indeed has gained such a fortune?
But don't we all omit a few things and add a few things when we tell our life story?
The way Mousey told his story is definitely not a one-off or unique. The only difference is that Mousey's tale reminds us that those life-stories, those tales are indeed nothing more than 'fairy tales'.
How eager we are, however, not only to romanticise our stories, but also to hang on to that believe that everything is possible, is clear from the fact that the tale has been adapted for children, omitting that crucial last paragraph.