When I was small, my father told me stories. Sometimes they were standard fare, rehashings of Cinderella or Goldilocks and the Three Bears (he particularly liked Goldie because it starts with one of his favorite foods--porridge with honey). As I grew older, though, Dad started throwing in other stories, Indian stories he’d heard growing up. My favorite? Birbal.
My father only knew one Birbal story, Birbal and the Kitchiri. It’s a fairly well known one--Emperor Akbar says he’ll pay a reward to any man who can stand the whole night in the river. When he defaults on his promise, Birbal is called in to defend the peasant claiming the reward, and hilarity ensues. For a long time, I thought Birbal and the Kitchiri was the only Birbal story on the block.
Fast forward a few years--at university, I meet a few other Australian-Indians. One semester, I got to know one in particular: Rupert (yes, seriously, his name was Rupert). I picked up a few Hindi words (mostly ones that aren’t fit to share in public); we traded restaurant recommendations over gritty refectory coffee. But these were short, pause-filled coffee breaks because, ultimately, we had nothing in common save being Indian.
One day, our strained conversation passed into a discussion of favorite foods. After we’d covered the obvious favorites (aloo mattar, tandoori chicken, gulab jamun), Rupert guy hung his head. “I know it’s stupid,” he told me, “but I’m all about the kitchiri.”
“Kitchiri! But that’s old-school boring crap! Why eat kitchiri when you could get a nice rogan josh?” Of course, I hadn’t actually eaten kitchiri at this point, but my cousins assured me it was boring as all get out.
“Nah, kitchiri’s good stuff, man. Add a little lemon, a little imli, you’ve got yourself a perfect meal.”
“You know,” I said, “my dad’s got this story about kitchiri, about an old man named Birbal--”
His face lit up. “Birbal? You know Birbal? Have you heard the one about the gardener? Or the one where Akbar gives him a set of impossible riddles?”
During our next few coffee klatches, Rupert and his friends filled me in on their Birbal stories. Collecting them was fun, and not just for me, it seems. Over the past few years, almost every Indian I’ve met has had a Birbal story to share. By now, I’ve heard most of them--the basics, anyway. Because here’s the beauty of Birbal stories: even when they’re the same, they’re different. Everyone has their own version, their own embellishment.
I’m still trying to figure out exactly what it is about Birbal stories that makes them so popular. Is it that they’re often about an underdog, a person in trouble we can all relate to? Is it that we like seeing Birbal, a poor Brahmin’s son win out over the rich and powerful Emperor Akbar? Is it just that most of them are kinda-sorta funny?
Yes. No. Maybe. When it comes to Birbal, there are no simple answers. But Birbal stories are special because they give us, NRIs and resident Indians alike, something to hold on to, a commonality that goes beyond spice, rice, and a dozen different shades of brown.