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A Matter of Crows

2006-07-13 21:16

  Close to the emperor's private apartments was the Diwan-i-Khas, the Hall of Private Audience. It was not as large as the. Diwan-i-Am, but it was beautifully decorated and luxuriously furnished. Here, special courtiers and the highest nobles in the land met the emperor to discuss matters of state. Sometimes the emperor liked to discuss other things too, such as where the best melons came from or who the wisest sage was. Occasionally, he liked to pose questions which his courtiers thought were unanswerable. To Emperor Akbar's delight, Birbal always had an answer no matter how absurd the question.

  One morning, the emperor took his seat on the throne in the Diwan-i-Khas and demanded, “Tell us at once: How many crows are there in all of Agra? It is important that we have this information immediately. And if it is not absolutely correct, there will be serious trouble, I warn you.”

  The courtiers looked at each other in alarm. What were they to do? Some had a reasonable idea of how many elephants there were in the city. Many knew more or less how many horses there were. One man had even kept track of how many pet parrots there were. But crows? Some courtiers began to pray desperately for a flash of divine inspiration. Others tried to hide behind their friends. A few began to examine the sky anxiously, wondering if they could make a quick count of all the crows they could see and calculate the total on that basis. Only Raja Birbal remained calm and smiling. “Jahanpanah”, he said after several minutes. “There are exactly ten thousand, six hundred and sixty-six crows in all of Agra.”

  “Oh?” said Emperor Akbar with a gleam in his eye. “You shall not bluff your way out of this one, Birbal, my friend. We shall have a proper count to confirm your estimate.”

  “By all means, Huzoor”, Birbal replied, unmoved. “But I cannot vouch for all the crows remaining in Agra until that is done. Some may go away to visit their friends and relatives in Delhi, in which case you may find that there are fewer than the number I gave you. Or, it is possible that their friends and relatives from Delhi and elsewhere may come to pay them a visit, and so increase the number. But I can say with utter certainty that at this exact moment and only at this moment, there are ten thousand, six hundred and sixty-six crows in Agra!”

  “Birbal you are incomparable”, Akbar exclaimed as he burst out laughing. “And now, let us go on to more important matters.”

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