Like the Maiden of Brakel, Birbal and the Faithful Gardener is more of a legend than a fairy tale. On of the nine jewels of Emperor Akbar’s court, Birbal was a true personage, son of a poor Brahmin, who, through his wit and wisdom, rose to the coveted post of wazir.
Many fictions have grown up around Birbal; today he is one of India’s most popular and well-respected folk heroes. Many stories, such as Crows in Akbar’s Kingdom, revolve around Birbal answering the Emperor’s riddle-like questions, while others, like this one, depict the wise man helping the poor or unjustly accused. It is likely, however, that like many legends, some Birbal stories began in fact.
Although mostly an advisor to Akbar, Birbal was also a poet; his collections of poetry, published under the name Brahma, can still be seen in Bharatpur Museum, Rajasthan, India.
When we consider the story, Birbal and the Faithful Gardner, what comes to mind? Akbar’s inappropriate use of power? The gardener’s misfortune? Ill luck turning to good? Birbal saving the day? Like a fairy tale, Birbal and the Faithful Gardener tells us, nay, shows us “that dragons can be beaten”. It reminds us, behind the veil of “A long time ago,” that yes, there is injustice and yes, it’s awful, and yes, if we are kind and good and true (and lucky, in some cases), we will triumph over it. But why do we need this from Birbal? Why not listen to The Magic Pitcher? Or The Broken Pot, also about a poor Brahmin?
Unlike fairy tales, Birbal stories speak to a certain truth—there is a realness to them, to the settings, that is familiar. Fairy tales may deal with the every man and every woman—insofar as they fit a given set of criteria—but Birbal deals with the every man, the every woman, the every unfair boss/sibling/parent/person of choice, the every house, the every job. For me, Birbal stories bring to mind an old saying of my Nana’s, “There, but for the grace of God, go I”.
A note on this telling: I grew up with Birbal. My father used to tell me Birbal and the Khichiri when I was young. Although this story is not one from my childhood, I have rounded out a few rough edges in the original, sparser version I read. At first, I did not realise I was doing this—Birbal simply seemed to speak to me. Despite this, the major plot points—Akbar’s treatment of the gardener, Birbal’s solution—remain the same.