Puja Holidays across India must be the most favourite holidays for children because they are officially forbidden from learning. At least on those last three days when the books are worshipped. It is customary for many to initiate their children into the world of letters on the tenth or Vijayadasami Day. It is also considered auspicious to start the study of subjects of one’s choice, especially the fine arts. As someone who considers herself a lifelong learner, it is one of the few festivals that I actively celebrate. This Navaratri let me share a folk tale connected with an aspect of learning that I believe is very relevant these days. Here goes.
Long ago in the northern part of that verdant and fertile land called Kerala famous for its coconut palms and jackfruit trees there lived a great teacher of the martial arts form kalarippayattu. People called him Kochu (small) Gurukkal not because his skills were meagre but to distinguish him from his father the Valiya (big) Gurukkal who was a renowned teacher of his times. Kochu Gurukkal was such a great master of his art that he had never lost a single angam (duel) that he had fought. He lived in a small village with his family and a few students who learnt the art from him. His house was modest and his lifestyle austere as unlike other masters of the art he had very few disciples. The villagers often wondered at this but never mustered enough courage to ask the Gurukkal as they feared such a question might cause offence to the great man. And so the years passed peacefully.
One day a young man from an affluent family came to the village in search of the Gurukkal. The villagers at the square were impressed with his attire, the finely woven mundu and upper cloth which had broad gold borders and the numerous strings of expensive beads he wore round his neck and the emerald earrings that glittered from his ears. They were impressed too with his handsome features that were set off by the luxuriant hair that was gathered in a sizable knot at the side of his head and his polite manner of speech and dignified bearing. They told him the way to the Gurukkal’s house and hoped that this young man would bring in more students as wealthy as him and their revered Gurukkal, their collective pride, would get the wealth that he deserved.
It was mid-morning when the young man reached the Gurukkal’s house. He found him seated on a reclining chair on the veranda taking a nap after breakfast that followed the morning practice and lessons. The young man bent down and touched his feet reverentially. This awakened the Gurukkal and he regarded the young man for some time his gaze calm and kindly.
“What brings you here this morning, young man?” he asked in his customary mild voice. At the same time his sharp eyes did not fail to notice the fine clothes and the adornments.
“Master,” said the young man, his hands still folded in greeting. “Ever since I saw you defeat your enemy effortlessly in that angam near my town last year I’ve spent every moment of my time wishing to be your disciple. But my father who wants me to take over his business after him does not wish me to learn the martial arts. It took me a year to persuade him. He has now granted me one year to follow my passion. So I have come to you. Will you accept me as your disciple?”
Kochu Gurukkal ran a finger over his chin where the three day old stubble was sprinkled with grey. The visitor noted with envy the spare wiry frame beneath the fine cotton of the upper cloth.
“I have no objection to accepting you as a disciple,” the Gurukkal said and before the young man could rejoice he continued. “You seem to be an intelligent and eager young man. But you see there is a small problem.”
He paused and the light went out of the young man’s face.
“It will take a minimum of five years to teach a student all that I know. I believe in teaching my students all that I know. And since you only have one year to spare I think it best that you search for another teacher.”
The young man brought his folded palms together in a parting greeting and started walking back. He did love his father and his family was dear to him. His head and shoulders drooped as he passed the gatehouse and turned into the leafy lane that lead to the village square.
A quarter of an hour later he was back at the Gurukkal’s house. The teacher however betrayed no surprise.
“Master!” the young man cried. “I’m prepared to spend five years to learn the art from you. I shall not go back to my village even for the holidays and then my father will not be able to prevent me from coming back.”
“Actually,” said the Gurukkal calmly. “Five years will definitely not be enough to teach anyone even the basics. I didn’t want to disappoint you in the first place, you know. It will take nothing less than fifteen years to learn everything that I know.” He said with an air of finality and reclined in his chair and closed his eyes as though impatient to resume his nap.
The young man walked back thoughtfully obviously in a dilemma. But this time he did not even reach the end of the lane. He came running back and said breathlessly.
“Master, what is fifteen years when compared to a lifetime? I am prepared to spend fifteen years learning from you whatever you know.”
The Gurukkal sat up in his reclining chair and said, “But young man, fifteen years will only make you a passable warrior. To learn everything I know it will take you at least twenty five years.”
Again the young man walked away but this time he reached only as far as the gatehouse before turning back and falling at the Gurukkal’s feet.
“Master,” he said. His voice quavered and his eyes welled up but he continued. “I will stay with you for as long as it takes to learn everything you know. I’m in no hurry to go back. I’m prepared to spend a lifetime in learning the art.”
At this the Gurukkal got up from his chair and blessed the young man placing his palms on his head. He raised him to his feet and patted his shoulder.
“In that case we shall start your lessons tomorrow.”
This is one of my favourite folk tales. In this age of instant gratification, where hardly any time elapses between desire and fulfilment, where everything is available at the tap of a finger on a screen, it reminds us that the Goddess of Learning is an exacting mistress who demands diligence and dedication of the highest order and the most heartrending of sacrifices before she deigns to smile on you.
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