This folktale is found in multiple collections all over the world. It has a Somalian version, a popular Greek version (King Midas), a Korean one and several others. Within India, it is found in almost every language. This author heard it from her father who located it in Tamil Nadu and the story has been accordingly adapted to suit local tastes and conditions.
Once upon a time, there lived a king. He was a fine king who ruled well and made his subjects happy. Yet, he was unhappy because he had a curious problem… he had the ears of an ass! He was very ashamed of his secret and kept the ears hidden inside his turban.
The only one who knew about it was his barber and he had been sworn into secrecy. The barber knew better than to disobey the king’s orders and so he never spoke about this to anyone but as the years went by, the secret ate away at him. It grew inside his tummy and soon, the barber’s stomach grew so big that it threatened to burst under the weight of the secret.
Unable to bear this predicament, the barber ran into the jungle and decided to tell his secret to the wild trees and flowing rivers. They would not repeat this to anyone he thought and so he stood deep inside the forest where even the wind could not enter and blurted it out. “The king has ass ears”. Having said this once, a wave of relief washed over the barber and he could not stop himself for saying this over and over and over again. Finally the secret having been thrown into the deep abyss of the dark forest, the barber made his way back home.
However, what the poor barber had failed to see was that there was a pigeon that had perched itself on the tree, below which he had stood shouting out the secret. The pigeon had been gorging itself on the fruits of the tree. Once the barber left, the pigeon flew away and as he flew he shat out the seed of the fruit that he had eaten. The seed fell on a patch of fertile ground below.
A few years passed. Both the king and his barber grew older. And the seed shat out by the pigeon grew into a huge tree.
One day the king called all the great musicians in his kingdom and from nearby kingdoms and asked them to assemble at his court for a music festival. It was a grand occasion and every musician was thrilled. Among those making their way to the festival was a young percussionist who decided that he needed a new mridangam (a South-Indian percussion instrument). He went out in search of some wood to make the mridangam. As luck would have it, he went to the forest the barber had confided in where he found the perfect tree. Wasting no time he got the wood and crafted a fine mridangam. Of course, the poor man did not know that the tree that was now a part of his mridangam had grown from the seed excreted by the pigeon who had heard the barber’s confession.
Soon came the day of the festival and the young man made his way to the court. When his turn came and he got ready to play, his fingers almost fell off his hand because no sooner had they touched the instrument than out popped what sounded like “The king has ass years”.
Everyone, including the king, froze. The percussionist was shocked! Not able to believe his ears, he tried again, and again rang the same words. Now, all the eyes were on the king. Was this true, people wondered. Or, was it a cruel prank?
Meanwhile, stunned by what he had heard, the percussionist began to play his mridangam in a frenzy, and in no time, the whole court was resonating with the words, “The king has ass ears”. Until the king could take it no more.
He ordered the percussionist to stop playing, got up from his throne and casting a sorrowful eye at his audience, removed his turban. And out popped his secret.
Story collected: Sumathi Sridhar. Based on a folktale narrated by S. Seshan
Image source: King Midas -Painting by Andrea Vaccaro, 1670 CE http://www.ancient.eu/image/21 42/