It all began on a dark, rainy night when the chattee- maker who made chattees — red clay water pots that he loaded every day on to his old grey mule to sell — swayed home from a party in a neighbouring village. Some would have said he hadn’t much to sing about; he and his wife were as poor as church mice. Still, he was a chirpy man, and was even perkier that evening, since he had drunk just a little too much toddy, and toddy, made from palm juice, is a very intoxicating drink even in small shots. He was so befuddled that it wasn’t before he had reached the stream that divided the two villages that he noticed that the mule had disappeared.
‘I’ll have to try the jungle, he’s gone off track,’ burped the chattee- maker.
The jungle had its inhabitants too, and that night a panther roamed through it. Lightning flashed, thunder cracked, and when the panther chanced upon a little mud hut in a jungle clearing, he made straight for shelter behind it. Inside the hut was a wizened old woman, running to and fro with buckets and cans and saucepans frantically catching the rain driving in from the leaking roof.
‘Oh dear, oh dear,’ the panther heard her mumble, ‘all I need now is for a rogue elephant or a lion or panther to pounce on me.’
The panther licked his lips. ‘Two minds with but a single thought!’ he whispered to himself and crept even closer to the hut.
The chattee-maker, singing at the top of his voice, weaved unsteadily through the jungle till he stumbled into the clearing. A great zig- zag flash of lightning lit the jungle like daylight, and just for an instant he glimpsed an animal shape crouching behind the hut. Then it was pitch-dark again, but the chattee- maker meandered towards the hut.
‘Hello, old mule.’ He blundered across to the panther, grabbed him by the tail, and gave him a few sharp smacks. ‘Wretched brute,’ he remonstrated, ‘dragging me on a detour in this filthy weather. Up on your feet or I’ll leave you to perish of pneumonia.’
The panther had never been taken so unawares in all his life. Dazed, he staggered along backwards through the jungle behind the chattee-maker, who dragged him by his tail all the way to the village, singing lustily all the while. Once he had reached home, the chattee- maker tethered the panther to the mule’s post in the back yard, threw a frayed blanket over him, and rolled off to bed, still singing.
The next morning, the chattee-maker’s wife got up and peered out of the window, nearly fainting when she saw the panther tied to the mule’s post. ‘You cannot be serious!’ she shrieked, shaking her husband awake, ’just look what you brought home last night.’
‘What do you mean, you silly woman?’ grumbled the chattee-maker, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, ‘what else could I have brought back but our stupid mule — it’s the only thing we’ve got even though it’s not worth much, dead or alive.’
His wife hauled him out of bed, shoved him towards the window and pointed. And a very angry panther he was by this time, rather stiff and extremely hungry. He snarled and jerked at his ties; he glowered at the chattee-maker. The chattee- maker was speechless. He felt himself all over to see if the panther had injured him in any way but there wasn’t a mark.
The news spread like wildfire. The village Elders agreed that the Maharajah should be informed of the chattee-maker’s feat; they composed a letter and despatched it by special messenger. When the Maharajah read the letter he was delighted, for the panther, which was a particularly ferocious man- eating one, had been plaguing the village for a good many years.
‘I want to thank the intrepid fellow personally,’ decided the Maharajah. He summoned his carriage and courtiers and set off in processional splendour to the village.
When they arrived, the Maharajah saw the panther, which had once terrorised folk for miles around, cowering ignobly.
‘Your brave deed merits a reward,’ the Maharajah announced and gifted to the chattee-maker all the land surrounding the village and the command of ten thousand horses.
‘And this time last week,’ said the chattee-maker to his wife, ‘we only owned a tiny patch and a decrepit mule.’
Not long after, it so happened that the Nawab of a country lying to the south of the chattee- maker’s country proclaimed war on the Maharajah. He sent word to say he had mustered his army and was heading towards the border. Spies reported the invasion was only hours away.
The Maharajah was at a feast admiring the dancing girls when the news reached him. He hurriedly dismissed his guests. ‘We must mobilise our forces,’ he cried and rushing away to don battle dress, he ordered the chiefs of his armed forces to appear before him.
It wasn’t long before the generals and admirals assembled. ‘Listen up,’ said the Maharajah, ‘whilst I remain behind to guard this town which is a key position, one of you must take overall command and set out with the infantry and the cavalry to vanquish the enemy. Which one of you do you want me to nominate?’
The chiefs went into a huddle and conferred for a long time shaking their heads and looking very doubtful. Then one of them spoke. ‘Sire, our country is totally unprepared for war. Weapons are out dated, as we’ve not been involved in a conflict since your great grandfather’s time. Most of the horses are used for playing polo now and don’t know what fighting means and as for the infantry, the last occasion on which it was in action was when it paraded in honour of the Emperor of Delhi when he made a State visit and that was…’ he broke off to think, ‘more than ten years ago. None of us is willing to take command in this hopeless situation or with such poorly equipped, ill trained soldiers.’
Then one of the admirals, bristling with medals, stood up. ‘Sire, you have just appointed the chattee-maker to the command of ten thousand horse,’ he said. ‘A man who can subdue a panther is surely likely to be more devious than most. Why not appoint him Commander –in- Chief of war operations?’ There was a murmur of assent from the others.
‘Indeed and why not? An excellent idea and let’s just say I thought of it,’ exclaimed the Maharajah. ‘Get him here immediately.’
On arrival the chattee-maker was ushered into the throne room.
‘I place in your charge,’ said the Maharajah gravely, ‘the whole conduct of this war. You are now Commander- in – Chief and we rely on you to rout the opposition.’
There was nothing for the chattee-maker to do but to obey. ‘Yes, sire,’ he nodded, his pulses racing ‘but first, before I take the army into the field, let me try and assess the potential of the Nawab’s forces and where they’re stationed.’
The Maharajah nodded. ‘Time spent in reconnaissance is time well spent. Off you go then and report back to me without delay.’
The chattee- maker returned home to his wife. ‘It’s bad news. The Maharajah has appointed me Commander –in Chief and you know what that means. I shall have to ride at the head of our forces and you know as well as I do that I’m allergic to horses, let alone ride one. But I’ve managed to delay things a bit by getting the Maharajah’s consent to survey the enemy camp first before I lead the contingent into battle. What I want you to do is to cast around for an old, very quiet mare so that I’m ready to start in the morning.’
But the Maharajah was quicker off the mark and sent him the most wonderful specimen of horseflesh imaginable. There it stood, with flaring nostrils, fiery black eyes, a flowing mane and a long tail; a very grand warhorse indeed bearing a saddle of the finest leather; very frisky and alert and champing to be on its way.
The poor chattee-maker backed several paces, terrified of the beast that towered over him. He couldn’t very well refuse for the Maharajah would be vexed, confiscate his land and probably permanently exile him.
‘You’ll just have to write a loyal letter of appreciation to the Maharajah,’ advised his wife, ‘and then do the best you can.’ She began to giggle when she saw what a muddle the chattee-maker had got himself into. ‘Better you than me.’
The chattee-maker pulled a face. ‘It’s all very well for you to joke,’ he said sourly, ‘but you’ll be laughing on the other side of your face when the Maharajah pours shame on me and deprives us of our title and property. Oh me, oh my, this creature’s so powerful that I’m sure I won’t be able to hang on, assuming, of course, that I manage to mount in the first place.’
His wife flew indoors and fetched a long length of clothes’ rope. ‘Now,’ she put on a school teacher’s voice, ‘all you need to do is to climb into the saddle. Once you’re on, I’ll truss you to it securely so that you can’t possibly be tossed off and if you start your journey while it’s still dark, no one will be any the wiser.’
Not for the first time the chattee- maker thanked his lucky stars he had married a clever woman. ‘That’ll do the trick’, and so while his wife cooked supper, mutton curry and rice, over an open fire, he planned his campaign.
Soon after they’d eaten, the chattee- maker’s wife led the horse, who was docile in her hands, round to the back, far from the eyes of prying neighbours.
‘I’ll never make it up there,’ groaned the chattee-maker, ‘he’s very tall’.
‘Nonsense,’ said his wife briskly, ‘all you have to do is to take one giant leap. Like that astronaut who landed on the moon.’
So he jumped and fell back — thump — into a thorny rose bush. Again he tried and this time he jumped too wide and landed over on the other side.
‘You must do better,’ said his wife impatiently, tired of holding the rope.
The chattee-maker was sweating. ‘I always forget,’ he panted, ‘which way I should be facing.’
‘ Your face towards the horse’s head,’ she said with a sigh.
Once more the chattee-maker launched himself into the air and hurray! found himself in the saddle but this time he was back to front
His wife shook her head and doubled up with laughter. ‘One more time.’
In the meantime, the horse thought the chattee- maker was a real wally and, determined to show who was boss, started to frisk around making things all the more difficult for him.
‘Where does my right foot go once I’ve put my left foot in the stirrup?’ enquired the chattee-maker anxiously.
‘In the other stirrup, of course,’ replied his wife, thinking that her husband was being more than usually dim.
It was a good few hours before the chattee-maker finally made it. ‘Hurry up and secure me’ he urged his wife, ‘or I shall lose my nerve and slide off.’
His wife took the rope and swung it triumphantly over her head. First she fastened his legs firmly to the stirrup irons and then she tied a length of rope round his shoulders and another section round his neck and waist and fastened them all to the horse’s body. By this time the horse was extremely irritated by all these antics.
‘Wife, oh wife,’ called the chattee-maker desperately, ‘you’ve forgotten to tie my hands.’
‘No problem,’ she said stepping back hastily as the horse kicked up its hind legs, ‘just grab hold its mane tightly,’ and she gave the animal a wallop that sent it flying over the hedge.
They were off! Nothing could stop the horse in its frenzied flight — through the thick jungle it galloped, the chattee-maker clinging on to it for dear life, through every muddy puddle of water and over every ditch, hedge and bush. The chattee-maker’s heart beat nineteen to the dozen. He wasn’t enjoying it at all, and when he saw how close they were to enemy lines, he was sure that surveillance would detect him and send word to the forces to attack. He was determined dismount if only he could slow down the ruddy beast. As they whistled past a peepul tree he reached out, hoping he’d come off the horse’s back, but instead up came the tree by its roots and horse and rider scorched ahead rather like a Formula 1 racing car, the chattee-maker holding the tree aloft like a spear.
When the enemy saw him thundering towards them, they thought he was the advance party and panic set in.
‘Watch it,’ they cried, ‘they’ve sent their most formidable warrior. He’s so bellicose he can uproot trees with his little finger. Look how he’s charging towards us. If he’s only one of the opposing army we’re done for if the entire force is anything like him. The rest of the cavalry can’t be far behind.’
Nearer and nearer hurtled the chattee-maker. The Nawab’s generals sped to him. ‘Sire, run up the white flag or we all risk being slaughtered,’ they begged. ‘Their army looks unassailable and we’re guaranteed to end up as prisoners of war if we engage with them’. And without waiting for the Nawab’s final orders, they all stampeded in terror back across the border.
Horse and rider reached the enemy camp. The horse halted. Off tumbled the chattee-maker, as the ropes had loosened themselves in the headlong flight. He expected to be seized and summarily beheaded but to his amazement found the camp deserted. In their panic the enemy had left behind all their provisions and ammunition and even some of their precious horses. And in the Nawab’s tent the chattee-maker found a declaration of surrender, all signed and sealed and offering a peace treaty.
The chattee-maker snatched up the declaration, wolfed down the food, knocked back several glasses of whisky then putting his horse on a leading rein as he couldn’t remount without help, staggered back home.
‘Honey, I’m home!’ he hiccupped as his wife ran to meet him at the door.
‘Well, dear what happened?’
‘It was all very odd. As soon as I got in sight of the enemy, the lot of them fled—just like that— as if they’d seen a ghost. Anyway, I looked round and found this,’ and he handed her the declaration of surrender. ‘Take it to the Maharajah and, oh don’t forget to return old Dobbin there’, he jerked his head at the horse that snorted with annoyance when he heard himself addressed as such. ‘Say I’m exhausted and that I’ll pay my respects to him first thing in the morning.’ He gave a sigh of relief, kicked off his shabby sandals and was soon snoring on a floor mat.
The next morning the chattee-maker was woken by the sound of trumpets blasting victory through the streets. Pennants and bunting hung across the dusty roads and a national holiday was declared in his honour. Remembering his appointment with the Maharajah, he dressed swiftly and accompanied by his wife made his way on foot to the palace besieged by flag waving and cheering crowds.
‘Hail the conquering hero comes!’ they bellowed. ‘And his modesty matches his heroism. Any other person would ride in pomp to receive the Maharajah’s thanks but the chattee- maker walks humbly without an armed escort like an ordinary mortal.’
The Maharajah, clad in the most resplendent robes, strode out to welcome the chattee-maker and his wife. First, he was invited to inspect a ceremonial guard of honour. Next, they were ushered through gilded chambers where officials in cream and blue livery trimmed with heavy silver braid saluted them as they passed. Finally, they arrived at the magnificent jewel bedecked throne room where, against a volley of cannons, the Maharajah invested the chattee-maker with the Lordship of a hundred villages and the noblest and highest honour in the land – the Order of the Bravest of the Brave. In the evening, a lavish banquet marked the occasion.
‘This is the best bit,’ grinned the chattee-maker and, after he’d drunk rather too much of the vintage royal toddy, led them in a rousing song.