When Milk Becomes Light

This is an old Sanskrit story.

It seems that once upon a time, milk prayed fervently to god. Its dedication made god himself appear and ask milk what it wanted.

‘I’m milk,’ said milk. ‘I emerge pure and white from cows and buffaloes. But arrogant man messes with me and turns me sour. Give me a boon that will allow me to keep on being just pure white milk.’

God laughed when he heard this.

‘Ay milk! Listen to me a moment. Listen to me before you decide that you want to live your whole life as milk.

‘As milk, you will live a single day. If you are made sour, you will turn curd and live two days. If as curd you’re churned, you will live on a third day as you turn sourer and sourer. If you rise as butter from buttermilk, you will live for weeks. If, as butter, you are heated temperately and decorated with a couple of betel leaves, you will turn into ghee whose fragrance fills the room. When as ghee you are used to light an earthen lamp, you will transform into a light that lights me up.’

‘So, tell me — would you like to be born as milk, live one day, and die as milk? Or would you rather grow every second of every day and transform into my light?’

Milk turned mute. It surrendered. It emerged from the darkness of ignorance and became god’s light.

Are we too not like this? The next time someone says something that makes us sour or bitter, let us not complain but choose to progress from being milk to being curd to being buttermilk to being butter to being ghee to being the light that lights up life and makes it worthwhile.

Afterword:

This is the translation of a Kannada story I read (on Whatsapp!) a couple of days ago. I knew as soon as I read it that I wanted to translate it.

I don’t know what you thought of the story, but let me tell you what I thought. I was drawn in first by its enigmatic title and then captivated by its originality. It is my opinion that the story possesses a poetic quality that elevates it to literature. In particular, the transformation of an everyday matter in an almost-transcendental metaphor is simply astonishing.

I also think the story cannot be easily classified. It may end in a moral but its striving for something much larger precludes it from being just another “moral story”.

P.S: It says it’s a Sanskrit story, but there is no reason to believe that it is not a folk story told by the classic “illiterate villager”. It’s very possible that it was given a Sanskrit stamp to lend it prestige. What stands out, rather, is the Indic (or subcontinental) origin of the story. Indeed, one of the strengths of the metaphor lies in the breadth of its cultural grasp.

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