Exhibition text: A Hair's Breadth Escape

A Hair’s - Breadth Escape

A Tamil Folklore short story to accompany Anousha Payne’s ‘Eating a peach (a hair’s-breadth escape)


A rich landlord was also a miser. As he was stingy and difficult, no tenant would work his lands. Soon his lands were untilled and his tanks and canals dried up. So he became poorer and poorer. Yet he never learned to be generous and was unwilling to pay his workmen. One day, a holy man visited him and heard about his troubles. He said, “I have a mantra. If you repeat it for three months day and night, a brahmarakshasa will appear before you. He will be your servant and obey all your orders. He will be equal to a hundred servants.”


The landlord fell at his feet and begged to be instructed at once. The holyman made him sit facing the west, and taught him the mantra. The landlord rewarded him handsomely, and the holy man moved on.

The landlord repeated the mantra night and day for three months, and on the first day of the fourth month, a huge brahmarakshasa stood before him. Fearsome though he was in size and appearance, the demon fell at the landlord’s feet and asked him, “What do you want from me, master?”


The landlord was in shock. He was terrified by this huge monster and his thundering voice. Yet he said “I want you to be my servant and obey my commands”.


“That’s what I’m here for/ Tell me what you want me to do,” said the demon very respectfully, “But,” he continued, “I must always have work to do. When one job is done, you must give me another at once. I can’t be idle even for one second. If you fail to give me work, I’ll have to kill you and eat you. That’s my nature.”


The landlord smiled. He thought he had enough work to occupy several such brahmarakshasas. He took him at once to the large tank, which had been dry for years, and said, “Repair this tank and make it deep enough to drown two palmyra trees”.


“Yes, my master,” said the demon humbly and got to work.


The landlord thought this job would take months. The tank was two miles long and two miles wide. He went home happily, ate well, and had a good time with his wife, who hadn’t seen him so jolly in years. But that evening, the demon suddenly appeared before him and said that he had finished his work on the tank. The landlord said, “What! Finished all that work in a few hours! Go then and take out all the weeds and stones in my lands. There are spread over twenty villages. Make it ready for cultivation. And don’t come back till you’ve done everything.”


“Yes, master,” said the demon, and disappeared.


His lands were several hundred acres and spread all over the region. No one had worked on them, for years and they were all overgrown and covered with rubbish. That should take the demon months, if not years, thought the landlord.


As he was preparing himself for bed that night, the demon appeared before him and said, “It’s done, master. Your lands are ready.”


The landlord, though astonished and a little afraid of the speed with which things were getting done, said in haste, “Then till it and sow rice. Then irrigate it properly, just as much as needed, no more, from the tank.”


The demon said, “Yes, master” and vanished.


That should take him at least a week, though the landlord and went to bed. But the demon woke up him soon after and asked for more work. The landlord began to panic. All night he gave him new tasks, inventing new ones. His house was washed, his cows milked and bathed. New houses were built. Fruit trees and flowering trees from faraway places all over the world were imported and planted in his garden. The demon, as he got used to his master’s wishes, was doing the jobs faster and faster, taking less and less time with each new task.


He was tireless. By morning, the landlord was dead tired and terror-stricken. “I can’t think of anything more for him to do. What shall I do? He will kill me the moment I stop! What shall I do?” he cried in despair, and began to tear out his hair.


When his wife saw him panic-stricken like this, she consoled him and said. “Don’t lose courage. Think of everything you’ve ever wanted done, and get it done by this demon of yours. When you really run out of jobs, send him to me.”


The landlord asked the demon to take him on his back and show him all that he had done. For miles he surveyed the handiwork of his demonic and perfect servant. The tank was deep, clean, and full of water, milled of it. His lands in twenty villages had been weeded, tilled and sown with rice. His garden had been out in order and filled with all sorts of exotic trees. New houses had been built, furnished and decorated. His cows had been washed and milked. Everything had been done within a few hours. As the landlord began to rack his brains for new projects and was getting more and more frantic, the demon asked him urgently, “What else do you want me to do? Tell me, tell me, give me something to do. I’m getting restless.”


The man remembered what his wife had said and told the brahmarakshasa, “You’re the best servant I have ever had. Now, please go to my wife. She has a little job for you.”


Having bought himself a little time, the landlord began to pray and think of his impending death at the hands of this restless demon. Just then, his wife herself came that way, a long curly black hair in her hand. She had just pulled it out of her head. She said to the demon, “Look here brahmarakshasa, I’ve a small job for you. Take this hair and make it straight, and bring it back to me.”


The demon took it gladly from her hand and went and sat in a pipal tree to make it straight. He rolled it many times on his enormous thigh and lifted it to the light to see if it was straight. But no, no matter what he did, it was still curly. After many useless attempts to straighten this Tamil woman’s curly hair, he thought of something. He had seen goldsmiths heat wires in the fire and beat them till they became straight. So he went to a goldsmith’s forge, when he was asleep, and put the hair in it. At once it frizzled and went up in smoke, leaving behind a bad smell. He was horrified. “What will I do now? What will my master’s wife say if I do not return the hair she gave me?”


Not knowing what to do next, he became desperate, and was so afraid of what his mistress would say that he ran away, never to be seen again.