Painting the town blue

Myth Theory 18 Comments

Published in Sunday Mid-day, 17 Jan 2010

Once upon a time, there was a kingdom and the kingdom had a king and the king had a pair of eyes. And with these eyes, he looked at his subjects and ensured all was well with them.

But then one day, something terrible happened. The king woke up from a sound sleep but found it impossible to open his eyes. As soon as he tried to lift his eyelids, he felt a piercing pain, as if sharp glass splinters were being shoved into his eyeballs. The king screamed and yelled and howled and shut his eyes  firmly. He then waited for some time and tried opening his eyes again. But the pain returned with greater intensity.

So the king decided not to open his eyes all day. Maybe things would be better at night when there is no light. But to his dismay, the pain at night was as bad.

Maybe, the king felt, another night’s rest would solve the problem. But no, as soon as he opened his eyes the next day, the pain was waiting to strike him down once again. There were not enough words in the king’s language to describe the pain but all those who heard him yell could imagine what it could be like.

Finally,the royal doctor was called. And then the other doctors of the kingdom. Then doctors from neighboring kingdoms. Then the royal magician, and then the magicians of the kingdom, then magicians from neighboring kingdoms.  Then the hermits who lived within city walls, and finally hermits who lived outside city walls. Everyone said the same thing – “We do not know what’s wrong with the king!” There was no grit in the eye. No infection. No injury. Not even the spell of a witch. Nothing. There was no reason for the king to suffer so. It just did not make sense. Everyone was bewildered, especially the king, who could do nothing but keep his eyes firmly shut.

Then one day, an old sage from across seven hills paid a visit to the palace, having heard of the king’s plight. Though no one felt he could really help, they ushered him respectfully into the king’s private chambers where the king lay, with eyes shut, miserable as ever.

The old sage touched the king’s eyes, and after some deep meditation, smiled and said. “Oh, I have encountered such a problem before. The king’s eyes have lost the capacity to see color, all except blue. Show him any color – red or yellow or green – and the eyes will protest and the king will feel pain. But show him blue, any shade of blue, and the eyes will not protest and he will be able to see.”

To prove his point, the old sage took a blue cloth, spread it before the king and asked the king to open his eyes. With great trepidation, the king obeyed the sage, and to everyone’s delight, he succeeded in doing so without any pain. So long as he stared at the cloth, there was no pain. But the moment his gaze shifted to the sage, the pain returned.

So the sage instructed the queen and the king’s courtiers, “Just make sure the king sees no other color but blue and all will be well.” The queen and the courtiers thanked the sage who simply smiled and walked away to the hills. And the king chuckled with childlike delight, “If it is blue, so let it be. At least I can see. At least I can see.”

A year later, the sage returned to the kingdom and decided to check on the king, to make sure all was well. But when he entered the city, he saw something most bizarre. Everything around him was blue! All the buildings were painted blue. All the trees were painted blue. Every man and every woman in the city wore blue clothes. And all the horses and the cows and the goats, even the parrots and pigeons of the city, were blue. Before the sage could register all the blue, he was picked up by the gatekeepers and dunked in a vat of blue dye. “This is the tradition in this land, because our king can only see blue,” they explained very matter-of-factly.

So a blue colored sage entered the blue palace and saw a blue king sitting on a blue throne, in a blue hall full of blue courtiers, a blue queen dressed in blue finery surrounded by blue servants, who held in their hands blue trays containing blue gifts and blue flowers and blue fruits. As soon as he saw the sage, the blue king smiled a very blue smile (his teeth and his tongue were also blue) and rushed to fall at the sage’s blue feet. “Welcome savior,” he said in a voice full of gratitude.

The sage blessed the king and was very happy for him but he could not resist asking, “So why has everyone been painted blue?”

“We are following your instructions very strictly. You did say I could see only blue.”

The sage looked at the king in disbelief. “Are you so stupid?”

The king was stung by the question, “What! What do mean stupid?”

And the sage replied, “You fool, why did you have to color the whole city blue? Would it not have been simpler if you had just worn goggles with blue colored glasses?”

“Well yes, I could….but……,” the king stuttered and stammered. He indeed felt like a fool, a fool who tries to change the whole world to solve his problem, when all he has to do is change his own sight.

  • balagopal

    truly a veritable collect for mundane activities to run effortlessly. a true gem of wisdom.if only one could remember the story lines every time ‘anger’ bubbles up either in desperation or frustration or due to impatience and ignorance.

  • Phani Shankar

    Excellent Article….

  • Gagan

    Really like it. Will share it with my kid in the womb.

  • radhika

    It is so much easier to understand important points when in the form of a story. I am a big fan of your writing. Am also greatly inspired to do a course in Indian Mythology. Any suggestions on where I could do it?
    Eagerly awaiting your next book.

  • Sarabjot

    simple and effective. i was perplexed with a problem regarding my work. you just solved it. thank you

  • wonderfull!

    (did sage gifted him one?)

  • Pratyush

    The city wouldn’t have turned blue had two things not happened:
    a. the sage had been explicit in his suggested cure, or
    b. any of the city folks, ministers, wives of the king had suggested what the sage suggested.

    The first point references the role of thinkers – communication must be explicit. The second highlights the role of followers – flattening of hierarchy is necessary.

  • Ankit

    great tale with a great message

  • Manju

    Wonderful … Awesome …great thinking
    looking forward for more books like this

  • K K vasekar

    What a beautiful Way of teaching a Lesson.I think many times Top Most Management is closed to All Ideas and does not want to see
    differently and wear Same Glasses.
    May be We Need another Sage who can shw Seven Colors thru One Glass. Thanks–Kishan

  • raoravi

    interesting story with great value. always v try to solve the problem looking outside, more than looking within.

  • cmpatnaik

    Dear Devdutt
    A blue good afternoon

    A great Story! by the by I would like to ask you what the symbol a circle, 2 squares, and a dot stands for which is there on your website.


  • Hi Devdutt,

    Do you think the concept of goggles existed during the time of the king?
    When is the story dated?

    Frankly speaking, when I read the sage’s answer, I immediately thought of the same solution, but discarded it thinking the above reason. I was expecting a better and more logical solution (in context to that time period) with the story.

    Nevertheless, the moral is great.

    I am an architect, and we constantly work with signs and symbols. Your articles are very refreshing.

    Anuj Daga.


    • Utpal

      Dear Dev, I heard the same story on the invention / making of leather shoes. When the king wanted to cover the entire kingdom with leather for his comfort.
      I like the lesson that comes out of it. Only “self” is negotiable.

  • Utpal

    Dear Dev, I heard the same story on the invention / making of leather shoes.
    I like the lesson that comes ot of it. Onle “self” is negotiable.