Inasmuch as he loved to be entertained with stories, the Mughal emperor Akbar appreciated their added benefit of teaching his harem a few subtle lessons. Tuti-Nama, or Tales of the Parrot, had come to him, across two centuries, through the translation of the Persian physician and Sufi, Nakhshabi, who lived in Northern India. Under Akbar’s patronage, in the sixteenth century, the tales were illustrated with 218 paintings by the hands of Mir Sayyid Ali and Abd al-Samad and the imperial atelier to recreate a fully illuminated manuscript of the parrot’s stories—stories within a story.
A motormouth and a moralist, the parrot senses adultery is in the air. His owner’s wife, Khojasta has spotted a handsome young man beyond the garden walls whom she is determined to meet while her husband, a merchant, is away in foreign lands. As per the instructions her husband left, she asks his two birds for permission to step out. The parrot decides to take a soft line, not least because he has just witnessed her wringing the neck of his friend, a mynah bird, who refused her request and told her stay put. Over fifty-two nights the parrot detains her, occupying her with fifty-two tales, variations of popular fictions and fables—a handful of which, Khojasta would quickly find out, just happens to show what happens when a woman doesn’t behave.
On the fifteenth night, the story the parrot tells is this: Once there was a lion who was so ‘long in the tooth’ that when he ate, his food would get stuck between his long teeth—much to the joy of hungry mice. At night whenever the lion tried to sleep, the small creatures would come and pick at the crumbs, keeping the lion from having a good rest. He grumbled to the other animals. A fox said, “Hail! honoured sire. There is a cat, who is your majesty’s devoted subject; order her to keep watch.” The lion was pleased with the fox’s suggestion. So night after night the cat stood sentry, frightening the mice away while the lion slept like a lamb; the feline keenly understood that she must not touch one hair on any of the rodents’ furry heads. If she were to kill them, she’d be out of a job. One day the cat had an errand to run. She asked the lion, just for a day and a night could her kitten take her place. The lion said, sure, why not. Upon the cat’s return, she immediately saw the mice were dead. “What’s this you have done, to go and kill all the mice?” she said. The kitten replied, “Why did you not forbid me to do so, when you went?” Both cat and kitten were filled with remorse and repented but it was too late. Upon hearing there were no more mice, the lion dismissed the cat from her post.
The parrot, having finished his story, looks at Khojasta and says, “I am afraid, lest your husband should suddenly arrive, and then you too, should be put to shame [and sent off] like the cat.”
 Story re-told from The Totā Kahānī; or, Tales of a Parrot, translated from the Hindi, 1875, and The Tootinameh, or Tales of a Parrot, translated from the Persian, 1844.
Additional sources: Bonnie, C. Wade, Imaging Sound: An Ethnomusicological Study of Music, Art, and Culture in Mughal India, University of Chicago Press, 1998; William Alexander Clouston, “Tales of a Parrot,” Flowers from a Persian Garden and Other Papers, London, 1890.
(Image: Tuti-Nama (Tales of a Parrot): Tale XV, The cat attacks the mice which disturb the lion, c. 1560, color and gold on paper, Overall, 7 15/16 x 5 1/2 inches, The Cleveland Museum of Art.)