A friend of mine from South Canara told me the story of the rich man, the poor man, and the snuff, and since I like it I am passing it on to you.
Well, the two men were boyhood friends and were at school together. When his father, who was zamindar of the place, died, the rich man succeeded to the estate, and being favoured with fortune in addition to wealth, very soon he had doubled his income. And the poor man became the village schoolmaster, and was even more indigent than in his youth, because, he was now married and had a large family. In fact, the two friends were as unlike as they could be and had only two things in common — both continued to live in their ancestral village, and both were addicted to snuff.
Of course they continued to be good friends, and spent every Saturday afternoon together, talking fondly of old days. The poor man stinted himself everything. But the thing he fancied most, he did not deny himself. His snuffbox was a modest, home-made affair, the dried, wooden ring of a bael fruit, stoppered with a tiny wooden peg, but it held the best snuff that money could buy in the neighbouring town. The rich man had a highly ornamental snuffbox of ebony banded with gold, but what it contained was a coarse, cheap snuff, more like gunpowder than anything else.
And every Saturday afternoon, the rich man would ask for his friend’s snuffbox and help himself with sounds of deep satisfaction, to generous pinches of the exquisite stuff — a thing the poor man never resented, for in his heart of hearts he was proud of the immeasurable superiority of his own snuff and, moreover, the liked his only friend. One Saturday he asked his friend the question that had been exciting his curiosity for years. Why he asked, do you go in for this dreadful gunpowder when everyone knows that you are even richer than you father was, and can afford the very best snuff in creation, far finer than what I have?
The rich man smiled a smile and gave no answer. Instead, he helped himself to another pinch from the bael-fruit box, and remarked that better snuff just didn’t exist anywhere. Then he said that the next Tuesday he was going on a long pilgrimage, and would be away for a whole month — news that effectively changed the trend of the conversation.
On Monday night the rich man arrived at his friend’s tumbledown cottage, carrying a large earthen pot sealed at the top with mud. He told the poor man that for years he had wanted to give him a present, but had been afraid to press anything on his old friend, lest it should be mistaken for an unbearably ostentatious display of affluence. But now that he was leaving on a pilgrimage (and all pilgrimages were hazardous in those days), he could contain himself no longer, and requested his friend to accept this token of their friendship, and not to look into the pot till after he had left for Kasi. Deeply moved, and even more curious, the poor man accepted the present, and took the pot in his hands. It felt heavy.
And next evening, when he had sent everyone at home away on various errands, and broken the seal of the pot, he could hardly believe his eyes. The pot was filled to the neck, not with copper coins as he expected, nor even with silver rupees as he had hoped, but with gold sovereigns! Feverishly he counted and recounted the sovereigns till there could be no possible doubt about their number; then he put them back into the pot, resealed the mouth, and buried the pot deep in the floor beneath his sleeping-mat.
And the next month, when the rich man returned from his pilgrimage, and called on his friend on Saturday afternoon as usual, and asked for the poor man’s snuffbox and opened it, instead of the sounds of pleasurable anticipation he used to make, he snorted in disgust. For it was packed tight with a black, evil-looking snuff of incredible coarseness and smell, compared to which even the rich man’s brand was refined! You see, the poor man was saving up so as to fill the pot — already full to the neck now — right up to the brim with gold sovereigns!
This was published on 9 February 1964 in The Sunday Statesman.