Once upon a time, a merchant approached Emperor Akbar with a problem. A box containing some jewels was stolen from his house in the morning while he was away. “I don’t know who has done it,” he says, “but I am sure it is one of my neighbours.” Akbar refers the case to Birbal.
Birbal summons the merchant’s seven neighbours to the palace that evening at 8pm.
“One of you has stolen the jewels,” he says, “and I will catch the culprit by morning.”
“Here,” he begins, handing around sticks to each suspect, “these are magic sticks. They’re all the same size. They’re magical because they’re sensitive to the physical touch of a thief. If you’re the culprit, your stick will grow by two inches overnight (an idea an Italian author may or may not rip off in spirit three hundred years from now while writing a story called Pinocchio).”
“To make sure you can’t get away,” he continues, “you’ll be locked up in separate rooms in the palace until tomorrow morning. I’ll unlock the rooms in the morning, collect the sticks and catch the thief.”
The first suspect is the merchant’s next door neighbour. He knows both the merchant and Birbal very well, having helped them out with some business dealings in the past. The merchant trusts him too, so before the suspects are to be locked up for the night, he approaches Birbal and the merchant and asks them to let him go. The merchant agrees. Birbal sees no objection. The neighbour walks out into the cool evening breeze a free man.
The second man is locked in a room with a small window. He props open the window to let some fresh air in. He alerts the attention of a passerby who passes him some food through the window. He’s really upset about the rising crime in the neighbourhood and can’t wait to see the thief caught. The more he thinks about it, the more he realizes that Birbal is a genius. These are magic sticks, after all – what can possibly go wrong?
The third man is in a room with no window and no light. He hasn’t eaten all day and has no idea why Birbal has locked up everyone like this. He didn’t even know the merchant had jewels in the house. Tired and hungry, he stays awake all night.
The fourth man is in a dark room with no window. Being locked up for the night is causing him extreme despair because he had to conduct private business with some traders this evening. The traders owed him a large sum of money, which he needed to feed his family. That opportunity is gone now, and he doesn’t know when he’ll be able to meet the traders again.
The fifth man stole a jewel from the merchant’s house last month and promptly sold it on. He doesn’t know if the sticks are actually magical, though, and that’s making him nervous. Desperate to find a way out of the predicament, he probes around the room and finds a loose panel in one of the walls. He has a confederate waiting outside, to whom he explains the situation. The confederate searches around outside and quickly finds another stick that’s the same size as the magic stick. The man then cuts off two inches from the magic stick. If the stick is magical, it’ll grow back overnight and be the same size. If it doesn’t, he’ll just show Birbal the second stick instead.
The sixth man is extremely sick. His room is completely dark and cold. He feels utterly helpless and is struggling to see out the night.
The seventh man knows he’s ruined. He stole jewels from the merchant’s house this morning. He checks his room carefully for any means of escape but doesn’t find any. There’s no way he can get rid of the jewels from his house before sunrise. More than that, he’s worried about the damn stick. Like a lamb to slaughter, he chops off two inches from his stick thinking it’ll grow back.
It doesn’t grow back, of course.
Birbal rounds up the suspects the next morning and proceeds to collect the sticks.
The first man left the previous evening. There is no stick to collect.
The second man hands over his stick with a smile on his face. When Birbal asks how he spent the night, he brushes off any concerns. “It was only a minor inconvenience,” he says.
The third man is confused, upset, tired and hungry but he dare not say anything to the mighty Birbal. Dejected that he has not even been compensated for the night in restraint, he quietly leaves.
The fourth man is furious with Birbal. “Do you have any idea how much I have lost overnight?” he asks angrily. There is nothing he can do, though. He, too, leaves.
The fifth man has called Birbal’s bluff about the magic stick. He notices that the stick hasn’t grown, so he coolly hands over the second stick that was slipped to him by his confederate at night. Birbal doesn’t notice the difference in sticks and lets him go.
The sixth man’s condition has worsened considerably overnight. He needs urgent medical attention and is taken away. An unaltered stick is found in his room.
The seventh man is caught with a stick that is two inches shorter. Birbal declares him the criminal. He tells the merchant to go to the man’s house and recover the jewels.
The merchant is ecstatic. He goes to the seventh man’s house and finds the same box that he had left unattended the previous morning. He takes the box home and shows it triumphantly to his wife.
She unlocks the box, surveys the contents and goes, “WTF? These are only 6% of the jewels – where are the rest?”