By Dr.Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai/newsin.asia
Woven into the fabric of a socio-cultural entity, stories and folklore narratives convey messages from the entity, be it a community, or a geographical location, a historical period or an ecological environment.
These narratives may not figure in mainstream publications or in educational curricula, but they are deep-seated in cultures and find resonance across physical and cultural boundaries.
They help us understand interactions across physical and cultural boundaries. The famous South Asian folktale about a ferocious but foolish tiger, a learned but a naively compassionate man and a crafty jackal, is an illustration of a narrative which has found a place in divergent cultures bringing out a commonality which exists even amidst sharp differences and contradictions between countries and cultures.
Here is the story as told by Joseph Jacobs in his illustrated book: ‘Indian Fairy Tales’ (1912):-
Once upon a time, a tiger was caught in a cage. He tried to get out through the bars, but he couldn’t. He growled loudly in anger when he failed. By chance a poor Brahmin, a Hindu priest, came by. “Let me out of this cage, oh holy one!” cried the tiger.
“No, my friend,” replied the Brahmin, “you would probably eat me if I did.”
“Not at all!” cried the tiger. “In fact, I would be forever grateful and would do whatever you asked meto do.”
Now when the tiger sobbed and sighed and wept and cried, the holy Brahmin’s heart softened, and at last he agreed to open the door of the cage. Out popped the tiger and, grabbing the poor man, cried, “What a fool you are! What is to stop me from eating you now? After being locked up in the cage so long, I am just terribly hungry!”
The Brahmin begged the tiger not to eat him, but the tiger continued to growl and move toward the Brahmin. “Please! Please stop,” begged the Brahmin. “Wait—I have an idea! Let’s ask the first three things that we find nearby whether you should eat me or let me live.” The tiger agreed.
Seeing a holy fig tree nearby, the Brahmin first asked the tree what it thought, hoping the tree would reply kindly that the tiger should let the Brahmin live. But instead the tree said, “What do you have to complain about? Don’t I give shade and protection to everyone who passes by me? And don’t they who pass by still tear down my branches to feed to their cattle? Don’t whimper and cry—be a man!”
Then the Brahmin, sad at heart, walked a bit farther until he saw a buffalo chained to a wheel that he was forced to turn to get water from a well. “Dear buffalo, please help me. Please, please tell this tiger to let me live. After all, I freed him from the cage in which he was locked up.”
But the buffalo answered in a loud voice, “You are a fool to expect thanks from the tiger! Look at me! While I was able to give milk to my owner, he fed me the finest food, but now that I no longer have any milk, he chains me here and gives me garbage to eat!”
The Brahmin, even sadder, asked the road to give him its opinion. “My dear sir,” said the road, “how foolish you are to expect anything else! Here am I, useful to everybody, yet all, rich and poor, great and small, walk and trample on me as they go past, giving me nothing!”
Hearing this, the Brahmin turned back sadly. On the way he met a jackal, which is a wild dog. The jackal called out, “Why, what’s the matter, Mr. Brahmin? You look as unhappy as a fish out of water!”
The Brahmin told him all that had occurred. “How very confusing!” said the jackal, when the Brahmin finished. “Would you mind telling me over again? Everything seems so mixed up.”
The Brahmin told it all over again, but the jackal shook his head in a distracted sort of way and still could not understand.
“It’s very strange,” said the jackal, sadly, “but it all seems to go in one ear and out the other! I will go to the place where it all happened, and then perhaps I shall be able to give my opinion.”
So they returned to the cage, where the tiger was waiting for the Brahmin, sharpening his teeth and claws. “You’ve been away a long time!” growled the tiger. “But now let us begin our dinner.”
“Our dinner!” thought the Brahmin, as his knees knocked together with fear. “What a remarkably interesting way of putting it!”
“Give me five minutes, my lord,” the Brahmin begged, “in order that I may explain matters to the jackal here, since he doesn’t understand.”
The tiger agreed, and the Brahmin began the whole story over again, not missing a single detail, taking as long as possible to retell the story.
“Oh, my poor brain! Oh, my poor brain!” cried the jackal, wringing its paws. “Let me see! How did it all begin? Brahmin, you were in the cage, and the tiger came walking by . . . ?”
“Pooh!” interrupted the tiger. “What a fool you are! The Brahmin was not in the cage. I was in the cage.” “Of course!” cried the jackal, pretending to be afraid. “Yes! I was in the cage—no I wasn’t—dear! Dear!
Let me see—the tiger was in the Brahmin, and the cage came walking by—no, that’s not it, either! Well, don’t mind me, but begin your dinner, for I shall never understand!”
“Yes, you shall!” retorted the tiger, in anger at the jackal’s stupidity. “I’ll make you understand! Look here—I am the tiger . . .”
“Yes, my lord!”
“And that is the Brahmin . . .”
“Yes, my lord!”
“And that is the cage . . .”
“Yes, my lord!”
“And I was in the cage—do you understand?”
“Yes—no . . . Please, my lord . . .”
“Well?” cried the tiger impatiently.
“Please, my lord!—how did you get in?”
“How!—why in the usual way, of course!”
“Oh, dear me!—my head is beginning to spin again! Please don’t be angry, my lord, but what is the usual way?”
At this the tiger lost patience, and, jumping into the cage, cried, “This way! Now do you understand
how it was?”
“Perfectly!” grinned the jackal, as he quickly shut the door. “And if you will permit me to say so, I think matters will remain as they were!”
The Bengali version of the story was compiled and published by Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury in 1911 as a book titled: ‘Tuntunir Boi’ (The book of the Tailor Bird). This story is popular in Bangladesh, especially Mymensingh district, from where Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury collected many of his folktales.
However, the earliest reference of this story, is in The Panchatantra (200 BCE-300 CE). There is a reference to it also in the Disciplina Clericalis of Petrus Alphonsi, and later on in the Gesta Romanorum and the Directorium Vitae Humanae of John of Capua.
In the Old Deccan Days (by Mary Frere, 1868), the tiger is replaced by an alligator and the matter is finally settled by a clever jackal after several appeals were made to a banyan tree, a camel, a bullock and an eagle. Joseph Jacob in his illustrated book- ‘Indian Fairy Tales’ (1912) speaks of a tiger, a poor Brahmin and a jackal. In another publication- The Tales of Punjab (Flora Anne Steel, 1894), the story was woven around a Pipal or Bo tree and a road, while the final dispute was settled by a jackal who puts the tiger back into the cage.
In a Sinhala version from Sri Lanka (H. Parker, 1907), a crocodile attempts to eat the man and an appeal was made to a Kumbuk tree (Terminalia) and a cow. Finally, a jackal settled the dispute. The Panchatantra comes close to the Sinhala version where a crocodile attempts to eat a Brahmin priest and various appeals were made to a mango tree and an old cow. Finally a jackal settled the matter (Village Folktales of Ceylon by H. Parker, 1907. pp, 315- 317).
Some parts of Asia also have a similar storyline. In Indonesia, it is familiar as “The Crocodile, The Brahmin, and The Fox”. It came through the Jataka tales brought by Buddhist monks from the Indian sub-continent, who travelled and preached across Asia. Jataka stories are sculpted as relief on the Borobudur Stupa in Magelang, Central Java.
This story finds a place in modern popular culture as well. In 1991 (Rabbit Ear Productions) the story, titled, ‘The Tiger and the Brahmin’, was made into a narration CD (audio book) with voiceover by Ben Kingsley and sitar maestro Pundit Ravi Shankar. The story has also found its place in still more recent publications, along with illustrations, like ‘The Tiger, the Brahmin and the Jackal’ by David Kennet (1995, Era Publications Pvt. Ltd.) and ‘The Tiger and the Brahmin’ by Brian Gleeson and illustrations by Kurt Vargo (2012, Rabbit Ears Books).
The storyline has echoed across regions taking into account the local flora, fauna, the society and its disposition. Most importantly the similarities of emotions and expressions of the common man come through vividly. The slight variations bring out the uniqueness and embellish it with colour andvariety.
The story highlights the prominence of the Kumbuk tree in Sri Lanka, and the significance of the mango, banyan or Pipal trees in India, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh. Similarly, the animals mentioned change from region to region. For example the crocodile changes to a tiger in Bengal and Bangladesh or the jackal changes into a sly fox, depending on the fauna of the local habitat.