This is an ancient Sanskrit tale told by Vedic rishis (sages) translated, retold and illustrated by U. Mahesh Prabhu
Long ago, somewhere on the banks of the river Ganga, there happened to be a small fortified town called Vidhisha. Outside the town walls was a huge Banyan tree that stood up for well over a hundred years. In that tree there lived a cat, an owl, a lizard and a mouse.
The cat lived in a big hole inside the trunk of the tree a few feet above the ground. The owl lived atop the tree where it had built a nest for itself. The lizard lived around the tree’s roots. Mouse had its abode on the other side of the tree among damp moss and dead leaves.
Even though these four lived in the same vicinity they had not an ounce of faith amongst themselves. Mouse was particularly fearful of the cat – for they were natural enemies. And the lizard always fearful of the owl since had better skills than the cat at hunting its kind.
The lizard and the mouse could only get food during the day; but the lizard did not have to go far to find its prey, while the mouse had to endure a dangerous journey to barley field to savour its choicest food. Unlike owl, cat and lizard – the mouse was a vegetarian. It enjoyed savouring vegetables, particularly.
Cat, which kept a constant tab on the mouse with an intention to hunt him down, learned how fond mouse was of barely. The cat, being at the top of the food chain in that colony, seldom feared a thing.
On a fine day when cat decided to pursue the mouse in stealth which was on its way to the barely field. Just as it was about to pounce on its prey – lo and behold – its head was caught in a snare set by the farmer! Cat was nearly strangled and could scarcely even mew! The mouse was so close that he heard the feeble mew, and in a terrible fright, thinking the cat was after him, he peeped through the stems of the barley to make sure which way to run to get away from cat. Mouse was pleasantly surprised when he saw his enemy in such trouble and quite unable to do him any harm!
Now it so happened that the owl and the lizard, too, were in the vicinity not very far from where the cat lied trapped in snares. They too saw the trapped cat and were happy to see their enemy in tragedy. The owl caught the sight of the mouse peeking through the barely; and prepared to hunt it for himself. Seeing the owl in the air, the lizard moved to safety.
The mouse, although helpless and small, was a smart little creature. He saw the owl fly up into the tree, and knew for sure that if he did not take caution he could serve as a dinner to that great strong bird. He also knew that, if he went within reach of the claws of the cat, he would pay dearly for it. “What do I do now?” it asked itself. “Oh yes,” it soon exclaimed, “I could befriend the cat in distress and get her to promise me not to hurt me if ever she gets free. If I am near the cat, the owl will not dare to come after me.” As the mouse contemplated, his eyes were filled with hope, and finally he decided to act on the wise plan.
The mouse, even in that difficult circumstances, had not lost its presence of mind – he did not let the fright of the cat or the owl prevent him from thinking straight. Mouse now emerged from its hiding and approached the cat. But mouse made sure that he was not near enough for the cat to reach him with her claws, or far enough away from the owl to get him without danger from those terrible claws. Mouse, then, addressed the cat thus “Madam, I do not like to see you in such a fix. Don’t be surprised! It is true we have never been friends, but I have always looked up to you as a strong and deserving enemy. If you promise never to do me any harm – I’ll do my best to help you. I’ve razor sharp teeth, and I can nibble through the string round your beautiful neck and set you free. What do you think about this arrangement?”
On listening to the mouse, the cat could hardly believe her ears. She was, of course, ready to promise anything to anyone who would help her, and declared to mouse “Dear little friend, I am touched by your compassion and offer to deliver me from this predicament. If only you will cut through this string which is strangling me, I solemnly promise never to harm you – no matter how hungry I may be, I will prefer to starve rather than hurt someone who’d helped me in the time of terrible distress.”
On hearing this, the mouse, without hesitating for even a fraction of a moment, climbed up on that cat’s back and cuddled down in the soft fur near her neck, feeling safe and warm there. The owl would certainly not attack him there, he was confirmed, and the cat could not possibly even think of hurting him. It was one thing to pounce down on a defenceless little creature running on the ground amongst the barley and quite another to try and snatch him from the very neck of a cat.
The cat, who was expecting mouse to cut through the string at once, became uneasy when she felt the little creature nestle down as if to go to sleep, instead of helping her. Poor pussy could not turn her head so as to see the mouse without drawing the string tighter, and she did not dare to speak angrily lest she could offend him. “My dear little friend,” she said, “do you think it is high time to keep your promise and set me free?”
Hearing this, the mouse pretended to bite the string, but too careful not to do so really; and the cat waited and waited, getting more miserable every minute. All through the long night the same thing went on: the mouse taking a little nap now and then, the cat getting weaker and weaker. “Oh,” she thought to herself, “if only I could get free, the first thing I would do would be to gobble up that horrid little mouse.” The moon rose, the stars came out, the wind murmured amongst the branches of the banyan tree, making the unfortunate cat long to be safe in her cosy home in the trunk. The cries of the wild animals which prowl about at night seeking their food were heard, and the cat feared one of them might find her and kill her. A mother tiger perhaps would snatch her and feed to hungry cubs, hidden away deep in the forest, or a bird of prey might swoop down on her and grip her in terrible claws. Time and again she entreated the mouse to be quick, promising that, if only he would set her free, she would never – ever forget him or do any harm to him.
It was not until the moon had set and the light of the dawn had put out that the mouse made any real effort to help the cat. By this time the farmer – who had set the snare came to see if he had caught the cat; and the poor cat, seeing him in the distance, became so wild with terror that she nearly killed herself in the struggle to get away!
“Be still! Be still my friend!” the mouse cried to the cat, “I will definitely save you.” Then with a few quick bites with his sharp teeth he cut through the string, and the next moment the cat was hidden among the barley and the mouse was running off in the opposite direction, determined to keep well out of the sight of the creature he had kept in such misery for so many hours. Full well he believed that all the cat’s promises would be forgotten, and she would never hesitate to eat him up if she could catch him. The owl too flew away, and the lizard went off to hunt flies in the sunshine, and there was not a sign of any of the four inhabitants of the banyan tree when the hunter reached the snare. He was very much surprised and puzzled to find the string hanging loose in two pieces, and no sign of the prey. He had a good look around, and then went home empty handed.
When the farmer was quiet out of sight, the cat came forth from the barely, and hastened back to her beloved home in the banyan tree. On her way there she spied on the mouse also hurrying along in the same direction, and at first, she felt inclined to hunt him but decided not to and tried making him her friend instead.
Next day, she climbed down the tree and went to the roots in which she knew the mouse was staying. There she began to purr as loud as she could, to show the mouse she was in good mood and called out “Dear good little mouse, come out of your hole and let me tell you how grateful I am to you for saving my life. There is nothing in the world I will not do for you, if you will only be friends with me.”
The mouse only squeaked in answer to this speech, and took very good care not to show himself, till he was quite sure that the cat was gone beyond reach of him. He stayed quietly in his hole, and only ventured forth after he had heard the cat climb up into the tree again. “It is all very well,” thought the mouse, “to pretend to make friends with an enemy when that enemy is helpless, but I should be very stupid to trust a cat when she is free and in all her power to kill and savour me!”
The cat made a good many attempts to be friends with the mouse, but they were all unsuccessful. In the end the owl caught the mouse, and the cat savoured the lizard. The owl and the cat lived for the rest of their lives in the banyan tree, and died in the end at a good old age.