Talking Thrush, The: And Other Tales from India | Annotated Tale

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What Is a Man?

IN A certain forest, a Lioness dwelt who had one cub. This cub did not go to school, as you one day will go; but he learned his lessons at home. And what do you think his lessons were? Not multiplication which is vexation; not the Rule of Three which puzzles me; not spelling and copy-books. No; the Lioness had only one lesson to teach her cub, and that was, to avoid mankind as if they were poison. Every day, morning and evening, she taught him for an hour; telling him again and again, that of all the beasts of the forest he need fear none, for a lion is stronger than any, but man he must fear and keep clear of.

               Well, the little Lion grew big; and as often happens to children as well as lions' cubs, he grew conceited too. He could not believe that his mother was old enough to know better than he; no, he would see for himself. So one fine day, this Lion set out on a voyage of discovery.

               The first thing he saw was an Ox. This Ox was a fine sturdy animal, and the Lion felt rather nervous to see such hoofs and horns. You must remember he was young and ignorant, and had hardly seen any animal but his mother and father. So he went up to the Ox, and said timidly--

               "Good morning, sir. Will you be good enough to tell me if you are a Man?"

               If an Ox could laugh, that Ox would have laughed in the face of the Lion's cub. But an Ox is always solemn, like a Turk, though he does not love bloodshed as a Turk does. This Ox was chewing the cud, munching and mouthing with great calmness, so as to get the full flavour of the rich grass. He turned his meek eyes, and stared at the Lion. Then he said--

               "A Man! God forbid. A Man is a terrible creature. He makes slaves of us Oxen, and puts a yoke on our necks and fastens us to a thing called a plough; and makes us pull the plough to and fro, up and down, till we are tired to death. If we won't go, he sticks a prod into us, which hurts us very much. I can't think what is the use of all this pother; we get no good of it. And when we are old, and can work no more, he kills us, and eats our flesh, and the skin he makes into shoes for his own feet. Keep clear of Men, if you value your life." Then the Ox turned his head away, and went on with his chewing.

               This gave our Lion something to think about. He thought the Ox a very fine animal indeed, and yet, said the Ox, Man was stronger.

               The Lion went his ways, and by-and-by, what should he see but a Camel. If the Ox was a fine creature, here was a finer; ever so tall, with a hump on his back, and a long neck, and great long legs. Surely this must be the terrible Man he had heard so much of. But to make certain, he approached the Camel with great respect, and said--

               "Good morning, sir. Pray, will you tell me if you are a Man?"

               The Camel turned his long neck, and sniffed and sneered as Camels have a way of doing, and a most unpleasant way it is.

               "Pooh!" said he. "Stuff! poof! you oaf! you think me a Man? I wish I were a Man, wouldn't I make short work of you! A man, quotha! Why, I am a slave to that same Man. They catch us, these Men, and make a hole in our noses, and put a ring in it--do you see my ring? How do you think I like a hole made in my nose, as if two holes were not enough! Then they tie a rope to the ring, and lead us about all day long just where they please, without a with your leave, or by your leave! And they make us squat down in the mud, and put a great load on our backs, enough to crush a whipper-snapper like you. Groan as we may, it's all of no use, they do what they choose. Man! the very name makes me shiver. Get out, and leave me alone!"

               This frightened our Lion, because who knew whether the great animal might not kill him, if it came into his head, so the Lion went away as fast as he could.

               In a little while, he espied an Elephant. Here was a monster, to be sure! A great black mountain, with a long nose curling about, and huge white teeth sticking out, and big ears flapping. The Lion was quite terrified this time, and would not go near the Elephant, until he suddenly saw that the Elephant had a rope round his tusks, by which he was tied fast to a stake. Then he plucked up courage to approach, and said--

               "Good morning, my lord. Please will you tell me, are you a Man?"

               The Elephant trumpeted loudly. That was his way of laughing at the idea that he could be mistaken for a Man.

               "Hooroo! hooroo!" he shrieked. "A Man! Hooroo! No, but a Man is my master, and that's the truth. A Man tied me to this post. Cruel and selfish brutes, are men; and with all my strength, I am no match for a Man. They get on our backs, a dozen of them at a time, and make us fetch, and carry, and drive us about by sticking a sharp spike into our skulls. Don't you go near a Man, if you love your life; why, bless me, they will make mincemeat of you! Hooroo!" The Elephant swished his trunk all round him in his excitement.

               Our Lion had now seen three astonishing creatures, and they all said that a Man was stronger than they were. What could this terrible creature be like? He must be a mountain indeed, if he was to master such a beast as the black Elephant. Yet the black creature said that Men got on his back, a dozen of them at a time. The Lion could not understand it at all. He shook his head, and stalked away thoughtful.

               As the Lion was going along, he saw a puny and weak-looking thing, walking upright on two legs. He seemed to be a kind of monkey, thought the Lion. It never entered his head that this little thing could be a Man, but he trotted up to him gaily, and said--

               "Good morning, my friend. Can you tell me where I can find a Man? I have been hunting for one all the morning."

               "I am a Man," said the other.

               At this the Lion laughed in his face. "You a Man!" said he. "Come, come; I may be young, but I am no fool, my good fellow. Why, you are not so big as one leg of that mountain over there, who was tied to a stake, as he said, by a Man."

               "All the same," the Man said, "I am one of them."

               "But look here," the Lion went on, "my father and mother both say that Man is a terrible and cruel creature, and the only creature a Lion need fear. Now, either you are no Man, or else my father and mother are quite wrong."

               "Well," said the Man, "I am not nearly so strong as you are, or the Elephant and Camel, or even the Ox. As you say, I am not much to look at, but I have one power which you all lack."

               "Indeed," said the Lion, "and what may that be?"

               The Man answered, "Reason."

               "I never heard of reason," said the Lion. "Please explain it to me, will you?"

               "It is not easy to explain what reason is," replied the Man; "but if you like, I will show you how it works."

               The Lion was pleased. "Oh please do," he said.

               I must tell you that this Man was a woodcutter, and he had an axe upon his shoulder. He now lifted this axe and drove a blow into a stout sapling which grew hard by. When he had split the sapling, he took a wedge of wood, and hammered it in with the back of his axe, until there was a large cleft in the trunk of the sapling. "Now then," said the Man, "just put your paw in that hole."

               The Lion obediently put his paw into the cleft, and then the Man pulled out the wedge from the cleft. The sapling closed tight on the paw of the Lion, and squeezed it. "Now," said the Man, "you know what reason is."

               But the Lion no longer cared to hear about reason; all he wanted was to get his paw out of the cleft. He pulled and he tugged, he roared and he struggled; but all of no use; he could not by any means get his paw free. The end of all was, in madness and fury he dashed his head against the ground, and died.

This was how the Lion learnt how terrible a being           
is Man; but unluckily, you see, his knowledge was           
of no use to him or any one else, because it cost him           
his life. If he had listened to his mother's           
teaching, he might be living still, and           
you would not be reading           
this story.           


Told by Shibbá Sinh Gaur, Brahman, resident in Saharanpur, N.W.P.

No change, except that the order of the animals is Elephant, Camel, Ox.

Another version makes the man a carpenter—He goes away and makes a cage—Induces the Lion to enter—Leaves him to starve.

The complaints of the animals against men form the subject of a very amusing Hindustani book derived from the Persian, the Akhwán-us-safa.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: What Is a Man?
Tale Author/Editor: Crooke, W. & Rouse, W. H. D.
Book Title: Talking Thrush, The: And Other Tales from India
Book Author/Editor: Crooke, W. & Rouse, W. H. D.
Publisher: E. P. Dutton & Co.
Publication City: New York
Year of Publication: 1922
Country of Origin: India
Classification: unclassified

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