The loud waters of the Ganges are breaking on the shores and making the fish jump as a holy man is conducting his sacred rites: chanting and sacrificing and self-flagellating. No sooner has he dipped himself into the sacred river than a hawk overhead drops a baby mouse into his cupped hands. Surprised, the holy man places her on a banyan leaf as he finishes purifying himself. And afterward with the magic powers he possesses, he waves his wand-like hand and changes the very small mouse into a very small girl. He takes her home and gives her to his wife who has no children, and tells her to take care of their new daughter.
The wife not only raises her well, she spoils her rotten. When the girl turns twelve, the mother knows it’s time for her husband to find their daughter a groom. The man doesn’t need any coercing, he understands the import of their child becoming a child-bride. He then recites a poem to his wife, a long-winded proverb that says a lot of flowery things, the essence of which is this: a girl must be a virgin when she marries, and not merely a virgin but one who hasn’t yet become a woman; and if she becomes a woman, living at home under her parents’ roof, then it’s already much too late—she can no longer marry, she must remain a spinster forever, and in that the father will have committed a sin.
So the holy man starts, desperately seeking a match for their daughter: he summons the sun, and introduces him to her. Only she cries, the sun is ridiculously hot, and not hot in a good way, please find someone better.
He asks the sun who is better, the sun says the cloud; the cloud can make the sun disappear. And again, the daughter whines, no, Dad, he’s dark and cold, give me someone finer.
He asks the cloud, who is superior, and the cloud replies, the wind. And the daughter snorts, he’s much too restless, nothing but a bundle of nerves.
The father sighs inwardly and takes a deep breath, is there anyone, O Wind, who is higher than you, and the wind comes back and mentions the mountain. But, Daddy, he’s very stony and stiff.
The holy man falls to his knees, O Mighty Mountain, please. Get up, man, the mountain says, talk to the mice, the mice are superior to me.
The father at last presents his daughter with a small mouse: Little girl, do you like him? And the moment she sees the mouse, her body shouts, “My own kind, my own kind.” She asks her father for one last favor, dear Dad, please turn me into a mouse and give me to him, so we can be together.
And the holy man turns her back into a mouse.
This tale, somewhat adapted, shall I say, is told in the Panchatantra, India’s celebrated ‘five books of wisdom’—a combination of prose and verse that was allegedly penned, author unknown, circa the fourth century C.E., for the three dull-witted sons of King Amarashakti, the monarch of the region where most of the stories take place. Through allegory and animal stories the tales speak to the complexity of life, social and political situations, and advises how we should handle them, how we should treat one another.
Sources: Translations by Arthur W. Ryder, 1925 and Patrick Olivelle, 2009.