Flash-back to thirty years ago. One of my favorite childhood stories from “Hitopadesha” (I think) as narrated by my grandfather goes like this:
- “There were three fish living in a small pond in a village. They were very good friends. The first one was called Pratyutpannamati, the second one Anagata Vidhata and the third one Yad Bhavishya. Roughly translated, Pratyutpannamati means “the one who is sharp and quick-witted”, Anagata Vidhata means “the one who plans for the unknown future” and Yad Bhavishya means “the one who believes whatever is destined to happen will happen i.e., the one who believes in fate”. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call them Mr. P, Mr. A, and Mr. Y respectively.
- One evening they heard a group of villagers sitting by the pond and discussing how the pond was swarming with fish and how they would like to come the next day to catch some. Hearing this, Mr. A decides that it is no longer safe to live in the pond, bids adieu to his friends and swims overnight through a canal to the river adjoining the village. Mr. P decides that he will act if and only when there is a real and present danger. Mr. Y becomes resigned to his fate. The next day the villagers come and catch both Mr. P and Mr. Y in their nets. Being the sharp one, Mr. P pretends to be a dead fish, so the village folks discard him back into the pond. The remaining fish in the villagers’ nets including Mr. Y struggle hard but to no avail and end up becoming the villagers’ meals.”
As a child, I insisted on hearing this story over and over again. I just loved it! And for obvious reasons, in my mind, Mr. Y became the dumb fool who sacrificed his life for no reason; Mr. A became the “play-it-safe and by-the-books” guy and Mr. P became the clear hero of the story with his daring, risk-taking persona and super-intelligence. Oh, how I wished to be like Mr. P! But even then as a child. I knew that I was more of Mr. A than the other two. Yet somehow, Mr. A was never the glamorous charismatic character I strived to be, it was always Mr. P through and through. I wondered why.
Fast-forward thirty years from that time to today. As I keep playing this story over and over in my mind, I am no longer sure I would like to continue striving to be Mr. P anymore. Agreed, Mr. P’s decision to pretend to be a dead fish was brilliant, but that choice also relied on the anticipated action of the villagers to discard the dead fish, that too back into the pond, which according to my interpretation, is largely a risk beyond the control of Mr. P and so does not seem like a calculated one worth taking. Moreover, as long as the villagers kept coming to the pond for fishing, Mr. P would need to keep pretending to be dead every time he was caught. How long can one keep up the pretense of death before actually turning up dead?
So who is my hero now? Of course, I still think Mr. Y is a dumb fool who died for no reason unless one takes a tremendous leap of faith and thinks of Mr. Y as the altruist who through his divine foresight submits to the will of god and believes that his destiny to die is for the betterment of mankind. Thus, sacrificing his life to feed the villagers would seem like a very noble way to go. But this is a flight of fantasy way beyond my credulity. So no, Mr. Y is still the dumb fool in my eyes.
What about Mr. A then? I identify with Mr. A the most as his personality of risk avoidance is one I would also follow under the circumstances. But if one thinks a bit deeper, is it actually risk avoidance? Mr. A leaves his familiar pond settings and volunteers into the unknown new environment of the river because the risk of being caught in the villagers’ net is imminent if he stayed. But then, what about the dangers of the river? Are they greater or lesser than those in his little pond? What if tomorrow, the villagers start fishing in the river? Where will he go next, the ocean? How will he survive alone in his new unfamiliar territory?
As I gear up to tell this story to my son, I am really confused on how to portray the characters right. Who is right anyway? Or is it even about right or wrong here? I wonder if this story needs to be retold with more favorable lighting shed on Mr. A’s choice of leaving the pond without taking away from Mr. P’s quick thinking genius and Mr. Y’s calm acceptance of his fate without taking away from Mr. A’s pioneering efforts. So here goes my twist to the classic:
“As the danger of being caught looms over their heads, Mr. P, Mr. A, and Mr. Y have a meeting that very night to discuss their options. Mr. A with his low tolerance for dangers is freaking out and so Mr. Y steps in with his “Que Sera, Sera” attitude and calms everyone down. Mr. P shares his “dead fish plan” with Mr. A and Mr. Y and Mr. A shares his plan to explore the adjoining river. Mr. Y prepares them for the worst case scenario of none of them surviving out of it alive. They all say a silent prayer. By nightfall, it is decided that Mr. P and Mr. Y will remain in the pond and pretend to be dead if caught the next day. Mr. A will explore the river for possible dangers and find out the best possible new habitat for the fish. If alive, they will meet up the next night back in the pond and migrate to their new safer home. As luck would have it (and mostly because it’s a children’s story), that’s exactly what will happen in the end and all the three fish friends will live happily ever after.”
Not as dramatic as the original, but a very happy ending, eh? As for the hero of the story…. well, one gets to choose the fish one likes best under the circumstances. All three were instrumental in their survival and so who cares who gets the trophy anyway. Maybe when my son is old enough, he could give his twist to the story and decide.
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