YOU may not believe this story. But I can tell you it is true.
Because I have been to Pambupatti, a village on the edge of
the jungle. It is on a cliff and the vast forest stretches below
like a mossy green carpet. There are many kinds of people in
the village — dark, fair, tall, short. They speak many
languages. Some eat meat, some don’t. Some pray in a small
temple at the edge of the forest. Others pray in a mosque
some miles away.
My name is Prem and I live many hundred miles away
from Pambupatti. I had heard about the village. But I’d never
been there. Then last year, something terrible happened. The
people of my own village went mad. Far, far away in a place
they have never even been to, a temple or mosque had been
burnt down and they went mad. They started fighting with
one another. Some had to run away in the middle of the night.
And at three in the morning, as I lay in my house, half awake
to the sounds of hate and violence, there was a fire. Many
houses were burnt down in the fire. One of them was mine.
I managed to grab a few clothes, some coins, my little
Ganesh statue and I ran! I ran for a day and a night, resting
whenever my legs would not carry me any further. I jumped
on to a train, then on a bus. No tickets. Never mind, everyone
seemed to be running. Finally, I found myself in Pambupatti
and I saw some villagers gathered near a well. I ran to them
and before I could say a thing I fainted.
When I opened my eyes, I saw an old man with white hair,
white beard and shining black eyes bending over me. For the
next few days, he looked after me putting food in my mouth
and bringing me sweet, cool water from the stream. He rubbed
my feet gently and made the pain go away. Neighbours,
strangers — everyone came to visit me.
“Tell me, Grandfather," I said to him one day. “I have never
seen people like the villagers here! In my village, people fight
with those who pray to another god. But here ... this seems a
very strange place!"
“Prem," replied the old man, “I will tell you the story of
Pambupatti. You can take this story back to your village.
Maybe it will heal some of its wounds and dry some of its sores."
“Oh, Grandfather," I said anxiously, “don’t say that. What
I have seen in my village makes me burn with shame. I never,
never want to go back there."
“But that’s exactly why you must go back," he said, in a
soft voice. I kept quiet. I didn’t want to argue with him and I
wanted to hear his story.
It happened a long, long time ago, he began. So long ago
that there were no schools and no teachers. Children lived in
caves with their parents and helped them to collect fruit and
berries from the forest. At that time, there were no tigers or
panthers or elephants in
Pambupatti forest. There
were only reptiles, many
kinds of reptiles. Now you
know what reptiles are.
turtles, lizards. And you
know that a reptile has
scales on its body and it
lays eggs. Every month,
the reptiles of Pambupatti
had a big meeting.
Everyone came — the
pretty excited snakes, the
slow thoughtful tortoises,
the clever quick lizards
and the moody crocodiles, grumpy because they were out of
water. The president of these meetings was Makara, the biggest
crocodile of the forest.
All the animals thought
he was very important.
When someone is strong
and powerful, you
know, it is difficult not
to go along with what he
says or does.
Now, one day, a
strange thing happened.
It was a week before one
of the monthly meetings.
Makara sent a letter to
the tortoises, asking them not to come to the meeting. Ahistay,
the big old star tortoise with black and yellow pictures on his
shell, was very angry.
“What does this mean?" he shouted. “How dare they!" But
not one of the tortoises had the courage to attend the meeting—
they were so few, the others so many!
Before the meeting, the giant Makara polished his teeth
with the red flowers of the tree by the river till they sparkled.
Everyone was waiting for him at the meeting place.
“Brothers and sisters," he began. All the reptiles, even the
beautiful king cobras, stopped talking. Makara continued
his speech. “I have decided that we don’t need the tortoises! I
have told them not to come today. Brothers and sisters, can
you tell me why we don’t like the tortoises?"
The reptiles looked this way and that. They felt very
uncomfortable. The snakes hissed anxiously. The lizards
wriggled their tails. The crocodiles opened their jaws even
“But..." said one little lizard.
“No BUTS!" shouted Makara. There was silence.
“I think ..." said a baby crocodile.
“No I THINKS!" screamed Makara, so loudly that the fruit
in the tree above him rained down. After that, no one had the
courage to speak.
Makara cleared his throat and showed a few more teeth.
“Well," he said, “I will tell you why we don’t like the tortoises.
They are so slow! So stupid! They even carry their houses on
their backs. Whoever heard of such a stupid thing? Now you
lizards, you live in trees. Would you ever carry a TREE on
your back? Would you?"
Small, frightened voices answered together, “No, we
“No BUTS! Now, listen. I have told the tortoises that they
will have to move out of Pambupatti. When they go, we will
have more of everything. More food, more water, more space.
I want them out by tomorrow. But because they are such
slowcoaches, I have given them one week. By next Tuesday
we won’t have a single tortoise left in this jungle!"
And by the following Tuesday, they were all gone. At first
the animals were sad, but then they realised that what Makara
had said was true. There was more food, more water and
more space for them! But soon, a strange smell began to fill
the forest. It was the smell of rot — rotting fruit on the ground,
rotting animals in the river. This was what the tortoises used
to eat. And even Makara had to go about holding his nose
with his big claws.
A month passed by and then the same thing happened
all over again. But this time, it was the snakes. Makara wrote
them one of his letters. They were to leave the forest and
since they could move fast, they had to go in a day!
Naga, the head of the snakes, pleaded for more time, but
Makara would not give in. At the meeting, he silenced the
others — the lizards and crocodiles — with even louder shouts
and threats. “Snakes are
slimy," he said, “and they
make funny noises. Who
wants such weird
Again, no one dared to
disagree with Makara,
and so the snakes left.
For a while, the
animals of the forest were
happy because they had
been a little afraid of the
snakes. You never knew when one of them might lose his
temper and spit some venom at you! And it took only a little
poison to kill you, after all.
A few weeks passed and the animals of the forest looked
tired and fed up. The RATS! Now that there were no snakes
to eat them, the rats had taken over the forest. And they were
having a wonderful time. They were everywhere, on the trees,
in the grass, in the bushes, on the ground. They ate up the
eggs of the lizards and crocodiles. There would be no babies
that year. Makara’s own nest of eggs had been chewed up.
Then Makara had a great idea. He called a meeting of the
crocodiles and said, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we, the
crocodiles, could have the WHOLE jungle for ourselves? No
one but us? These lizards, now, just look at them! They have
the strangest habits and some of them even change colour!
How can we trust someone who is green one minute, red the
next? Let’s get rid of them."
By now, the crocodiles were really scared of Makara. So
they clapped and cheered. Makara was pleased. The lizards
left the forest, some with their babies on their backs.
But now, when life should have been wonderful for the
crocodiles of Pambupatti, all kinds of awful things began to
happen. To begin with, the rats grew bolder by the day. They
became so fearless that they jumped and turned somersaults
on the crocodiles’ backs! And there were too many frogs. They
seemed to be growing larger and there was no one to eat
them but the crocodiles. These huge frogs began to eat the
baby crocodiles. And the insects! Now that the lizards were
gone, there were millions of them, growing bigger and nastier
by the day.
It was a terrible time for the crocodiles. They couldn’t
understand what had happened to their happy forest home.
Then one day, a squeaky little voice piped up at one of
their meetings, “We know why the forest has gone crazy, don’t
Suddenly everyone was silent. They looked at Makara
fearfully, but to their surprise, he looked nervous. He shook
a rat off his tail and asked the small crocodile. “Why, little fellow?"
“It all began with the tort—"
“Okay, okay", said Makara. “There’s no need to talk so
much." Makara didn’t want to admit he was wrong, but it
didn’t matter. All the crocodiles knew now that he was not all
that strong or powerful. Or always right. They sent urgent
messages all over the place for the tortoises, snakes and
lizards to come back to Pambupatti. And what a great day it
was when these creatures came back, family after family, with
their little ones on their backs or straggling behind, shouting
at their parents to wait for them!
In two months, the forest was back to normal. The rats
disappeared and the insects and the smell and the world
finally went back to its familiar old self.
“Well, Prem," said the old man, “have you fallen asleep?
Did my story send you off to dreamland?"
I shook my head. “No, Grandfather, I was just thinking.
Maybe it’s time I went back to my own village, because I have
a story to tell them. But what if they don’t listen to me?"
“We can only keep at it, my son — tell these stories again
and again to more and more people. Some of them may laugh
at you or say your stories are not true. But they may remember
them one day and understand that each of us has a place in
this strange, funny world of ours."