Monday, June 22, 2009

old lion, mouse and cat


The story that I am about
To tell is of a lion that, retired,
had lost his spirit and his clout,
no longer active or admired.
Whenever this old lion wished
to sleep a small mouse would appear,
and on Old Lion’s mane it swished
its tail. The only beast mice fear
are, as you know, a pussy cat.
Old Lion knew this and he hired
a cat to chase the mouse. And that
is what it did, till bored and tired
of such a chore, the cat dispatched
its little victim, whereupon
Old Lion stroked his mane and scratched
his back and thought, “Now mouse is gone,
I needn’t feed the cat.” Cat starved and died.
It should have known you shouldn’t keep
your master free of care. Provide
a problem to disturb his sleep
that only you can solve so he
depends on you. The same applies
to mistresses. Don’t keep them free
of problems that wise men devise
to make them think that they depend
on you. It’s ditto for your spouse.
Her enemies you should befriend,
as cat should have befriended mouse,
but then again it’s complicated,
because in life it’s dog eat dog,
a fact that often is debated
in Congress, Church and Synagogue,
especially by people who,
like our Old Lion, have retired,
because there’s little you can do
once people see you’re old and tired.

Inspired by an article about the Clay Sanskrit Library (CSL) by Aditya Behl (, who teaches Hindi and Urdu literature at the University of Pennsylvania, in the TLS, June 19 (“Big cat, little cat”): The goal of the library is to bring to a worldwide audience the text of the two national epics of India, the Mahabarata and the Ramayana. Illustrating story literature (katha) in the CSL, Behl records one of the animal fables, which in Sanskrit are known as niti-shastra, the science of niti encompassing politics, ethics, right conduct and street smarts:
An example is the story of the old lion, now retired, who wishes only to sleep peacefully in his cave. But a naughty mouse comes out of its hole and nibbles at his mane whenever he wants to take a nap, and this drives the lion crazy. So he engages a cat, its natural enemy, to keep it at bay, and for a while things go well. One day cat ambushes the mouse and dispatches it. Though the lion had previously fed the cat well, after the mouse is gone the poor thing starves to death. The story is recycled by, among others, Lallu La Kavi, the Bhakha-munshi or Hindi teacher at the College of Fort William in Calcutta around 1800. The Bhakha-munshi, who is responsible for teaching the young sahibs of the East India Company the language they need to command Hindustan, relates it in his Hindu primer with its moral: Never keep your master free from care”. In this situation, who is the colonized subject? Modernity needs to inscribe tradition, especially when coded in a classical language, as closed, singular and oppressive in order to define itself as the opposite. Yet when we look at stories such as these, they reveal the classical as open, both in the sense of using older materials in new situations of cultural encounter and in the expanse of what can be represented as part of the human condition.

This was Aditya Behl’s response:

Dear Gershon,

This was wonderful, a charming redoing into verse! I enjoyed it very much, as the fable is a favourite one of mine. I liked particularly your extension of the moral into the world of human relationships, different from the master and servant one that is the ordinary reading of the fable.

Thank you,

Best wishes,


© 2009 Gershon Hepner 6/22/09

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