Panchatantra: The Plover Who Fought the Ocean

With this story, you will see how the stories in the Panchatantra are nested one inside the other, much like in 1001 Nights. You start with the story of the two plovers, husband and wife. To try to persuade her husband of something, the wife tells him the story of two geese and a tortoise, and then follows that story with a second story which you will read on the following page.

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Panchatantra unit. Story source: The Panchatantra of Vishnu Sharma, translated by Arthur W. Ryder (1925).

The Plover Who Fought the Ocean

A plover and his wife once lived by the shore of the sea, the mighty sea that swarms with fish, crocodiles, turtles, sharks, porpoises, pearl oysters, shellfish, and other teeming life. The plover was called Sprawl, and his wife's name was Constance.

In due time she became pregnant and was ready to lay her eggs. So she said to her husband: "Please find a spot where I may lay my eggs."

"Why," said he, "this home of ours, inherited from our ancestors, promises progress. Lay your eggs here."

"Oh," said she, "don't mention this dreadful place. Here is the ocean near at hand. His tide might someday make a long reach and lick away my babies."

But the plover answered: "Sweetheart, he knows me, he knows Sprawl. Surely the great ocean cannot show such enmity to me. Did you never hear this?

What man is rash enough to take
The gleaming crest-jewel from a snake?
Or stirs the wrath of one so dread
His glance may strike his victim dead?

However summer heat distresses
In wild and treeless wildernesses,
Who, after all, would seek the shade
By some rogue elephant's body made?

And again:

When morning's chilly breezes blow
With whirling particles of snow,
What man with sense of value sure,
Employs for cold the water cure?

To visit Death what man desires,
So wakes the lion's sleeping fires,
Who, tired from slaying elephants,
Lies in a temporary trance?

Who dares to visit and defy
The death-god? Dares the fearless cry -
I challenge you to single strife;
If power be yours, pray take my life?

What son of man, with simple wit,
Defies the fire, and enters it -
The smokeless flame that terrifies,
Whose tongues by hundreds lick the skies?"

But even as he spoke, his wife laughed outright, since she knew the full measure of his capacity, and she said: "Very fine, indeed. There is plenty more where that came from. O king of birds,

Your heavy boastings startle, shock,
And make of you a laughingstock:
One marvels if the rabbit plants
A dung-pile like the elephant's.

How can you fail to appreciate your own strength and weakness? There is a saying:

To know one's self is hard, to know
Wise effort, effort vain;
But accurate self-critics are
Secure in times of strain.

This much of effort brings success;
I have the power; I can:
So think, then act, and reap the fruit
Of your judicious plan.

And there is sound sense in this:

To take advice from kindly friends
Be ever satisfied:
The stupid turtle lost his grip
Upon the stick, and died."

"How was that?" asked Sprawl. And Constance told the story of:

Shell-Neck, Slim, and Grim

In a certain lake lived a turtle named Shell-Neck. He had as friends two ganders whose names were Slim and Grim. Now in the vicissitudes of time there came a twelve-year drought, which begot ideas of this nature in the two ganders: "This lake has gone dry. Let us seek another body of water. However, we must first say farewell to Shell-Neck, our dear and long-proved friend."

When they did so, the turtle said: "Why do you bid me farewell? I am a water-dweller, and here I should perish very quickly from the scant supply of water and from grief at loss of you. Therefore, if you feel any affection for me, please rescue me from the jaws of this death. Besides, as the water dries in this lake, you two suffer nothing beyond a restricted diet, while to me it means immediate death. Consider which is more serious, loss of food or loss of life."

But they replied: "We are unable to take you with us since you are a water-creature without wings."

Yet the turtle continued: "There is a possible device. Bring a stick of wood." This they did, whereupon the turtle gripped the middle of the stick between his teeth, and said: "Now take firm hold with your bills, one on each side, fly up, and travel with even flight through the sky, until we discover another desirable body of water."

But they objected: "There is a hitch in this fine plan. If you happen to indulge in the smallest conversation, then you will lose your hold on the stick, will fall from a great height, and will be dashed to bits."

"Oh," said the turtle, "from this moment I take a vow of silence, to last as long as we are in heaven."

So they carried out the plan, but while the two ganders were painfully carrying the turtle over a neighbouring city, the people below noticed the spectacle, and there arose a confused buzz of talk as they asked: "What is this cartlike object that two birds are carrying through the atmosphere?"

Hearing this, the doomed turtle was heedless enough to ask: "What are these people chattering about?"

The moment he spoke, the poor simpleton lost his grip and fell to the ground. And persons who wanted meat cut him to bits in a moment with sharp knives.

Testudo Volans

"And that is why I say:

To take advice from kindly friends
Be ever satisfied:
The stupid turtle lost his grip
Upon the stick, and died."

And Constance continued:

Forethought and Ready-wit thrive;
Fatalist can't keep alive.

"How was that?" asked Sprawl.

And she told the story of ... Forethought, Ready-Wit, and Fatalist.

(900 words)

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