Bengal: The Origin of Opium

This story is part of the Bengali Folktales unit. Story source: Folk-Tales of Bengal by the Rev. Lal Behari Day, with illustrations by Warwick Goble (1912).

The Origin of Opium

Once on a time there lived on the banks of the holy Ganga a Rishi who spent his days and nights in the performance of religious rites and in meditation upon God. From sunrise to sunset he sat on the river bank engaged in devotion, and at night he took shelter in a hut of palm-leaves which his own hand had raised in a bush hard by.

There were no men and women for miles round. In the hut, however, there was a mouse, which used to live upon the leavings of the Rishi’s supper. As it was not in the nature of the sage to hurt any living thing, our mouse never ran away from him, but, on the contrary, went to him, touched his feet, and played with him. The Rishi, partly in kindness to the little brute, and partly to have some one by to talk to at times, gave the mouse the power of speech.

One night the mouse, standing on its hind-legs and joining together its fore-legs reverently, said to the Rishi, “Holy sage, you have been so kind as to give me the power to speak like men. If it will not displease your reverence, I have one more boon to ask.”

“What is it?” said the Rishi. “What is it, little mousie? Say what you want.”

The mouse answered, “When your reverence goes in the day to the river-side for devotion, a cat comes to the hut to catch me. And had it not been for fear of your reverence, the cat would have eaten me up long ago, and I fear it will eat me some day. My prayer is that I may be changed into a cat that I may prove a match for my foe.” The Rishi became propitious to the mouse, and threw some holy water on its body, and it was at once changed into a cat.

Some nights after, the Rishi asked his pet, “Well, little puss, how do you like your present life?”

“Not much, your reverence,” answered the cat.

“Why not?” demanded the sage. “Are you not strong enough to hold your own against all the cats in the world?”

“Yes,” rejoined the cat. “Your reverence has made me a strong cat, able to cope with all the cats in the world. But I do not now fear cats; I have got a new foe. Whenever your reverence goes to the river-side, a pack of dogs comes to the hut and sets up such a loud barking that I am frightened out of my life. If your reverence will not be displeased with me, I beg you to change me into a dog.”

The Rishi said, “Be turned into a dog,” and the cat forthwith became a dog.

Some days passed, when one night the dog said thus to the Rishi: “I cannot thank your reverence enough for your kindness to me. I was but a poor mouse, and you not only gave me speech but turned me into a cat, and again you were kind enough to change me into a dog. As a dog, however, I suffer a great deal of trouble; I do not get enough food: my only food is the leavings of your supper, but that is not sufficient to fill the maw of such a large beast as you have made me. O how I envy those apes who jump about from tree to tree and eat all sorts of delicious fruits! If your reverence will not get angry with me, I pray that I be changed into an ape.” The kind-hearted sage readily granted his pet’s wish, and the dog became an ape.

Our ape was at first wild with joy. He leaped from one tree to another, and sucked every luscious fruit he could find. But his joy was short-lived.

(700 words)

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