Myth Monday: The Mother Who Tricked a Tiger (Indian Folktale)
By Kara Newcastle
Tigers are frightening beasts, to be sure, but for the most part a tiger wouldn’t waste time on a human. Humans are too bony, too stringy—not worth the effort of hunting. Really, it’s the old tigers—the ones with brittle claws, with their teeth falling out, too stiff to run down prey, too weak to wrestle deer—that are the problem; the old tigers are the ones that hunt humans.
Still, even an old tiger is terrifying, and most humans can’t tell the difference between a old, fangless tiger and a fearsome creature in its prime just by looking at it. That’s what happened to a farmer named Kulpreet as he was working in his field one morning, guiding his plow behind his two oxen. The field lay at the edge of the dense jungle, and as Kulpreet steered the bulls away from the treeline, he glanced at the jungle, looked back to his bulls for a moment, then back to the trees—and right into the golden eyes of a snarling monster.
Seeing how close the tiger was to him, Kulpreet’s whole body locked up. Even if he could make his legs cooperate, he knew he’d never be able to outrun the tiger standing before him. He was as good as dead.
“No! No, please!” Terrified, Kulpreet dropped to his knees and threw his arms over his head. “Don’t eat me—you can’t eat me! I have a family to take care of!”
Towering over the man, the tiger snorted, its hot, damp breath ruffling Kulpreet’s hair. “Why should I care about your family? Maybe after I eat you, I’ll eat all of them!”
Disturbed by the appearance of the tiger, Kulpreet’s oxen jerked in their harnesses, one bellowing fearfully. The noise drew the tiger’s eye, and it studied the big animals thoughtfully.
After a considerable moment, the tiger swiped its rough tongue over its lips. “You’re not enough to satisfy me, human. Remove the yokes from your bulls. I will eat them instead.”
Any elation Kulpreet had at the thought that he was being spared evaporated in a heartbeat. “My bulls? You can’t do that—I need them for my plow. I can’t farm without them.”
Its fur prickling along its spine, the tiger swung its evil gaze back onto Kulpreet. “Then you suggest I eat you and your family instead?”
“Please don’t! Listen—you don’t have to eat any of us. My wife has a milk cow—it’s young and fat. I’ll give it to you if you leave us alone!”
The tiger arched an eyebrow. “A cow, hm? A cow does have more meat on it than your bony self does. Very well—bring the cow back here.”
Elated, Kulpreet looked up. “Thank you, Lord Tiger—”
“Don’t keep me waiting.” Settling down onto the cool, overturned earth, the tiger flicked its head towards Kulpreet’s house. “Go. Now.”
It took Kulpreet several moments for him to regain control over himself, though his legs quaked violently beneath him as he stood. He nodded rapidly, and barely had the presence of mind to untie his oxen and lead them away from the tiger as he rushed home. His mind raced as he ran into his yard, hastily tying the bulls to a post. He was early, but maybe his wife Ishani had left already doing laundry down by the stream. He could grab her cow and bring it to the tiger without her knowing—
Kulpreet’s heart shot to the pit of his stomach as he saw Ishani walking out of the house, their year-old son on her hip, a tied bundle of clothes in her free hand. She was looking down at their baby, a bright, pleased, proud, loving smile across her face. Their son looked up at her adoringly, giggling, his tiny fingers reaching up to stroke her cheek.
Seeing Ishani there like that made Kulpreet falter. She was a wonderful wife, and an incredible mother … she worked so hard, she was so devoted to him and their children …
Hearing him hurrying towards her, Ishani straightened up in surprise. “Back already? I’ve only just started my chores—”
“Where’s the cow?”
Blinking, Ishani hesitated, then waved to the house. “In back, as always. Why? What’s going on?”
Suddenly unable to meet her eyes, Kulpreet hurried to the back yard. Ishani, knowing something was wrong, dropped her laundry, cradled her baby to her and darted after Kulpreet. “Kulpreet! What is going on?”
“I need the cow,” Kulpreet said quickly, increasing his stride to get away from her. “A tiger came to me in the field. It said it would eat the oxen, but I offered it the cow instead.”
“You did what?!” Horrified, Ishani lunged forward and caught her husband’s elbow, jerking him back before he could reach her cow’s pen. “You’re going to give him my cow? How could you? How am I going to cook without butter and milk?”
Griding his teeth, Kulpreet yanked his arm out of Ishani’s grip. “And how am I supposed to grow grain without bulls to plow the field?”
“The children will starve without the cow!”
“The children will starve without the bulls! We need the bulls to plough the fields so we can grow the crops to eat!”
“The baby can’t eat bread yet!” Ishani shouted. “He needs milk! If you weren’t such a foolish coward, you’d think of a way to get out of this mess!”
Outraged by her words—and knowing that she was right—Kulpreet rounded sharply on Ishani. “Then you think of something, since you’re so smart!”
The viciousness in his tone made their son jump in fright in Ishani’s arms, and his bright eyes instantly welled with tears. Seeing the baby distressed, Ishani quickly shushed her son, stroking his head and kissing his cheek until he calmed.
Clutching the infant against her, Ishani turned back to Kulpreet, and the expression on her face was so filled with resentment that Kulpreet drew back in surprise.
“Fine then,” Ishani bit out, her voice shaking so badly that she could barely form the words. “If I have to think of a plan, then you’re going to be the one that follows the orders. Go back to the tiger right now and tell it that I’m coming with the cow.”
The thought of going back to the tiger without the cow made all the blood drain out of Kulpreet’s face. “But—”
“Say that the cow gave you too much trouble and it only listens to me.” Ishani spun away from Kulpreet. “Now go. I’ll be along soon.”
Of course, Kulpreet was terrified of returning to the tiger empty-handed, but the look Ishani gave him unnerved Kulpreet even more, so he fearfully went back to the field. The tiger was still there, lying in the shade, its tail curling and snapping open impatiently.
The tiger laid its ears back as Kulpreet hesitantly approached. “I see you but not the cow you promised me,” the tiger snarled.
Gulping, Kulpreet shrank back. “It’s coming, the cow is coming, my lord, it is … my wife has to bring it, it won’t listen to me, I couldn’t make it follow.”
Its eyes blazing, the tiger hauled itself to its feet. “You promised me a cow,” it hissed. “You’ve reneged on that promise, and I am without food. Seeing as how you’re here …”
Suddenly, the tiger’s eyes narrowed, and it lifted its head, gazing out past Kulpreet at something beyond. Puzzled, Kulpreet turned to follow the tiger’s sight. He jerked back in surprise as he saw a white pony cantering across his half-finished field towards them. Astride the pony there was a man, dressed in fabulous robes and a high turban. As the man drew closer, he pulled a sword from a jeweled scabbard at his side and raised it over his head.
“Aha!” the man crowed. “Praise the gods, a tiger! I haven’t eaten any tiger meat since yesterday, and I had three then!”
Hearing those words, the tiger shrank back, its eyes wide in terror. Before the man and his pony were within ten strides, the tiger wheeled around and tore back into the jungle, disappearing into the shadows.
Astounded, Kulpreet watched the tiger flee, then spun around the face the stranger as he reined the pony to a stop. “Thank you, hunter! You have no idea what you’ve done for me—”
“Oh, stop it, Kulpreet,” the man huffed as he slid out of the saddle. “I only did what you were too afraid to do.”
“Afraid? What? Who are …?” Blinking rapidly, Kulpreet stooped down a bit to peer under the stranger’s turban. Seeing those annoyed eyes glaring back at him, the farmer nearly leapt out of his skin.
“Ishani?!” Kulpreet squawked.
Smirking, Kulpreet’s wife Ishani reached up and patted the turban back into place atop her head. She stood before Kulpreet dressed in his finest clothes, his father’s sword hanging from her belt, and their pony stomping its feet impatiently behind them.
Kulpreet’s jaw dangled. “You … you look just like a man!”
“And I acted like one too!” Ishani retorted. “You were too afraid to do anything, and I wasn’t about to let my children starve. I dressed up and thundered in here. And look—the tiger’s gone!”
As Ishani was saying this, the old tiger was indeed running for its life, running so fast and wildly that it almost trampled its lackey, a small jackal that liked to follow in the tiger’s wake to eat its scraps.
Yipping in fright, the jackal dove out of the way, landing nose-first in a clump of fronds. “Lord Tiger! Where are going? Why are you running like that?”
Panting, the old tiger skidded to a stop. “Jackal, we have to run! There’s a hunter in that field over there—he says he ate three tigers yesterday, and he’s coming for me now!”
Arching a dubious eyebrow, the jackal slunk forward a pace, clinging close to the earth so it could not be seen. It reached the edge of the field and huddled down for a moment, cocking its head and listening intently as the disguised Ishani scolded her husband, and Kulpreet fumed, saying that as his wife she should have stayed home and he would have thought of something. Eventually.
Shaking its head in disbelief, the jackal scuttled backwards and trotted back to the trembling tiger. “Ah, my lord, you’ve been tricked—that’s no hunter. That’s the farmer’s wife, disguised as a man to scare you off.”
Terrified, the tiger shrank back. “No, it couldn’t be. That hunter was huge! He was going to eat me!”
The jackal rolled its eyes heavenward. “Ugh. Look, I promise you, it’s just a woman. Are you going to let a tiny human woman scare you away from our—um, I mean, your food?”
“I am not going back.”
“What if I went with you?”
The tiger bared its cracked teeth. “And then? You’d abandon me to be devoured by the hunter?”
The jackal bristled. “I will not. And if you’re that afraid, then let me tie my tail to yours. That way I can’t run away.”
The tiger found this offer to be agreeable, so it permitted the jackal to tie both their tails together, and they strode back to the field side by side. However, by walking this way neither one could fit comfortably on the path, and they wound up walking on the edges, noisily crunching through dried leaves. The sounds betrayed their approach.
At the edge of the field, just as the embarrassed Kulpreet bowed his head and began to agree that his wife was right, both he and Ishani heard the crackle of leaves and spun around. Seeing the tiger and jackal stalking towards them, Kulpreet reeled back in panic.
“Run!” he screamed. “The tiger’s back—it’ll kill us both!”
For a moment, Ishani was stunned; the tiger had run away in terror when it saw her, why would it come back? Peering closer, she saw the small shape of the jackal at the tiger’s side. Their tails were moving oddly, swishing back and forth …
Realizing what the tiger and the jackal had done, Ishani smirked and waved for her husband to calm himself. “Be quiet, will you? Let me take care of this.”
Shushing Kulpreet, Ishani drew her sword and turned to fully face the tiger and the jackal. Grinning, she raised the sword in a salute, and bellowed out in her deepest voice, “Thank you jackal! You captured the tiger for me. Once I’ve eaten all the meat, you can have its bones.”
The tiger slammed to a stop. “I knew it!” it screeched. Before the jackal had a chance to understand what was happening, the tiger whipped around and shot back into the woods, forgetting that their tails were still tied together. With a strangled yelp the jackal was yanked off all four of its paws and was sent bouncing off every rock and tree trunk in the jungle as it was dragged haplessly behind the spineless tiger.
Watching the pair fade away into the forest, Ishani lowered the sword and giggled. “Never tie your tail to a coward’s.”
Standing behind her, Kulpreet gaped. “You … you scared it away again.”
“And judging by the beating that jackal took, I don’t think it’s going to try to convince the tiger to come back a third time.” Sheathing the sword, Ishani looped her arm through her dumbstruck husband’s. “Now, you finish the field. I’m heading home—I still have laundry to do.”