Wednesday, 26 November 2014


I love it when memories drop into context, years later. On the bus yesterday, I was talking with Clare about school memories, and a recollection surfaced: How Supersmart ate the Elephant. This is a story concerning a jackal who finds a dead elephant, but is unable to bite through its hide. He succeeds eventually, by variously tricking other animals who come along. It's a good yarn, and I Googled it when we got home.

To my surprise, it comes from the Panchatantra, an ancient Sanskrit cycle of animal fables. I'd never heard of any of the others, so the Supersmart story must have been a one-off in a school book. The Panchatantra is ubiquitous ...
...there are recorded over two hundred different versions known to exist in more than fifty languages, and three-fourths of these languages are extra-Indian. As early as the eleventh century this work reached Europe, and before 1600 it existed in Greek, Latin, Spanish, Italian, German, English, Old Slavonic, Czech, and perhaps other Slavonic languages. Its range has extended from Java to Iceland... [In India,] it has been worked over and over again, expanded, abstracted, turned into verse, retold in prose, translated into medieval and modern vernaculars, and retranslated into Sanskrit. And most of the stories contained in it have "gone down" into the folklore of the story-loving Hindus, whence they reappear in the collections of oral tales gathered by modern students of folk-stories.
- Edgerton, Franklin (1924), The Panchatantra Reconstructed 
... and complexly-structured, with stories multiply nested (Arabian Nights style). It's intended to illustrate the Hindu principles of nīti (prudent worldly conduct). The stories - see list - have a rather more idiosyncratic flavour than the better-known Aesop's Fables, and they're often more frank in their content, and gorier in their outcome. They include, for instance:
There are various translations online, but probably the most accessible is Arthur W Ryder (1925, Internet Archive Panchatantra_Arthur_W_Ryder).

Here's How Supersmart ate the Elephant as a taster:
cover mage from 2001 comic book
How Supersmart ate the Elephant

There was once a jackal named Supersmart in a part of a forest. One day he came upon an elephant that had died a natural death in the wood. But he could only stalk about the body; he could not cut through the tough hide.

At this moment a lion, in his wanderings to and fro, came to the spot. And the jackal, spying him, obsequiously rubbed his scalp in the dust, clasped his lotus paws, and said: "My lord and king, I am merely a cudgel-bearer, guarding this elephant in the king's interest. May the king deign to eat it."

Then the lion said: "My good fellow, under no circumstances do I eat what another has killed. I graciously bestow this elephant upon you." And the jackal joyfully replied: "It is only what our lord and king has taught his servants to expect."

When the lion was gone, a tiger arrived. And the jackal thought when he saw him: "Well, I sent one rascal packing by doing obeisance. Now, how shall I dispose of this one? To be sure, he is a hero, and therefore can be managed only by intrigue. For there is a saying:

Where bribes and flattery would fail,
Intrigue is certain to avail.

And indeed, all creatures are held in bondage by heart-piercing intrigue. As the saying goes:

Even a pearl, so smoothly hard and round,
Is fastened by a thread and safely bound,
After a way to pierce its heart is found."

So he took his decision, went to meet the tiger, and slightly stiffening his neck, he said in an agitated tone: "Uncle, how could you venture into the jaws of death? This elephant was killed by a lion, who put me on guard while he went to bathe. And as he went, he gave me my orders. 'If any tiger comes this way,' he said, 'creep up and tell me. I have to clear this forest of tigers, because once, when I had killed an elephant, a tiger helped himself while my back was turned, and I had the leavings. From that day I have been death on tigers.'"

On hearing this, the tiger was terrified, and said: "My dear nephew, make me a gift of my life. Even if he is slow in returning, don't give him any news of me." With these words he decamped.

When the tiger had gone, a leopard appeared. And the jackal thought when he saw him: "Here comes Spot. He has powerful teeth. So I will use him to cut into this elephant-hide."

With this in mind, he said: "Well, nephew, where have you been this long time? And why do you seem so hungry? You come as my guest, according to the proverb:

A guest in need
Is a guest indeed.

Now here lies this elephant, killed by a lion who appointed me its guardian. But for all that, you may enjoy a square meal of elephant-meat, provided you cut and run before he gets back."

"No, uncle," said the leopard, "if things stand so, this meat is not healthy for me. You know the saying:

A man to thrive
Must keep alive.

Never eat a thing that doesn't sit well on the stomach. So I will be off;"

"Don't be timid," said the jackal. "Pluck up courage and eat. I will warn you of his coming while he is yet a long way off." So the leopard did as suggested, and the jackal, as soon as he saw the hide cut through, called out: "Quick, nephew, quick! Here comes the lion." Hearing this, the leopard vanished also.

Now while the jackal was eating meat through the opening cut by the leopard, a second jackal came on the scene in a great rage. And Supersmart, esteeming him an equal whose prowess was a known quantity, recited the stanza:

Sway patrons with obeisance;
In heroes raise a doubt;
Fling petty bribes to flunkeys;
With equals, fight it out -

made a dash at him, tore him with his fangs, made him seek the horizon, and himself comfortably enjoyed elephant-meat for a long time.

"Just so you, too, should fight it out with a natural enemy, one of your own race, and send him to the horizon. If you don't, he will presently strike his roots deep and will destroy you. You know the saying:

From cows expect subsistence;
From Brahmans, self-denial;
From women, fickle conduct;
From relatives, a trial.
 "And the further saying:
The food is very good to eat
And does not lack variety;
While easy-going women meet
You in the town's society:
But kinsmen in that foreign street
Are wanting in sobriety."

"How was that?" asked the crocodile. And the monkey told the story of  ...
- Arthur Ryder translation
- Ray

No comments:

Post a Comment