“Once upon a time… Stories start like that don’t they? Our story, too, starts like that as my grandma didn’t know when it happened.” Once upon a time, there lived a boy called Rahul in a village. One day, he was walking down a path when he came upon a large tiger trapped in a wooden cage. The villagers had caught him for stealing lambs.
“Hey mister!” cried the tiger as soon as he saw Rahul, “I am so thirsty. Please open the cage so I can get a little drink. There is no water here.”
Rahul was frightened. “But Stripes, if I let you out, you would jump on me and eat me up.”
“Never!” said Stripes looking suitably horrified. “Whatever makes you think I would be so ungrateful? I just want a drink of water that’s all. I won’t take a minute, I promise,” he pleaded.
Stripes Tiger and the Boy [Illustrations by Sudheer Nath] [/caption]
Rahul was a friendly boy. He opened the door and let the tiger out. The instant Stripes got out he sprang on the boy with the idea of eating him up.
“But Stripes,” cried Rahul, “you promised you wouldn’t. It is not fair for you to eat me when I set you free.”
“I kill prey for my food and it’s perfectly right for me to eat you,” snarled Stripes, looking mean indeed. After much wailing by Rahul, Stripes agreed to ask the first three people who came along whether it was fair for him to eat up the boy or not.
The first to pass by was donkey, Mr Bray. “Mr Bray, Mr Bray, I set Stripes free from his cage. Now he wants to eat me. Is that fair?” asked Rahul.
Mr Bray looked up at Rahul tiredly and spoke out strongly. “The farmer forces me to carry heavy loads on my back all day under the hot sun. Yet he doesn’t feed me properly, and beats me with his stick. Even when I am sick, he expects me to work. Humans are an ungrateful race. Let Stripes eat you. It’s one less person in the world.”
Stripes licked his lips in anticipation. He collected some twigs and lit a fire and even put a pot to boil. Seeing that Rahul got very frightened.
“Wh-wh-what is the pot for?” he asked with shaking knees.
“Heh, heh!” grinned Stripes, “that’s to cook and eat you now.”
“Wait, that’s only one out of three people. We still have two more to ask,” cried Rahul frantically.
Stripes agreed. They wandered about and came to a place where an old horse was lying next to a heavily loaded cart. Rahul walked up to the horse and asked “Miss Mare! I just freed Stripes from his cage and now he wants to eat me. Is it fair?”
Miss Mare was barely able to get up. Her back was aching from dragging heavy loads.
She looked up and answered in a hoarse voice, “There was a time when I was free to roam the forests. Then one day, my master captured me. He put a saddle on my back and a bridle in my mouth. He rode me hard. I have carried his children and grandchildren on my back. But now that I am old he makes me drag this cart.
Today, when I couldn’t pull it farther he left me without food or water to die here. Humans are very cruel. I say let Stripes eat you and that’s the end of that.”
Rahul looked at Stripes and he saw Stripes sharpening his claws on a tree. He spoke rapidly, “Okay this was my second chance. There is still one more left.”
Stripes grumbled and roared that he was hungry. He wanted Rahul to put an end to this foolishness. At last he reluctantly agreed to wait one last time.
Soon they saw a girl with a pail on her head walking down the road towards them.
Stripes called out to her. “Dear child,” cooed Stripes, “You are fair of face. I know you will be fair and just. Rahul freed me from a cage. But I am a tiger and I want to eat him. Can I or can’t I?”
“Excuse me, what did you say?” asked the girl.
“He asked if it is fair for him to eat me when I have just set him free from his cage,” said a thoroughly dejected Rahul.
“Cage? What cage? I don’t see any cage,” said the girl, looking all around. Her name was Sweetie.
“Yes, yes! A wooden cage,” cried Rahul anxiously, wringing his hands. “Give us your opinion. Is it fair . . .”
“But how can I tell you when I haven’t seen a cage around? I can’t understand what the two of you are talking about at all!” said Sweetie.
“We are talking about the cage I was in,” explained an exasperated Stripes. “You see. . .”
“Exactly, I don’t see at all,” said Sweetie, very sweetly. “How can you ‘set him free’, when he is already free?”