In a busy town in south India was a zoo. In it lived a hippopotamus whose name was Gappu. Gappu was a kind and gentle creature who loved children. However the children always made fun of him and this made him very sad. “See how ugly that creature is.”
“Yes, it has such a thick, oily skin and such a horrible face.”
“Isn’t it slow, fat and stupid looking?” The kids would yell to each other making faces at poor Gappu. The hippopotamus would listen to all this and shed silent tears.
He knew he was ugly. How he wished he was as majestic as the lion, or as swift as a cheetah. How he longed to have the beautiful feathers of a peacock or the tender skin of a rabbit.
One day he was sitting in his enclosure moping when he heard a young voice call out to him.
“Hey Hippo! Why are you looking so sad?”
Gappu looked up. He saw an eight-year-old girl staring down at him. She was painfully thin, with a flat nose and buck teeth. She had small eyes and her face was pock marked.
“My name is Gappu,” he replied seriously; not quite liking being called Hippo by a chit of a girl.
“I am Rekha,” she said cheerfully, waving her hand. “I live close by with my uncle and aunt.”
“Where are your parents?”
“They are dead.”
“Do you go to school?”
“No. My aunt makes me work the whole day in the house. I clean vessels; sweep the floor and wash clothes. My aunt has gone with my cousins to her mother’s place. That is why I could come here to the zoo. My uncle gave me five rupees to spend. Gappu, you didn’t answer my question. Why are you looking so sad?”
Gappu told her his tale of woe.
“Gappu, I know how you feel. Everyone makes fun of me too. They call me ‘buck tooth’, ‘ugly face’, ‘bag of bones’ and what not? I have no friends. Even my cousins don’t take me out anywhere. They feel ashamed to be seen with someone as ugly as I am.”
“But Rekha I think you are very sweet and gentle. You are the first person who has talked so kindly to me.”
“I think you are cute too. And who says you are slow. My uncle once told me that you can run faster than a man.”
“Yes, that is true,” Gappu nodded.
“Will you be my friend,” Rekha asked.
“Yes of course, “Gappu replied shaking his snout vigorously.
From that day Rekha and Gappu became the best of friends. Whenever Rekha had time she would come over to the zoo and chat with Gappu. Gappu too eagerly waited for her visits and would tell her the latest gossip of the zoo.
One day Gappu and Rekha were chatting when they heard a commotion. The noise seemed to be coming from the crocodile enclosure, which was right next to Gappu’s. Rekha rushed ahead to find out. The enclosure had water all around with an island in the middle. A four year old boy had fallen into the enclosure and his mother was screaming for help. Luckily the boy had not fallen into the water but was hanging on to a pipeline, a few feet above the water, precariously. It looked as if he would fall any moment into the water. There were around a dozen crocodiles lazing on the island. Hearing the noise one of the crocodiles raised its snout and glided into the water towards the boy.
Rekha rushed back to Gappu. “Gappu, a small boy has fallen into the crocodile enclosure. Please do something.”
A thick wooden gate separated the two enclosures. Gappu charged towards the gate and hurled himself at it with all his might. The gate shook but did not break. Gappu went back a few steps and charged again. This time the gate gave away and Gappu barged straight into crocodile enclosure. The boy was still hanging and just below him, with his jaws wide open, was a crocodile.
Gappu rushed at the crocodile and rammed it. As it flew away at the impact Gappu shouted to Rekha.
“If you can swim jump down and climb on to my back. Then lift the child up and ask some one to pull him up.”
Rekha hesitated for a few seconds and then dived into the water. She had grown up in a village and was quite an expert swimmer. She quickly swam to where Gappu was and climbed on to his back. Gappu quickly reached the spot where the boy was hanging. Balancing herself on Gappu’s back, Rekha lifted the child up. The boy’s mother reached down but the gap between them was still too much. Just then one of the onlookers threw a rope. Rekha asked the boy to hold her tightly as she clutched the rope. The boy held on and both of them were pulled up as the crowd of onlookers cheered enthusiastically.
For Gappu the danger was not over yet. The rest of the crocodiles had by now realised what was happening and had surrounded him. They lunged at him biting his ears, tail and whatever else they could reach. He started bleeding; this excited the crocodiles even more and they rushed in for the kill.
Luckily at that moment the zoo staff reached the site and began throwing huge lumps of raw flesh into the enclosure to attract the crocodiles. The ploy worked. They left Gappu and rushed to grab the meat, fighting each other in the process.
“Quick Gappu rush back to your enclosure,” shouted Rekha. Gappu did as he was told. Since the gate between the crocodiles’ and Gappu’s enclosures was damaged it was not safe for Gappu to be kept in his usual home. The enclosure on the other side was empty. The Zoo staff took Gappu there and the doctor tended to his wounds.
* * *
By next day, everyone had come to know how Gappu and Rekha had saved Amit (that was the boy’s name) from the jaws of death. Reporters took Rekha’s interview and her photographs sitting on top of Gappu. Rekha and Gappu had become celebrities.
Amit’s father came and met Rekha’s uncle and made his request. Her uncle agreed and Amit’s parents adopted Rekha.
Rekha now goes to school, gets tasty things to eat, beautiful clothes to wear and lovely toys to play with. Even though now she is living happily with her new family, Rekha has not forgotten her friend. She comes in a car once a week with her kid brother Amit to chat with Gappu. Gappu too is now very happy. No one calls him ugly or stupid or ungainly. They now call him Gappu the brave.