Friendship of Convenience — A Story from The Mahabharata

Retold by Kollengode S Venkataraman

Panchatantra and Hitopadesha stories often teach not only about morality or ethics but also tell us how to get out of sticky situations, and how we can use our apparent weakness to our advantage in precarious situations, using deceit and even treachery.

You can interpret the following fable from the Mahabharata any which way you want:

  • as a simple bed-time story to children,

or to understand

  • fights among siblings, parents, and in-laws over property; or
  • work situations with competing interests, alliances, constraints; or
  • cold-blooded coalition building in temple politics to settle old scores of perceived humiliations; or
  • national politics on how to take advantage of your enemy’s weaknesses and neutralize his/her strength; or
  • what happens in the UN when nations with widely diverse demographics, histories and cultures; constraints on resources; internal problems and external threats;  and global political objectives, try to negotiate to get the best deal for themselves; or
  • long wars involving multinational forces where the participating nations have conflicting national, regional and global agenda, different constraints in weaponry, money, manpower, and time lines.   As we know very well by now, conflicting interests vitiate wars with no clear winners. Or military victory can lead to economic disasters. Britannia won World War II, but the empire imploded.

We learn from these fables that ideologies are only smokescreens behind which human interactions  — personal, corporate, and national – are motivated by unadulterated and unenlightened self-interest to exploit the situations of the moment to one’s advantage.

In a forest lived Poonai, a fat cat, living off rats and small birds that tried not to be in the cat’s way. One day, a hunter came to the forest and spread his net to catch wild animals. He had sprinkled pieces of meat inside the net as bait. The hungry Poonai went for the bait, and was caught in the net. The sun was setting, and it was getting dark.

There came Eli, the mouse. On seeing his archenemy Poonai trapped in the hunter’s net, he was gleefully happy.

MAHABHARATA STORY CARTOON April2013But Eli’s happiness was short-lived. He also saw above an owl in a tree and a mongoose on the ground, both eyeing Eli as their evening meal. Eli, seeing that his end was near from the mongoose and the owl, quickly devised a plan.

It got inside the net. He told Poonai, “Dear Poonai, I feel bad for your situation. I can release you by cutting the nets, provided you give me shelter for some time from the owl and the mongoose inside the nest.”

Poonai thought, “Normally, Eli is my snack. But this time is not normal. I need to use Eli to get my freedom.”

Thinking thus, Poonai told Eli, “You make a good point. Both of us are now in danger. Yes. I will protect you from the owl and mongoose. You can stay inside. But if you don’t keep your promise of releasing me to freedom before the hunter comes, I will kill you before the hunter catches me.”

So, here was the most unusual sight of a cat protecting a mouse inside the net, with an owl above in the tree and a mongoose on the ground each looking for the chance to catch the mouse.

Eli thought: “If I am going to release Poonai before daybreak, the owl or the mongoose are sure to kill me.  I should not be in a hurry to release him anytime soon. Let me wait for daybreak.”

But Poonai was impatient and became apprehensive that he would never be released. But Eli asked Poonai to be patient.

Eventually, there were signs of daybreak, with light on the eastern horizon. Seeing light, the owl and the mongoose ran for their safety.

Eli felt safe from his external threats, but still thought this: “Poonai has not had anything to eat all night. He is hungry.  If I release him now, surely I will be his meal. But since his life is in my hands, he will not harm me even when he is hungry. I will wait till I see the hunter far away. Then I will quickly rip open the net. Poonai will have to run away from the hunter. That will ensure my safety.”

Poonai, though frustrated, had no choice.  He was forced to bide his time.

Soon the hunter appeared faraway. He was happy to see a cat trapped in his net.  But Eli quickly cut the nets giving enough space for Poonai to escape, but not too much time for the cat to make a feast of himself, Eli.

Both Eli and Poonai ran for their safety and freedom.                             –  April 2013

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