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from the April 2015 issue

A Mousy, Measly Tale

“What a loveless world,” said the mouse.

“You think so?” God smiled back in mock surprise.

The sea breeze had just set in, marking the beginnings of a pleasant evening.

At the wellhead, under a jackfruit tree at house number 25, Third Cross Street, Mandaveli, Chennai. God reclined smugly on an easy chair,  very much like a laborer content after a full meal. On the circular wall of the well was the mouse inside a mousetrap.

The tiny little mouse with frightened beady eyes held on to the sides of the trap and began to speak.

“Oh, yes, this world has become a loveless one for sure. Man hates the sight of us. Love, mercy, affection, friendliness are all words that they mouth without any real feeling.  A time may come when even cats and snakes begin to love mice, but man will continue to hate them. A man may have parrots, mynahs, pigeons, goats, cows, dogs, cats, mongooses, snakes, lions, tigers, even crocodiles as pets, but mice will always be anathema to him. What is the point of blaming individuals? Even governments act against us, make everyone hate us. ‘Save the tigers, kill the mice’ says their nonstop propaganda over the television and radio. Some East Asian countries have even set a price on our heads, declaring a reward for the killing of every mouse. Punishment if you kill a tiger, reward if you kill a mouse! What justice is this?”

“Why do you prattle so much in the name of Love? Listen! Love is like a fragment of a dream that stays in your memory—it’s worthless. What’s more, no one can be compelled to love another. Violence is natural. It’s a reflex. After cockroaches, the beings that humans are most zealously interested in destroying are members of your species—mice.”

God continued.

“Be that as it may, tell me, how did you get caught in this trap?”

“What else? It was all due to that wretched masal vadai. From the Purananooru era right up to this day, millions of masal vadais have been fried and consumed. But it is only mice who meet their deaths by eating them. Last night, I succumbed to the lure of it and got trapped again.”

“Looks to me like mice have to keep on chewing at something or other all the time. But the mistake is mine. I should have designed your intestines in a different way. What are humans to do if you eat up 10 to 12% of what a country produces?”

The mouse pouted and replied, “Oh God, you, too?! You believe that? Are we to be put in the same category as our village rogues, the country mice, who grow fat off grains from the fields and storage godowns of the Public Distribution Department?  They belong to one caste; we are from a different caste. We are of a good, high-class breed. People classify dogs and horses according to their breeds, but we are dumped in one broad category. We are city-bred, poor innocent beings. We exist by scrounging for remnants of food found in people’s backyards. Sometimes, in their ignorance, the young, innocent mice bite into toilet soaps or clothes. (But now that Lifebuoy soap has a new shape, the mice have learned to spare them.) Is this some unpardonable sin?  But for these trespasses, nobody is ever harmed by us.

“Take me, for instance. I am a very good mouse. Here, just behind this well, is my hole. I have been living here for some months now.  (I have a wife and two little mice. They are all nonvegetarians, so they have moved into the naval officer’s house just opposite here.) During the day, when I’m not hungry, I don’t enter the house at all. It’s only at night that I make my entry through the pipe in the kitchen, eat something and come back. The strange thing is, in this house, there is rarely any food left. Not a grain of cooked food. Such are the housewife’s cooking habits. Having no other alternative, I am driven to rummage in the vegetable basket or topple the rice bin. Should any housewife be so exact in the quantity she cooks? Last week, I accidentally upset a three-liter jar of oil. That’s what has made them so very angry with me.”

“Before I forget, let me impress on you another moot point. I am a pure Vaishnavite. I follow the rules set for us quite strictly. I eat only vegetarian food. I consider Tulsi water to be blessed by God. Though married, I practice celibacy very strictly. You can verify this and find out how long it has been since I ‘touched’ my wife—ask her, she lives in the house across the way. I tell you all these things only to let you know that I am one who believes in and respects You. I am not any proud Advaitin who prances about claiming, ‘I am God.’ You should save me somehow.”

God looked affectionately at the mouse and smiled.

“You tell me, my Lord! Can a mere three-liter jar of oil be sufficient reason to pronounce a death sentence?”

“My dear mouse, Death does not happen on the basis of reasons. Reasons and causes are all just a device of man to rationalize death. Why do you also allow yourself to think like a human? Death is a choice—a complex choice. That is all!  Even I do not know why, when, and who makes this choice.  Look at this jackfruit tree. It is constantly shedding its leaves. The dry leaves fall and so do the green ones. Who is behind this shedding of leaves? No one knows. You may blame the crow. I may point at the wind. But we both may be wrong.

“Death is common to all. A birth is certain to end in death. Why do you see death as a misfortune? Is not death merely a transformation? Is it really necessary for me to explain all this to you, Vaishnavite mouse that you are?”

“Very true, indeed, my Lord. I am not worried about my death. If that is your decree, I shall embrace death with all my heart. If I have to die, make me go into a snake’s mouth or hand me over to a cat—or get me crushed under the wheels of a lorry. But I do not want to die at the hands of these people. That is frightening. You do not know them: they are merciless villains. There is an old woman in this house. To her, slaying a mouse is like feasting on halvah. She has evolved a cruel 'technique' that is worthy of being included as a chapter in the Garudapuranam.

“When the old hag finds out that there is a mouse caught in the trap, she gets all excited. She comes to sit near this well in the dawn hours with a cauldron filled with hot water. She then sets the trap upright and with a toothless smile picks up the water little by little in a specially designed ladle, delighting in pouring the water right on the mouse. Thank God the old woman is not in town now. Her son-in-law is around. He isn’t all that good either.

“The man of the house is a writer. He has a bookshop in the front portion of his house. He sells books on modern literature. Scholars and foreigners keep coming to meet him. He is forever expounding on literature, art, or philosophy. But he does not have any particular consideration for the likes of us. He went away this morning leaving me on the wall of this well. It is now three in the afternoon. I am suffering in the scorching heat. He, perhaps, is looking for an auspicious time to put an end to me. Vile rascal!  He will put the mousetrap in a large plastic bag and, riding his TVS Champ-91 model parked over here, go to the beach to a spot behind the Gandhi statue and drown me in the Bay of Bengal.  You ask him about contemporary Tamil short fiction and he will wag his tongue for hours. But ask him a simple question about why he ever wants to kill mice and the man will become tongue-tied.

“My Lord! I have to tell you another secret about this man. He’s depressive. He moves around with suicidal thoughts on his mind all the time. He is not at all interested in the real world. He is wallowing in feelings of guilt and confusion. Though he claims to be a writer, he does not write much. As his writer friends Jeya Mohan and Kannan of Puducheri have commented, he pens half a story in an entire year. And there are no readers to read even those half- or three-quarter-finished stories that this man writes. At the most, some three to four hundred may read them. In the state of Tamil Nadu with its eight-crore population, what does it matter if this writer who caters to a mere four hundred readers lives or dies? His shop also runs at a loss. He is a burden to his wife, who is a working woman. On top of  all this, he spreads rumors both real and imagined about all famous authors. To crown all these sins, he is an atheist, too.”

God listened quietly to the mouse. The mouse continued.

“Divine Lord, if you will not misunderstand me, I have a suggestion to make. Why not take this writer’s life instead of mine? You should not think that I am afraid of death. I shall willingly die. But I do not want to die today, whereas this writer is ready to give up his life at any moment. I want to live for a few more weeks until my young ones grow up. Oh, please give this matter some consideration. Put an end to this writer. You would be doing a great service directly to modern Tamil literature, in addition to helping me.  You need not worry that the three-thousand-year-old Tamil literature may see a decline if this man disappears from the scene.”

God sat up.

“You don’t know what you are talking about. There is no point in advancing the deaths of human beings. It would not be dharmic, either.”

“It’s not that you don’t know what is just and what is not. Let me explain. There is nothing wrong in killing an atheist who is keen to die. Moreover, how can there be anything wrong in devas killing asuras?” The mouse was cunning it its choice of words.

“Forgive me, my friend. When the yuga changes, the norms of justice also change. What can I do?” said God.

“Does that mean that I cannot escape death today? Why have you given the right to kill the likes of us to humans?” the mouse asked piteously.

“As I already mentioned, man is basically a killer—an antagonist. He must constantly  oppose or kill somebody. That is how his mind is built. That cannot be changed.”

“Scorch that mental make-up,” the mouse reacted angrily.

“Don’t be so angry. Human life is not all that great, either. It is as incongruous and full of stress as your own life. Imagine humans as mice for a moment —you’ll be amused.”

The mouse began to ponder.

Rats and mice with trousers on, going to offices, and roaming around on the streets, riding two-wheelers with the females on the pillion.

“Not a very pretty sight,” said the mouse.

“Not only that—human life is even uglier and even more absurd! The human mind has started to applaud chaos and disorder. Man has rejected all subtleties. Human life has turned out to be one long procession moving forward aimlessly. Your life is far better than his."

The mouse asked, “Let all that be. What is your verdict now, God, will you save me or not?”

“I can’t promise you anything,” said God.

“Does that mean that I have to meet a watery end?”

“I don’t know about that. But the verge of death is not death itself. Anything can happen, even at the last minute,” said God, smiling mischievously.

“Stop ridiculing me, Lord. Who can save me, caught as I am in this trap? You’ve declared your helplessness. The chances of my dying seem to me more than just a possibility.”

“The possibilities and the consequences could have some gaps between them.”

The mouse that was staring at God for quite awhile suddenly burst with energy. Then, having comprehended it all, the tiny mouse said winking, "Oh yes! Yes! There could be a gap, right? Thank you, my lord, thank you very much.’

The writer suddenly emerged from the house with a large plastic bag. He went straight to the well, picked up the trap and put it in his bag. God stood up to leave.

The writer revved up his two-wheeler, unaware that on that day at the last moment, he would drop the idea of going to the Marina and instead decide to let the mouse loose on the garbage heap opposite Saint John School. Nor did he know that on his way back he would fail to notice a speeding lorry coming out of first Link Street.

A single leaf, shed by the jack fruit tree, was on its way to the ground. No one noticed, not even God.

© Dilip Kumar. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Padma Narayanan. All rights reserved.

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