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from the October 2019 issue

The Girl Who Turned into a Crocodile

A young woman finds love where she least expects it in this folktale from the Kinnaur Valley, translated by Noor Zaheer.

This story was narrated by an old man of the village to a group of young people to make them understand that all living beings are inherently equal.

“On the way to Rekong Peo, if you take a diversion off the road onto the goat path and climb uphill for about five miles, you arrive at an unexpected expanse of blue. Still, clear, shining: this is Nako Lake, and you are standing on a flat beach of clean sand, almost white. Nako village, with its small houses, pastures, and fields, lies across the lake from where you are. With lake on one side and high mountains on the other three sides, the village is protected from intruders and from outside influences.

“Many years ago, when the moon had a beautiful face, the sun often became jealous of her beauty. Once, the sun was so jealous that it became hot enough to burn down the forests on the mountainsides. A young brother and sister lived in Nako village. Their names were Gyalpo and Chering. They had a small piece of land that the brother tilled and a tiny house that the sister took care of. They were devoted to each other and one would not eat unless the other was also eating. The girl was beautiful and the boy was hardworking. Somehow, they managed to keep body and soul together.

“During the hot summer months, after the men had left for the fields, the girls would go together to bathe in the lake and dry their washed clothes on the sand. One day, it was exceptionally hot and Chering wanted to go for a swim, but all her girlfriends were busy with household chores. At first, she waited for her brother to return from the fields, but she knew that he wouldn’t be back soon because he was weeding and thinning out the millet crop. So she decided to go to the lake alone.

“Gyalpo came home and found his sister gone. He asked the neighbors about her, he checked at the water mill, he inquired at the marketplace; he also visited the old woman who lived alone and was said to possess an inner eye. But all to no avail. Some people had seen her leaving home, some had seen her turning toward the beach, there was also a witness who swore that he saw her wading into the water; but after that there was no news of her. Gyalpo was sure that Chering was not dead, for half his soul would have died with her and he would have known it. The old woman, using her inner eye, had also assured him that Chering was not dead. If she were, her body would have surfaced on the lake.

“Gyalpo waited for seven days and then decided that since his sister had last been seen by the lake, that was where she must still be. He decided to build a boat. It took nine full moons to cut enough trees, strip their bark, saw them into planks, and join them together to make the boat and two strong oars. With a new boat and new oars, new strength and new zeal and a heart yearning for his sister, Gyalpo set sail on the lake.

“He rowed to the north and then to the south, he scoured the lake, first facing the rising sun and then with his back to it. He searched the lake for a year and then for another year and then some more. At last, on the sixth full moon of the third year, he saw his sister sitting on a rock in the middle of the lake. He rowed quickly to the spot and called out to her. Chering was overjoyed to see her brother. The two embraced and wept and spoke of how much they had missed each other. And finally, Gyalpo asked Chering what she was doing there.

“Chering told her brother she had come to the lake to escape the heat, that she had only intended to get in the water till her ankles but had been tempted to go a little farther till she was shin dee, and then it really was so hot that the rest of her body cried out for relief and so she moved a little farther, till she was wading in knee-deep water. She felt a tug on her ankles, and the next thing she knew, she was being pulled under.

“She struggled and fought back and tried to save herself but could not overcome the great crocodile that had taken hold of her and was dragging her down to his home under the water. When they got there, he professed his love for her. He said that he had been watching her for some time, that she was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen, and that he wanted her to love him. Though she was his prisoner, he treated her well. He was kind and gave her enough to eat, and once every week, he even brought her news from the village because she missed it so.

“Gyalpo decided to test this information and asked Chering for the latest news from the village. Chering surprised him by saying that one of her best friends, who had been married across the mountains, had returned to her father’s house because her mother-in-law treated her badly. This was true, so Gyalpo had to believe her. Then he inquired about the crocodile and Chering told him how powerful he was, able-bodied and strong, but also that he was gentle and liked to hear her sing and see her dance. Gyalpo asked when the crocodile would be back and Chering said that he would return only after midnight. Gyalpo was pleased to hear this, and he said to his sister, ‘I have a boat and it is still light. Let us escape while the crocodile is away, because if he comes back, it’s unlikely that I will be able to overcome him, and I will be killed!’ Chering was also sure that the crocodile would kill her brother if he found him there. So they decided to escape while they had the chance.

“Gyalpo said, ‘Hold my hand and come to the edge of the rock. My boat is large enough to hold both of us. Come!’

“Together they walked to the edge of the rock. Gyalpo jumped into the boat and held out his hand to help. Chering came right to the edge of the water and put one foot into the boat. She was on the verge of stepping in when she suddenly exclaimed, ‘I cannot go with you, dear brother! I love the crocodile!’ The moment those words were uttered, Chering shed her human form and turned into a crocodile. She jumped into the water, vanished for a while, and then surfaced. The she-crocodile looked so happy that the brother decided to let her be and rowed back home even though his own heart was heavy.

“No life is superior or inferior. Being reborn as a human is no great achievement. What matters is finding love and sharing it with other living creatures.

Translation © 2019 by Noor Zaheer. All rights reserved.

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