9. Another Chain Tale: What an Ant Can Do
An ant lived on a small hillock with its young, in a hole close to a tank. One day, a baby ant was playing outside when it slipped and fell plunk! into the water. It called for its mother, “Ayyo, Amma! Amma!” The mother ant came out of the hole and saw its young one struggling in the water. She looked this way and that, crying, “Who'll save my baby?” A frog was hopping about close by. The ant went to him and asked him to help.
“Brother Frog, Brother Frog, my baby has fallen into the water. Take him out and save him, please. Won't you, please?”
The frog wouldn't do anything of the kind. “What do I care if your baby falls in the water?” he said.
“Is that all you can say? Wait till I get you. You'll be sorry,” said the ant, and ran till she found a snake in a snake hole.
The mother ant went to the mouth of the snake hole and called out, “Brother Snake, Brother Snake!”
The snake peeked out of the hole and said, “Who's there?”
“It's Mother Ant. My baby is drowning and that frog refuses to help me. Just go and eat up that frog in one gulp!”
“What do I care if the frog doesn't help you? I'm not hungry just now,” said the snake sleepily.
“Is that what you say? Wait till I get you. You'll be sorry,” said the ant and ran farther till she found the snake charmer's hut.
The ant talked to the snake charmer. “Brother Snake Charmer, there's a bad snake in the snake hole. He won't help me. Go and catch him, pull out his fangs, and put him in your basket.”
But the snake charmer was in no mood to get up. “What do I care if a snake doesn't help you? I don't need any snakes now. I won't pick up even a worm,” he said.
“Is that all you can say?” said the angry ant. “Wait till I get you. You'll be sorry.”
As she ran, her eye fell on a rat hole in a wall. She called out to the rat. “Brother Rat, Brother Rat! That snake charmer refuses to help me. Will you go and gnaw a hole in his basket and let his snake escape?”
“What do I care if the snake charmer won't help you? I can't do anything now,” said the rat.
“Is that what you say? Wait till I get you. You'll be sorry,” said the ant and ran on till she saw a cat sitting outside a house.
“Brother Cat, Brother Cat, that rat out there refuses to help me. Will you go catch him, eat him, and crunch his bones?” The cat was resting after a meal, licking his whiskers.
“What do I care if a rat won't help you? I'm not hungry now. Don't bother me,” he said.
“Is that what you say? Wait till I get you. You'll be sorry,” said the ant and ran till she found a dog.
“Brother Dog, Brother Dog, that lazy cat refuses to help me. Will you chase him out of town?”
“What do I care if a cat won't help you? I can't do anything about it,” said the dog.
“Is that all you can say? Wait till I get you. You'll be sorry,” said the ant.
In one corner of the verandah of that house stood a stick. The ant went up to it and called softly, “Brother Stick, Brother Stick!”
As he soon as he heard this, the stick said, “Whom shall I beat? Whom shall I beat?”
“That dog won't help me. Beat him,” said the ant.
The stick said, “Take hold of me at one end and throw me at the dog.”
But how could a little ant lift the stick?
So she went to the little boy Putta who was reading a little book and asked him, “Brother Putta, Brother Putta, will you please take that stick and beat that dog?”
“O, I can't. Go away. I have to study,” said Putta.
The mother ant was very angry by now.
“That bold stick who doesn't even have hands and legs is willing to help. But all of you fellows who have hands and legs are unwilling to help me. You too, Putta, don't want to help. Is this what the world is coming to? Wait till I get you. You'll be sorry,” she said and climbed on to his thigh and stung him hard. Putta cried, “ Ayyo, let me go, let me go. I'll help you!”
“Then pick up that stick and throw it at the dog!”
Putta got up and threw the stick at the dog. The dog whined in fear and groveled.
“Don't hit me! What do you want me to do?”
The ant gave orders: “Chase that cat!”
The dog barked and ran after the cat. The scared cat mewed and mewed, “Meow, Meow, what do you want me to do?”
The ant said, “Go get the rat!”
As the cat went after him, the rat squealed, “ Chiev, Chiev, what do you want me to do?”
“Go make a hole in the snake charmer's basket.”
The snake charmer was fast asleep. The rat gnawed a hole in the basket with his teeth. The snake inside came crawling out, happy that he was suddenly free. The ant stood in his way.
“Brother Snake, I'm the one who freed you from that basket. You'll have to help me, or else I'll sting the snake charmer and wake him up. He'll catch you and put you in the basket again.”
“What do you want me to do?” asked the snake.
“I want you to gobble up a frog near that tank. I'll show you.”
The hungry snake eagerly moved towards the frog.
The frog saw the snake coming and cried, “What shall I do, what shall I do?”
The ant was ready with her orders: “Jump into the water and bring my baby safely to the shore.”
The frog dived glunk! into the water, asked the baby ant to climb on his back, and brought it back to its mother, who was very happy now. She sent the frog and the snake their separate ways, and took her young baby safely to the hole.
There was a snake in the snake hole, wasn't there? A snake who wouldn't help the ant? The ant hadn't forgotten him. She had a plot worked out to punish him.
The snake charmer was quite unhappy when he woke up from his nap to find that there was a hole in his basket and his snake had escaped through it. The ant went to him and said, “I know you're worrying about how to get a new snake. I'll show you one nearby. It's sleeping in a snake hole. Bring your gourd flute (pungi) and you can catch it.”
The snake charmer went with the ant to the hole and played his pungi flute. The snake was charmed by the music, forgot himself, and came out swaying his hood. The snake charmer captured him, pulled out his fangs, and shut him up in a strong new basket. And he was very grateful to the mother ant.
A mere ant did all these things.
Chain tales, cumulative tales, and formula tales are closely related genres. Their audience tends to be small children under five, who love the games of repetition and the linguistic play characteristic of their stage of development. Cumulative tales (like “The House That Jack Built” in English) are designed like a game. As Thompson (1946, p. 230) says, “since the accumulating repetitions must be recited exactly,…many of these tales maintain their form unchanged over long periods …and in very diverse environments.…A simple phrase or clause is repeated over and over again, always with new additions, working up to a long final routine containing the entire sequence.” This final sentence is in the nature of a formula, often in verse—so such tales are often called “formula tales.” Chain tales are cumulative tales with a stricter narrative logic: every additional episode is dependent on the previous one. Many of them are centered on animal actors, usually small animals—ants, parrots, monkeys—and their ingenuity or folly. Told as they are to small children, stories about the cleverness of a helpless little thing like an ant and its final victory over larger arrogant animals are appealing.
Such tales are usually structured towards a bilateral symmetry: the first part is a series of rejections, in this tale by frog, snake, snake charmer, rat, cat, dog, stick, and boy. Once the ant stings the boy and he agrees to do the ant's bidding, the series unfolds in reverse order until the ant's original desire (to save its young baby) is accomplished. If the first part is A> B> C> D …the second is …D> C> B> A.
[NKTT, but cf. AT 2034E, The Bird Seeks a Mason to Free Its Young (IO).]