Long, long ago, when the Great Mother created the earth and heavens, she looked at her creation and was dissatisfied.
“It is so empty and silent,” she said. “The only things that move are the clouds in the sky, and the only noise is the wind howling across the wastes. It needs to be filled up with life, with all its noise and bustle.”
So she created the trees and the animals, the fishes and the birds in the skies. And she then called them together to her hut, and when they were gathered before her, she began to give them all what they wanted.
“I want a nice red hat,” said the jungle fowl, “which will shine red like the rising sun. So she gave him a red crest. “I would like sharp eyes, a keen nose, and a bushy tail,” said the fox, so she gave him that. “I want to be big and strong, the queen of the forest,” said the elephant, and the Great Mother made her the biggest, strongest animal in all the lands. And so it went.
In the river next to the Great Mother’s hut, the fishes had all gathered, as well, and they, too, received her blessings. Among them was catfish, who at that time looked nothing at all like he does now. When he swam away from the Great Mother, after thanking her profusely for her gifts, he was slim and fast, coloured blue as the summer sky, and by far the most beautiful of all the fishes in the river.
The other fishes saw him and were jealous, but most jealous of all were two, the climbing perch and the carp.
“I was there at the Great Mother’s before him,” the climbing perch said, “but she only gave me stiff fins with sharp spines.”
“I was there before him,” the carp replied, blowing bubbles from her toothless mouth in anger and vexation. “And she only gave me thick scales.”
“We deserve the gifts he got,” they both said, eyeing each other, and neither of them seeing fit to mention that they had merely got what they’d asked for, and never thought to demand what catfish had. “And yet he swims about proudly, while we can only watch.”
“Helplessly,” the climbing perch added. “We can do nothing about it but watch.”
“Perhaps not so helplessly,” the carp said craftily. “I have a plan to bring him down, but we will need help. Did you say you have friends among the tadpoles? You go to visit them sometimes, do you not?”
“Yes,” the climbing perch said. “What do you want them to do?”
“It is very simple,” the carp said, drawing close. “You will go with them to the Great Mother and...”
So it was that when the Great Mother woke the next day, she heard a chorus of voices from outside her hut. And when she went to see who it was, she found that the river outside her hut was filled with tadpoles, while the climbing perch stick his head out from among them.
“Great Mother,” he said, “you have done so much for us, given us all these gifts, that we would like to invite you to a feast in your honour. It’s all prepared, and you should come with us to where it is all ready, at the river-bend with the water-lilies.”
Pleased and a little amused, the Great Mother accompanied them to the river-bend where the water-lilies grew in profusion. She walked along the bank while the tadpoles and climbing perch swam in the river by her side. “It will be a great and wonderful feast,” the climbing perch assured her over and over again as they went, and the tadpoles echoed in a chorus, “Yes, it will be great!”
Now, while this was going on, the carp, who had been very busy, had plucked some of the water-lilies with her toothless mouth, and mixed them into a ball with roots of certain weeds she’d gathered from under the river. And then she went searching for the catfish. She finally found him swimming around, his bright blue colours glowing with a beauty that made her shiver so hard with jealousy that it made her scales clatter together.
“Brother Catfish,” she said, “I have been looking all over for you. I have long wanted to do something for you, my brother, if you would only give me the opportunity.”
The catfish looked at her with surprise. “What would you want to do for me, my sister?” he asked.
“You are so handsome,” the carp said. “Your colour, of that wonderful blue, is so much like the summer sky that I have often looked from one to the other and not been able to tell which is the more beautiful.” Watching Catfish covertly, she noted with satisfaction that he preened with pleasure at her praise. “But I have always wanted you to be even more beautiful than the sky, your blue even deeper, and more glowing.”
“How could you do that?” the catfish asked, with surprise.
“I’ve prepared a medicine for you,” the carp said, “made out of plants whose secrets are only known to me. Just swallow it, and your blue will outshine the sky as it now outshines the drab scales of such humble denizens of the river as myself.”
“Where is this medicine?” the catfish asked, struck by the idea of being even more beautiful than the sky. “Do you have it here, sister?”
“I could not carry it with me,” the carp told him. “It is where the water lilies grow, at the bend of the river. Come with me, and I will give it to you.”
So the catfish swam along beside the carp, who was happy when she got to the water lilies to see that the Great Mother had not yet arrived. Diving to the river bottom, she fetched the ball of weeds and gave it to the catfish. “Swallow this,” she said, “and soon you will be more beautiful than the sky.”
The catfish, being vain and foolish, swallowed the weeds, and in a moment had lost consciousness and begun to sink to the bottom; for what the carp had mixed in the ball were weeds that bring sleep so deep that it is nearly impossible to break until the effects wear off. As soon as she saw that her medicine had taken effect, the carp swam away a short distance, and waited.
Soon afterwards, the Great Mother appeared on the river bank, walking along while the perch and the tadpoles regaled her with the stories of the feast they had laid out. “Each water-lily pad,” the perch said, “is laden with a separate wonderful, delicate dish, created with all the skill we’re capable of. Even you, Great Mother, will never have tasted the like.”
“That’s right,” the tadpoles agreed enthusiastically.
Then they came in sight of the lilies, and the perch gave a gasp of well-simulated horror. “Look,” he said. “Someone has stolen and eaten the entire feast we’d laid out for you!”
“Someone has stolen all the food,” the tadpoles agreed. “It was some thief!”
“It was the catfish,” Carp called, sticking her head out of the water. “I saw him, reaching up from the water to pull the food off the lily pads and eat it. I asked him not to, said it didn’t belong to him, but he didn’t listen to me.”
“Where is he now?” the Great Mother asked furiously. “Fetch him, so that I can ask what he has to say for himself.”
“He is sleeping off the meal on the river bed,” Carp said. “Perch, tadpoles, help me to pull him up from there.”
Heaving and pushing, the fishes and tadpoles brought up the catfish’ slumbering form to the surface. Carp pointed triumphantly at him with her fin.
“See, Great Mother,” she said, “he’s got pieces of lily sticking to his mouth, from when he was eating the food off the leaves!”
Everyone looked, and the evidence was indisputable. The Great Mother was filled with anger.
“If he loves to eat so much, and sleep on the river bed,” she said, “that was what he will do from now on. He will be a glutton, and he will slink around on the river bottom, for always and ever.” And she stomped off back to her hut, muttering angrily.
Carp and the perch were disappointed that she had not destroyed Catfish, as they had hoped, but they were happy that he would no longer be swimming along and taunting everyone with his grace and beauty. Congratulating themselves on their cleverness, they swam away.
Now little by little the effects of the weeds wore off, and Catfish awoke to find himself lying in the mud on the river bottom. And when he tried to swim up to the surface, where he had so happily spent all his life, he found his body sluggish and slow, and slowly he sank back to the bottom.
“Something is wrong,” he thought. “I must find Carp and ask her about it.” But even as he started out to look for her, he was overcome with extreme hunger – hunger, indeed, so great that instead of looking for her he had to start searching for something to eat.
But he could not find anything, for he could hardly see anything at all in the mud of the river bottom; but everything else could see him clearly, with his sky blue colour. Most of them fled long before he could get anywhere near him; and his small jaws were far too weak to deal with those who couldn’t, like the mussels which drew themselves into their shells and closed them shut. Soon, he was so weak from hunger that he could no longer even swim on, and he began to sink slowly back towards the river bottom.
Meanwhile, the Great Mother had begun to feel some regrets about her outburst of temper, and had begun wondering if she’d been overhasty in condemning the catfish. So, instead of entering her hut, she turned back and began looking for him. Soon enough she found him, listlessly sinking towards the mud and preparing himself to starve to death.
“Catfish,” she asked him, “why did you eat the feast that the perch and the tadpoles had prepared for me?”
“I never did,” the catfish said. “I only ate the medicine Carp gave me, which she promised would make me a colour brighter than the sky, so I would be even more beautiful.”
The Great Mother then realised what had happened. “Poor Catfish,” she said, “you’ve been very vain and foolish, and I’ve been very foolish, too, to have been fooled so easily that I cursed you with a life of gluttony on the river bottom. I can no longer make you as you were before, but I can change you so that you can fit yourself into your new life.”
“Do what you must, Great Mother,” said poor Catfish, “for otherwise all I can do is starve.”
So the Great Mother took away his beautiful, bright blue colour, and made him black, so he could merge into the darkness of the river bottom. She took away his small, shapely head and elegant jaws, and gave him a huge flat skull with jaws filled with needle teeth which could slice through the toughest scales. And because the mud of the river bottom was so thick that he could hardly see anything there, she gave him long whiskers, with which he could feel his way and detect prey.
“I have done all I could, Catfish,” she said then. “Do the best you can, and never be vain again.”
And so Catfish changed from being a blue, graceful, swimmer of the upper waters to a sluggish, gluttonous, ugly dweller of the mud at the bottom. And he was also consumed with vengeance against those who had done him wrong, the perch, the carp, and the tadpoles. But the carp was too large and fast for him to catch, and mockingly swam away whenever she saw him coming; and the perch used his sharp-spined fins to pull himself out of the water to the safety of land whenever he drew too close. As for the tadpoles, they grew up and turned into frogs, and then they hopped away.
However, for all that, the catfish to this day watches for them, and eats them when he can; but as much as he eats, he can never eat enough.
And he never, ever forgets the blue sky whose colour he once shared; so that as he swims along under the water, he’s always looking at it with his upward-gazing eyes.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016