Grandma's Tales

December 22, 2006

Three versions of the Ant and the Grasshopper

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 11:14 pm

It’s an old story. As old as Aesop who wandered around the middle-east narrating tales to anyone with a moment to spare. A simple story with a simpler moral. It’s called the The Ant and the Grasshopper. Based on the lifestyles of the two creatures, the Aesopian version goes like this:

The ant works hard in the withering heat all summer long building his house and laying up supplies for the winter. The grasshopper thinks the ant is a fool. He laughs, dances and plays the summer away. Come winter, the ant is warm and well-fed. The grasshopper has no food or shelter so he dies out in the cold.

The moral? Oh, come on, you know that!

the next version jumps into our century. It is current, topical.

The ant works hard in the withering heat all summer long, building his house and laying up supplies for the winter. The grasshopper thinks the ant is a fool and laughs, dances and plays the summer away. Come winter, the shivering grasshopper calls a press conference and demands to know why the ant should be allowed to be warm and well fed while others are cold and starving.

NDTV, BBC, CNN… provide pictures of the shivering grasshopper next to a video of the ant in his comfortable home with a table filled with food.The world is stunned by the sharp contrast. How can the poor grasshopper be allowed to suffer so?

Arundhati Roy stages a demonstration in front of the ant’s house. Medha Patkar goes on a fast along with other grasshoppers demanding that grasshoppers be relocated to warmer climates during winter. Amnesty International criticizes the Indian Government for not upholding the fundamental rights of the grasshopper. The Internet is flooded with online petitions seeking support for the grasshopper (many promising Heaven and Everlasting Peace for prompt support as against the wrath of God for non-compliance) .

Opposition MPs stage a walkout. Left parties call for “Bharat Bandh” in West Bengal and Kerala demanding a judicial enquiry. CPM in Kerala immediately passes a law preventing Ants from working hard in the heat so as to bring about equality of poverty among ants and grasshoppers. Lalu Prasad allocates one free coach to Grasshoppers on all Indian Railway Trains, aptly named the ‘Grasshopper Rath’.

Finally, the Judicial Committee drafts the Prevention of Terrorism Against Grasshoppers Act [POTAGA] with effect from the beginning of the winter.The ant is fined for failing to comply with POTAGA. He has nothing left to pay his retroactive taxes. His home is confiscated by the Government and handed over to the grasshopper in a ceremony covered by NDTV.

Arundhati Roy calls it “a triumph of justice”. Lalu calls it “Socialistic Justice”. CPM calls it the “revolutionary resurgence of the downtrodden”. Kofi Annan invites the grasshopper to address the UN General Assembly.

Many years later…
The ant has since migrated to the US and set up a multi-billion dollar company in silicon valley. Hundreds of grasshoppers die of starvation somewhere in India…

My favourite is the third version. This is a short story by Somerset Maugham. The narrator of the story meets his friend George in a restaurant. George looks forlorn. And explains why.

George and Tom are brothers. George is hard-working and responsible. Tom is the black sheep, “a sore trial to his family for twenty years”. George pays up every time the brother gets into trouble and gets him off the hook. Family honour, you see!

At the restaurant, George is angry about something else. He tells the narrator that Tom married a very rich lady a few years ago. And she died, leaving her vast fortune to Tom! Tom has virtually been rewarded for a life of sin! When he hears this, the narrator can’t help laughing. In fact he rolls in his chair, laughing uncontrollably. “George never forgave me,” concludes the narrator. “Tom asks me to excellent dinners.”

Somerset Maugham, through the narrator, questions the value of the fable. It is simplistic to think that in this imperfect world, hard-work will be rewarded and waywardness will be punished.

There is another point here. Maugham implies that Tom (the grasshopper) is how people are; they enjoy life unreservedly. They don’t make excuses for the way they live. That only makes them human, lovable and interesting. But George, with all his valuable qualities is dull, morose and unintersting.

The irony in the story: George predicts that Tom would end up “in the gutter” eventually. When the narrator meets him in the restaurant, George is actually angry at Tom’s good luck! Shouldn’t he be happy his brother has inherited a fortune?



What a story!


  1. Virtues of selfishness!

    Highly Indianized or is it?

    Comment by anil — December 24, 2006 @ 6:06 pm | Reply

  2. I think it is universal, anil. But I would like to think that the previous Indian generation had more affection (love? loyalty? respect?) for family. What we have today is the iGeneration (‘this is what I want to do!’).Good or bad depends on whether you are a parent or the kid.

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — December 24, 2006 @ 10:55 pm | Reply

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