Invitation to Think


Saturday, May 29, 2004

A modern-day Aesop's fable or Panchatantra story

Under Fire

Once upon a time there was a big island where there was a beautiful forest. It had thick vegetation and even animals from other places migrated to this island, having heard so many stories about the forest. Everyone lived in peace and harmony.

The island was known for two very tall trees in the center of the forest. Animals, especially birds from far corners of the world came to see these beautiful trees. For the locals, they were the center of all activity. A variety of birds, insects, and other creatures lived in them.

Under their canopy, there used to be different kinds of activities and entertainment. The acrobatics by the Monkeys were especially popular.

The forest was so thick that there was always the danger of a fire. The situation was further aggravated by the prospect of sabotage by some foreign animals who were hostile to the island. They said they were angry at the islanders and tried to terrorize them.

Thus the island took extra precaution to ensure security everywhere. Two Eagles were assigned the duty of sitting on top of the tall trees to keep watch. At night, Screech Owls stood guard. The waters surrounding the island were guarded by Sharks. On land, sniffing Beagles and German Shepherds were on call around the clock. A herd of Elephants served as firefighters.

Everything seemed to be under control. Sadly, all this suddenly changed one day. The tall trees mysteriously caught on fire, and in a matter of minutes, despite the sincere efforts of the Elephants, the trees and the area surrounding them were engulfed by the fire and destroyed. A great many animals died, including many good Elephants, Dogs, and others who came to help; very few escaped.

It was especially hard on the loved ones of the dead. There were sad stories everywhere. Cardinal stopped singing because his wife died in the fire. Peacock no longer spread his colorful feathers and stopped dancing. Pig stopped eating. Tigress paced back and forth -- like a caged animal at the zoo -- as she could not bear the loss of her soul mate.

Everyone demanded that the government immediately investigate the cause of this mysterious fire. But the Lion King would not listen.

Days passed.

At last, he submitted to the constant howling and wailing of the public. He appointed a commission to look into the matter, making sure that all the commissioners were politicians. There was no one on the committee from the ranks of ordinary subjects.

A lot of time was consumed in the initial preparation. The victims' families wanted to talk to the commission directly but were instead told to submit written questions. They all were frustrated. They wished their king had been more active instead of sleeping in his den all day.

Word of the good work done by the guards and firefighters had spread far and wide, yet there were voices of discontent. Somehow, suspicions arose about whether the Big Fishes were derelict in their duty and the whole disaster could have been avoided.

This atmosphere encouraged many rumors in the animal kingdom. Someone said that the Eagles were getting bald and old, and that their eyesight was failing. It's no wonder that they failed to spot the attackers. The Sharks were supposed to attack terrorists; instead, they were busy making money in cahoots with the Loan Sharks. The Guard Dogs weren't much better; they were much more interested in dog races. The Elephants, instead of practicing fire drills, got their kicks out of felling trees. They created great environmental havoc. Sadly, the sleepy Lion King did not notice any of this. Adding insult to injury, the Elephants spent more time for their union work instead of focusing on fire prevention. It was hard to know if any of this was true. But it was clear that the actions of a few bad Eggs were tainting the good deeds of hundreds of other firefighters and guards.

Even in the face of such criticism and rumors, the commission remained complacent and continued at its own speed.

There were all sorts of delays, but the commission came round to holding meetings in various places in the end. Being politicians though, the commissioners cared more about their parties compared to anything else. Although there were some good animals, this partisan attitude got in their way.

During the hearings themselves, rather than dealing directly with the problem, they would talk about their parties’ achievements and praised each other often. One member was Fat Cat. Another was Macaw. The commissioners would not tire of talking about his beautiful clothes. Commissioner Donkey, instead of asking a Camel witness about emergency water reserves, praised her on her looks. She, in turn, told him how beautiful his voice was. And on and on and on...!

Some senior officials took advantage of the situation and tried to divert the issue by raising the possibility of a Dragon having stealthily started the fire. Rather than confronting the witnesses about possible lapses and trying to verify the validity of the rumors that were circulating, the commissioners simply showered the guards with words of praise for their service to the nation. They expressed their pride on how majestic the two Eagles looked. They told the Sharks how their teeth glistened when they smiled. They complimented the Elephants for having the best trunks in the business.

Seeing this unending circus in front of them, the victims' families felt frustrated, yet helpless. No one wanted to be the first to stick his neck out. But Giraffe couldn't stand it any longer. His son had died in the fire and he wanted to know why. So he started yelling. Suddenly, the air was electric. Everyone started howling and screaming. The Crows and Blue Jays were the loudest. Press reporters rushed to take their pictures. Even quiet animals like the Rabbits and Mourning Doves joined in the protest. Sloth and Turtle were so angry that they rushed to the podium.

Poor commissioners!! They were shocked and confused; they did not know what to do. The old wise Goat kept his cool and counseled his fellow members to change the whole approach. But it was too late. Disaster struck once more.

A messenger Pigeon brought the news that there were several simultaneous fires on the island. The situation was out of control. The fires were so unexpected and so huge that all efforts proved futile. Fortunately, with Noah's timely help, some animals managed to escape with a few of their belongings to the nearby islands.

The whole island was engulfed in fire. There was nothing left except a bare rock, as there was at the time of Genesis.

The Moral of the Story: A commission of politicians cannot investigate or prevent wildfires.

Hasmukh Parekh
Assisted by Rajul Parekh



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