Donkey Days

It isn’t everyday that one gets to meet the inspiration behind a star. 

Not just any star, but an internationally loved one, with no scandals or gossip magazines thrusting their weight of circulation and readership behind them. Where do such stars exist? you ask thinking of all the gossip columns, and the entire magazine staff making their monthly rent (and amenities) writing and analyzing their lives.

Well, such a star could only be a much admired animated character, and therefore the joy is doubly special.

It was a hot day, and the earth was baking lightly when I announced my intention to go walking with my friends in Palo Alto. The smog from forest fires nearby was almost unbearable: birds drooped and took refuge in the trees, plants smacked their lips and dug deeper for some water.  

“You’re nuts you know that? Who goes for a walk on a day like this?” , said the daughter.

I beamed in return, and said it mattered not one whit that it felt like a summer stroll on Venus, for I had very cool friends to walk with!

The daughter, being the daughter, giggled and patted my hair patronizingly.

The son, being the son, rattled off some statistics basically letting me know that Venus is far worse. But you, dear reader, I am sure you get the gist without knowing the exact megatons of carbon dioxide in Venus’ atmosphere. (For those of you still curious, please watch this video from Kurzgesagt : Terraforming Venus) This is a popular topic with the son and I have another post to write on a walk in which we discussed these seemingly impossible things. 

I meander like a drying up river losing its senses along the way on a hot summer day. Where was I? Yes – meeting a celebrity. Anyway, there we were in Palo Alto – my c.friends and I, walking down a wooded path trying to shake off the oppressive heat, and being marvelously uplifted by the conversation. 

At journey’s end, we stood there humbled by the stars of the day. Our friend had taken us to Barron Park, where the local family had maintained donkeys, and they had become a local attraction.

One of the donkeys in front of our eyes was the inspiration behind the donkey in Shrek – that gullible, loquacious, annoying donkey. These donkeys, Perry and Buddy, though were remarkably quiet, enjoying their pasture, and gazing serenely about their surroundings. 

Perry – The inspiration behind Shrek’s Donkey

Standing there and looking on these sturdy marvelous gentle animals made me think of all the loving donkeys in literature. The ones who appeared in Panchatantra stories, the fables of Aesop, Sally who is Gerald Durrell’s pet donkey, the beautiful days of life with sultan the donkey, and of course the loving term I use to sometimes refer to the children, “Kazhudhai”(meaning baby donkey in Tamil).

I headed back home with glee, and called out lovingly to the children, “Hey kutti kazhudhais. Guess who I saw today?” And out blurted the whole tale of the darling donkeys in Barron Park, and the daughter amidst her giggles said, “Oh! I thought when you called me kazhudhai, it was an insult, but it is a loving insult huh?”

I laughed. “Well, yes, I called out to Buddy and Perry, and they gave me the exact reaction that you give me. “

“What is that?”

“Acting as though they did not hear and kept on grazing happily in their little pasture.”

Her laugh would have made Donkey in Shrek proud.

I loved the donkeys of literature, the endearing “donkeys” in my life, and the gentle, sturdy, hardworking, peaceful animals that inspired the world starting from the days of Aesop, through the mangers of Nazareth, to Shrek’s donkey

The Fabled Life of Aesop

When we think of literary bodies of work that have endured over Millenia, we think of epics such as the Mahabharatha, Ramayana, Iliad and Odyssey, or the Bible. But there are so many endearing little tales that have endured just as long, and have passed down morals, lessons and fun along the way.  I am referring to stories such as Aesop’s Fables & Panchatantra tales.

The library had a wonderful picture book on The Fabled Life of Aesop: the book was not just a collection of his most fables, but the life of the slave we think was Aesop. 

 

Written by Ian Lendler, and illustrated by Caldecott winner, Pamela Zagarenski, it is a book with marvelous reading material, and highly imaginative pictures.

2500 years ago, a baby boy named Aesop was born to slave parents in Greece. Aesop, as a child born to slaves, was taken from his parents and sent to work in the hot grape fields of Samos. As a slave, Aesop learnt to speak carefully. One of his friends who talked about their master’s smelly feet was taken away and was never seen or heard of again. So, the slaves learnt to speak in code.

 “Did you hear about the lion? He stepped on a thorn and his paw got infected.”

“Oh!” said Aesop. “So that’s why his paw smells!”

Aesop learned to speak in code.

I could not help remembering this snippet from a poem by Margarita Engle in the book, Enchanted Air :

Tyrants always

try to control communication.

They always

fail.

The human spirit is not meant to be caged, and tyranny somehow tries to do just that every time. 

Aesop’s talent in spinning stories with morals using the animals around him was soon noticed by his master Xanthus, and he was tasked with more challenging tasks in helping his master’s life. One time when his master had a falling out with his friend, Aesop was called to mediate. Aesop was but a young boy and he was scared. If either his master or his friend felt offended, they had the power to put him to death. So, he came up with a story about the lion and a boar who fought over who should drink first at the watering hole. It was only when they noticed vultures circling overhead that they realized it was better to share the water rather than have the vultures eat the loser.

The master, Xanthus, and his friend, Jadon, were so impressed with Aesop, they sought an amicable resolution. As a peace offering, Aesop was sold to Jadon who continued to seek Aesop’s help in his business and personal affairs.

Aesop’s stories helped his masters live their lives with honesty, humility, and kindness. His stories warned against greed and deceit. 

Many of them taught another hidden lesson as well. It was something no master would pick up, but every slave or powerless person would understand. “

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Eventually, Aesop was set free, and his stories have been handed down from generation to generation helping millions of us glean the wisdom and morality handed down by these endearing tales.

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Freedom

I have often wondered about what it means to be human. Is it opposable thumbs, or imagination, or tool use, or brain to body ratio, or empathy? Maybe the complex combination of all these things, and the collective will to make things better in spite of all our failures is what sets us apart.

We have heard of scalded cats staying away from milk. Maybe our power is in ensuring that we do not  make the same mistake again and again,but learn from it.  

The world around us always has lessons for us: Octopii, whales, monkeys, dogs, crows, geese, herons, squirrels, rabbits, trees, and to that I am grateful.